Where to Start With Korean Lit (on spec for the Herald)

The summer heat continues to beat down on Korea, and with the promise of relief still weeks off, it is an excellent time to stay inside by the air-conditioner, or outdoors in shade by a river, and catch up on your reading. Last week the Herald surveyed Korean books for summer and this week we take a look at Korean literature that has been translated into English.

The good news is that, in the past few years, partly due to good work of the Korea Literature Translation Institute (KLTI), the number and range of Korean translations has increased dramatically. Until recently most translated novels focused on the harsh realities of occupation, war and division. Given Korea’s modern history, this made sense, but it sometimes made for rather grim reading for English-speakers who were looking for a diversion, rather than a history lesson. Many literary works still focus on these issues, and many of these are extraordinary, but more recent translations extend the scope of translated Korean literature. So, if you’re looking to read some good, translated Korean literature, where should you start?

To begin with, you can’t go wrong by looking through the Portable Library of Korean Literature (PLKL) from Jimoondang Publishing. The PLKL consists of over twenty slender books of short stories by authors of classic Korean modern literature such as Yi Sang (“The Wings”), Kim Yu-jeong (“The Camellias), Cho Se-hui (“A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball”), and Ch’oe Yun (“The Last of Hanako”). While many of these works do focus on “older” issues of modern literature, they are nonetheless quite interesting and a quick way to be introduced to a range of Korean writers.

In terms of short story collections, “Land of Exile” remains the accessible standard. Recently re-released to include more modern stories this excellently translated work is a good starting point for a reader interested in understanding the general outlines of Korean post-war literature. It is organized chronologically, which helps demonstrate the general lines upon which Korean modern literature has developed and expanded.

Yi Mun-yol is an interesting writer whose work bridges the gap between the more traditional concerns of modern Korean fiction and what might be called the cutting edge. “An Appointment With My Brother” is perhaps his most predictable work, telling the story of a family bisected by the Korean war. Yi’s classic “Our Twisted Hero” is a meditation on the uses and misuses of power while “The Poet” tells an even older story of poet Kim Sak-kat who dishonors his grandfather and suffers considerably for it. But Yi is also capable of stunning modern work as his “Twofold Song” ably demonstrates with its explosive mix of surrealism and a love story.

Kim Young-ha writes for readers interested in something with a more existential edge. His dreamlike, “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself,” asks questions about sex, identity, and death, while his dead-on laconic creation of a policeman in “Photo Shop Murder” (published in the PLKL series) is well suited for anyone who likes the true-crime genre. Currently Chi Young-Kim (who translated “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” and Chi Young-Kim’s “A Toy City”) is scheduled to translate Kim Young-ha’s latest novel, “The Empire of Light.” If Kim’s previous work is any indication, this should be well worth the read.

A longer novel, but quite easy to read due to its episodic structure, is Cho Se-hui’s “The Dwarf.” This is the tremendously affecting story of a dwarf’s family and their ongoing struggles to survive industrialization and urbanization. “The Dwarf’ was tremendously popular at its first publication, and its key chapter “A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball” has been reprinted in Korea 245 times.

Ch’oe Yun first came to the attention of English readers with the publication of “Last of Hanako” which was initially published by the PLKL and later added to “Land of Exile” in its latest edition. The story of youthful friends who are torn apart by circumstance, “Last of Hanako” depended on a plot twist that might seem obvious to a western reader. But with the release of “There a Petal Silently Falls” Ch’oe steps firmly into the forefront of international Korean writers. The novella from which the book draws its title is a horrific story of family tragedy (based on real events in Kwangju in 1980) along the traditional plotlines of Korean literature, but Ch’oe invests the story with such surreal tragedy and a hallucinatory writing that the reader is pulled along. “Whisper Yet” is the slightest work in the book, and “The Thirteen Scent Flower” is a surreal, happy-yet-sad, story of an unlikely romance enmeshed in the coarse fabric of larger life.

The authors and books mentioned here are just the tip of the translated iceberg. A trip to “What The Book” in Itaewon, or Kyobo Books in Gwangwhamun can lead a reader to a treasure trove of new fiction, while just around the corner by Noksapyeong Station, The Foreign Book Store often stocks out of print collections. For readers out of Korea, many of the works discusses here are available on Amazon.com and Kindle. I know it’s hot out there, but all of the bookstores have air-conditioning and once you’ve bought a stack of books you have a good excuse to stay in out of the sun.

One thought on “Where to Start With Korean Lit (on spec for the Herald)

  1. A host of great recommendations for a newbie, thanks so much! I love this blog — keep up the good work!
    – Óli

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