Among the many Korean writers whose work has made it into English over the past few years, Han Kang and Bae Suah stand out. Han’s novels have made a big splash in the UK, with The Vegetarian’s win in this year’s Man Booker International Prize raising the profile of the writer, the translator (Deborah Smith) and Korean literature in general. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Bae has quickly become a must-read author, with this year’s A Greater Music (another Smith translation) following on from last year’s pair of stories, Highway with Green Apples and Nowhere to Be Found (both translated by Sora Kim-Russell).
With publishers keen to get more of their work out while interest is high, 2017 will see a new release from both writers. Deep Vellum Publishing will be releasing Bae’s novel Recitation in the US in January, while over in the UK, Han’s The White Book should be out at some point from Portobello Books (both are translated by Deborah Smith – I’m sensing a trend here…). However, it may surprise you to know that there’s actually more by the two authors in English than these novels – and today’s post will tell you all about it 🙂
Han’s Convalescence (translated by Jeon Seung-hee) is a short story featuring a woman treated at a hospital for burns to her ankles. After stumbling and twisting her ankle, she resorts to shoddy alternative medicine remedies, and her busy work schedule leads to her ignoring the growing pain in her legs until it’s almost too late. As she lies on a bed receiving laser therapy, she appears surprisingly calm, stoically accepting the doctor’s worried predictions about her ligaments.
This all leads in to the main story, as the protagonist (addressed in the second person) gradually drifts into thoughts of her family. In particular, she dwells on memories of the fraught relationship with her elder sister, a woman who appeared perfect but had secret scars that only the younger sister was aware of. Despite their close ties, the main character is pushed away, and she in turn rejects her sister. Now, unfortunately, the time to make amends has passed her by…
In some ways, Convalescence is a story of guilt, pivoting on the moment when the elder sister decides to shut her sibling out, destroying their relationship:
Your sister didn’t have to ask anything of you. She knew that you were the only person who would forever keep the secret from anybody, including your parents. Because she knew that you loved her with all your heart. Despite that knowledge, your sister no longer loved you after that day. She didn’t want to talk with you, or even look you in the eyes. Although you tried very hard to regain her heart for a few years after, you realized one day that no effort of yours could bring back her love and you turned away from her.
p.33 (ASIA Publishers, 2013)
The guilt the younger woman feels turns to pain, and we see how her later injuries are a direct result of her sister’s downward spiral. In fact, there’s a sense that these are self-inflicted scars, punishments for blocking her sister out. With no way of atoning for the years spent ignoring her, she subconsciously decides to punish herself, ending up with physical manifestations of her emotional scars.
The convalescence of the title is a slow process and refers just as much to the mental as to the bodily recovery. Cho Yeon-jeong’s afterword is apt in its analysis of the writer’s style:
Hang Kang’s stories depict people living in pain. Han emphasizes not the cause of the pain or the process of healing but the pain itself. Characters in Han’s stories feel pain not because they have experienced a uniquely unhappy event. Unable to successfully adapt to their everyday lives, they barely manage to live. (p.69)
She dwells on feelings, creating pieces which are physical, emotional, visceral, rather than intellectual, a prime example of showing, not telling. Convalescence is a condensed example of this style, and it’s extremely effective.
Bae’s Time in Gray (translated by Chang Chung-hwa and Andrew James Keast), however, takes a rather different approach. In a story of two halves, the first is a philosophical monologue on the nature of past and present, commenting on the confusion of memories and predictions:
I used to think that the tendency among the old to keep looking back and making references to the past was a result of there being so much of their past left and so little of their future. However, I was wrong. As time goes by, the scenes of the past become more foreign and more dubious, and those impending events will feel closer and also more approachable, bringing with them profound stories not obscure to us.
p.11 (ASIA Publishers, 2013)
Our unnamed narrator spends these first pages stressing the unreal nature of the past, less a reliable series of files than a fiction cobbled together from dubious recollections.
The second section then goes on to examine a memory from more than twenty years earlier, with the narrator looking back at Su-mi, a young woman who attended their Esperanto class for a short time. The youth (of the time) is enthralled by her quiet beauty and is obsessed with her for the short time their paths cross, but she soon fades from view – until the day rumours spread of her death in an air crash.
But what if the rumours were wrong? At this point, the text moves on to a later meeting, where Su-mi and the narrator discuss why the beauty left the class and how she felt when she became aware of attitudes towards her. And yet, there’s another twist here. The truth is that this may never have taken place – this is imagined future told as factual past…
Time in Gray is a complex piece of writing, a stark contrast to Han’s tale in its focus on the intellectual rather than the emotional. The book’s blurb talks about the narrator using ‘he’, yet the English text doesn’t really denote their gender, and to be honest, I felt that this lack of distinction (which also comes across in A Greater Music) is an integral part of the story (of course, it’s very possible that the Korean version, included in this book, tells a different tale).
It’s a fascinating story in which the writer bends time, using the past tense to describe events which never were, but which (in the narrator’s mind) have long since occurred. The few characters add to the curious mood: the laconic narrator, the empty, symbolic Su-mi, and the narrator’s friend, a guilty, self-flagellating vegetarian (locked away in a bare room with Mahler playing to hide the sound of the whip…). The final scene tops this all off nicely, with the narrator, Su-mi and the vegetarian chatting in a (possibly non-existent) restaurant, waiting for food that may never come. I’m not entirely sure what it all means – it’s definitely worth reading again to try to find out more.
These two small books are from a set I’ve talked about before, ASIA Publishers’ Bilingual Edition Modern Korean Literature series, and are excellent examples of what the books are all about. In truth, they’re only short stories, but they come with the original Korean version plus critical commentary and a brief biography of the writers, and (if you’re lucky…), they’re available on Amazon. I doubt that they’re for the average, casual reader, but if you’re a fan of the two writers, they’re certainly worth seeking out 🙂