This guest post is from a member of Nanoomi.net, a community of writers, translators and Korea-enthusiasts who represent part of the diverse ecology of the Korean blogosphere. You can see more from Charles Montgomery at ktlit.com
It’s a puzzle how someone interested in something as specific as translated Korean modern literature might have anything to say on Chris’s blog.
It’s about exploration. Chris travels relentlessly, to find interesting destinations and report on them. He also writes about Korean culture so as to introduce it to the wider world.
Brilliant! That kind of exploration is what Korean modern literature has been to me.
If you are outside of Korea and can’t precisely follow Chris’ tracks through the urban/suburban/jungle of Korea, I’m here to give you two quick pointers as to how you can follow it in literature.
Chris loves the road-trip, and so do I. So here are two Korean road-trip stories – one a traditional road-trip, the other a road “trip.”
The Choe In-ho’s Deep Blue Night is a combination of a travelogue and that most quintessential American literary form, the buddy road-trip. The story begins with an unnamed narrator waking up after a paralyzing night of drinking. He is revealed to be Hyeong, a man on a road-trip with his friend Jun-ho, who has been exiled from Korea because of a drug arrest.
They have traveled an average Korean tourist arc, Disneyland, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, San Francisco, and now they are on their return trip to Los Angeles. Hyeong travels to escape, saying, “The sole purpose of his journey was not to see … His journey to America was a journey to a self-chosen land of exile.” (45)
Deep Blue Night is often an amusing read. Jun-ho is presented as a pretty clearly identifiable character, the amiable pot-smoking dolt. Choe’s writing is expressive (and often surprising) as in his description of sunset on the coast;
“The army of the sea launches a concentrated fusillade against the disintegrating realm of heaven. Shells explode in a burst of sparks, illuminating the darkness on high with shards of light.” (57)
Choe uses automotive speed in a way quite similar to Kim Young-ha’s use in I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, as a metaphor for the modern separation each one of us endures.
At the end Hyeong and Jun-ho are stranded, car dead, on a highway they hadn’t intended to follow. Only then do they come face to face with their isolation and exile. Lost, weeping, dazed and repentant they both promise/beg to return home. Deep Blue Night concludes with Hyeong broken on the beach, his desires clear, but his future opaque.
You can read a longer review here at KTLIT.
Having mentioned Kim Young-ha’s excellent in I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, I think I should briefly discuss it.
I Have The Right To Destroy Myself is a short novel that attempts quite a lot and achieves almost everything it attempts, and one that describes the modern dissociative state of Korea in its repetitive scenes of a character speeding relentlessly down Korean freeways and characters endless trips from here to there.
To be fair it also describes that dissociative state in terms of assisted suicide, narcissistic absorption in art, and sex. Which is kind of the quadrifecta, in modern literature. It reveals a modern Korea in which everyone is traveling, frantically trying to find meaning, but in the end just traveling. So, you know, just like Chris.^^
This work “travels” in another way with it’s internationality, which is unusual for Korean fiction. Kim casually drops references to Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat and Gustav Klimt’s Judith. Consumerist, modern, and fatalist, I Have The Right To Destroy Myself is the perfect introduction to postmodern Korea.
As you close the back cover of this book you’ll wish that, maybe, there had been a bit more. The clever balances, the counterpoised aesthetics, the omniscient narrator whose omniscience is possibly unmoored from reality, and the alternately propulsive and comfortably numb plot? All of these combine in a uniquely satisfying way.
A longer and quite different review can be found here at KTLIT.
And now.. back to Chris!