As contemporary Korean literature receives increasing acclaim in English-language circles—Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize—it is perhaps inevitable that efforts are being made to introduce older Korean classics to the English language mainstream. One of of these is Sweet Potato, a newly-translated volume of short stories by Kim Tongin (or Kim Dong-in) written mostly in the Japanese colonial period between the Wars.
South Korea was not always the prosperous, democratic country it is now. Just a few decades ago in the late seventies, it was relatively poor and ruled by a harsh authoritarian regime desperate to catch up with the West while cracking down on any form of public dissent. This is the turbulent backdrop against which Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz takes place.
“Bandi” is Korean for “firefly”. It is the pseudonym chosen by the writer of the seven short stories and two poems now gathered in The Accusation, translated into English by Deborah Smith.
The burdens of immigrant life in Japan provide the meat of Min Jin Lee’s new novel Pachinko. Spanning five generations, Pachinko is the arresting tale of a Korean family which emigrated to Japan and is a welcome and timely publication dealing with the fraughtness of colonial and immigrant experiences. Although such scope might make one think of a sprawling, Tolstoyean narrative, Lee maintains a taut, narrow focus, unraveling the uniqueness of her characters while providing a deeply satisfying attention to detail.
Marlene Dietrich famously sang of still having a suitcase in Berlin, a wistful testament to the evocative power of memory and the hold that people and places can have on us. In many ways the unnamed Korean female narrator in Bae Suah’s novella A Greater Music has left her own suitcase in the German capital, one packed with scraps of memories from a broken intimate relationship with an older German woman and the morning-after emotions that surface when reflecting on a life lived elsewhere.
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.