[VIEWPOINT]Crossing borders with words

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[VIEWPOINT]Crossing borders with words

I went to the Leipzig book fair recently. Historically, Leipzig has been well known as a publishing center, though its renown dimmed during the years when it was in the eastern half of the divided Germany. Since reunification, though, the city seems to be reclaiming that reputation.
The book fair was overwhelming. Nearly a thousand events took place in an enormous exhibition hall, flooded with writers and readers from all over Germany. It was hard to walk around without bumping into other people.
The famous Frankfurt book fair is essentially a commercial event for publishers and copyright agents, but the Leipzig book fair seemed a more emotional experience, intended for writers and for readers.
South Korea had a large booth at the center of Exhibition Hall Four, where some famous German publishers were also set up. A wide variety of events were held there. South Korean writers and German writers discussed their work and gave readings.
While the fair was going on, there were also readings by South Korean authors in nearby cities like Weimar, Jena and Dresden. The audiences were very serious, and the events were successful.
The purpose of the readings was to introduce Germans to South Korean literature, but they had other effects as well.
Korean writers who participated in the book fair seemed to gain confidence from their reception in the heart of European literature. They were interviewed far more than they had expected to be, and audiences at the readings reacted with passion. There was also a clear interest in listening to the voices of Korean women through novels.
One journalist asked me why Korean literature should be introduced in Germany. For the sake of German readers, I answered. Because the journalist seemed puzzled, I explained further.
Korean writers, I told the interviewer, read widely, from the classics of Asia to South American literature to the most recent works from the Western world. But European writers and readers, I said, tend to limit themselves to European literature.
This being the case, I wondered aloud how European literature could possibly overcome its current manneredness.
Korean writers, I said, had worked with passion amid the political turmoil of our era, and were still fighting today, against the prevalence of movies and the Internet in our culture.
It is rare to find a country where domestically produced movies make up more than half of the market, I told the journalist. I said it was unusual to find a country whose novelists have to compete against the country’s film industry.
Because high-speed Internet and mobile phones are so common in Korea, I said, books have become known as an extremely traditional, heavy and expensive medium. Writers around the world should pay careful attention to how their Korean colleagues are working and surviving, I said. Like a canary in a coal mine, Korean writers may be the first to experience what’s coming for writers around the world.
Though Koreans know German literature, I said, the reverse is not true. But the gap between Korean literature and German literature will narrow, I said.
Many journalists wanted to know what the Korean writers thought about Korean reunification. Some writers responded by asking, “Why do you ask about unification whenever you see a Korean writer?”
To the Germans, Korea is only known for the demilitarized zone, for the nuclear crisis and for political turmoil. All those things are real, of course, but Korea is far more globalized than they seem to think.
Koreans have the same problems that the rest of the world is facing. Korea is suffering from unemployment, poverty, a sense of loneliness and isolation, a low birth rate and an aging society. Koreans eat the same food, listen to the same music, watch the same movies and wear the same clothes that people in the rest of the world do. Those are the circumstances under which Korean writers are working.
“I recognize the excellence of the German literature of the past,” I said. “But if there were to be a competition between our countries’ contemporary writers, it’s hard to imagine that Korea would lose.”
I look forward to the day when those words will not be seen as vain.

* The writer is a novelist. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-ha
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