One dwarf,one murder,make two good novelsIf struggle and pain are the source of great writing, then Korea should have a long list of world-class authors. Occupation, war, two economic crises and President Roh Moo-hyun have all bedevilled the country in the last 70 years. That’s enough anguish to inspire a bus-load of Tolstoys.
Yet Korea has hardly any authors who command a world wide audience, let alone a Michiko Kakutani review in the New York Times. Dating back to 1998, Web sites for the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books produced no hits when asked to search for the phrase “Korean literature.” It’s as if Korean literature does not exist outside Korea.
However, Korean novelists may be preparing to make a leap onto the world stage. The number of translations is increasing, in part because of organizations like the Korean Literature Translation Institute. This body, the largest translation research group in Korea, has just chosen 14 famous pieces of Korean literature for translation support, including some poetry by the venerable Ko Eun, arguably Korea’s best known author.
If Korean literature is about to surf hallyu, it’s worth asking where a complete novice might begin to explore the country’s best authors. The answer is Cho Se-hui’s “A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball” and Kim Young-ha’s “Photo Shop Murder.”
Both short novels fit the term “gritty,” in that their settings are urban and the “national pain” of the Korean people appears in both. In fact, in Mr. Cho’s book, first published in 1976, “national pain” is effectively one of the main characters, so bleak is the existence led by the dwarf, Kim Bu-ri, and his family. The tone is set on the first page. “Our life was like a war,” says Yeong-su, Kim’s oldest son. “Everyday we lost a battle.”
This is not the Korea of Cheongdam, of Louis Vuitton bags on the shoulders of Armani suits worn by the wives of corporate executives. This is a world of poverty amid the grinding wheels of industrialization, a place where desperation is a constant companion. Yeong-su works in a printing factory. The president gives inspirational talks about hard work and wealth but Yeong-su is unimpressed.
“The kind of hope he was talking about had no meaning for us,” he says. “Instead of such hope, we would have preferred a little tasty radish slaw on the factory lunch table.”
Yet Cho’s short story is not a polemic. His political agenda, which made the book a bible among members of Korea’s student movement, is woven into a narrative that rises to great emotional heights and includes the disappearance of Yeong-ho, Yeong-su’s sister, allegedly in a space ship. There is sex, thoughts of murder and a heart-rending battle by Yeong-ho to protect the family’s property rights from a (literally) rapacious property speculator. It is a great read and the book is justifiably one of the classics of modern Korean literature.
Kim Young Ha’s?“Photo Shop Murder” is actually a collection of two short stories, the title story and the hilarious, “Whatever Happened to the Guy Stuck in the Elevator.” Both stories have a slightly surreal feel that Kim exploits to paint a picture of isolation and alienation.
“Photo Shop Murder” is an entertaining romp through a homicide investigation. There’s a dead guy, his wife, who becomes both a suspect and an object of lust for the lead detective on the case, a jealous lover with a baseball bat and a man who likes to seduce women with photographs. The detective once surprised his own wife in bed with another man, whom he threatened to shoot. The lover soils himself and the wife is left to wash the dirty bed sheets. “Some part of her disappeared at that moment,” writes Mr. Kim and that line is typical of the fine documentary style that defines this book. Although Mr. Kim is also capable of striking imagery. At the end of “Photo Shop Murder” he writes, “I fell asleep. In my dream, I’d become a fruit, and my wife was peeling my skin. It was a happy dream.”
These books are great appetizers for Korean literature. Korea’s tumultuous history has created some fine writing, rather in the way the second half of the 20th century brought out Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in France. The world would benefit from more exposure to the many writers?who find their inspiration in this fascinating country.
by Daniel Jeffreys