The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation: Alienation, Politics, and Women

By Charles Montgomery

The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history, and understanding, of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can find links to previous selections at the end of the post.

Last time we finished up talking about the economic effects of the “Miracle on the Han” and how they were evaluated, often harshly, by Korean literature. But the economic effects, of course, were only the initial and most obvious results of the process. Substantial political strife came as part of the price of economic development, and as the economic miracle fundamentally changed Korea in just a few decades, it also largely dismantled the existing social system, and the lasting effects of that continue to be felt today.

One major impact was the unmooring of women from their centuries-old role, one that  was terrible in countless ways – subservience, poor education, economic powerlessness, etc. – but it had at least been defined. Now, in an increasingly commodified society, women had no formal role. This, of course, was a society-wide problem, but it seems to have had a disproportionate effect on female writers. Another major impact was political: while President Park Chung-hee held power he frogmarched Korea into the future, but often at the cost of what we think of as democracy. These two impacts together changed the focus of Korean literature and who wrote it.

As society radically transformed, many authors turned away from the meta-effects of economics and politics to focus on internal explorations of characters somewhat adrift in the new social and work relationships dictated by the needs of industrial capitalism. Some of the themes that emerged included personal alienation, changing sexual roles, internal psychological landscapes, and the impact of information technology. Increasingly, the effects of universal education and limited economic autonomy also allowed female writers to come to the fore.

This shift led to a reaction against “objective” literature, expanding permissible subjects and themes toward the personal and psychological. Park Wansuh (her preferred Romanization, but only one of the dozen versions of her name that exist in English) was one of the representative female writers of the era, and her work on alienation breaks down into two major categories: at the outset of her career, she wrote a kind of pundan munhak (“separation literature”) about families, normally centering on a daughter and mother separated from their male relatives while trying to survive the Korean Civil War and its aftermath.

Then, as the social effects of economic success began to become clearer, Park wrote about the abysmal (as she saw it) situation that women, often middle-class or thereabouts, lived in as a result of the “Miracle”. Many of her stories are short, often brutal, vignettes of modern “success” for Korean women: in her Identical Apartments, a housewife slowly drives herself mad while living in an apartment complex in which homes are less differentiated than the hexagons of a beehive. The desire for bourgeois success and necessity to “keep up with the Joneses” slowly sucks all the joy out of her life. The idea of the particularly alienated middle-class woman became a powerful one in South Korean fiction, and relentlessly modern writers like Bae Su-ah and Eun Hee-Kyung continue to return to it.

But as noted, Park in particular was also a writer who wrote about Korean history. Just before her death she published, in English, Who Ate Up All the Shinga, an excellent semi-autobiographical mother-daughter story set in the time from Japanese colonialism to the Korean Civil War. A compelling narrative of a writer coming into being in the most trying of times, it is also highly amusing and often bittersweet memoir. This unusually well-balanced novel – a remarkable cultural artifact, if one chooses to approach it that way – makes use of Korea’s extremely difficult modern history without making the novel itself about Korean history. (The affectionate but contentious mother-daughter dynamic suggests that fans of Amy Tan might find it entertaining.)

Park’s short story collection Sketch of the Fading Sun, also worth reading,  contains one of her most famous short stories “Three Days in that Autumn,” which is also available as a separate novella. She also wrote “Weathered Blossom,” the poignant story of an elderly love affair doomed by social expectations, quite traditional in its theme but located in the new, “post-social” Korea. Lonesome You is the most complete volume of Park’s work, particularly that of her second phase. The title is no accident, as many of these works are about loneliness of one kind or another, and in fact Park’s work is almost always alienation of some kind, physical, psychological, economic, or political. All of the stories in Lonesome You focus on families, and several of the stories here reveal an ironic sense of humor not always present in Park’s previously translated works.

Born in the 1960s, the so-called “386 Generation” participated in the democracy movement in the 1980s and by the 1990s, in their 30s, found themselves in an environment of relative economic comfort. (“386” refers to the computers of that time, powered by the Intel 386 chip.) The writers from this cohort were generally liberal, and from it the first big wave of female authors sprang. Its representatives include Shin Kyung-sook, along with Kim In-suk, Gong Ji-young, and Eun Hee-kyung, whose Poor Man’s Wife uses a very clever narrative style to address the issues of women in the modernizing Korea.

Told in a typical (judging from “My Wife’s Boxes,” the only other story of Eun’s that has been translated) Eunian narrative style with a the completely untrustworthy narrator, the story is primarily that of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, told in the voice of a husband surreptitiously reading his wife’s diary. The woman’s diary acts as something like “her” voice, even as the husband busily re-interprets it in ways that move from comic to tragic as the secret of the wife’s current location is revealed. Eun subverts the trustworthiness of the narrator to make her point about how society subverts the identity of women in general.

“Poor Man’s Wife” is the anti-Heartless, a work notable for being the first “modern” novel in Korean, partly identifiable as such because of its argument for “free love.” In this case the expression has a relatively narrow meaning: the ability to choose a marriage partner based on desire, not on the Confucian tradition, long established in Korea, of arranged marriage. While Yi saw “free love” as an emotionally sound and modern basis for a relationship, Eun shares no such notions, seeing marriage for love as just another trap set by the modern world. In this novel, a relationship that begins in romantic pursuit ends in the dust of lovelessness.

No discussion of the female authors of the 386 Generation would be complete without Shin Kyung-sook, whose Please Look After Mom not only made the New York Times bestseller list but was also named an Oprah book, instantly becoming the biggest commercial success in the history of Korean translated literature. Telling the sad story of a family that literally “loses” its sixty-nine year old mother in Seoul Station, Shin recounts their efforts not only to find the mother, but to look inside themselves to determine how well they even knew her in the first place. Please Look After Mom won the Man Asia Literary Prize, making Shin simultaneously the first woman and first Korean to win the prize.

Shin has also published The Place Where the Harmonium Was, the story of a woman haunted by ten days of her life when she was “six or seven” and after her mother deserted the family, during which another woman — a “perfect” one — visited. In this epistolary tale, the narrator writes a letter to a lover in which she tries to explain why this experience will keep her from traveling abroad with him, even though she initially accepted his offer to do so. A modern re-telling of a Korean trope that has existed since at least the time of the yangban and kisaeng, the socially semi-sanctioned “cheating” allowed to some males, it will likely satisfy readers who liked Please Look After Mom. Although it doesn’t feature the overtly romantic, nostalgic approach of that novel, it still comes across as quite emotionally subtle and complex.

Shin’s I’ll Be Right There is the story of a woman getting a phone call from an old boyfriend informing her that a professor they both admired is dying. From there Shin tells a powerful backstory through internal dialogues, diaries and letters, and meditating on the nature of life’s vagaries. Seamlessly combining symbols — an empty family house, trees, the scent of tear gas, spiders — with themes of estrangement, loss, and the importance of time, this work of real literary fiction forces you have to keep track of people’s changing lives and motivations. These are not plot-driven characters set in motion to come to a predictable ending, and as a result several moments in the novel hit hard and often unpredictably.

Rounding out Shin’s translations is The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, an autobiographical story of a teenager who moves to Seoul to work in a factory while also attending night school as part of her struggle to become an author. It is worth noting that this move to Seoul is a commonplace one in the modern Korean society, as the capital, seen as the end-all and be-all of Korea, claims nearly half of South Korea’s population in the city or its suburbs. The novel describes the commodification, exploitation, rapid urbanization, and confusion caused by the economic advances of the “Miracle.”

Ch’oe Yun burst on the literary scene in 1988 with the novella There a Petal Silently Falls, a multi-faceted and stunning evocation of the Gwangju Massacre. One of the first works to directly address the Gwangju Massacre, the book signaled Ch’oe’s no-holds-barred attitude, one also seen in 1992’s The Gray Snowman, a Dongmin Literary Award- winning exploration of the cost of Korea’s “successful” political revolution from the perspective of a woman who has been used and cast aside by it. The absurdist central image, that of a heroine uselessly copying a German translation of an Italian historian for readers who will never exist, gives a hint of the cleverness with which Ch’oe can write.

Ch’oe’s The Petal with Thirteen Fragrances was a different type of triumph. Once again poking at Korean modern society, she makes her attack in the form of a delicate love story, even a fairy tale, that in its grimiest details comes off with humor and élan. This tale of two star-crossed lovers who discover and develop a remarkable new plant, all of whom soon come into contact with the “modern” world, reveals that world as a nest of traducers and exploiters. Despite arriving at the implication of a kind of “happily ever after” ending, Ch’oe’s take on the commodification of Korea and its products remains fairly bleak. The other notable translated work from Cho’e’s oeuvre is The Last of Hanak’o, which casts an unsparing and brutal eye on the position of women in Korean society as the twentieth century drew to a close. It is also one of the first works of Korean literature to feature an at least partially non-Korean setting setting.

The Long Road by Kim In-suk is another story from a 386-Generation writer that takes place outside of Korea. But despite its Australian setting, it is still rich with traditional Korean themes of separation and alienation. Its two brothers, Han-yeong and Han-rim, reunite for a boat trip triggered by their mutual interest in a very unusual Korean named Myeong-U who has managed to wrangle political refugee status in Australia. The three expats are of quite different types: Han-rim left Korea under a nearly literal cloud of marijuana smoke and political suspicion, Han-yeong is escaping his own complicity in the failure of a relationship and desires to become a “cog” in something larger, and Myeong-U is a kind of “accidental tourist” who achieved his expat status through a grimly amusing series of intentional accidents.

Together they tear at each other, poking for weak spots and exposing all they have left behind, what they still long for, all the while attempting to re-establish some sense of community. Though the bulk of the action happens on the boat, three family-related subplots come through in flashbacks that give additional motivation to each character. While these writers were diving into these social costs, others were dealing with more overtly political responses to the changes in Korea. Next time, we will look more closely at literature related to the Gwangju Massacre, and the continued political explorations of Korean literature that followed.

 

Previous posts in this Korea Blog series:

Where is Korean Translated Literature?

What Shaped Translated Korean Literature?

Why Does Korean Literature Use an Alphabet?

How Did Korea Get Fiction in the First Place?

Heroes, Fantasies, and Families: What Went Into the First Korean Novels?

Enlightenment Fiction and the Birth of the “Modern” Korean Novel

Literature Under the Japanese Occupation

Literature as Japanese Colonialism Fell

What About War?

War and Separation

Deeper Into the War’s Aftermath, a Deeper Sense of Separation

The Social Tragedies of the “Economic Miracle”

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

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