As I have written elsewhere, translated Korean modern literature tends to cohere around a few themes, primarily those of colonialism, civil war, and separation. While this is completely justifiable from the perspective of the last 100 years of Korean history, it can also render Korean literature, from the outsiders’ perspective, a bit monochromatic. In order to, in one place, indicate some of the other colors of the Korean modern-fiction palette, I have here 10 works, all available online or in Korea, which move away from the common and history-borne themes. Many of these books have been reviewed elsewhere on this site, but I wanted to make list of books that escaped the ‘literature of national division’ (pundan munhak) and dealt with more universal themes.
1) I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Kim Young-ha.
Kim may be the best current writer in translation (his other works in translation include Photo Shop Murder and I Wonder What Happened to that Guy in the Elevator) and I Have the right to Destroy Myself may be his best work. A post-modern meditation on meaning, art, and death, it features an artist of suicide and a tangle of modern love and art.
2) Deep Blue Night by Choe In-ho.
Choe sets his novel on the West Coast of California and puts his two main characters on that most American of journeys, the road trip. As Hyeong, the narrator, and his friend Jun-ho stagger down the California coast, exhaling dope-smoke and desperation along the way, they shine uncertain light on Korean-American culture, the larger culture in which it lives, and the emptiness of a life lived without meaning.
3) A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball by Cho Se-hui.
Dwarf is the classic tale of the price of Korean modernization and economic growth and in that theme, though set in a classically Korean setting and culture, Cho writes a book important to any country that is modern or in the process of modernization. A dwarf, already diminutive and insignificant, is slowly driven to death, his home stolen, and his family dissipated as “urban renewal” comes to Seoul. Powerful, political, and tragic.
4) Our Twisted Hero by Yi Mun-yol
Our Twisted Hero is a retrospective meditation on power. Narrator Pyongt’ae Han moves to a new school and is bullied by, Sokdae Om, who rules with carrots and sticks, keeping nearly perfect order. Han rebels. For this, he is ostracized: Om has created an all-powerful cult of personality. Han works his way back into Om’s good graces and perversely comes admire him. When Om’s reign crashes down at the hands of the even greater power of a new students other students turn against Om, with only Han refusing to completely repudiate him. There is an oddly tacked-on ending, but otherwise a powerful analysis of how power can work.
5) Who Ate Up all the Shinga by Pak Wan-suh
A brilliant “autobiographical novel” by Pak Wan-suh which not only follows her family history, but also follows the key events and decisions that made Pak into a novelist. From the country-side, not even imagining anything else, the narrator/Pak is pulled to the big city of Seoul, to school, and eventually into the nightmare of the Korean war. The focus, however, is on Pak’s family, and often her amazing/amusing mother and the kinds of vacillations and hypocrisies that were necessary to navigate life in that complicated and quickly shifting time in Korean history.
6) Rain-shower by Hwang Sun-won
Rain Shower is a short story by Hwang Sun-won (Hwang also wrote the seminal but monumentally depressing novel The Descendants of Cain). Sonagi is a brief but a heavy rain shower that suddenly comes down usually on a hot afternoon. In Hwang’s story, the rain shower symbolizes the short and tragic love of the boy and the girl. The story begins with the boy encountering the girl playing by the stream on his way back home they fall in love, and endure the tragic/romantic fate of many other teen lovers. This work is only available in collections, as it is very brief. It is available online at the extremely useful website of Brother Anthony of Taize: http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/Shower.htm
7) The Camellias by Kim Yu-jeong
Three stories in a slender volume that all focus on love and although the stories are not western in any sense, they all describe a love that seems, to a modern eye, a “free” one. In The Camellias love is chosen across class lines, in The Scorching Heat love is lost to a fate as simple as nature, and in A Wanderer in the Valleys we see a love that causes a wife to metaphorically risk every wolf in the human valley. Kim covers a wide emotional range: The Camellias is a pastoral comedy, The Scorching Heat is a bathetic tragedy, and A Wanderer in the Valley is a story of love and peril. A great book for the tortured romantic in any reader. 😉
8) The Ma Rok Biographies by Seo Giwon
It is not easy to make Korean history, which has so often been tragedy, into a farce, but Seo Giwon pulls off this unlikely trick in his The Ma Rok Biographies. In three short stories, all featuring protagonists named “Ma,” Seo portrays the random, absurd, and farcical nature of Korean history in three different eras; the pre-Japanese feudal system; under Japanese rule, and; during the Korean war. Seo finds people to be powerless, feckless, and silly; flotsam and jetsam on seas of indeterminacy. Finally, he also passes judgment on human systems and finds them wanting. This is a kind of absurdist/zen take on history, and
often had me laughing out loud a thing that is not common when reading translated Korean literature. 😉
9) Chinatown by Oh Jung-hee
Chinatown is the story is of a nine year old girl who comes to a greater awareness of sex and death. As the book moves along, the girl observes the relationship, family, and eventual death of a prostitute named Maggie, as well as the sad death of her own grandmother. As backdrop to these events, Oh gives us the seventh pregnancy of the girl’s mother. Oh blends these stories into a collage representing the circle of life. Chinatown, although it clearly lives in a post-war era, is a very personal story and is well paired with…
10) Toy City by Lee Dong-ha
Like Chinatown, Toy City takes place in the years following the Korean war and while it quite clearly references the war and its effects on society, it focuses tightly on a family forced from the countryside to the city. Yun, the narrator, is a fourth-grader. Yun’s father, a good farmer, is incompetent in the dity and Yun is forced to grow up quickly. Lee does a good job of sketching the “toy” city in which Yun’s family lives. This is a great story of a boy coming of age, and like Chinatown does for a young girl, Toy City does an excellent job of portraying what it is like to grow up, both in the specific circumstances of the city, but also just as a young man. You’ll want to make sure you get the new Koryo Press edition as it is more complete and translated a bit better.