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.
The Library of Musical Instruments is a short story collection by Kim Junghyuk, While Kim is a winner of several Korean awards, it is probably safe to say that he is largely unknown in the English-speaking world.
The collection is distinguished, above all, by two things: almost all the stories feature music in one form or another and none contain anything particularly Korean. Indeed, except for the odd word or two (and just about literally “or two”) in italics, the stories could be placed essentially anywhere. The only thing that distinguishes the work as being “foreign” is the slightly flat and not entirely natural tone of the translation—which may, one hastens to add, be faithful to original.
Several of the stories, perhaps most, also feature the intersection of music and technology, some of which (MP3 players, CDs, vinyl, cassettes tapes) are distinctly quaint and reflects, one suspects, the relatively age of the stories: the original Korean version dates from almost a decade ago. One story tells of a pianist coming to terms with an automatic piano. The title story is of a car crash victim who rehabilitates himself by working in a music store and making an electronic collection of the sounds of all the various instruments. Another features a DJ who loses his edge when he gets locked away in a basement by someone running a pirate music operation.
The author’s Wikipedia article says that “Kim’s stories are considered on the outer fringe of Korean literature.” There is not a great deal of evidence of that here. The characters are usually somewhat peculiar—obsessed or obsessive—and rarely if ever have actual names: sometimes none at all, sometimes a pseudonym, sometimes an initial. All are in the first person and adopt a conversational tone through which many of their quicks are directly revealed. One could say that most stories are psychological in one way or another. Objects, people and situations are all somewhat off-kilter, but not hugely so; a few have a touch of surrealism, but just a touch. If this is the fringe, then Korean literature must be strongly centripetal.
This might actually be good news for people who like their stories to resemble stories, which is not to say that Kim’s are entirely traditional. Indeed, the stories seem more situation- than narrative-driven: some end in reflection rather than a definitive dénouement.
There is one intriguing story in which Kim combines the elements to particularly good and innovative effect. “Manual Generation” is about a writer of “user manuals”— surely the most banal of genres—who has a poetic bent. The story, which isn’t the main point, is that one of the clients is so taken with his work that they finance him to run an entire magazine about user manuals. But Kim seems instead to be writing about how manufactured objects are defined by how they are in fact used, and that one’s use of the objects often needs to be guided.
I believe that all manuals have their fate. A good manual is born when a creative product, fine illustrations, and well-written texts come together in perfect harmony. A mediocre product is destined to have a mediocre manual.
Later, when credited with a “wonderful” manual, the protagonist replies
“I give credit to your wonderful product. I’m just a translator.”
The products themselves are musical and somewhat whimsical: a spherical music box that only plays when twisted in particular and non-obvious ways and a globe-shaped MP3 that plays the music of the country into which the headphone jack is plugged.
The result is a meditation on the relationship of man-made articles to the way they are perceived, and how the two influence each other.
The translation by Kim So-Young is fluent. It is impossible for uninitiated to tell whether the almost complete lack of anything identifiably Korean, or even obviously “foreign”, is a function of the original material or a deliberate translation choice. The result has an unsettling effect: language and content that might be from anywhere and nowhere. So while The Library of Musical Instruments is by definition “Korean literature”, it does not need to read as such.