Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s “Dictee” Reviewed at London Korean Links

Dictee's Book Cover

Not so much reviewed as righteously trampled (link here). Fortunately, the  trampling is supported with two passages from the book that reveal the reviewer, Philip Gowman (who writes quite consistently for KLL), to be spot on. Gowman  struggles manfully with the text, even ranging far afield and invoking Homer’s Muse as a possible answer to Dictee‘s incoherence. Alas, Gowman notes:

before assistance can arrive, we get more puzzling words: fragments of French school exercises interspersed with a Lenten recitation from the Catholic Catechism.

and concludes:

the end result is totally unreadable.

It is a good review of a bad book, which is a rare thing. It is completely worth reading.

Also, a brief glance at the internet reveals that even the book’s supporters are forced to deal with its incoherence:

What makes DICTEE idiosyncratic, unforgettable,is its variance, its slipperiness. It has the acute proclivity to dissipate, both physically on the page, as well as connotatively. At times, the text acts as both prose and poetry; its liminality becomes interwoven into a book that functions like the structuralist films[1] Cha was influenced by. Physically thumb thru DICTEE and it even looks like a structuralist film. The length of text varies, with interjected moments of white (blank pages) and images (photographs, documents, diagrams). A fragmented jaggedness makes the book a visceral experience.

The English translation of all that cant? “It makes no sense.”

6 thoughts on “Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s “Dictee” Reviewed at London Korean Links

  1. Yes, this was one of my impulse buys which turned out to be a bit of a dud. From recollection, I wandered into Kinokuniya Books on Bryant Park in Manhattan sometime last Autumn and raided their Korean fiction section. This was in the pile I walked out with.

    I really did try to read every page of it to see if I could somehow discern what merits someone else could possibly find in it. But it just never seemed to make any sense at all.

    Part of me aspires to being able to write the sort of high-concept prose shown in your last blockquote. But the other part of me has a probably over-sensitive BS-meter.

  2. Philip,

    LOL.. I have the same problem whenever I try to write “academic” prose. My uni is preparing abstracts for a conference in New Zealand – I work with the Korean speakers on their submissions, and I struggle to get the jargon in..

  3. i appreciate your efforts to “introduce” k lit… but i am sad to hear that your idea of a good book is so 19th century. anything that’s hard to read is bad? the second quote (the original source of which you only link to indirectly) gives a clue of how to understand dictee in a historical perspective… also interesting that you get hung up on the form of the book, but don’t mention the contents even in passing.

    also, dictee is not a translation, it has been a multilingual book from the beginning.

  4. Somebody might want to reread my post. I did not read Dictee, therefore I did not get “hung up” on anything. I linked a review (that is noted in the title, the first line of the post, and the tags) that I found amusing and seemed to be sensible based on my googling.

    I’m beginning to suspect why you might like Dictee. 😉

  5. You did not read Dictee but call it bad? “It is a good review of a bad book…”

  6. It’s a bit like choosing vacations… I don’t need to go to Iraq to know I won’t particularly like it.

    The excerpts I saw in reviews that drooled over Dictee were enough evidence for me that the drool was appropriate, but perhaps for reasons other than the reviewers intended.

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