Korea was a unified, homogeneous country from the seventh century CE until 1945 when in the wake of the Second World War it was partitioned by the United States and the Soviet Union and formally became two separate states in 1948. Since that time, writes James Madison University history professor Michael J Seth, Korea has been a nation divided into vastly different social systems and “perpetually at war” with itself. Seth’s new book Korea at War attempts to describe and explain this geopolitical transformation.
Greek Lessons by celebrated Korean author and Man Booker International Prize winner Han Kang is a brief, poetic, and intimate look into the lives of two people, each affected by a disability, both cleaved from society in their own way, yet progressively drawn together by their shared grief and nascent hope. The narration switches between the two, tracing their lives in a series of flashbacks or letters to loved ones that show how each progressively fell away from family and friends, either due to distance or death and divorce.
Tales of love, loss and survival set in the war-torn Korea of the 20th century are cleverly linked in the life of one female “trickster” in this debut novel from South Korean writer Mirinae Lee. Seven individual stories are connected through the device of an elderly lady, Mrs Mook, recounting her experiences. Listening carefully is Lee Sae-ri, a middle-aged divorcee who works at the Golden Sunset retirement home where Mrs Mook lives. In a bid to ease the residents through their final years, Lee Sae-ri has taken it upon herself to write their “obituaries” by recording their personal histories.
With war comes much trauma, and America’s Asian wars had the additional consequence of Amerasian children—too often left behind by both parents—who more times than not ended up on the streets. There is a term in Vietnamese that translates to “children of the dust” and it’s this concept that drives the story and title of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s second novel, Dust Child. Another recent novel, Skull Water by Heinz Insu Fenkl, also centers around biracial children with GI fathers and Asian mothers during the time of the Vietnam War.
Cheon Myeong-Kwan’s Whale is a sweeping epic mostly set in Pyeongdae, a remote mountain town that immediately evokes Macondo from Gabriel García Márquez’s similarly sprawling epic One Hundred Years of Solitude. Depicted with the same sort of dreamlike magical realism, Pyeongdae goes from a forgotten mountain hamlet to a booming railway city to a ghost town set against a fun, witty satire of Korea’s development from a Japanese colony to a prosperous independent republic.
South Korea might be a wealthy nation with some of the world’s most well-known tech firms and pop culture, but its success did not occur overnight or without considerable hardship. Covering everything from war, elections, coups, uprisings, global conglomerates, a football World Cup, Olympics and K-Pop, Ramon Pacheco Pardo’s Shrimp to Whale is a brisk modern history of the East Asian nation’s tumultuous rise from the ashes of colonialism, war, and poverty in the 20th century.
A round-up of reviews of works in translation from Korean, including fiction, story collections, poetry and non-fiction. Click on the title for the review.