Features » Literature

Korea was this year's guest of honour at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, which ended on Sunday. North Korea backed out before the event, but South Korea made up for the absence with a wide spectrum of talent.


The bright side of the moon

By Andreas Breitenstein

It was a moving moment, when the old man with the large glasses sang the song that unlike almost any other unites the Koreans of both Koreas. Although until recently he was still among the candidates for the Nobel Prize, he showed nothing but modesty at a lunch held by Suhrkamp publishers. The poet Ko Un (born 1933) performed "Arirang" as a homage to his publisher Siegfried Unseld, who died in October 2002. It was a simple folk song expressing lament and solace. While the poet's lanky body was rocked by the verses you could see the audience getting fidgety. Singing belongs to the cultural graces that are shied away from here in Germany, because it makes a public show of one's feelings. Not so in Korea, where as a foreigner in private circles you will soon be asked to perform to the best of your ability a song from your homeland. Korea may have strode into modernity with seven-league boots, but tradition is lurking around the next corner.

In the Korea hall at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the German-language reading from the novel "A gift from the bird" has just come to an end. The book deals with the awakening of a 12 year-old girl. It tells of sexual fantasies (such as the desire to set fire to women's pubic hair) and melancholy reflections, but also a tribunal which the first person narrator imposes on herself. The writer, Eun Heekyung (born 1959), worriedly asked the audience why nobody had laughed – the passage always has everyone in hysterics in Korea. She wanted her book to be entertaining, witty and sad at the same time, about everyday life seen from a distance. Because "only people with no expectations can be true to life".

Sentences like this tell of a self-confidence completely missing in Ko Un and his "Hangul generation". When Ko Un began writing in the early sixties, life in Korea was full of wishes – not only that of rebuilding the war-torn country. In literature, young writers aspired to peel away the Chinese of their grandfathers and the Japanese of their fathers in favour of their mother tongue. This tendency gained in strength when in 1961 a military coup put an end to the process of democratisation. It is the outstanding Korean poetic talents of that era (such as Ko Un, Yi Munyol, Kim Chi Ha, Kim Kwang Kyu) who served the political and poetical resistance for decades. Under conditions of censorship and violence they nurtured literature in its role as cunning dissimulation. "Fog land" by Kim Kwang Kyu is not only a poem about nature, it should also be read as an expression of political depression and a description of Korea's precarious geopolitical situation. "Soul mountain", on the other hand, reveals the extent to which the country has lost its spirituality in the process of modernisation. When asked what separates his work from that of the younger generation, Kim's blunt reply in Frankfurt: "I don't write about pubic hair".

It was such stunning contrasts as these that gave Korea's presence at the Frankfurt Fair the kind of flair that can't be had by clever organisation alone, although on this score the country did well, with a well thought-out programme (not too many podium appearances and an extensive Korea library), a modern design (a bright hall in lit in minimalist shades of white), a smart presentation (24 columns equipped with 100 "important" books, each described over a smartphone) and multi-media installations (an exhibition on the history of printing and publishing-on-demand lottery).

True, after North Korea cancelled its participation, the Book Fair was spared the most painful opposition. A ray of hope had been held out before the fair with a conference on "Democracy, Reunification and Peace in Germany and Korea" which two representatives of the Communist North were due to attend. However both participants were denied permission to leave the country, and the Western discourse was left without a counterpart. Nevertheless the event gave an interesting insight into the South Korean mindset. In the South, the hermetically closed North is seen as the "dark side of the moon". It awakens feelings both of belonging and strangeness. While Korea and Germany are not similar in dramatic terms, they can be compared at a psychological level. Everyone at the conference agreed that the time for confrontation and "symbiotic antagonism" on the Korean Peninsula was over. The six-way discussions between the USA, China, Japan, Russian and both Koreas must bring about a multilateral political organisation in East-Asia, as well as a security structure that allows a harmonisation between North and South Korea.

Many Korean participants believe the USA is really responsible for the continued division even after 1989, as if the regime in Pyongyang hadn't learned from Perestroika that a country which tries to reform communism through political means has already lost the power game. What remains is the Chinese option, combining economic liberalisation and authoritarian rule. To what extent the North has been warmed by the Southern "sunshine policy" (which operates on the logic: positive input in exchange for contacts), is uncertain. The Korean participants at the conference repeatedly gave the impression they felt the end of Soviet dominance in the GDR was more a result of German Ostpolitik than Ronald Reagan's intransigent stance vis-à-vis Gorbachev's new flexibility. Ultimately, the idea of the "coexistence of systems" (which some consider appropriate even after a collapse of the North) provided a déjà-vu of West German wishful thinking in the 1980s. In South Korea the fear of reunification now seems much larger than the will to overcome separation. The words of former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher that reunification is "closer than they think" echo all the louder in the Korean participants' ears.

The fair presence itself, which was spared the trauma of separation, confirms that the South Korean welfare society is getting used to the separation. Certainly, after decades of forced politicisation of culture, it was not wrong to put traditional and technically innovative elements in the foreground. It was also pleasant to see how far the country has come from the anticommunist hysteria which reigned following the Hot (not Cold!) War. Now that the superiority of the Southern system is evident in almost every aspect of life, any form of authoritarianism has lost its legitimacy.

Whether in women's literature, pop culture or new traditions, Korea showed the diversity of attitudes and mixture of styles we have come to expect in post-industrial societies. The younger authors go at their craft playfully, deconstructing everyday life. The metropolitan culture whose coldness the middle generation of writers still bemoans has become a new source of inspiration for them. It is certainly no accident that the historically hard-done-by and geographically isolated South Korea has colonised cyberspace more quickly than any country on earth.

South Korea is searching for its place in the world. Its ambition stems from its insecurity, its identity is still far from being pigeon-holed. Frankfurt is not a milestone, but it is a step on the way. The wave of Korean popular culture now rolling over East Asia would have reached the West without Korea's presence at the Fair. One can now hope that higher culture will follow in its tracks. But perhaps the Frankfurt Book Fair is also one last calm before the historical storm that will soon break over the last remaining section of the Berlin Wall. One hopes so for the country, even if, tired of Herculean political tasks, South Korea believes it must now close itself off from its deepest aspirations.


The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on October 24, 2005.

Andreas Breitenstein is a literary editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translation: lp, jab. - let's talk european