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.
The “modern” version of Korean postmodernism might have begun with one book and one tragedy. The first truly postmodern work of Korean fiction was arguably Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a Korean-born artist who moved to the United States in 1962. Because she wrote the book largely in English, her claim to being part of Korean literature might be (and has been) argued against for reasons of Korean literary “essentialism.” It seems worthy of inclusion in any discussion of Korean literature in the broader sense, however, not just because of the author’s country of origin but the text’s inclusion of Korean language.
Dictee contains elements of fiction mixed with autobiography and also mixes in a wide variety of other “texts,” not just multiple languages but screen shots, photos, diagrams, various black and white images, and even something similar to elementary language lessons. The work stood as a first signpost toward a different approach to “Korean” literature, but unfortunately, the chance that this avenue might be furthered was snuffed out when Cha was killed in New York in 1982, just a week after Dictee‘s publication.
It seems fair to date the start of postmodernism within Korea in two different ways, initially as a style of writing, and then later with that style’s application to postmodern themes. Yi-Sang, Pak Tae-won, Ch’oe Yun, and to a lesser extend Cho Se-hui were all experimenting with hybridized, borrowed, and daring new styles. But their work often remained firmly rooted in the “nation-based” fiction of the Korean national drama: even a surrealist story like Wings was about the Korean national experience under Japanese colonialism. To a great extent, these themes remained important as the early explorers of postmodernism hewed closely to stories about the Korean experience, while also beginning to migrate to strange offshore settings and deal with international themes.
Critics often link key historical events to the onset of postmodernity. In Korea, these dates might include the late twentieth-century “IMF crisis,” or the even earlier 1987 collapse of South Korea’s military regime. After three decades of democratic struggle, represented in Korean literature by works like Among the Columns, Grey Snowman, and Human Decency, fictions now looked back upon the works of the once-mighty warriors for freedom, despairing at the complacent sellouts many of them had become. Writers were looking for new ways to deal with what were essentially the results of “winning “ in the economic and political sense while “losing” in another other one to do with the meaning of life and a dawning suspicion that “democracy” might not be exactly as it had been dreamed of.
In addition, formal censorship had ended, and for the first time writers were generally free (with, of course, multiple exceptions) to choose any subject, even those had previously been publicly impossible, and to treat them with innovative styles, techniques and themes. With political pluralism, more or less, came literary pluralism. The single, unified narrative of centuries, the struggle for survival of the country, had fractured into many individual stories; writers no longer necessarily attempted to speak for Korea as a whole, or to deliver their visions of what that whole should be. The Confucian obsessions with proper structures and ethical life within fixed social structures were partially contravened by explorations of life as lived on the ground, with an increasing focus on the individual as not a willing participant but a stranger within society.
With some notable exceptions, the work postmodernism was largely carried on by younger authors, and one of the substantial shifts in its focus was from the external life of the nation to the internal life of protagonists, especially to the judgment of those characters in a newly quasi-industrial manner: as mere cogs, but cogs with concerns. Whereas narrators and characters had previously often been sketchy, these new ones had complicated thoughts, competing agendas even within themselves, and were often reflecting or reacting against a new, commodified, non-communal lifestyle. At this time the number of female writers continued to grow, all of them bringing new themes, styles, and concerns to the literary table.
The net result of all this was a nearly complete alteration of the status of Korean fiction that, according to scholar Hwang Jongyon, features “diversification, feminization, decentralization, and carnivalization.” Of course, most of the “old” themes continued to be worked out, both formally in the works of many writers and as influences in the works of those who held more avant-garde or international sensibilities. It seems fair to divide the “post-modern” into two eras, that of the 1990s and that of the 2000s, with the first decade bridging more traditional concerns to the intensely internal ones of the second decade, concerns so internal that they became universal: suicide, the impossibility of human connection, and so on.
When traditional “inks” began to dry out, new ones arose to replace them, including the development of a cultural industry, pop and otherwise, spawned from democratization as well as growing economic success and the paradoxical destruction of community and increase in alienation that success wrought. Korea’s internationalization became shockingly clear around the turn of the twenty-first century, after the IMF crisis had introduced the country, with a shock, to the idea that it was inextricably a part of an international community. Travel restrictions were lifted at the same time, making Koreans were freer to visit the rest of the world. Korea found that it had become something it had never been in the past: a relatively wealthy nation.
All this gave Koreans both the time and the money to explore the outside world, and with this opportunity it became clear that many Koreans had the inclination to do so. All these influences, initially external to literature, had their effects within it. Younger writers became more popular, both at home and abroad, while at the same time a broader range of foreign literature was translated into Korean: the effects of globalization and multiculturalism began to show in Korean writing. Everything had suddenly come together to produce a sea change in Korean literature, and as the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, some Korean authors embraced this change with a vengeance.
Kim Young-ha was one such writer, to whom history at times seems irrelevant, and to whom the world is represented by instantaneous communication (Kim has a web page as well as presences on Facebook and Twitter), globalization, and alienation, and is no longer based on a shared understanding of reality. His characters tend to be disassociated from their society (even when deeply embedded in it), solipsistic, and often shallow or duplicitous.
Kim came onto the international literary scene with I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, a novel whose title hints at the author’s interests in existential disillusion and the separation modernity — corporatization, commodification, social stratification, alienated individualism — brings us. Using a “narrator within a narrator” structure, the book in fact features some chapters of triply embedded narrative, as the omniscient “author-narrator” writes a fiction using the internal narration of characters he cannot, in reality, be in the heads of. The meta-narrator is allegedly novelizing events in which he has participated, and thus uses his authorial power to represent the lesser narrators.
Close reading reveals that similarities exist between this meta-narrator and one of the characters, simply called C. The narrator is a performance artist, in a sense, and C is a video artist. Both are also deeply interested in aesthetics, as artists would be. Their lives overlap entirely with respect to two suicidal women who feature in the narrative. The meta-narrator takes great pains to explain his techniques for acquiring clients, and these techniques represent a kind of ultra-winnowing effort; in fact, he explains it as both a moral and artistic tactic to create art through death.
A literary environment bounded by centuries of pressure to write books in Korea, on Korea, and solely for Koreans made Kim’s view of history, political and philosophical strife, and maybe even reality as mere constructs of an existential mind contentious ones. Looking outside of Korean culture for inspiration, he finds it it in Western art, Western machines, and even Western beer — all the elements, in essence, of the West’s culture and its colonialism. In Photo Shop Murder, he tells the mundane crime story of a disgruntled detective and a crime he’d really rather not solve, seeing as he really doesn’t believe in truth anyway. “It’s funny, the truth makes people uncomfortable, but a lie gets people excited,” one character notes. It was published in tandem with Whatever Happened to the Man in the Elevator, an amusing and penetrating story of how changes in culture have destroyed the community feeling (the jeong, if you will, a subject of an inside joke in the text) of Korean society. In Kim’s world “history” is already gone, having left behind only trauma.
Kim spy novel Your Republic is Calling You reveals the secret agent within all people through the tale of one particular spy and his family. Its deceptively simple, almost Aristotelian plot follows a day in the life of a North Korean spy in the South who has apparently been called back home. He can’t tell if the call is really from his North Korean handlers, from whom he has not heard in decades, and he wonders about the fate of his family life (or his “cover”?) as he considers his options. The unexpected Northern message unravels his life in ways both predictable and unpredictable, but it also reveals how simple, and how natural it becomes to live any lie you choose. If you pretend to be something long enough, Your Republic is Calling You argues, you just might become it.
Though a more traditional writer, Ch’oe In-ho also adopted postmodernism in Another Man’s City. A fascinating author who was renowned for his drinking ability, Ch’oe wrote the book (a kind of postmodernization of his epic Deep Blue Night, which recounts an alienating road trip of two Korean expatriates in California) while dying of cancer, typing the novel with rubber sewing thimbles over fingertips that had lost their fingernails due to chemotherapy. Its Kafkaesquely named narrator K awakes to the sound of his alarm clock on a Saturday morning, the first clue that things are slightly off kilter: it was programmed to stay silent on weekends. Furthermore, his aftershave is a bit off, and he is not wearing pajamas, as he always does. K realizes he has lost his phone during the course of a drunken Friday night, and sets off to find it, which sends him into a city of people both disturbingly familiar and not quite what they seem.
At a certain point, K realizes that one of these people keeps showing up in his family as different relatives, and in the finale he meets up with one last, most disturbingly familiar individual: his own doppelganger. Ch’oe successfully appropriates a symbol previously used by Cho Se-hui in The Dwarf, that of the Möbius strip revealing K to be “on an infinite journey, from inner to outer and back to inner, a journey without beginning or end.” While the the jacket of Another Man’s City references Kafka, George Orwell, Kazuo Ishiguro and The Truman Show, a more apt comparison from English literature might be to Philip K. Dick. K lives the life of an automaton, and the notion that he might be a clone turns out to be more than paranoia. The book is laced with religion and sex, both as profane and divine, and though Ch’oe was a very religious man, he leaves the ending open to interpretations as Buddhist, Christian, or a simple resignation to the Möbius strip.
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, another semi-traditional fiction, also appropriates a great deal of postmodernism, and upon it publication it supplanted Shin Kyung-Sook’s Please Look After Mom as the most successful Korean novel in English. The book also became a kind of cause célèbre in the arena of translation, because of an extremely liberal interpretation by a relative newcomer. Readers interested in that story need only Google the name of the translator, Deborah Smith, to find an interesting discussion of the role and purpose of translation itself.
The Vegetarian begins its central character Yeong-hye, being described by her doltish husband,: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I had always thought of her as unremarkable in every way.” This tale of a woman’s descent into madness, or at least her complete withdrawal from society, initially symbolized the process with her apparently trivial reluctance to wear bras, then her conversion to vegetarianism, and finally her apparent attempt at living by photosynthesis. In it three sections, each related by a narrator with a different degree of uncertainty, the voice of “heroine” can only be directly heard through the letters to her sister that diminish in frequency through the book. She chooses vegetarianism as a simple rebellion from her disconnected and alienated life. This is a fairly remarkable and difficult choice in traditional modern Korean society, where most food involves meat or its byproducts.
Surprisingly — or perhaps as part of Young-hye’s grander plan to opt out of society — this apparently small decision drains the grease from the wheels of society, and everything soon careens towards disaster. Society itself is presented as a kind of rapist, wielding not just food but art and even medicine. Each character is possessed by their own kind of madness: eventual starvation for Yeong-hye, stupid conformism for her dullard husband, artistic and sexual obsession for her brother-in-law, and dull acceptance for her sister. With the possible exception of the husband muddling along through mainstream society, none of these approaches proves helpful. The husband brings to mind “Dunghead” Hong from Yi Mun-yol’s Pilon’s Pig, a character almost too simple to have such a complicated thing as a worry, and therefore content. It might all be summed up by the sister’s words at the end of the story to her son, to the effect that all they have left is themselves. To the reader, that is quite clearly not enough.
No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-Jin smudges the line between modern and postmodern. In some sense it is difficult to see it as postmodern at all, telling as it does three fairly conventional intertwined stories: one of the love of a man and his dog, one of a potential love affair that never occurs, and one a tragic backstory withheld until the book’s end. The story is told in fairly straightforward narrative, interspersed with familial flashbacks and memories of previous “acquaintances” and failed attempts to get them involved in correspondence. Imagine Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise traveling around Korea with his dog, and you’ll have a sense of it.
Jang also spends long passages suggesting that writing itself, the very act of setting paper to pen, may be a dying practice, and the narrator is at best an uncertain one who can reveal the “reality” of the story only at its conclusion. The book’s chapters, like posts on Twitter or Facebook, tend to brevity, focusing tightly on one topic at a time. At the very end, the reader is presented with a question of who has really told the tale. Still, this story of a man and his dog attempting to escape the past on a road trip across Korea proves deeply affecting, and for a modern Korean novel it even has a relatively happy ending. No One Writes Back and the rest of these works constitute just the tip of modern Korean literature’s iceberg. Other Korean writers found entirely different ways to tangle with both their homeland’s new status in the world and the effects that newfound status across all aspects of Korean society and life.
Previous posts in this Korea Blog series:
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.