Published in Arts & Culture Features | Print

Despite the considerable international success of its musicians, filmmakers and contemporary artists, South Korea has never really figured on the global literary landscape. It’s difficult to know why exactly, especially from this vantage. The Korean language enjoys a comparatively belated relationship with the written word: it was without its own script until King Sejong introduced Hangeul to the masses in 1446. A less speculative explanation would point out that not very much of the work has been translated. This year Dalkey Archive has teamed up with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea to publish twenty-five new translations of contemporary Korean fiction. Totally Dublin took a look at three.


 

 

At Least We Can Apologize
Lee Ki-ho

At Least We Can Apologize begins in a mental institution, where its two protagonists, the narrator Jin-man and his companion Si-bong, are made to work as slaves, packaging socks and labelling soap to be sold in the outside world.  The pair are kept dependent on unspecified psychoactive drugs and made to endure routine beatings at the hands of the institution’s staff.  Forced to apologise (i.e. get beaten) for the ‘wrongs’ they have committed, for those committed by other inmates and, cruelest of all, for things that have never happened, Jin-man and Si-bong are made complicit in their own torture. When the facility is shut down by police, they are released into modern-day Korea where, with no other means to support themselves, they set up an agency that offers apologies on behalf of its clients, for a fee.

Ki-ho’s naive narration style (through Jin-man) makes for sparse reading, establishing only logical pairs — often tautologous — when it delves into cause and effect (‘we didn’t say anything to her, and this was on account of not really having much to say.’) This thinking presents a difficulty on the level of the protagonists’ apologies: they on one hand aspire to the state of a closed system, but also require violent retributions. The system of relations by which order is sustained in the institution is thus brought into stark contrast with that of what is ostensibly our world, where the apology tends to exist in a symmetrical unity with its counterpoint: ‘No need to apologise!’. Jin-man and Si-bong’s attempts to convince potential clients that their services are required end first in discomfort, then disaster. While Ki-ho finds dark humour in  such alienation, the novel’s ultimate tragedy consists of its protagonists inability to reconcile the violence of the power relations they have internalised (in which the weak apologise endlessly to the powerful) with the maintenance of relationships in modern life — friendship, parenthood, etc. — that, at least nominally, privilege human dignity. — Oisin Murphy-Hall

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A Most Ambiguous Sunday, and Other Stories
Jung Young-moon

Armed with a gun, a stuttering young man inveigles his way into a rural home with no clear motive. He is served herbal tea and given cream for his hemorrhoids by the euphorically placid woman of the house, then accidentally shoots himself in the leg – at which point the police are called. This is the realm of Jung Young Moon: detached characters happen into shared orbits, act whimsically, part indifferently. The jacket cover calls Jung ‘Korea’s Beckett’, a comparison that does him few favours. Like Beckett’s early stories, Jung’s work operates in a provocatively ironic mode. But while the formal invention of Beckett’s prose lends significance to ennui, Jung writes at times as if to assimilate the indifference of his characters. In ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’, a story about three people in a forest having daydreams, I started to wonder if it was not Jung’s intention to create a shared experience of inertia between reader, writer, and characters: “as languid, indistinct and long as a lifetime”. Ironically, it is a story titled ‘Drifting’ that demonstrates what Jung’s impish imagination could do with some direction. — Jamie Leptien

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No One Writes Back
Jang Eun-jin

No One Writes Back is either poorly written, or poorly translated, or both. Told by a young man who travels from motel to motel writing letters to his friends and family, this short picaresque attempts to relay its plot (which is not without conceptual promise) through a combination of epistolary speech, reported speech and direct speech. None of it quite comes off. The letters are mostly spent explaining aspects of the novel’s backstory to characters who already know it. ‘I met Eunyeong often without your knowledge,’ the narrator explains to his older brother, whose heart (he explains the same older brother) was broken long ago by exactly these secret encounters. The dialogue isn’t much better: for most of the novel, the narrator is engaged in conversation with a tedious self-published novelist who speaks at length about the advantages of, say, email. ‘You don’t have to pay for writing paper and envelopes and pens. Plus, they’re fast and you can check to see if they’ve been received, and you can cancel the dispatch if you change your mind.’ No One Writes Back is most successful as direct speech, where it sometimes hits upon a winning line or two. But even here the narrative seems mostly concerned with making no allusion whatsoever to the enormous plot twists that eventually fall upon the reader like a series of disappointed punchlines. Perhaps the dispatches containing their necessary augurs were cancelled upon some change of mind. In any case, they were not received. — Kevin Breathnach

One Response to “A South Korea Reader”

  1. Lisa Hill

    Thanks for this: I enjoy reading translated literature, and am keen to widen my Asian reading horizons, but my only experience of Korean lit was the excruciating Please Look After Mom. This hadn’t made me assume that it ‘represents’ all Korean Lit but it had made me suspect that what gets translated may not always be the best of what’s on offer, but rather what might sell. Your reviews of Korean titles are the first I’ve come across that have piqued my interest. Bouquets to the Dalkey Archive, and the reviewers.