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Four Korean Authors

Tim Nassau is interning at Open Letter over the summer, researching books we should have translated and writing some posts for the blog, such as the one below that gives a brief overview of a few interesting Korean authors.

The Korea Literature Translation Institute has the expressed goal “of contributing to global culture by spreading Korean literature and culture abroad,” and to that end, has produced some wonderful publications to introduce non-Korean readers to Korean authors. (CWP Note: And this page of statistics. It’s a cultural org after my number-loving heart!) I flipped through their guide on contemporary Korean novelists and uncovered a few authors that sound really interesting. Of course, most of their works are not yet available in English (though two of Yi Mun-yol’s books have been published), but hopefully will be translated soon!

My friend Teresa called Kyung-ni Park, who just died in 2008, “probably the most revered author in Korea.” The author of over ten books, she is most well known for Toji [The Land], a five part, multi-volume epic that took 25 years to complete (and takes about as long to read). The novel follows four generations of a family from the Joseon Dynasty to Korea’s liberation from Japan, showing personal change in the midst of cataclysmic societal upheaval. Unfortunately, the dozens of dialects present in the book would make it a challenge to translate, but this hasn’t deterred the French . . .

Another author fond of long yarns is Choi In-hun. Known for great historical and philosophical range, his autobiographical novel Hwadu [A Topic for Contemplation] spans two volumes and more than a thousand pages. Perhaps less ambitious, but more attention-grabbing, is Gwangjang [The Square]. Compared to Kyung-ni Park’s Sijang-gwa Jeonjang [The Market and the Battlefield] due to their objective perspectives of war, the work follows a Korean student of philosophy caught between the North and the South their conflict erupts in the 1950s. Unable to feel at home in either, he decides to flee both, but even abroad cannot escape the twin specters of capitalism and communism.

Eun Hee-kyung’s body of works offers a helpful formula for any aspiring author: sophisticated cynicism + light, humorous prose = illumination. Concerned with the everyday minutiae that prevent true human communication, her first novel, Sae-ui Seonmul [A Gift from a Bird], tells the story of a twelve-year old girl whose mother killed herself during the war. With the freedom and precociousness of a child, she exposes the absurd falsehoods from which the oblivious adults around her create their lives. (And, like the protagonist of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is probably ten times smarter than anyone you knew at that age.)

Though one might expect a diet version of Children of Men, Yi Mun-yol’s Saram-ui Adeul [Son of Man] bears a resemblance to the science-fiction novel in name only. Rather, it is compared to Dostoyevski’s works, in terms of plot and themes. Min Yo-seop is a seminary student grown skeptical of God. He declares Jesus a “false son of man” and seeks to create instead the “true son of man.” When he tries to return to Christianity, however, he winds up murdered, and detective Nam is put on the case. Yi Mun-yol’s first critically successful work contrasts heaven and earth, or a search for spiritual salvation versus a life free of morals dictated only by human concerns.

These four novels and authors are but a sampling of what’s out there. Dwight D. Eisenhower said “I shall make that trip. I shall go to Korea.” He should have brought back more books.



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