Features » Literature

Korea is guest of honour at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair which is opening today. On this occasion, a number of Korean works have been translated into European languages, exposing the rest of the world to a body of literature about which relatively little is known.


Korean literature in flux

Katharina Borchardt surveys a century of Korean litertaure

If there is one piece of South Korean literature that should be translated into other languages, it has to be Pak Kyong-ni's novel cycle "Land" (book review here). That's the result of a survey conducted in South Korea a few years ago. With "Land", the 79 year old author Pak Kyong-ni has written a national epic of almost overwhelming magnitude: the Korean original comprises 21 volumes and tells of the great revolutions in Korean society in the first half of the 20th century. Japanese, Europeans and Americans all forced their way into the country, putting an end to its isolation. "Land" begins in this period, when the people were still living according to traditions, while on the political front, nothing was functioning. In the entire epic, more than 700 characters are introduced, 150 of which are central figures. The demise of tradition, the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, the collaboration with colonial rulers and the resistance against them are all reflected in the lives of these characters, each possessing his or her own personality, experiential horizon, and views. "Land" is a Korean masterpiece, which Pak Kyong-ni worked on for 25 years.

In the year that Japan took over rule of Korea, the poet Yi sang (1910-1937) was born. A photo shows Yi sang in the 1930s – a cosmopolitan dandy – in a Western style winter coat and a silk tie. Thirty years earlier, such a suit would have been considered ridiculous by the traditionally dressed Koreans, as Pak Kyong-ni illustrates with one of the characters in "Land": "But why does he have that rope around his neck? Does he want to hang himself with it?" When the picture was taken, such discussions were already a thing of the past. In Seoul there were already streetcars; Christianity – which was new to Korea – was spreading and instead of Korean, Japanese was to be spoken. Yi sang approaches this new lifestyle at the level of form – diagrams, foreign terms or fragments of prose – and content: "leaning against the wall/ I look down at the spittle full of / juicy foreign terms like tonnes of little bugs". His poems, influenced by European Dadaism and Surrealism, have nothing in common with pre-modern Korean poetry.

Nonetheless, and despite the increasing popularity of the short story and prose form, poems continued to be written. The Korean novel has existed since about 1600, but poetry was proving to be the more important literary form. Still today, volumes of poetry are printed in the hundreds of thousands (here a list of works of Korean poetry in English translation). But younger authors are turning increasingly to prose. At the same time, there is a need to preserve literary traditions. Many novels deal with shamanism, which is still practised in Korea today. A particularly good example of the clash between old shamanic traditions and the more recent Christianity is the novel "Ulhwa", written by the shaman Kim Dongni (1913–1995). In it, the conflict between the two Weltanschauungen is also a generation conflict, reflected in the relationship between the shaman Ulhwa and her son, who has converted to Christianity. Kim Dongni develops both characters with a wonderful attention to detail.

The novel "Die Weißen Kleider" (the white clothes) by Yi Cheong-Jun (born 1939) emphasises the healing powers of shamanistic rituals. For an old man, the years immediately following the Second World War were the best of his life. The Japanese had left Korea and for the first time, the Koreans had the possibility of deciding their own fate. The old man in Yi Cheong-Jun's novel associates this period with the village school he attended as a child. But it doesn't take long before Korea's new political orientation begins to affect him. Some teachers join the party allied with North Korea, others the socialists. The old man's son decides to research these painful years. At the end, he takes part in a shamanistic ritual which should heal all the wounds caused by the inner-Korean conflicts. These came to a head, as is well known, in the Korean War (1950-1953).

A similar cast of characters appear in the novel "Das Spiel mit dem Feuer" (playing with fire) by Jo Jong-Rae (born 1943). The son in this novel is also investigating his father's past. He finds out that the father had joined the red partisans after the Second World War and had killed 38 members of a family that owned land. The 38 deaths is a reference to the 38 degrees of latitude along which the inner-Korean border runs. To date, this division is experienced by the people as a painful tear; it caused more than two million deaths in the Korean War, in which American and Chinese-Russian interests clashed.

Hwang Sok-yong (born 1943) illustrates how the Korean border tore hundreds of thousands of families apart in the "The Chronicle of a Man named Han" (information here), which is very well known in South Korea and has been staged as a play. The author describes in very dense prose how the social atmosphere in Pyöngyang changed after the Communists began gaining power and how the Korean War finally broke out. Mr. Han is a doctor in a clinic in Pyongyang. Because he refuses to join the Communists and does not give Party members special treatment, he starts to have problems.

"Die weißen Kleider", "Das Spiel mit dem Feuer" and "The Chronicle of a Man named Han" are novels typical of the older generation of South Korean authors, who are still dealing with the war and, despite their literary form, engage a political narrative style. The inner life of the protagonist is only important to the extent that it drives the story forward. There are hardly any female characters.

The Korean War remains the most important literary subject of South Korean literature. The war, which is referred to as the "Tragedy of the murder of brothers" in South Korea, often figures in the background of stories that take place decades later. An example is "Die Gerüchtemauer" (wall of rumours), a typical Korean novella. It was written by the same author as "Die weißen Kleider", but this time he writes his name not Yi Cheong-Jun but Yi Chong-Jun. The transcription of names written in the Hangul alphabet causes many problems. While there are universal rules for transcription, different publishing houses use different systems. Unfortunately it happens often that even within publishing houses, different names for the same person are used. Thus the author Eun Heekyung from Pendragon Publishers, for example, is identified elsewhere as Un Hikyong and cannot be identified as one and the same person.

In the story "Die Gerüchtemauer", the editor of a magazine meets a writer named Park Chun. Park Chun is undergoing psychiatric treatment to deal with a traumatic experience from his childhood: during the Korean War, strangers entered his parent's house and wanted to know whether the family was on the side of the partisans or the police. Because the strangers were pointing flashlights in the family's eyes, they couldn't see their faces. The wrong answer would mean death. Park Chun continues to suffer from this experience and the psychiatrist tries desperately to make him speak by pointing a flashlight at him. This procedure recalls the interrogation methods of the military dictatorship of the 1970s, when this novella was written.

Under the military dictatorship between 1961 and 1993, many writers were imprisoned and tortured for their political activity. The poet Ko Un (homepage) (born 1933) was thrown in jail after organising a mass demonstration in May 1980 in Kwangju against the military dictatorship. In jail, he was brutally tortured. After he was released, he published a book of poetry, "Die Sterne über dem Land der Väter" (star over the fatherland), in which he speaks out in strong terms against the tyranny of his time and offers a poetic commemoration of those who died for democracy. The division of Korea remains of central importance to Ko Un. In a poem, he expresses his yearning for the Taedong River (pictures here), which flows through Pyongyang: "in the fortieth year after the division, against the evening sun,/ I drive on the highway from Seoul to Pusan;/ it's as though the long time is ending with this day/ here, at the top of the Kumgang River, at the flaming red Kumgang of my joy/ as though you were born anew/ deeply resounding stream of clear water, oh, droning Taedong."

For some time, Ko Un has been the chairman of a pan-Korean committee that is putting together a collective dictionary. In the many years of division, the language has developed differently in the two Koreas. While in South Korea, many words have been absorbed from western languages, especially American English, in North Korea, many words of Chinese origin have been replaced by Korean neologisms.

In the 1960s and 70s, the poet Kim Chi-ha (born 1941) wrote many long poems against political repression, some of which formed the lyrics of songs sung at demonstrations (which landed the poet in jail). Especially famous was the "Ballad of the five bandits", which Kim Chi-ha wrote in the style of socially critical Pansori narrative tradition. Pansori has existed for more than 400 years and used to be transmitted by travelling bards. A selection of famous Korean Pansori poets is provided by the comprehensive "Pansori" collection of the Peperkorn Publishing House, the first of two volumes.

Like Ko Un, Hwang Sok-yong also addresses the repression of the uprising in Kwangju. The second novel is called "Ancient Garden". It is distinguishes itself from the many political novels of the older generation with its more emotional language and its intimate tone.

In addition to the works listed above, three anthologies of Korean literature have appeared recently. "Wind und Grass" presents selected works by 33 poets of the 20th century (here an English language alternative). Yi Sang, Ko Un and Kim Chi-ha are all there. The spectrum is broad. Included is the poet Yi Yuksa (1904-1944), who made the number of the cell he was in during the Japanese occupation into his first name: Yuksa. Or the poetess No Ch'onmyong (1911-1957), one of the few female poets of the first half of the century, who met societal expectations by writing absolutely apolitical poetry. The youngest poet of the collection is Ham Songho, born in 1963.

Both anthologies of novella and stories "Die Sympathie der Goldfische" (the sympathy of goldfish) and "Koreanische Erzählungen" (Korean stories) restrict themselves to South Korean literature of the last decades. "Die Sympathie der Goldfische" contains novellas by Yi Munyol (born 1948), Lee Changdong (born 1954), Choi In-Suk (born 1953) und Park Wan-Seo (born 1931). These stories tell of a military manouevre which could also be a real war, an aquarium which forms the centre of an apartment, a man planning a rape and an old woman who is brought to hospital with a complicated fracture. The "Koreanischen Erzählungen" contains eight stories by authors both old and young, such as Kim Young-ha or Han Kang.

In this kind of anthology, one notices how drastically the range of topics differ between younger and older authors in South Korea. The younger authors hardly mention the Korean War and the division of the country; their work is not explicitly political. That doesn't mean that their literature is not critical. The speedy industrialisation and the South Korean state's commitment to capitalism are not only criticised by the older authors, such as poet Kim Soo-Young (1921-1968), or Yun Heunggil (born 1942) in his tales of people who can't keep up with rapid modernisation. In her novel "The House on the Road", the young Lee Hye-Kyung (born 1960) depicts the conflict in a South Korean family that results from political and economic changes.

One notes that the stories of younger authors take place mainly in the private realm. They describe the complex thoughts and feelings of their protagonists and often reflect life under capitalism in the modern Korean metropolis. And since the end of the military dictatorship, it's women writers who are dominating the literary scene. In the older generation, women writers such as Pak Kyong-ni and Park Wan-Seo, are seldom to be found. Young female writers benefit from the pioneering work of their senior colleagues, who introduced the female perspective to Korean literature. Very expressively they describe the living conditions of young women in today's Korea. Often the topic is the changing role of the woman in the 20th century, which is described very graphically in the worlds of Pak Kyong-ni, Park Wan-Seo and later authors like Han Kang or Jo Kyung Ran.

"Zeit zum Toastbacken" (time to make toast) by Jo Kyung Ran tells the story of a young woman who wants to open a bakery. Although this is her first novel, Jo Kyung Ran uses a distinctive, floating language which also distinguished her later stories. The novel describes how the protagonist's family falls apart – also a common theme in contemporary South Korean literature – and how she grows up despite this loss. What's notable is that there's no talk of the fact that by Korean standards, she, at 30, should really be married. Instead, she opens up her own bakery and names it – also very unusual, seeing as one tries to avoid the direct use of names – after herself, "Gang-Yochin Bakery".


The article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on October 12, 2005.

Katarina Borchardt is a print and radio journalist.

Translation: nb - let's talk european