Three Brilliant Books, Currently Available in English

I am lucky enough to be reviewing three recent books of translated Korean Literature. Because I am reviewing them for journals, I can’t really tip my hand here, but I can say that if you are interested in Korean Lit, and you want to see how Korean Lit may be passing through the end of one of its cycles of trauma, these are all interesting works.

While they all deal with the historical traumas of Korea, they generally manage to do so in the context of plots that are interesting in and of themselves, and while the historical traumas cannot be ignored, they merely serve as triggers for the real personal interactions of the plots (I’m thinking that Land Of The Banished might have been the first of this kind of book – certainly the first that I’ve read so far). With no further ado, head to the intarwebs and purchase:

Toy City by Lee Dong-ha and brilliantly translated by Chi Young-kim. Amazon sez:

Toy City, a poignant coming-of-age story of a fourth-grade boy named Yun, depicts the life of a poor family struggling to survive in the years immediately after the Korean War. An autobiographical work, the novel is written entirely from young Yun’s point of view. While the political ramifications of the Korean War are suggested throughout, they do not take center stage in this tale of a boy forced to grow up quickly to support his family. Yun copes with tremendous losses, but manages to find joy in everyday occurrences. Lyrical, passionate depictions of hunger, shame, and frustration are interspersed throughout the descriptions of children’s games, Yun’s budding sexuality, and the kind acts of neighbors, illuminating the conditions under which poor Koreans lived after the War. Vacillating between bitterly ignoring his family and remaining close to them, Yun struggles to come to terms with the sudden realization that he cannot depend on his mother, father, and older sister for anything. Stunningly capturing the wishes, hopes, and anger of a young boy, Toy City is a graceful study of the vulnerable toughness of a child thrust into a chaotic early adulthood.

Who Ate Up All the Shinga by Park Won-suh. Amazon sez:

Park Wan-suh was born in 1931 in a small village near Kaesong, a protected hamlet of no more than twenty families. Park was raised believing that “no matter how many hills and brooks you crossed, the whole world was Korea and everyone in it was Korean.” But then the tendrils of the Japanese occupation, which had already worked their way through much of Korean society before her birth, began to encroach on Park’s idyll, complicating her day-to-day life.

With acerbic wit and brilliant insight, Park describes the characters and events that came to shape her young life, portraying the pervasive ways in which collaboration, assimilation, and resistance intertwined within the Korean social fabric before the outbreak of war. Most absorbing is Park’s portrait of her mother, a sharp and resourceful widow who both resisted and conformed to stricture, becoming an enigmatic role model for her struggling daughter. Balancing period detail with universal themes, Park weaves a captivating tale that charms, moves, and wholly engrosses.

Finally, the RED ROOM: Stories of Trauma in Contemporary Korea (which is traumatic, but hopeful, and I can say no more til my review is out). Amazon (somewhat melodramatically, as they swiped the boilerplate from the publisher) sez:

“The Red Room” brings together stories by three canonical Korean writers who examine trauma as a simple fact of life. In Pak Wanso’s “In the Realm of the Buddha,” trauma manifests itself as an undigested lump inside the narrator, a mass needing to be purged before it consumes her. The protagonist of O Chong-hui’s “Spirit on the Wind” suffers from an incomprehensible wanderlust – the result of trauma that has escaped her conscious memory. In the title story by Im Ch’or-u, trauma is recycled from torturer to victim when a teacher is arbitrarily detained by unnamed officials. Western readers may find these stories bleak, even chilling, yet they offer restorative truths when viewed in light of the suffering experienced by all victims of war and political violence regardless of place and time.

Check them out.. all worth your time.. and when the review comes out I’ll have a long piece on how I think they signal the beginning of a long overdue shift in what kind of Korean literature is translated.