To begin with, you can’t go wrong by looking through the Portable Library of Korean Literature (PLKL) from Jimoondang Publishing. The PLKL consists of over twenty slender books of short stories by authors of classic Korean modern literature such as Yi Sang (“The Wings”), Kim Yu-jeong (“The Camellias”), Yi Chong-jun (“The Wounded”), and Ch’oe Yun (“The Last of Hanako”). While many of these works do focus on the “older” issues of modern literature, they are nonetheless quite interesting and a quick way to be introduced to a range of Korean writers.
In terms of short story collections, “Land of Exile” remains the accessible standard. Recently re-released to include newer stories, this excellently translated volume is a good starting point for a reader interested in understanding the general outlines of Korean post-war literature. It is organized chronologically, which also helps it demonstrate the general lines upon which Korean modern literature has developed and expanded. As Korean modern literature has developed, it has been studded with great writers. Another great collection is Modern Korea Fiction An Anthology, which is also translated by Bruce Fulton.
Yi Mun-yol is an interesting writer whose work bridges the gap between the more traditional concerns of modern Korean fiction and what might be called the cutting edge. “An Appointment With My Brother” is perhaps his most predictable work, telling the story of a family bisected by the Korean War. Yi’s classic “Our Twisted Hero” is a meditation on the uses and misuses of power, while “The Poet” tells an even older story of poet Kim Sak-kat who dishonors his grandfather and suffers considerably for it. Yi is also capable of stunning modern work as his “Twofold Song” ably demonstrates with its explosive mix of surrealism and a love story.
Kim Young-ha writes for readers interested in something with an existential edge. His dreamlike, “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself”, asks questions about sex, identity, and death, while his dead-on laconic creation of a policeman in “Photo Shop Murder” (published in the PLKL series) is well suited for anyone who likes the true-crime genre. Currently Chi Young-Kim (who translated “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” and Lee Dong-Ha’s brilliant “A Toy City”) is scheduled to translate Kim Young-ha’s latest novel, “The Empire of Light.” If Kim’s previous work is any indication, this should be well worth the read.
Pak Wan-so writes stories of Korean history that are so well wrapped in family tales that the history slides down painlessly. “Who Ate Up All the Shinga” is perhaps her best-known work now, but everything she writes is delicate and touching.
A longer novel, but quite easy to read due to its episodic structure, is Cho Se-hui’s “The Dwarf.” This is the tremendously affecting story of a dwarf’s family and their ongoing struggles to survive industrialization and urbanization. “The Dwarf’ was tremendously popular at its first publication, and its key chapter “A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball” has been reprinted in Korea 245 times. Cho writes sparely but hypnotically and if you read only one Korean novel, this would be an excellent choice.
Yom Sang-seop’s “Three Generations” is a sprawling story of the strain of life in colonial Korea.
The Foreigner’s Bookstore by Naksapyeong Station
What the Book, Itaewon
Seoul Selection, Gwangwhamun