This is another way (other than that link you see on the right: Where to Start in Korean Modern Fiction) to gain a quick understanding of Korean Modern Literature. That way is to collect the books in the excellent LTI Korea / Jimoondang collaborative series The Portable Library of Korean Fiction. These books are now, thanks to Amazon, available online and inexpensive to boot. In the short blurbs that follow, the links of the book titles lead to reviews of the works here on KTLIT (I cringe at some of my early reviews, but for the sake of honesty have linked them) and the author links lead to their Wikipedia pages if they exist (if they don’t, they shortly will^^).
While I express my preferences between the books, it is worth considering that while some are better than others, for a little over $100 dollars these 25 volumes are a very nice overview of modern Korean literature. This is partially a credit to LTI Korea / Jimoondang cleverly choosing author-based and novella-length books. This allows a lot of territory to be covered in a way that more formal “collections” can’t achieve.
With that said, and in order of publication, here are the books.
- The Wings, by Yi Sang
An absolutely necessary read by the spiritual predecessor to post-modern Korean writers, this short story hints at the disconnection caused by Japanese colonialism. Also includes the excellent short stories Encounters and Departures and Deathly Child.
- A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball, by Cho Se-hui
An absolutely necessary read detailing the human cost of Korea’s “miracle on the Han.” The longer version, The Dwarf, is even better.
- The Cry of the Magpies, by Kim Dong-ni
A fair story of trauma caused by civil war. Also includes the short story Deungsin-bul.
- The Wounded, by Yi Chongjun
A good, but complicated, evocation of the trauma caused by civil war. Also includes An Assailant’s Face.
- Deep Blue Night, by Choi In-ho
An interesting story of Korean expatriates in California embarking on a road trip, and a journey through their own pasts.
- The Ma Rok Biographies, by Seo Giwon
Amusing but inconsequential stories of characters linked by name.
- The Land of the Banished, by Cho Chong-Rae
An absolutely necessary read. One of the best pundan munhak stories – Cho uses a bit of misdirection at the start of the story to add real flesh to a real villain.
- Three Days in That Autumn, by Park Wan-suh
A good but lesser work from a great author.
- The Rainy Spell, by Yun Heung-gil
A good but minor work that is more important to Koreans than it could ever be to overseas readers.
- The Other Side of Dark Remembrance, by Lee Kyun-young
An absolutely necessary read that neatly manages to describe a very modern Korea, but still tie it back to its tragic history.
- With Her Oil Lamp on, That Night, by Lim Chul-Woo
Decent, but obvious and a bit dated (even considering that it is from a particular historical era)
- Between Heaven and Earth, by Yun Daenyoung
One of the vaguest and least focused of the series
- An Appointment with My Brother, by Yi Mun-Yol
A good but lesser work from a brilliant author. This is a political lecture wrapped in a book (a new translation is due in Spring, from Azalea Press). There are far better books by Yi available online.
- The Camellias, by Kim Yu-Jeong
An absolutely necessary read set of stories about love. The Camellias is comic and light, The Scorching Heat is tragic, and A Wanderer in the Valley is hopeful, if cautious.
- Rust, by Yang Gui-ja
Two good but minor works (the second is Swamp) by a really great author
- House of Idols, by Choi In-hoon
A good but minor work.
- My Innocent Uncle, by Ch’ae Man-shik
An absolutely necessary read if just for the title story, which is a clever political satire. Also includes A Ready Made Life, which while a bit obvious is a Korean classic. Once Upon a Paddy is a one-note satire. partly because it is trying to make a difficult point.
- Photo Shop Murder, by Kim Young-ha
An absolutely necessary read which is one of only two books in the series (mainly due to when the series was published) hinting at some directions in post-modern Korean fiction. Both Photo Shop Murder and Whatever Happened to the Guy in the Elevator are brutally modern, and the latter is laugh-out-loud funny.
- The Chronicle of Manchwidang, by Kim Moon Soo
A quite good story, and amusing. Situational comedy mixed with unfortunate situations engendered by Korean economic development.
- A Toy City, by Lee Dong-ha
A good story, rendered minor by a much more complete version published later.
- The Last of Hanako, by Ch’oe Yun
An absolutely necessary read that lays bare the pressure for social conformity in Korea. Basically, anything Ch’oe writes is worth reading.
- Chinatown, by Oh Jung Hee
An interesting coming-of-age story, allied to a kind of “wheel of life” narrative that I found completely charming, if occasionally bleak. The other two stories, Wayfarer and The Release are also sharply told.
- A Man, by Hwang Soon-won
An adequate book. The title story has remarkably crass sexual politics and is difficult to read. The first story, The Dog of Crossover Village, remains opaque to me, though man other like it. Bibari is an interesting story of Jeju life. If you like this, be sure to chase down “Lost Souls” which has much more of his work, and better.
- Human Decency, by Gong Ji young
In competition with Between Heaven and Earth for least important in the series. Too obvious.
- Hong Gildong, by Seo Hajin
A light but entertaining semi-retelling of a Korean myth, it is paired with another re-telling of Korean myth, The Woodcutter and the Nymph. Like Kim Young-ha, a very modern writer.
So there you have it.. a clever collection of 26 novellas containing the work of some of the greatest writers of Korean modern fiction.