Nobel hopes dashed for Ko Un

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Nobel hopes dashed for Ko Un

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Ko Un, a finalist for the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, is seen in his home in Anseong, Gyeonggi, where he has lived for nearly three decades. [JoongAng Ilbo]

The Korean literary world’s long-cherished desire to have a Nobel laureate was dashed again this week, when the Swedish Academy on Thursday awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, overlooking local contender Ko Un.

“Ko is one of few Korean writers who successfully transformed the ups and downs of modern Korean history in his literary works,” said Park Shin-kyu, literature publishing manager for Changbi Publishers. “As many other experts said, we need to do a better job translating the essence in these literary works.”

Literary circles have hoped since 2002 that Ko would win the prize, but it has gone to other writers, mostly European novelists. However, on the expectation that the academy would pick a writer from a non-European country this year, Ko was considered a leading candidate. Ko was unavailable for comment Friday.

Like his homeland, Ko, 77, has experienced a life full of ordeals. Born in North Jeolla in 1933, he saw his neighbors kill each other in civilians massacres by right-wing and left-wing mobs during the Korean War. Traumatized, the teenage boy attempted to end his life several times.

Ko became a Buddhist monk in 1952 and made his debut as a poet while living the monastic life. He returned to the secular world in 1962. Still, Buddhism has continued to influence his work, particularly the 1991 novel “Little Pilgrim,” based on the Avatamsaka Sutra.

Beginning in 1970, after reading that a labor activist self-immolated to protest working conditions, Ko involved himself in social issues and the democracy movement and was sent to prison four times by Korea’s dictatorships.

In May 1980, Ko was accused of treason and sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Chun Doo Hwan military regime. He began to write a series of poems entitled “Ten Thousand Lives” while incarcerated.

The poems are “basically a giant collection of word portraits” of people, animals, plants and objects, according to Massimiliano Gioni, director of the eighth Gwangju Biennale. The Italian curator, inspired by the poem, named this year’s event “10,000 lives.”

After Ko was released from prison in August 1982 as part of a general pardon, he continued writing “Ten Thousand Lives.”

“He has the ability to write about people’s lives with great respect and great affection and insight,” said Brother Anthony of Taize, a professor emeritus of English language and literature at Sogang University, who translated several of Ko’s works into English. The British-Korean professor chose An Sonjae for his Korean name after reading Ko’s “Little Pilgrim.” The pilgrim’s name is Sonjae.

“It’s not about being poetic,” he said. “He writes about being human, what it takes to be human. What he has is a very universal vision regarding Korea and Korean history.”

Eight of Ko’s books (including “Little Pilgrim” and “Ten Thousand Lives”) have been translated into English, and another poem, “Himalaya,” will soon be published in English. His works have also been translated into eight other languages.

By Moon So-young, Lee Sun-min [symoon@joongang.co.kr]

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