POST-MODERN KOREAN FICTION – The Prehistory of Postmodernism

KTLIT LogoDeconstructionalogists!
(As usual, I welcome disagreements and corrections^^)

I) Hyangga and Koryeo Kasa
II) Sijo & Kasa
III) Classical Fiction
IV) Pansori
V) Introduction to Modern Literature
VI: Enlightenment
VII: Background to Colonial Lit
VIII: The History of Korean Modern Literature
IX: Themes & Approaches to Fiction

X: The Colonial Era
XI: War and Separation Era
XII: Han Miracle!


The question of a “post-modern” Korean fiction sits in somewhat larger question of what post-modernism is, both in general and in Korea. Definitions of postmodernism tend to not, in fact, be definitional, but rather explanatory, often focusing on techniques. Technically, it can be described as relying on inconsistency, paradox, fragmentation, parody, randomness, metafiction pastiche, mixing of low and high culture, uncertain and internalized narrators and more. In some of these ways it is similar to modernism, which also strove to overturn traditional methods of literature and express new feelings and ideologies (certainly this happened in a massive way during the colonial era, as Korea struggled to come to terms with modernity in general, and colonialization in particular). But post-modernism, if one difference can be clearly drawn between it and it’s predecessor modernism, is not concerned with fixing anything (a role that modernists sometimes arrogated to artists themselves), in fact does not believe things can be fixed, perhaps even that there is a state of being fixed. Instead postmodernists portray an entropic landscape, splintered by human subjectivities, and the only thing that can be done is to accept this; in many cases become stoic or insane.

That’s a short^^ outline of it, anyway, and the approach this chapter will take. In addition, in the Korean context, one more break should be added, and that is that Korean post-modern fiction has to, in some way, break from the purely national focus of Korean literature to address either the largely internal or the largely international. Korean ‘modernism’ was tightly focused on the national project of becoming a successful state, both politically and economically, and as such it was a slightly more confined ‘modernisn’ than that we often speak of in terms of English literature.

To define post-modern literature in this way, of course causes a bit of era confusion, as some of these features have been present for nearly a century in Korean literature. The post-modern phase of Korean literature, like most of the eras, begins while other things are going on. In fact, it might be fair to go back as far as Yi-Sang and Pak Tae-won (who were also best friends in ‘real-life’) with their works The Wings and A Day in the Life of Kubo, the Novelist ( illustrated by Yi-Sang, whose history as an architecture student served him well), respectively to consider “postmodern” Korean fiction. Even after that, by 1980, Ch’oe Yun was writing in an extremely post-modern style in her There a Petal Silently Falls. So what are we to make of the entry of postmodernism to Korean fiction? As it turns out it was added to the recipe of Korean fiction just as everything in the 20th and 21st century was – something that came in to Korean society fast, sometimes forced from the outside, and often hybridized into a Korean way of making sense of the world. And it started early.

So, before diving into Post-modernism as an era, it make sense to look at these predecessors, or genetic sources of the post-modernism we know today and see what their contributions were.

Yi-Sang: Ambassador to Nowhere

Yi Sang was a controversial figure, even in his day. At least one critic derided his Nalgae (Wings, as “common as a straw hat in summer amongst works by new writers in Tokyo seven or eight years ago when new psychologism was at its height” (Choi Won—shik, 120). Choi, dismisses this as something like professional jealousy, and to lump Yi in with a trend of the time seems a bit hasty. At the same time, Choi attacks some of the very things that make Yi-sang post-modern, specifically the fact that in Wings, Yi quite consciously places his narrator in a hermetic seal, removing him from any formal relationship to society or nation, and that there is no moral question raised in Wings, nor is there a directly national one. This is nearly unheard of for Korean literature, even for the ‘modern’ literature that surrounded Yi. Yi quite explicitly separates himself from society, becoming one of the first Korean authors to make this post-modern move.

In fact, in the preface to Nalgae Yi Sang writes, “The 19th Century should be sealed off,” immediately declaring his separation from history. As a statement of the narrators status, Yi says something similar, “Who knows that the one room which was divided into two by a curtain symbolizes my destiny?” This is Yi’s way of discussing his own position as outside of the reality of the times and this separation is always seen in his characters. Yi Sang’s struggle, or the struggle of his characters, is the post modern one, he cannot reconcile what is in him with the ‘reality’ he sees without.

Korean critic Kim Jong-chool, struggles with Yi-Sang in this way:

Very often we find Yi Sang labeled variously as a “psychological writer” and example of “Art for Art’s sake,” or of decadence: or as a poet deeply influenced by surrealism, or Dadaism; or simply summed up as “a Korean modernist.”
Kim can only come to the unfortunate (for him, it seems?) conclusion that “these epithets attached to him are not totally groundless.”

Yi is an author begging for a biography. He died at the romantically young age of 27 (as calculated in Korean years) and from remaining photos, seems to have been ruggedly handsome. His stories in the translated volume Wings focus on unfortunate and doomed love. The booksleeve darkly hints that Yi had a “femme fatale” in his life, while other sources indicate that he might have had a drug habit (Michael Stephens, The Dramaturgy of Style: Voice in Short Fiction p. 197), an unfortunate attraction to financial insolvency, and a fatal case of consumption. Being Korean, he likely smoked as well. As is traditional for a certain kind of Korean writer of the era, he ran afoul of the Japanese authorities, who certainly hastened his death.

Wings is his emblematic story. It can be read an allegorical complaint against colonial oppression, an existential/Dadaist/surrealist/suicidal withdrawal from the insanity of contemporary life or, more prosaically as the schizophrenic decline of a man who has lost his relationship with his wife. In any case, its text nicely fits the technical definition of post-modernism. With its dual foci on sexuality and the totemic role of currency, it also lends itself to feminist or Marxist analytics. All this is packed into a relatively slight 33 pages.

Wings begins nearly randomly, with short paragraphs and semi-nonsensical epigraphs (if that is possible) slowly coalescing into the narrative of a profoundly alienated man and his semi-schizophrenic life with his wife. The plot might have been a bit more opaque when the story was written – this is to say that the modern reader will quickly discern what the wife’s “job” is, but the narrator so convincingly describes his own alienated state that his continual ignorance and avoidance, interlarded with brutal comeuppances that bring him face to face with it, seem perfectly logical.

Near the outset, the narrator notes, “a mirror is a practical thing only when it reflects one’s face.” Yet this narrator can never come face to face with himself or reality. He lurks in the “dusky” corners of the world, despite his nyctalopia, which would suggest brighter environments. He is young, at 26, but seems immeasurably older, partly because Yi is a master at describing extended tortures in terse prose. The narrator lurches from darkness in his bedroom, to darkness in the outside world, only through the prism of his wife’s bedroom, and the guests she frequently entertains. The narrator is only able to navigate the outside world by virtue of money which his wife awards him in an alarmingly ritual and impersonal way (Here, a perceptive reader can imagine feminism and capitalist critique intersecting). The wife’s money is a necessity for the narrator, but he despises (and loves) it. Initially he won’t spend the money, once he even tosses it into the toilet that, at the time, probably didn’t mean a porcelain fixture. Obversely, without the money, he is helpless.

The other stories in Wings work as plot counterpoints to Wings. Encounters and Departures could serve as partial prequel to Wings as it tells the story of a husband and wife/prostitute and how they meet and marry. The narrators in both stories are presented as preternaturally old looking and hairy. Both narrators seem to exist in a sequestered perpetual time that does not intersect with the prosaic schedules of the remainder of humanity. Yi’s narrators are gaunt and insubstantial, existing in an uncomfortable state of liminality, somewhere closer to Hell than limbo, but in which they are their own Charon, endlessly ferrying themselves from nowhere to nowhere, with only a bleak darkness behind the stage.
The final story, Deathly Child, is bluntly experimental. Another lost narrator is incapable of navigating day to day relationships, reporting them as absurdist travelogues between mutually incomprehensible natives of the same language, land, city, even the same relationships. The story is in titled fragments and (as the translation reveals it) may be one of the first Korean short stories to include English loan words.

That Yi considered himself a writer, and person, of alienation is clear in some words he wrote, just prior to his own death, to a friend:

When I look back on my past, I am full of regrets. I’ve tried to cheat myself. I thought I led my life in an honest way, but now I fin it is nothing but an attempt to escape from reality. I’ll try to lead an honest life, fighting loneliness. At the moment this is my only concern. (Yi Sang and His Works, 37)

Pak Tae-won: Kubo’s day on the town

Kelly Walsh (23) notes that Pak Tae-won was raised in the first “modern” era for Korea, that moment when it first underwent urbanization, an urbanization that, similar to today, lead to a regular stream of immigrants to the city. If culture shock is a necessary but not sufficient element of post modernism, this Seoul of the 1930s had it. As society, even just the geographical layout of people and things began to form new networks and relationships, many far removed from the traditional Confucian relationships of the pre-colonial period, Pak Tae-wan certainly set about to write about these changes and the issues they engendered. Stylistically, Pak was a trailblazer applying the cool eye of a cultural anthropologist to the meticulous representation of urban, particularly street, scenes.

Pak’s most famous work, and certainly most famous in translation, is A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist, which follows a slice of Kubo’s life, recorded by order of events, and told in a very modern stream of consciousness way interspersed with similarly stream of consciousness forays back into memory. As a bonus, the story is illustrated by Yi Sang. The two, apparently, were best friends. Kubo takes us on a tour of Seoul, traveling to Gwangwhamun, bars, teahouses, a train station, even past a row of prostitutes. There are little black and white drawings by Yi, which capture aspects of the vignettes Kubo tells. Pak adopts a “fly on the lapel” narrative approach which spits out a stream of consciousness while the narrator attempts to find his position, somewhat blunted by an apparent case of writer’s block.

The story lasts part of day and late into the nights. Kubo is looking for “joy” and companionship, though he sometimes shies away from it when it comes, and it doesn’t necessarily calm his fevered mind. There is an amusing, likely intentionally ironic, section in which Kubo dismissively brushes aside a friend’s opinion on Ulysses. Then brushing off the friend Kubo continues to wander semi-randomly, mostly an observer even as when with a poet friends, or bargirls, including an internal observer of his own history, which includes an aborted relationship. Finally, surrounded by bar girls, Kubo comes to a kind of semi-epiphany in which he says he will rededicate himself to writing and the happiness of others.

This short epiphany, however, seems unlikely given all that went before, including Kubo’s relentless description of any actions, any aim as without purpose (149) and as being senseless (150).

Ch’oe Yun, Building Burnt Bridges?

Unlike Yi Sang and Park Tae-won, Ch’oe Yun was still very obviously a “Korean” national writer, whose work was always directly about the nation of Korea and its issues, albeit very modern ones. However, her writing style was an early bridge between modernism and post-modernism, and for this she deserves to be considered one of the ancestors of Korean post-modernism – Ch’oe told her stories of Korea in stories of disembodied fantasy, or flat international narrative, often with characters overseas. Perhaps her most famous work in translation is There a Petal Silently Falls, a collection of three stories that reveal her range.

The book, There a Petal Silently Falls, by Ch’oe Yun, contains the story of that name as well as Whisper Yet and The Thirteen Scent Flower. It’s a stunningly good book, albeit not always a cheery one.

The short story There a Petal Silently Falls, was one of the first attempts in literature, if not the first attempt, to confront the outrage of the Kwangju Massacre. The Kwangju Massacre, sometimes called the Kwangju Uprising by those who were not sympathetic to its success, was one of the great South Korean on South Korean atrocities of the democratization process.
On 17 May 1980, martial law was declared by South Korean military leaders trying to quell a growing demand by the people for democratization. The end result was a short-lived stand-off that ended in brutal massacre. In the aftermath of the massacre, under heavy censorship and a government that denied the massacre had been committed (in many ways these events followed the previous horrible history of the Jeju Bukchon-ri massacre and a governmental response of coverup that was eventually broken by an author, in that case Hyun Gi-young’s Aunt Suni), Ch’oe Yun stepped up in artful fashion and in a non-specific story of death, madness, and remembered trauma narrated a trauma that almost denied narration.

The story is a multi-narrator examination of a teenage girl’s descent and occupation of madness after witnessing, and perhaps being partially responsible for, her mother’s murder. The story is told from the perspective of the girl, her abuser, and a group of college students (friends of the girl’s brother) who are attempting to find her. The multiple narrators dovetail with the often fractured language, imagery, and story-telling (particularly from the girl) of the story. The literary beauty of this work is partly because while it is clearly about the Kwangju Massacre, its non-specificity about where the atrocity occurred allows any reader to imagine it as any massacre and its results. This was, likely, also a politically astute strategy for Ch’oe at the time.

It is amazing to note that this was Ch’oe’s debut work.

Whisper Yet is only intermittently compelling the story of a South Korean communist hiding in plain sight by working for a North Korean exile. Ch’oe’s work is always rife with the contradictions that make up life.

The final story in this collection is The Thirteen Scent Flower. Two young lovers, Bai and GreenHands nurture the “Winter Crysanthemum” a new, beautiful, semi-narcotic, and potentially quite valuable flower. The flower is a result of their love, dedication to handcraft, and partly to their desire to flee society. As the fame of their flower grows, that same society naturally encroaches the couple, and they find their brilliant creation threatened by extinction. Take the “flower” to be symbolic of their love (or not, really) and you have the standard elements of the “us against the world” love story. But The Flower with Thirteen Fragrances has a bit more to say than just that.

Ch’oe masterfully mixes her elements of fairy-tale with descriptions of the ‘outside’ world that very deftly navigate space between parody and hard-edged description. From the outset Bai is described as living in his own fairy-tale:

Every night he walked on the plains of the North Pole alone. Lights seemed to shine from afar, but they always receded when he drew near. He was breathless and felt so cold that his blood seemed to have frozen in his veins. If I don’t reach that light, I’m going to fall down on this floor of ice and freeze to death, he murmured, all the while straining to put one frozen foot forward at a time. I’ll find a kind- hearted Eskimo girl and marry her, he thought. We’ll have a faithful reindeer and sleigh dogs, and we’ll have a baby in time. When the baby grows up, I’ll take him out hunting. The march on the polar plains taxed his strength to the utmost, and he woke up just as he was on the threshold of death. Do I have to go all the way to the North Pole to have such a simple dream? he thought as he woke up, rubbing the soles of his feet which itched as if they really had been frostbitten in the North Pole. But, as soon as he fell asleep again, he was once more on the vast Polar plains, where there was neither noise, gravity, pain nor sorrow.

As the new flower becomes popular, photographers arrive, pa-jeong stands pop up, and cheesy nicknacks begin to proliferate – K-pop even steps in and pens a popular ditty.
Outside the village here is a wonderful scene in a government office as officials attempt to craft, in 40 minutes, a complete program with which to deal with the horticultural, social, and medical implications of the thirteen different flowers. Among other important discussions they argue over whether it is better to cure Alzheimers or urological complaints (asthma having already been discarded). This meeting concludes with the farcical:

“our forty minutes are already up. We’ll make that the conclusion and close this conference.”
“But what conclusion do you mean?”
“What we’ve just come up with.”

Yun even jokes about Korea’s sometimes farcical desire to create a “representative” example of everything in a scene in which representatives attempt to decide which Korean botanical to send to a rare flower exhibition:

The problem is, there’s a great deal of conflict between the various botanical and horticultural societies over this matter. The National Gardening Association wants to send three kinds of roses of Sharon, two kinds of pines and two kinds of bamboos to represent the spirit of our country. The Southern and Western associations insist on sending plants that thrive best in their regions, mostly orchids. So, that puts us in a dilemma.”
“We can’t waste our time discussing again what we’ve already gone through the last time. How can we represent our country in an international exhibition without the rose of Sharon?”
“But the rose of Sharon isn’t a rare plant. We can’t violate the conditions of the exhibition from our very first participation.”
“But which is more important? “Representative,” or “Rare”? “Representative,” surely.”

Finally, Ch’oe introduces three un-named characters (They are known as K, L, and M, but might as easily be Paeckche, Silla, and Koguryo) each of whom hope to profit from publishing credit related to the flowers. This section is an amusing commentary on personal pride, patriotism, and idealism, and the possible infamy that can be associated with each. Individually, each of the ‘letter-men’ muses on how he might steal credit for the flower and how their name for the as-yet unnamed blossom, is superior to that of the others. In the end, only their hatred that someone else gets credit remains, and they successfully conspire to destroy the Wind Chrysanthemum.

Each of these authors has, in their time and their own style, adopted the technical stances of post-modernism as well as often adopting the psychological themes. So, as we turn our attention to what might be called “modern” post-modernism, we should be aware that post-modernism was not merely a lately adopted trend in Korean literature, rather it was a strand of Korean literature that has always intertwined with the larger, more national project.

3 thoughts on “POST-MODERN KOREAN FICTION – The Prehistory of Postmodernism

  1. Thank you Charles for this new episode. I’m looking forward to a sequel to prehistory of postmodernism – or is it the prequel to post-postmodernism? 🙂

    Post-modernism requires a minimum of distance (chronological, critical…) with modernity, and for Koreans, taking critical distance with modernity grew more evident when Japan became its main vector, which makes Yi Sang stand out even more.

  2. LOL..

    Stephane, I may have to count on you to explain postmodernism to me at some point as I’ve always avoided it in English literature and have to say I’m mucking about a bit.^^

  3. have these been translated in English ? am trying to include korean historiographic fiction in my diss proposal.

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