Korean Literature for Beginners – Part Two (6 to 1)

img_5573Yesterday saw Part One of my Korean Literature for Beginners series, with the first six books and authors introduced, and today we continue the countdown.  Here are another half-dozen great books and writers, some of which you may not have heard of, while others, I suspect, are rather more familiar.  I wonder what’s at number one…


6) Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-gyu
(translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim)

This is another from the Dalkey Archive Library of Korean Literature series, and it’s6c762-img_5107 definitely one of the better choices.  Park’s bitter-sweet romance between a good-looking young man and a slightly less attractive young woman is a critique of a society obsessed with looks and success, and it all comes in an excellent translation and a style that borrows more than a little from Haruki Murakami.  The love story unfolds gently as the woman allows herself to believe that she’s not being led on, only for the writer to surprise us at the end of the book.

This is Park’s only major work in English so far, but once again ASIA Publishers do have a couple of his stories in their bilingual editions.  I haven’t yet tried ‘Is that so? I’m a Giraffe’ (I will eventually, if only for the title…), but his ‘Dinner with Buffett’, a story about a man who pays through the nose for a meal with billionaire Warren Buffett – but has no interest in receiving any financial advice from his dinner partner -, is an intriguing piece claiming that a political change is on the way.  Which most of us would be grateful for…

5) There a Petal Silently Falls by Ch’oe Yun (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton)

c4779-img_5056Ch’oe is another of K-Lit’s big names, and some of her best early work is collected in a book from Columbia University Press.  There are three excellent novellas, of which the best is the title piece, a reflection on the notorious events of the Gwangju Uprising.  It’s a polyphonic story centring on the search for a girl who was at the heart of the tragedy, one that pulls on the heartstrings of a people that can’t quite believe it could happen in their own country…

Ch’oe is another writer who focuses primarily on the short form, and there are several of her stories scattered throughout various collections (e.g. ‘The Gray Snowman’ in Modern Korean Fiction, ‘The Last of Hanak’o’ in Wayfarer, and in the ASIA Publishers series).  However, she has written longer books too, and Mannequin, another recent release in the Dalkey series, is one I’m keen to try sooner rather than later.

4) I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Kim Young-ha (tr. Chi-Young Kim)

When I first started reading Korean Literature a few years back, Kim was arguably the IMG_5237biggest hope for a breakout hit in the west, and while his profile isn’t quite as high now as it might be, he’s still relatively well-known.  Of all the books released in English so far, this taut, ice-cold tale of a man who helps people find peace with themselves (a euphemism, you understand) is by far my favourite.  The excellent writing has a cinematic quality, with the short novel opening our eyes to the surprisingly high number of people in Korea who are unable to cope and would prefer to end it all – which is where our friend comes in…

Kim is a hard writer to pin down as he tends to dart around styles, flitting from one genre to the next (not always successfully in my view…).  Black Flower (tr. Charles La Shure) sees him venture into historical fiction, recounting the story of a failed Korean colony in Mexico, while Your Republic Is Calling You (tr. Chi-Young Kim) is a straight up spy epic, where a North Korean sleeper agent’s life is turned upside-down by a sudden message recalling him to the motherland.  There’s also Photo Shop Murder (tr. Jason Rhodes), a short example of Korean noir, and even an attempt at comedy with Whatever Happened to the Guy in the Elevator? (tr. Jason Rhodes).  Say what you want about Kim, he’s nothing if not versatile 😉

3) The Guest by Hwang Sok-yong (tr. Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West)

e1c65-img_5007Most Korean books hail from, and are set in, the south, and while the odd older novel discusses the Korean War, there’s very little fiction out there showing another side to the DPRK.  However, The Guest is a book that does part the curtain a little, allowing us to accompany an elderly emigrant on his return to his hometown, a trip during which he must face up to the ghosts of the past.  The book caused ripples on both sides of the border as it deals with a massacre that the writer claims was carried out by locals – which isn’t how either state would like to see it…

If you like this, there are several of Hwang’s other books available in English.  The Old Garden (The Ancient Garden in the UK – tr. Jay Oh) examines the life of a man released from prison after his involvement in the Gwangju Uprising, while The Shadow of Arms (tr. Chun Kyung-ja) is a rare novel taking a look at Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  Princess Bari (tr. Sora Kim-Russell) uses the framework of an old folk tale to tell the story of a young woman escaping from North Korea, mixing fairytale elements and the brutal reality of people smuggling.  Oh, and there’s another novel, Familiar Things (tr. Sora Kim-Russell) out in a few months too 🙂

2) The Vegetarian by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

I think you might have heard of this one…

Ever since Han Kang’s debut work in English took out last year’s Man Booker 'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang (Review)International Prize, her fame has spread rapidly in the Anglosphere (with a pretty decent sales boost in her home country too).  Han’s three-part story of a woman whose decision to stop eating meat shatters the lives of all around her is a beautiful work examining the protagonist’s decision on both personal and social levels – and if it’s made the writer a star, it’s nothing compared to what it’s done for the fortunes of the translator…

So, what do you do to follow up a novel like The Vegetarian?  You just release an even better book, of course.  Human Acts (tr. Deborah Smith) was one of my favourite books last year, and would have been more prominent in my end-of-year awards were it not for the fact that I posted on it in the same month as my actual book of the year.  Yet another work arising from the Gwangju Uprising (I think that’s the third mention just in this post…), the novel begins with the slaughter and follows the ripples through time as the survivors struggle to get on with their lives over the ensuing decades.  I’m still not convinced that Human Acts has got the attention it deserves, being slightly overshadowed by the success of The Vegetarian, but for me it’s a far more complete work.

Oh – and Han’s third novel in English, The White Book (tr. well, you know…), should be out towards the end of 2017, in case you were wondering…

1) No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin (tr. Jung Yewon)

7297a-img_4981That’s right – The Vegetarian has had to be content with second place in this countdown, as my prime pick of all the Korean literature I’ve read, at least in terms of accessibility, is a book about a young man walking around with a big, shaggy dog.  Buried amongst the rather mixed bag of offerings in the Library of Korean Literature, No One Writes Back has pretty much sunk without a trace, and that’s a shame because it’s a wonderful read, heart-warming and funny, and a book that many readers would enjoy if they knew it existed.  Jang effortlessly rolls out a story where the main character simply can’t keep still, but the writer times the release of information to perfection, gradually letting slip the young man’s secrets and showing him that he’s not as alone as he thinks he is.  Jung’s translation helps make the book a success, and if you think I’m alone in my championing of the novel, think again.  Charles Montgomery, one of the more prominent reviewers of Korean literature in English, is a big fan, as is Philip Gowman of London Korean Links.  And if you want an even heavier hitter, Michael Orthofer of The Complete Review gave this an A-.  It’s not the most genre-shattering of books, but seriously – this is worth a read.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any other work of Jang’s, however minor, in English 😦

Well, that’s my countdown completed – what do you think?  Any stinkers among my choices?  Any gems I’ve disastrously overlooked?  Let me know in the comments, but watch out for more here tomorrow.  You see, these books were chosen partly for their appeal to the general reader with little idea about Korean literature.  My next post will look at some writers and titles that may appeal to the more adventurous souls among you…

19 thoughts on “Korean Literature for Beginners – Part Two (6 to 1)

  1. “Any stinkers among my choices? Any gems I’ve disastrously overlooked?”

    That’s setting the bar rather high on suggestions but the one book I would have included is Everlasting Empire by Yi In-Hwa – repacked and properly promoted I suspect this Umberto Eco-ish novel could make a real breakthrough.

    There are some others which would be in my K-Lit top 10 (e.g. Haïlji’s The Republic of Užupis and The Reverse Side of Life by Lee Seung-U), but I suspect some may appear tomorrow, as they tend to be at the less accessible end.

    Of those on your list – have to say I’m not as enamoured as you of No One Writes Back. The ending of the book, some rather obvious twists/revelations plus a rather overly sentimental sense of closure, rather detracted from the rest of the book for me, although the first 75% or so was indeed a very enjoyable shaggy dog story.

    And yes Who Ate up all the Shinga? is definitely worth reading.


    1. Paul – Thanks for the suggestion, not one I’ve read. And yes, tomorrow may well see a few more books you might have chosen…

      If I were choosing the best K-Lit books, ‘No One Writes Back’ wouldn’t have been number one, but as an introduction for an average reader (who doesn’t want dross like PLAM – now there’s ‘sentimental’ for you) it’s an excellent book. Adding to the support I quoted above, Nicholas Lezard was also highly effusive in his Guardian review, so I’m going to stand my ground here 😉


      1. I will retire defeated now Lezard has weighed in on your side! And as I recall the TLS review suggested that the sentimental ending could be seen as self-satire. The London Korean List also made it Book of the Year 2013. Perhaps one for me to revisit.

        The translator of No One Writes Back, Jung Yewon, is one my favourites as well. She also did Vaseline Buddha , One Hundred Shadows, parts of A Most Ambiguous Sunday & Other Stories and also the newly released Mannequin.


        1. Paul – Yes, I hadn’t actually realised that she was the translator of this one until I checked. I’ve read all of those except ‘Mannequin’ (which I should be getting to in the near future), and they’re all excellent. It’s been interesting comparing Jung Young Moon’s ‘A Contrived World’ with the ones she translated as I suspect that while it reads very well, it does seem a little more simple in terms of sentence structure.


          1. “It’s been interesting comparing Jung Young Moon’s ‘A Contrived World’ with the ones she translated as I suspect that while it reads very well, it does seem a little more simple in terms of sentence structure.”

            Interesting indeed. Wish my Korean was good enough to tell if this was a feature of the original or a function of the translators.

            I do think Korean lit c10 years ago when I first encountered it suffered from some dreadful translations. That’s been one big positive over recent years – we now have some translators (Smith, Yung) who are rightly stars in their own right,


            1. I can certainly see that standards have improved generally, but it’s a shame in a way that newcomers have stolen all the glory. I have a lot of time for older translators, especially the Fultons, who did the hard yards in getting Korean literature out there, only for the next generation to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time (yes, I realise that there was a lot of hard work and talent involved too!). Having said that, I have read a lot of dross too, and a couple of those books have taken out my annual turkey award…


              1. I’m a bit less sympathetic because I read Korean literature in two waves.

                When I first went to the country (early 2000s) I bought lots of the books that were available then in English, and my experience was such that I, to my shame, had rather written off Korean literature, particularly novels, presuming that the cream was only to be found in poetry and, to a lesser extent, individual short stories.

                It wasn’t really until the new wave of translations came along that I realised quite how strong the culture was, particularly modern novels and contemporary writers. One can then go back and see the gems from the past – but that was a lot of dross to filter through to find them at the time.


            1. Paul – I’ll definitely have to check that out when I get a minute. Planning to read ‘Mannequin’ soon too, and it’ll be interesting to see how Jung’s Ch’oe compares with that of the Fultons…


  2. You were right, a lot if appealing titles but also a few I’ve already got. The Vegetarian and, after one of your posts, I got three of Kim Young-ha’s novels in German translation.
    The first goes on the wish list.No 5 sounds good too.
    Thank you for these lists.


    1. Caroline – I hope you like them! I wouldn’t be surprised if he was more to your taste than mine (and, of course, you have more choice in German…).


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