DISCUSSED in this essay:
The Soil by Yi Kwang-su (trans. Horace Jeffery Hodges and Sun-Ae Hwang). Dalkey Archive Press. $16.00, 420pp.
My Son’s Girlfriend by Jung Mi Kyung (trans. Yu Young-nan). Dalkey Archive Press. $12.50, 92pp.
A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories by Jung Young-moon (trans. Yewon Jung, Louis Vinciguerra, and Inrae You Vinciguerra). Dalkey Archive Press. $14.00, 195pp.
With any luck, 2013 should mark a watershed moment for Korean literature in English translation, thanks to the ten volumes being released by Dalkey Archive. They arrive with the support of the indefatigable LTI Korea, an institution whose existence—and budget—is frequently the cause of teeth-gnashing envy on the part of translators from less well-supported languages. All told, these ten—to be followed by ten more, currently scheduled for release in spring 2014—do an admirable job of showcasing the great range of talent to be found among modern Korean literature, which, in its contemporary iteration, seems to me to be one of the world’s most exciting, dynamic, and consistently impressive. This excellence is thanks, variously, to three things: the relatively stringent gate-keeping role still played by Korean publishers; a longstanding regard for the intellectual and the highbrow; and a traditional focus on short stories that has enabled the Korean novel to develop as a far more fluid, hybrid form than the calcified monoliths that have sometimes played a stultifying role elsewhere.
These ten Dalkey translations also cover a wide range of periods, from the colonial 1930s to the hyper-technologized postmodernity of the 21st century. Though this range makes the books useful in terms of providing a broad sweep for the uninitiated, it does make it somewhat tricky to draw any meaningful connections or comparisons between the works, aside from the obvious one of their being “Korean.” Nevertheless, a side-by-side reading of those works separated by the largest time gap does in fact throw up some intriguing congruences, in addition to the expected dissimilarities, both of which I will be attempting to explore here.
* * * *
Ask any Korean or Korean literature student who wrote the first Korean novel, and the answer will almost certainly be Yi Kwang-su, whose career spanned the turn of the 20th century and witnessed the introduction of European literature into Korea, often via translations into Japanese, the language of Korea’s colonizers at the time. The literary soil into which these new influences were being planted consisted of a rich Confucian heritage of lengthy poems and prose romances written in classical Chinese. Yi Kwang-su, among others, found in the novels of Zola and the stories of Maupassant an exciting new palette of potential techniques for creating an entirely new kind of literature, one more suited to the specific social, cultural, and political circumstances which Korea found itself in (the wrench of industrializing modernity was felt as even more of a brutal upheaval given that it was being implemented by a colonial power who also sought to suppress Korean cultural identity). However, in early novels like The Soil (serialized in the Donga Ilbo from 1932-33) we can also find intriguing traces of the earlier tradition. There’s a confusingly large array of bit-part characters, and major characters who are (initially, at least) not so much fully rounded personalities as names appended to a list of characteristics, often corresponding to established types familiar to anyone versed in the Chinese classics.
The protagonist of The Soil, though a character whose relentless seriousness makes him one of the least interesting individuals in the book, is the idealistic young lawyer Heo Sung, who grew up a humble peasant in the bucolic farming village of Salyeoul. He gradually rises through society as he gains an education and is drawn to Seoul, a glittering place of baseball games, smoky drinking dens, and backstreet abortions. Heo Sung thus holds the contradictions and tensions of modernity within him, which the book further polarizes in the figures of two very different potential marriage partners: the simple, devoted Yu Sun and the elegant, eligible Jeong-seon. As Heo Sung vacillates between the two women, the larger alternatives and problems they represent can be rather too easily mapped onto their characters—Yu Sun is pure but uneducated, Jeong-seon is seductive and refined yet vain and morally suspect (of the two, Jeong-seon’s association with the city and modernity results in her developing as by far the more complex and fascinating character, though Yi’s didactic, moralizing tendencies get the better of this in the end).
For each character, the difficulty of choosing the right marriage partner is exacerbated by the fact that this is the first generation to have such freedom of choice, the first for whom the idea of romantic love exists as a possible alternative to traditional arranged marriages. The words “Free love, free divorce,” the narrator tell us, “have now begun to be heard in Korea, but not yet put into practice, unlike in other ‘civilized’ countries”—albeit in bitter conflict with established ideas of filial duty and conjugal “decency.” What saves all this from becoming tediously predictable is the fact that no-one, the narrator included, seems quite sure what “romantic love” actually is, and, by extension, on what foundation a marriage contract should ideally be based. Legal, moral, aesthetic, biological, religious—various alternatives are offered, and they are often discussed in relation to the new scientific ideas flooding the colonial society. “The love relationships of the day were truly scientific and businesslike”—and yet the novelty of these relationships throws up some quite surprising attitudes and practices, such as the high value Jeong-seon places on sexual pleasure, not necessarily to be expected from a member of the cossetted upper class, and which forms another strand of her and Heo Sung’s seeming incompatibility.
This lack of established parameters leads to an uncertainty both liberating and disorienting, something of an inevitability for a colonial society where the advances and innovations of modernity are inextricably linked with the colonizers. Further, and unlike the vast majority of other cases, the fact that Japan was geographically and culturally so close to Korea led to a deep ambivalence as to how the colonizers should be regarded. The fact that the sneering dandy Gap-jin, another of Jeong-seon’s suitors, is portrayed as an unabashed lover of all things Japanese—even frequenting a bar in Seoul’s red-light district where the waitresses, Korean but with Japanese names, ply their dissolute clientele with western liquor—seems a clear enough indication of the author’s views on this. And yet, later in the book, when Heo Sung witnesses a crowd welcoming the Japanese imperial army, which is stopping off in Seoul on the way to fight in Manchuria, he finds the heroism of the scene moving and wishes that everyone were able to experience it. The significance of this scene is compounded by its being virtually the only instance in the book where we are given a glimpse of the wider political realities that otherwise hover just behind the scenes—something which might seem a curious omission, yet appears to correspond to the historical experience as Yi (and others) have portrayed it. The educated Seoul elite frequently bemoan the lack of agency displayed both by themselves and their country as a whole; one laments, “Others can talk about the League of Nations or arms reduction or whatever. We’ve got nothing to do but drink. Real men like us, but unable to prove ourselves. How tragic!” Even Heo Sung himself separates his goals of cultural and economic improvement from overt political considerations, seeking to improve the lives of the Salyeoul peasantry without actually altering the existing social structure.
As the novel progresses, the ambiguity inherent in the sociopolitical situation comes to infect even the narrative voice itself, which moves from confidently explicating characters’ motives and feelings to presenting the various possibilities as questions to which he no longer has the authority to answer. Yi Kwang-su was certainly influenced by the big, realist novels of 19th-century Europe, but rather than writing one himself he essentially reinvented the form for a specific time and place. Take dialogue, for example: an important component of the realist novel but much less central to the Chinese romance, where it is also far less naturalistic. We see it often in The Soil, particularly over meals, where it’s lively and colloquial, yet Yi also makes use of it now and then to have characters offload unreasonably lengthy, uninterrupted chunks of suspiciously well-formed views, lecturing at, rather than talking to, each other. The descriptions of houses which stud the text might seem irrelevantly detailed, reporting as they do on size, number and even style of rooms, but actually function as Austen-esque synecdoches for their inhabitants.
Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of The Soil is that over the course of its 400+ pages we see the author grappling with issues of narrative progression and the nature of a literary character, trying out various approaches, discarding some, retaining and modifying others. In fact, individual character arcs in The Soil all take a fairly similar form; i.e., a period of vacillation around a decision along the lines of whom to marry, what career to pursue, where to live etc, but which can all be subsumed under the banner of How Should a Person Be?, followed by that character making The Right Choice. Even the hardened reprobate Yu Jeong-geun, the spoiled eldest son of Salyeoul’s leading family, eventually sees the light and attempts to emulate Heo Sung, who has by that point become irritatingly saintly. How and why they end up making these choices is what provides the interest. Fate, desire, inherent character flaws, social position/educational background, free choice, larger socioeconomic forces—all of these and more crop up as potential motivators and/or determiners of both individual lives and the narratives in which they are embedded. The frequent and explicit comparison of characters with types familiar from the Chinese romances actually ends up accentuating the differences between the two. If anything, The Soil, which Yi wrote in installments and described as unfinished, seems rather to have gotten away from him as he wrote it—and from the perspective of a 21st-century reader, we can be glad it did.
* * * *
From this beginning, the development of modern Korean literature was inextricably intertwined with the political vicissitudes suffered by the peninsula, most notably the cataclysm of its civil war and the military dictatorships which followed until the advent of democracy. During these latter decades, though debates still continued over “realism vs modernism,” also construed as “political art vs art for art’s sake,” it was the former which constituted the main literary current until democracy arrived in the late ’80s. At first appraisal, then, it might seem inevitable that a book like My Son’s Girlfriend, a slim volume of short stories by contemporary writer Jung Mi Kyung all originally published in the 2000s, would have little or nothing in common with The Soil. But in fact, a large part of what makes contemporary Korean literature so rich and dynamic is that, just like Yi Kwang-su and his generation, it’s very much forging ahead into a brave new literary world. Democratization may have freed Korean literature from the sociopolitical aims dominating earlier decades, and which were supposed to be achieved by a strict adherence to a literary realism defined by “journalistic objectivity” but, just as for Yi Kwang-su, the dismantling of old certainties proves disorienting and liberating in equal measure. Add to this the urban anonymity of the concrete megalopolis that is contemporary Seoul (the setting of several of Kyung’s stories and the city which for me comes closest to approaching Marc Auge’s definition of a “non-place”), and you’ve got a recipe for alienation, angst, and uncertainty.
In the first story of the collection, “I Love You,” an unmarried couple of seven years find themselves having to set aside romance in order to adapt to the straitened economic circumstances post-IMF crisis. Specifically, the male narrator arranges for his girlfriend, Y (the recent trend of Korean writers assigning only initials to their characters is out in full force here), to go on dates with his wealthy, older boss. There’s no doubt that she, who had terminated a pregnancy five years earlier out of financial considerations, is every bit as hardened and disillusioned as he is, perhaps even more so—at one point she tells him: “You’re not Superman and I’m no alpha female. I know this so well that I wanted to get some decent armor to wear in this chilly, tempestuous world.” The repeated instances of their hasty, impromptu, lights-out sex, groping for each other in the dark, seems intended to suggest the fundamental unknowability of one human being to another. But there’s another aspect to their situation, and to the way in which Jung frames it, that elevates it above being merely another portrait of the atomized individual’s disillusionment.
It’s no accident that Jung begins the story with the line “Images on the screen swing like a pendulum”; for her characters, and indeed for the vast majority of those who populate contemporary Korean literature as a whole, one of the distinctive characteristics of their reality, sharply defining it against the objective, external world which earlier decades were expected to portray, is that it is mediated. Television screens, glass windows, the “black mirror” of the now-ubiquitous smartphone, can be found scattered throughout the works of writers as diverse as Kim Young-ha, Han Yu-ju, and Kim Chung-hyuk (not to mention frequent iterations in Jung’s other works). Fairly unusually, “I Love You” is given a specific setting in time and place, with the crisis in the American stock market and the Korean hostages in Afghanistan both being name-checked, yet the real effect of this is to point up the fact that all this news exists only on the level of events depicted on television screens and read about in newspapers. In The Soil, groups of revolutionary-minded friends earnestly discuss their political opinions into the small hours; here, Y quotes verbatim from op-ed pieces she read the same morning, in a simulacrum of an engaged discussion with her lover’s boss. Moreover, international politics and the so-called issues of the day are presented as in no way qualitatively different from news of celebrities having faked their academic qualifications, or the opening of a new sci-blockbuster.
Y and the narrator may have armored themselves against their world, but they haven’t become inured to the disconnect in their lives—to “this absurd, sad, ridiculous, cruel board game,” as the narrator puts it (at one point, he recalls how a past dalliance with a younger woman turned sour after he realized that, for her, their relationship was framed and mediated by the lyrics of pop songs). The more they feel themselves existing at a remove from the real, the authentic, the true, the more necessary the search for it becomes. Ostensibly, at least, it still exists, as this passage seems to suggest:
Real-life dramas, more eye-catching than any reality show, unfolded ceaselessly on the stage of this big city. Each one of these real-life dramas was shocking, so much so that neither background music nor lighting was necessary.
And yet, a niggling doubt. Is “real-life” the same as real? When the habits of perception formed by television and other media become so potent as to inescapably frame even their apparent opposites, does any difference remain between the two?
If immediacy, one of the goals towards which the earlier, dominant strain of literary realism strove, was also seen to demand just such a journalistic style, then for contemporary writers seeking to portray the fundamental mediation of their lived experience, borrowing from and experimenting with surrealism, fantasy, and sci-fi seems an obvious road to head down (particularly given that, unlike the situation in the Anglophone world, there’s virtually no segregation between “literary” and “genre” fiction in Korea—yet another reason for its diversity and dynamism). Another option, which can be combined with this, is to have characters who are also artists—video- and performance-artists are particular favorites (Kim Young-ha’s I Have The Right To Destroy Myself and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian spring immediately to mind), though there’s also a sizable contingent of writers to be found among the pages of many recent works. Crucially, this also enables the uncertainty created by an absence of established parameters to find its more positive outlet, in creative agency and the transfiguring power of art.
In “The Bison,” the artist is not the protagonist, Myeong-jo, but his one-time lover Su-hye, whom he’s known since school—their affair began when Su-hye’s marriage to the diplomat Ha-hyun began to stale, and we’re told that her growing disillusionment (yes, it’s still here) came to a head on an official trip to North Korea, where the children’s patently artificial smiles and eerily synchronized dance routines caused Su-hye to realize that “Nothing was new. The scenes unfolding there were what she’d seen on public television again and again, until she got sick and tired of it.” Now, years later, and a year after Ha-hyun’s death, Myeong-jo is wandering around the trendy tourist-trap of Seoul’s Insa-dong, trying to decide whether or not to go to Su-hye’s new exhibition. Art’s subversive potential is present from the start, when Myeong-jo unwittingly gets caught up in a piece of street theater which he initially mistakes for real life. But it’s when he makes the decision to attend the exhibition and encounters the titular bison (in fact, a whole painted herd of the creatures) that his response, though still verging on bafflement, is not so much unsettled as awed:
The bison, sporting big spiral horns, exuded a solitary beauty. The space-time running through the beasts as they stood aloof was not six o’clock in the evening in Insa-dong. The ambiance of a distant place, a distant time, hit him viscerally.
This art may not be realist, and nor is it the pretty, commercial art Su-hye used to produce in the days of her marriage, but, for Myeong-jo, it is nonetheless transcendently real. By the same token, Su-hye now freely acknowledges that she is “no Mother Theresa” and doesn’t want “to live with an angel.” But rather than being bowed or shamed by this, as she would have been in the past, she is able to value her true self over the smiling simulacrum of a perfect wife, finding empowerment and self-expression in her new artistic direction.
It’s appropriate, then, that neither “The Bison” nor the other stories in this collection feature any great moments of epiphany, favoring instead a gradual coming to terms on the part of the various characters with what, deep down, they already knew about themselves and the world. They may be cynical, worn, and worldly wise, but they recognize their own flaws and limitations—that they can be petty, capricious, and perpetually dissatisfied—and, even more crucially, that these are not the fatal flaws of grand tragedy. Here as elsewhere, though not all the stories are set in Korea, Jung paints a wonderfully evocative portrait of Seoul, not just its physical characteristics—the smog, the masses of people, the vast Han River, the torrential, steamy summer rains—but the sensibilities and mindsets of its inhabitants, too.
* * * *
Though a contemporary of Jung Mi Kyung’s, Jung Young-moon’s writing is in many ways as different from hers as they both are from Yi Kwang-su. Partly this is because, as with so many of the best contemporary Korean writers (Bae Suah, Han Yu-ju, Ch’oe Yun, etc), he’s also a prolific translator—from English, and with a particular predilection for 20th-century American works. Not only does this foreign-language ability provide him with a much larger range of influences than he would otherwise have had, it also means he’s able to write as part of a wider, pan-national community, in conversation with those of his contemporaries who also like to plow a more experimental literary furrow (admittedly this has been a rather one-sided conversation to date, which Dalkey, the translators, and LTI Korea can all be praised for helping to redress). It’s no surprise, then, that Jung is frequently exasperated by the desire on the part of non-Korean readers to find something distinctively Korean in his writing—the range of influences and allusions to be found in his works (which, like virtually all of his Korean contemporaries, includes both short stories and novels) surely warrants their inclusion in the pantheon of world literature, regardless of whether or not they’ve yet to appear in English. (As an aside, it’s necessary to acknowledge that these misguided fans of exotic local color are pretty much all Anglophone; the French, who have been reading Jung in translation for some years now, seem perfectly happy to see him as a literary heir to such European giants as Beckett and Kafka, without worrying themselves unduly over how Korean he is).
A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories collects stories from two different collections. This is a wise choice, as it enables a broader showcase of Jung’s range as its developed over recent years, from the bleak, absurdist lyricism that earns him the comparisons mentioned above, to a lighter, more whimsical strand of absurdity closer in effect to Richard Brautigan, another of his personal literary touchstones. The opening story, “Mrs Brown,” is matrioshka-line in its structure, full of stories nested within other stories, developing by way of loose associations (often so loose as to seem like nothing more than pure caprice) and lengthy digressions which unspool on the page in the kind of multi-clausal sentence-monsters that can cause serious translation headaches. Mrs Brown, “a full-blooded Korean [who] was ashamed of this fact as if it were a stigma that could not be erased,” is enjoying a quiet evening at home with her North American husband, when a young man with a gun, a stutter, and a suspected case of hemorrhoids knocks on their door. He appears to be attempting to rob them, but he’s so ineffectual that it’s difficult to tell, though his girlfriend, who drops by a little later, seems marginally more sure of herself. If anything, Mrs Brown rather considers their presence to have cheered up an otherwise boring evening, and is at pains to entertain them, offering to order some pizza, giving an impromptu piano recital, and quizzing them on geographical trivia. The whole story is an exercise in sly subversion, of characters who, when they compare their situation to similar scenarios witnessed in films or television dramas, are intrigued and faintly baffled by the gap which exists between their thoughts and actions and the way they know they’re supposed to behave. And it’s in Mrs Brown herself that this sense of a disconnect is most apparent, whereas her husband’s far more typical reaction to the young couple’s intrusion into their evening leads Mrs Brown to withdraw from him, wondering at how she ever came to be married to a man with such a frankly ridiculous name as Brown. We return to the narrator—reminded that the story of Mrs Brown is one that he heard directly from her, and has now been telling us—who informs us that Mrs Brown did indeed leave her husband shortly after the incident of that night, and enrolled in a flight school, where she then met him (the narrator). “Mrs Brown” culminates in a somewhat whimsical open ending, an authorial trademark whose speculative nature and specific remarks on intention and aimlessness aptly summarize Jung’s attitude towards narrative:
Then, after we get our pilot’s license, maybe we will fly together from Nova Scotia all the way to the North Pole. And maybe we won’t have any motive for doing so. We will simply be flying towards a spot at a set of coordinates on the map.
It can take a little while to develop a feel for Jung’s writing, where everything seem to happen by chance and where things suddenly occur to people without any obvious stimulus from or connection to their present circumstances. But it’s thanks to his admirable lightness of touch that there isn’t much perseverance required on the part of the reader before the necessary adjustment of mindset takes place, and we’re following the narrators (several of whom we’re explicitly told are writers; all of them appear preoccupied with the art of storytelling) as they veer from hydraulics to the various theories of musical composition. Don’t expect to learn much—these brief digressions are concerned with amusing conjectures rather than objective facts, very different from the practice of data dumping which has come to characterize a certain strain of contemporary fiction, and which always suspiciously resembles over-eager copying and pasting from Wikipedia articles.
Lightness might be what keeps these stories fresh and engaging, but for me it’s actually the later ones, those included here from the original collection A Most Ambiguous Sunday, that prove the most effective vehicles for Jung’s style and thematic concerns. It’s with these, and in particular “Volume” and “Losing the Olfactory Sense,” where the overall tone becomes much darker, where humor, though still present, is decidedly mordant, and where those comparisons with Beckett become viable. “Volume” is centered on a wheelchair-bound old man, confined to an upstairs room in his son’s house, who is making a videotape of his last will, mainly in an attempt to convey to this “bastard son” the deep disgust he feels toward him, and to announce the nullification of their relationship, in the process recounting with a kind of bitter satisfaction the mechanical, loveless lovemaking that led to this son’s conception. In “Losing the Olfactory Sense,” meanwhile, the protagonist ends up at the house of a woman who may or may not be his mother; he seems to have committed some unspeakable act against her at some point in the past, though neither of them can be quite sure what this was. Here, then, Jung Young-Moon takes a world in which the old certainties have been stripped away, a reality whose defining characteristic may well be that very ambiguity perceived and depicted, though in very different ways, by both Yi Kwang-su and Jung Mi Kyung, and skews it in a new and profoundly unsettling direction, of false images blurrily glimpsed in mirrors and characters “vomiting incoherent thoughts.” For those whose literary tastes incline toward an appreciation of such darker pleasures, A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories should prove very satisfying indeed.
* * * *
From the bucolic early modern countryside to the discordant, ennui-laden late-capitalist city, from literature as a form of nation-building to that which situates itself in the post-national space of weltliteratur—modern Korean literature has come a long way, through a process of constant reinvention which has been sometimes informed, but never restricted, by what had gone before.
Of those authors not discussed here, the most worthwhile for those without a specific interest in Korea would probably be Park Wan-suh and Lee Ki-ho, but in all honesty there’s nothing on the list so far that could be described as filler. Let’s hope the second batch is even better.
Deborah Smith (@londonkoreanist) is a Korean-English translator living in London. Her translation of The Vegetarian by Han Kang is forthcoming from Portobello Books, and she’s received a grant to translate The Essayist’s Desk by Bae Suah. She is also studying for a Ph.D. on contemporary Korean literature, which she has severe doubts about ever finishing.
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