‘Korean Literature Now: Volume 41’ (Review)

The Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea) does many things to promote the country’s writing, and one of these is the publication in English four times a year of the magazine Korean Literature Now.  It just so happens that the latest edition marks the publication’s tenth anniversary, and so they’ve come up with something a little special.  Let’s take a look at a magazine which, this time at least, is far more like a book, with a mix of poetry, fiction and essays that will delight any fan of Korean literature 🙂

Volume 41 of Korean Literature Now pulls out all the stops to celebrate ten years of its history, with a special edition similar in style and format to the Granta magazine (but without the ads).  Where the usual magazine has a mix of essays, reviews, excerpts and interviews, here the focus is very much on content.  The reader is treated to five stories and five short collections of poems, with each of the ten featured writers also lauded in a short essay, written by one of their peers.  Overall, it makes for close to two-hundred pages of excellent content, a must for any fan of Korean literature.

While I’m not the biggest follower of poetry, it was interesting to take a look at what’s on offer here.  One thing I’ve noticed (in my *very* limited experience) is that Korean poetry can be more like paragraphs than the collection of short lines you might expect.  There are several of these among the offerings of Kim Min Jeong, whose work Kim Hyesoon describes as “the language of chatter”, and Song Kyung-dong, a poet whose work has a very political flavour.  There’s no shortage of ammunition for political poets in Korean, and Song’s piece ‘Our Christmas’ (translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé) subtly attacks the rich businessmen who take advantage of their workers:

Is there a road that leads to heaven?
They say Heaven’s a good place,
but do they practice real-estate speculation there?
If so, common folk like us won’t be able to go.
‘Our Christmas’ p.80

This particular poem is made more poignant by the knowledge that it was written in memory of an exploited Samsung engineer who took his own life…

Some of the more language-based poems here come from Song Chanho, such as ‘The Snowman’ (tr. YoungShil Ji and Daniel T. Parker), in which a train traveller sits next to a snowman in the summer sun, and Shin CholgyuRa Heeduk’s essay praises Shin’s ability to sympathise and empathise, and his contributions were among my favourites:

When we die, do the heart and soul stop at the same time?
The brain will clamor for blood,
the oxygen-deprived lungs will sink, little by little,
and the blood circulating in the body will lose its momentum when the heart
stops, and hesitate
unable to move forward or turn back
like lips becoming parched because they couldn’t find the words to speak.
Then will my soul stop, somewhere in my body?
‘Higher than the Heart’ (tr. Hedgie Choi), pp.38/9

I’m sure many people will enjoy these poems from five successful writers, and each section urges the reader to check out the website for more of their work.  With poetry, though, I’m never quite sure what to make of it all, and I was happy to move on having just tried the printed offerings…

Luckily for me (a fiction aficionado), then, there were also five great stories to enjoy.  The only writer I’d encountered before was Hwang Jungeun, and her offering, ‘Raptors Upstream’ (tr. Agnel Joseph), is a typically low-key affair with an outsider’s view of an unfortunate family.  However, this was probably my least favourite of the five stories; it was the less familiar writers that impressed me this time around.

Yoon Sung-hee’s ‘While They Laughed’ (tr. Slin Jung) is a nice way to kick the collection off.  A humorous look at a sad situation, the story follows three friends around as they pay their respects to the fourth friend after his early death.  The story revolves, bizarrely enough, around a piece of furniture, one with an interesting back-story:

I thought we deserved a refund for a movie that put the audience to sleep.  “So let’s take the sofa.”  They’d clapped.  Seong-min and I grabbed the front and Yeong-jae and Min-gi got the back.  “Just tell ourselves we’re sofa repairmen,” said Yeong-jae, or Min-gi – whoever was behind me.  So I told myself that we were the best damned sofa repairmen in the country.
‘While They Laughed’, p.22

But just who is the narrator, the fourth of the friends?  Well, that’ll be the dearly departed – moving on…

While Jung Young Su’s ‘Traces of Summer’ (tr. Anton Hur), featuring a chance meeting in Tokyo between two people who used to be married, continues the light mood, the final two pieces are slightly darker.   Lee Jae Ryang’s ‘Carol’ (tr. Sung Ryu) sees a depressed lyricist attempting to end it all on Christmas Eve, only to be saved by a Christmas miracle.  However, a year later, he discovers that his saviour’s dramatic intervention was no coincidence; only now does he find out the truth behind it.

My favourite of the five stories, though, is Seo Yoo Mi’s ‘Snowman’ (tr. Soyoung Kim).  This one takes place at the start of the new year, with a businessman unable to make it to work as a result of a freak snowstorm that has blanketed the city.  Surprisingly, he’s not completely happy about the unexpected time off:

The longer he stayed at home, the more he missed his desk at the office.  He felt that where he really belonged wasn’t his living room sofa or the chair in front of his home computer, but that hard iron desk and that exit staircase where he exchanged silly jokes with fellow smokers.
‘Snowman’, p.141

The thing is that his bosses want him back, too – as it turns out, a couple of metres of snow isn’t something that should stop Korean salarymen from making it to the office…

That’s certainly a lot to be getting on with, and the short insightful essays by the likes of Park Min-gyu, Lee Seung-U and Pyun Hye-Young complement the poems and stories nicely.  Overall, the book is an attractive item, with the photos of the writers, and the illustrations at the start of each of the short stories just adding to the positive impression.  This will definitely be joining the rest of my books on my Korean shelves.

But where can you access all of this?  Unfortunately, it’s a little too late to get your hands on a physical copy of this special edition, but if you head over to the website, most of it is there for you to enjoy, courtesy of the ever-generous LTI folk (although you’ll have to create an account to do so).  And, if you’re a reviewer or institution interested in receiving future editions, simply drop them a line by clicking on this ‘subscribe’ link.  I’m not sure that everyone is eligible, but there’s no harm in trying 🙂


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