Korean literature is a great way of starting a one-sided conversation with your book-loving friends. It’s off beat, deep and not many people have read much of it. Sadly, that’s because it’s largely inaccessible thanks to an almost non-existent printing base outside of East Asia and because what does leak through is often marred by poor translations abounding with phrases like, “By the way, I have one thing I feel very regretful.” That said, here’s a brief introduction to this hidden realm of literature:
1. Hong Gildong by Heo Gyun
This is the classic Korean text. Written in the late 16th century, it centres around the life of Gildong, the illegitimate son of a nobleman who is condemned to death by a wicked stepmother only to escape and begin in a life of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. But unlike Robin Hood, Gildong can create illusions to trick his enemies.
Hong Gildong was written during a strict Confucian period in Korea’s history, and the tale was considered revolutionary at the time. The vindication of an illegitimate child and the forceful redistribution of wealth were provocative themes, and Heo Gyun fully intended to upset society and promote radicalism when he set out to write his action-packed tale.
What stands out in the text is that despite being every bit the Korean Robin Hood, it’s also surprisingly pensive. Gildong is a hero in turmoil with his identity. He regrets much of his heroic life and wishes simply that his father had loved him. The story culminates in a moment in which the personification of death asks Gildong if he has enjoyed his time on Earth. Before we receive the hero’s answer, he has already vanished from the world.
2. The Camellias by Kim Yujeong
Jumping forward to the early 20th century, we come across one of the masters of the Korean short story: Kim Yujeong. The Camellias is his curiously Freudian tale about a higher-class girl expressing her sexual longing for her lower-class neighbour by encouraging her rooster to attack his rooster. If it sounds funny, that’s because it is. Told from the perspective of the clueless boy, it elaborates on his bemusement to offer a picture of rural Koreans reconciling their personal urges within rigid societal boundaries — while including a lot of roosters along the way.
One of the great things about Kim Yujeong’s writing is the conflict played out through his symbolism. When the girl is bold enough to offer a hot potato to the boy, he can only see it as emblematic of her contempt for him, while to the reader it’s clear that it’s actually a representation of her heart.
A violent love story with a beautiful ending, The Camellias shows a literary quality that is hard to define but is equally easy to identify as Korean.
3. Seoul 1964 Winter by Kim Sungok
The second half of the 20th century provided a wealth of Korean texts dealing with urbanisation. With a quarter of South Korea’s population shifting into Seoul in the decades after the war, it’s perhaps no wonder that this theme became so important.
Kim Sungok’s Seoul 1964 Winter is a resulting masterpiece of Korean alienation. The story centres around a young man who meets an intellectual and a salesman at a late-night food stand. When it becomes clear that the salesman has just sold his dead wife’s body to science, the three of them set out to spend the money on a night of revelry — only, for these characters, there isn’t any to be had in Seoul.
Buying food and drink and fancy neckties only brings the salesman’s grief into sharper relief and makes him realise that what he really wants is his wife’s body back. Ultimately they chase fire trucks, watch an apartment burn down and throw the remaining money into the flames. Throughout the text, the narrator’s commentary, the salesman’s grief and the intellectual’s detached observations illustrate the inability of three strangers in the expanding city to understand what others are thinking or feeling.
It’s also worth noting that this piece has a great English translation by Marshall R. Pihl, published in the United States, so you can actually read it as well as talk to your book-loving friends about how you blasted through all this in well under three minutes.
George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.
KEEP READING: More on Literature