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 “Miracle on the Han” was a government-driven economic strategy which, at some social cost (many might say a considerable social cost), took South Korea from a war-torn wreck to a first world economy in slightly over two decades. All of Korea was physically and psychologically devastated after the Korean War — wartime photographs of Seoul reveal an absolute wreckage reminiscent of Dresden or Hiroshima after their bombings — and yet, by the turn of the century, Korea was ‘miraculously’ a G-20 power.
The Miracle was overseen by General Park Chung-hee, who seized political power in 1961. Using all the economic tools at his command, including building rural areas through the saemaul (“new village”) program, emphasizing production through chaebol (large business conglomerates, typically family-owned, such as Hyundai), launching enormous construction projects, and ambitiously creating an entirely new Seoul — and an entirely new economy for South Korea which, rose from the status of Zimbabwe into the first world.
During the 1960s and beyond, Korea was marked by two distinctive but related features: the economic success and political trauma, the later hardly a novelty to the Korean people. Park, who gained power in a 1961 coup and maintained it for nearly two decades, was a military strong man who, among other things, suspended the National Assembly, radically restricted political freedom, and in 1972 dramatically extended his military dictatorship. At the same time, due to his mandated economic programs, that decade was a time of spectacular economic growth.
But this economic growth came at a price as traditions eroded, traditional agriculture imploded, pollution exploded, economic disparities grew, materialism ran rampant, the family unit began to weaken, and traditional relationships in general were destroyed or commodified. Other changes occurred as political oppression lead to protest in the forms of music, clothes, long hair, open demonstration, and of course, literature. With the beginnings of economic success and the imposition of dictatorship came the reaction from authors of what the “Miracle” wrought among the common people, and how the resultant burden distributed.
Hwang Sok-yong’s The Road to Sampo is a rustic reflection on the losses to Korean culture caused by the successful modernization of the economy. As the story begins, two laborers named Yong-dal and Chong meet on the road close to the jobs they’ve just lost. Yong-dal has been caught in a dalliance with his landlady, and both he and Chong (who goes by his family name only) have been let go of their construction jobs for the winter. Yong-dal decides to accompany Chong to Chong’s hometown of Sampo, an island town just off the coast of Korea.
Along the way they stop at a bar-restaurant plunged into some confusion because its attractive young barmaid has run away. The proprietor offers Yong-dal and Chong a reward of 50,000 won if they catch and return the barmaid. They do catch up with the barmaid, but instead of returning her to the bar, they decide to continue their trek to a station to catch the train to Sampo. As they walk through the snow the three form a loose alliance, with a slightly romantic sub-plot thrown in. Finally, the trio arrives at the train station and there must separate. But of course nothing is so simple, and in a casual conversation it is revealed to Chong that the goal towards which he is traveling may not really exist.
The ideal rustic island-town of Sampo, like all of Korea, has been turned into a construction zone (amusingly, Yong-dal is thrilled by this turn of events, because he sees employment in it). The Road to Sampo is a vignette of the psychic cost of development, with all three characters rootless and exploited. The notion of a destroyed hometown is a devastating one in Korea where one’s hometown (or gohyang) is considered a determining factor in one’s personality and life. To have a hometown destroyed is to suffer a psychological trauma of high order, and by suggesting that Sampo does not exist any longer, Hwang echoes Thomas Wolfe’s famous idea that “you can’t go home again.” The book was so popular that it was later made into an equally popular movie of the same name.
In the 1980s, as the democratization movement strengthened in Korea, more aggressive considerations of social problems emerged. Among the many aspects of the “Miracle on the Han” discussed in the literature of its era was its funding. Some of the money came from outside of Korea from Korean soldiers in Vietnam, Korean laborers in the Middle-East, and Korean nurses in West Germany, among other sources, all of them collecting hard currency for the government to use in its nation-building program. The translated literature on this is not extensive, but it is good, including Hwang Sok-Yong’s The Shadow of Arms, a story of the Vietnam War.
The story takes place mainly behind the lines of battle as three characters interact: Tanh Yong-ku, an ex-infantryman tasked to work with the Criminal Investigation Division; the powerful Pham Quyen, a commander in the South Vietnamese army; and Pham Minh, Quyen’s younger brother and member of the National Liberation Front. Based on Hwang’s own experiences during the war, The Shadow of Arms, like The Ghost he wrote before it was controversial in Korea: despite often focusing on the misdeeds of the U.S., it did not sugarcoat Korean involvement, examining damages not directly related to battle and damningly indicting the role Korea played in dealing them. (For his involvement in the Gwangju Democratization Movement, Hwang spent time both in exile and in Korean prison himself.)
Another interesting book on the topic is Lee Dae-hwan’s Slow Bullet, the story of Kim Ik-su, a Korean volunteer dying of the effects of having handled various chemical armaments, including Agent Orange, during the war. Not only is he slowly passing away, but the genetic damage done to him during the war has taken a toll on his sons. The story is a sad one, ending with a scene of sacrifice that can be seen as noble or useless, depending upon a reader’s perception. Like The Shadow of Arms and many other translated stories, it adopts a tone of indirection with respect to war: it is clear what the narrator did in Vietnam and that the personal results are devastating, but instead of dealing with issues of the morality of the war itself, or of Korean involvement in that war, we read vignettes and consequences from which to draw our own conclusions.
Korea’s sending of workers to the Middle East to earn hard currency is dealt with in the subtle (and initially presented in quite a different light than it concludes) Our Friend’s Homecoming by Shin Sang-ung. Written in 1977 or 1978 as part of a series called The Roadside Drinking Stall, the novella’s plot is simple: a group of friends are meeting the day before they are scheduled to go to Gimpo Airport to receive a long-absent friend who has been working in the Middle East. The domestic group decide that their returning friend “deserves a hero’s welcome” after thirteen months away. There is a bit of backstory of how the hero ended up overseas (chicanery and deceit in a local firm for which he worked), and some mention of letters he has sent home to the friends who have gathered.
The friends get extremely drunk and separate for the night. The next day, they reunite and head to Gimpo where, unaccountably, they stand outside in the frigid weather despite their considerable hangovers. They have also purchased a bunch of flowers to celebrate the occasion. This is a novella that can be easily spoiled, for it has a tremendous bang of an ending that casts a jaundiced eye on the overseas-workers programs. Suffice it to say that Our Friend’s Homecoming is short, sharp, and surprising. Like Hwang, Shin was an extremely brave writer who, like many others in the era, often endured detention by Korean police for his political beliefs.
Separation literature, or pundan munhak, continued to be popular, with the issue of the split country no closer to a resolution. Most of the focus, however, turned to social issues, and this also meant that literature continued to tell the stories of real problems faced by real people. Authors particularly began to focus on characters who lived on the periphery of society, or who had been marginalized by the rapid rate of economic and social change. Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf, written between 1975 and 1978 as a series of semi-connected short stories (a yŏnjak sosŏl or linked novel) published in several Korean literary magazines, is a powerful work of social criticism that focuses on the human costs associated with the forced redevelopment of Seoul in the 1970s.
Cho’s writing is kaleidoscopic, often fantastic, and occasionally difficult to follow — but in many ways, that only echoes the lives of its characters and the time in which they lived. History was poised for Cho’s work, as well of that of the other “labor” novelists: on November 13th of 1970, a worker named Chon T’ae-il publicly immolated himself in protest against labor exploitation in the rayon garment industry, and this act helped define a new era of workers’ activism that, for the first time, united workers and intellectuals. At the same time, the increasing demographic and economic pressure on Seoul resulted in waves of “illegitimate” housing developments being razed in un-remunerated and semi-remunerated evictions of the poor who could often not afford the replacement housing still only sporadically provided for them.
The eponymous dwarf is a handyman living in the ironically named “Felicity District” of the “Eden Province,” an area slated for forced redevelopment. He and his family are being evicted from the only place they can call a happy home, notwithstanding the “sewer-creek” which runs next door to it. Economic forces destroy the dwarf, and as the story works towards its unhappy conclusion he commits suicide in a factory smokestack while his family is sundered. With his diminutive height of 3 feet 10 inches in “real life,” the dwarf symbolizes the relative unimportance of the individual in the greater economic and commercial enterprise of the Miracle on the Han. The story ends without hope, only the promise (and curse) of endless repetition. (Be sure to get the entire novel published by the University of Hawai’i Press, not the Jimoondang version that only includes one of its chapter.)
Among other writers to emerge at this time was the elegant Yang Gui-ja, whose A Distant and Beautiful Place (1985-87) is a stunning and well-translated collection of short stories. Like The Dwarf (and similar on more than just this ground), the book’s intentionally connected series of short stories works were originally published in literary journals from 1985 to 1987 when under the rather less interesting name People of Wonmi-dong. But Yang’s story is less brutal than Cho’s, and she often invests her unfortunate scenes with a sad beauty.
Situated south of Seoul in the city of Bucheon, the setting of Wonmi-dong sits in the shadows of Wonmi Mountain. There Koreans who can’t quite make it in Seoul struggle, mostly without success, to create lives for themselves and their family: an innocent poet is violated while his neighbors look on, jobs are lost, and small divisions are exploited. The work is full of clever descriptions, well-marked social observations, extensive imagery, and a way of crystallizing larger social issues into miniature scenes and stories. There is also great detail and verisimilitude in the shifting gossip and allegiances of the “villagers,” and even a reader unfamiliar with Korea will easily absorb a great deal of information about modern Korean culture while reading this both novel and story collection.
Yang’s Contradictions, South Korea’s best selling novel in 1998, has also been translated into English, as has a shorter novella titled Rust and a novella drawn from the A Distant and Beautiful Place called The Poet of Wonmi-dong. In Contradictions, the narrator An Jin-Jin — which the text helpfully notes is the Korean verb contraction for “negation,” followed twice by jin, a Korean homonym for “truth” —is a young woman attempting to navigate the many “contradictions” of her life, from the fact her mother and aunt are identical twins yet far from identical to the differences in their husbands and what that means to her own choice of husband between two suitors who couldn’t be more different.
Some of these contradictions and oppositions are big and some are small, but Yang always portrays them as natural outgrowths of the characters. During this era, authors increasingly tended towards character realism, unlike in much of the pundan munhak that came before. In a pivotal scene wheen An Jin-jin and her mother discover that An Jin-jin’s brother has been charged with attempted murder, each reacts entirely differently. The narrator notices that “mom and I were exact opposites. She heard only the word ‘murder’ and ignored “attempted,’ while I just paid attention to the word ‘attempted’ and ignored ‘murder.’” This excellent bit of shorthand outlines the differences between the two women, the mother and daughter’s oppositions — or, to be obvious, the contradictions within the family.
The Poet of Wŏnmi-dong is worth reading if you don’t want to read the A Distant and Beautiful Place in its entirety. It is one of the key chapters from the book, and printed as a novella, and with all the books in the Asia Publishers series, it contains the story in both English and Korean and also includes background information useful to a reader new to Korean fiction.
Bang Hyeon-seok’s Off to Battle at Dawn explores at another aspect of this era: the increasing industrialization of work. Bang explores the life of factory workers, powerless and overworked, as they attempt to fight for better conditions and workers’ rights, focusing on the relationships that are built, and sometimes destroyed, between workers as they contend with managers primarily interested in maximizing profits and not at all interested in allowing unions to have any power in the economy. The bulk of the story takes place in between the beginning of the strike and what is conceived of as a “final battle” — an event never seen. What one critic calls “Tragic Heroism” is the point of the book: the workers, even as attrition whittles away their numbers, even as food becomes scarce and temperatures plummet, persevere in their attempts to win better working conditions. In a sense, the message of this story is the importance of camaraderie, and if the it ends with an uncertain future, at least it admits some hope.
While the Miracle on the Han economically reshaped Korea and catapulted it into the first world, Korean modern literature set itself up in opposition to the “official” narrative of the social and economic regime in Korea. Rather than concentrating on the notable and measurable economic advances of Korea, writers focused on displacement, alienation, and bifurcation of the social structure, and as always, attempted to serve as the consciences of their time. Consequently, writers of this era frequently landed serious political trouble, becoming subject to threats, imprisonment, and even torture. As the Miracle progressed and its effects moved beyond the purely economic, Korean authors were not shy to continue engaging. Only then came the comprehensive social changes that rewrote the structure of the country as Korean knew it.
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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.