South Korea is not only a hyperliterate society, it’s hyper-literary. Young Poon, one of the largest chaebols, or corporate conglomerates, lists its areas of business as mining, electronics and books. When a K-pop star was recently seen holding a new feminist novel, Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, it sparked a nationwide social-feed-filling debate about the status of women (it’s being published by Anansi in April). Korean lit has a 1,500-year history (at least), but most of the rest of the world only started tuning in when Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016. And now with Parasite getting further foreign plaudits, it seems the world may finally be ready for the stories that seep out from between the cracks caused by multiple occupations, famines, a devastating war that broke the country in two, and a culture of barely concealed political and corporate corruption that has seen every president since 1980 save one (who served for 61 days) land in court, and then usually prison.
It’s one of the world’s great national literatures, it’s now dominated by women and it rewards a deep dive. Here are some of the books you can start with.
Human Acts by Han Kang (2014); translated by Deborah Smith in 2016
The Vegetarian, with its portrait of what happens when passive resistance crashes into a national need for conformity (spoiler: it’s not great), is an introduction to some of the social forces at work in the country. Her next translated book, Human Acts, does the same for its modern history, telling the story of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and Massacre. The relentlessness of the injustice and suffering is mitigated by the spareness of her prose. Like James Wood said of Robinson’s writing in Gilead, it’s “demanding, grave, and lucid.” Han’s is a major 21st-century voice.
The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung Sook-shin (1995); translated by Ha-Yun Jung in 2015
The churn Korea went through in the eighties is barely comprehensible. The decade before, it was a Third World country; a decade later, it was one of the world’s great economies. Koreans undid centuries of British shipbuilding dominance in a decade, sold 126,000 Hyundai Excels in the United States in 1986, the year it was introduced, and hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988. Kyung’s book is an intense story of what it was like getting chewed up by those gears and coming out the other end as part of what came to be known as the 386 Generation (named after the Intel chip popular at the time).
The Dwarf by Cho Se-hui (1978); translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton in 2006
As she struggles to become a writer between factory work and night classes in The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, the protagonist describes how she transcribed a novel in its entirety to get a feel for how good writers wrote. That novel was The Dwarf. It’s dark. As the economy starts moving, the titular character’s neighbourhood on the outskirts of Seoul is slated for reconstruction. He refuses an insulting initial offer from the developers and is punished for it in ways that make The Mayor of Casterbridge look cheerful by comparison. It’s a masterclass conveying just how poorly the phrase ”class struggle” describes what happens when the rich want what the poor have.
Highway With Green Apples and Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah (1995, 1998); translated by Sora Kim-Russell in (2013, 2018)
These two novellas introduced Korea to an extraordinary writer whose shifts in tone and perspective have been called shamanistic by the translator of her later novels, Deborah Smith (who also translates Han Kang). Aberrant in a way that, if you’ve read these books in roughly the order set out here, you’ll recognize as intensely Korean, her characters’ power lies not in an absence of moral compass, but in the fact that they don’t care where North is.
The Underground Village by Kang Kyeong-ae; stories published 1931-1944, translated by Anton Hur in 2018
If you want to know where the cold and the dark come from in Bae and Kang and others, listen to the voices of the women in these stories, written in extreme poverty as part of a largely communist Korean ex-pat community in Manchuria fighting to end the Japanese occupation of their homeland. Being South Korean was not easy until very recently, and whatever cultural commonalities exist in Korean fiction today stems from a combination of fear of slipping back into the pit, and exasperation with what it took to get out.
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