Kim Namcheon, Scenes from the Enlightenment (translated by Charles LaShure)
Choi In-hun, The Square (translated by Kim Seong-kon)
Ch’oe In-ho, Another Man’s City, (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton)
Hailji, The Republic of Uzupis, (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton)
Park Min-gyu, Pavane for a Dead Princess, (translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim)
Despite South Korea having the kind of vibrant literary scene you’d expect from a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world, we’re still not exactly inundated with English translations of South Korean fiction. Given this dearth, Dalkey Archive Press’s Library of Korean Literature series, twenty five titles published in collaboration with the Literary Translation Institute of Korea, was always going to be a welcome endeavor, though there are also niggling doubts: will the books stand on their own merits, or will they require some pre-existing knowledge of Korea to be properly appreciated? Is there some kind of cultural propaganda going on, a desire for “representativeness” that might have skewed the selection process?
Originally published in 1939, Kim Namcheon’s Scenes from the Enlightenment is the odd one out of the latest batch in the series, a traditionally realist slice of Korean history jam-packed with descriptions of period- and culture-specific practices. Its interest is therefore largely anthropological.
Next up chronologically, Choi In-hun’s allegorical The Square, is a different beast altogether: a kind of Korean Nineteen Eighty-Four or Darkness at Noon, and every bit as groundbreaking. In less than 200 pages, Choi melds philosophy and psychology to explore the ideological schism which gave rise to the Korean war, presenting a deeply intellectual but also aesthetically sophisticated critique. The protagonist, Lee Myong-jun, is a released POW disillusioned with both the “fanatical belief” and stultifying collectivism of the communist North, and the “complete absence of faith” which characterizes the capitalist South, the latter’s extreme individualism manifesting in “corrupt politicians, personal selfishness trumping public-mindedness, [and] culture reduced to the tawdry pursuit of sex.” This can all come across as somewhat po-faced, particularly when the philosophy seeps into the dialogue (one of Korean literature’s weak points, until relatively recently, has been naturalism sacrificed to authorial soap-boxing). Choi rarely resists the temptation to make his metaphors explicit, but what he was attempting was so radical there was a genuine danger his readers wouldn’t understand.
The Square is startlingly modernist, its chronological fractures mirroring Myong-jun’s damaged psyche—damaged both by the violence of the South Korean police, who suspect him to be a communist sympathizer, and by the polarizations of ideology, which are shown to deform individuals, nations, and any art form which attempts to represent them. Precisely where it seems to fail, The Square demonstrates that ideology is anathema to literature, that the form of the novel cannot be made to contain such rigid extremes without being inevitably warped by them. Luckily, this otherwise relentlessly cerebral content is balanced out by the cinematic intensity of the flashbacks to Myong-jun’s student days, sensual memories of nature and lost love which also serve to round him out, somewhat (Korean literature tends to favor the environment over the individual, meaning even anti-heroes are also Everymen). These, and the moments of cathartic, brutal violence, are in fact heightened by being set against a background where the action is largely mental, their effect as sudden and vivid as blood blossoming from a gunshot wound.
Ch’oe In-ho’s Another Man’s Life is less of a milestone and more of a rollicking ride, invigorated by the Fultons’ highly colloquial translation: the narrative borrows its nervous energy directly from the protagonist, who may or may not be suffering some form of paranoiac breakdown. K, a run-of-the-mill deputy bank director, wakes up after a night out boozing with his friend H to find his phone missing, along with a ninety-minute chunk of his memories. To make matters worse, reality seems subtly off-kilter—his wife and daughter might look and sound the same as they always have, but he’s convinced that they’re faking. This focus on “acting the part” feeds into a biting satire on what Ch’oe sees as the scourges of Korean society: hypocrisy, convention, social taboos. A more acerbic, absurdist, altogether madcap Murakami, his distinctive humor is enhanced by the imagery: “H clinging to the tall woman like a droning cicada flush against the trunk of a tall tree.” The introduction of religion in the latter stages is also surprisingly effective, in particular the suggestion that K’s crisis may in fact be a spiritual one, rather than the result of a conspiracy involving microchip implants, clones, etc. This fine novel is disappointingly undermined by the Truman Show–style ending.
There’s a similar skewing of reality in Hailji’s The Republic of Uzupis (2009), a melancholic, existential tale reminiscent of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, all blank-faced buildings and grey streets with the snow silently sifting down. Both Uzupis and Another Man’s City are later works by writers whose long careers have seen a shift from controversial to canonical, their first books coming as a reaction against the prevailing literary trends of the time (i.e. turgid social realism yoked to a nationalist agenda). Contemporary writers no longer have this to contend with this, but author Park Min-gyu’s “eccentric” appearance (sunglasses & ponytail!) still earn him the moniker of Korean literature’s enfant terrible. His equally idiosyncratic prose style—neologisms, enjambment, seemingly redundant footnotes—has also garnered disapproval, but the stylistic hijinks are more than just an attention-grabbing stunt; underpinning them is a genuinely heartfelt pathos for the drifting twenty-somethings struggling for a sense of purpose in a society whose traditional values—company loyalty, deference to elders—seem to have degenerated into hollow conventions.
In Pavane for a Dead Princess, a young man whose mother is hospitalized with depression gets a job as a parking attendant at a department store, where he starts a tentative romance with “the ugliest girl in the world.” Sweet, anguished, and affecting, Pavane is also a damning exposure of South Korean society’s “savage” insistence on conformity and superficiality—precisely the traits which Ch’oe In-ho, Choi In-hun, and Hailji also railed against. And there’s one other thing uniting these four books: suicide. South Korea’s literature, like the country itself, has clearly come a long away, but this procession of social misfits for whom death is the only way out suggests a troubling continuity.
Deborah Smith is a translator, most recently of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Portobello Book, 2015).
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