New operas are not perhaps as rare as sometimes made out to be, but it is nevertheless hard to underestimate the significance of Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber appearing at the Hong Kong Arts Festival so soon after its premiere at the San Francisco opera last Autumn.
There is a yesteryear quality to much of Gregory Norminton’s writing, at least in these stories, several of which look backward in style to classics of the genre.
Madonna in a Fur Coat has a backstory almost as long as the novel itself. “When it was first published in Istanbul in 1943,” wrote Maureen Freely, one of the two translators of the recent English-language edition, in the Guardian, “it made no impression whatsoever.”
There aren’t many advantages to waiting for almost fifty years for a novel to appear in translation, but at least one be pretty certain that the book has stood the test of time. Turkish writer Yusuf Atılgan’s Motherland Hotel dates from 1973. It was made into an award-winning film in 1986. The translator Fred Stark completed a translation in 1977, but it appears—a note in a review in Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper to the contrary notwithstanding—not to have ever been published until this edition. The thought of the manuscript sitting in a drawer for the better part forty years is good mental preparation for this short, claustrophobic book.
The changing balance between Asia and the West is a function not just of the relative rise of the Asian economies but also of the apparent withdrawal of the United States from a multi-decade commitment to global leadership, a development which if anything seems to be accelerating under the only recently-installed Trump administration. One place where these two factors coincide dramatically is Latin America, a region that the United States has long considered—somewhat patronizingly, perhaps—as its backyard.
If Mannequin is any evidence, Ch’oe Yun is a writer’s writer. This 2003 novel, only now released in English translation, is a dreamlike reflection on beauty and human existence.
Both challenging and subtle in construction, the novel deals in impressions rather than plot. The story, to which atmosphere clings like mist on a hillside, centers around Jini, a young (teenage) advertising model and the mannequin of the title. A commercial success, she has been been used to promote products since she was a baby, lifting her family out of poverty in the process. Cherished yet controlled, she finally throws it all over and runs away.
Last year, Korean literature burst into English-language consciousness when Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize. The process began earlier, of course: Kyung-sook Shin had won the Man Asian Literary Prize a few years previously. But this is nevertheless a phenomenon of relatively recent vintage.
Not everyone can be a Han Kang, and there aren’t many major literary prizes which take works in translation, so it’s a good thing that Dalkey Archive Press is plugging with away with translations of other important Korean writers.