Fiction

Biting Observation Meets Sharp Satire: The Amusing Life by Song Sokze
One of the hardest tasks for a translator is conveying information that goes without saying to a reader of the source text, but without which the reader of the translated version would be left baffled. What to do when the readership of a translation might not share the assumed social, political, and cultural knowledge that makes satire funny? This is one of the daunting challenges facing Kim Se-un, the translator of Song Sokze’s collection of short-short stories, The Amusing Life . The Amusing Life is made up of more than forty short-short stories. Each story takes a moment from life...
The Song of Man: Jacob’s Ladder by Gong Ji-Young
The French edition of Gong Ji-Young’s latest book is certainly eye-catching. Not that the cover is provocative; on the contrary, your attention is drawn by the soothing image of candles glowing serenely against a dark background. Their flames dancing in response to an unseen breath, they suggest silent reverence in the face of divine mystery. Then you notice the novel’s title, Jacob’s Ladder , and the line from William Blake that opens the first chapter: “And we are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love.” Gong Ji-Young draws on the sources...
A Mediation of Water: The Bathtub by Lee Seung-U
A man kisses a woman by the sea in an exotic country: this is the pretext in Lee Seung-U’s The Bathtub for an act of memory that goes far beyond simply recalling a point in time. When the central character returns to collect his things from the woman’s apartment a few months later, he remembers these moments of his existence. Staring at a bathtub that has always intrigued him, he recalls the ocean, inextricably linked to the kiss, and re-examines his feelings. Lee Seung-U is creating a body of work — weaving, book after book, a world which we find...
The Origin and Inheritance of Imagination: The Castle of the Baron de Curval by Choi Jae-hoon
I like the thrill novels give. Because when you are immersed in the illusion of consciousness that words create, you feel you have stepped away from this world for a moment. As a writer myself, when I read such books, I feel something stirring in my heart and find new insight and inspiration. Choi Jae-hoon’s The Castle of the Baron de Curval is an astonishing piece of work not least because of its unexpected format, but it still shows signs of the traditional narrative technique of East Asian literature. At least my sensitive senses react to its traces. Choi uses...
We Are Not Alone: Wonderboy by Kim Yeonsu
On the first page of Kim Yeonsu’s Wonderboy , the narrator, Jeong-hun, remembers the moment all the stars in space stopped moving. A little later, he wonders just how many stars there are out there. He tells us that no matter who you are, there will be a moment when all the stars in the universe stop moving for you. The moment you die. At that moment, every single star in the universe pauses to look down on a lone, dying human. No matter how trivial your life or how pathetic your death, one hundred billion stars will pour their...
The Dream State of Consciousness: A Greater Music by Bae Suah
In Bae Suah’s enigmatic, unsettling, and absorbing new novel, A Greater Music , the narrator goes on a trip, learns German, falls in love, falls into an icy river, expounds upon music and the limits of language, and engages in what may be the most brutal breakup scene I have ever read. Which is to say, many things happen. But to describe this book by the things that happen as if they coalesce into any kind of conventional plot would be to wholly misrepresent it: we never find out how the narrator survives the fall into the river; we’re never...
Heartache, Fights, and Love: A Dog’s Life: The Dog Who Dared to Dream by Sun-mi Hwang
Scraggly is fierce, independent, and brave, not afraid to stand up for what she believes, and completely devoted to those she loves. She has dealt with loss, betrayal, disappointment, and heartache, but she hasn’t given up. Scraggly is the hero of The Dog Who Dared to Dream by bestselling Korean author Sun-mi Hwang, translated to English by Chi-Young Kim. And yes, Scraggly is indeed a dog. While a dog as the main character wouldn’t be unusual in children’s books, seeing the world from an animal’s perspective is much less common in crossover literature. And that’s part of what makes Hwang’s...
Victory in Failure: What’s Left Behind: Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon
The opening scene of this experimental novel takes place in the middle of the night, when the narrator briefly comes face-to-face with a would-be thief attempting to clamber into his bedroom window. Startled, the thief stumbles to the ground. But rather than feeling vindicated, angry, or relieved, the narrator is strangely touched by the encounter: “It seemed that something left behind by the man who hadn’t taken anything from me was hovering around me, having faded without disappearing, like a lingering impression.” (p. 6) That lingering sensation provides the impetus for Vaseline Buddha ; as the narrator explains, “thinking into...
A Subdued, Starless Beauty: Night-Sky Checkerboard by Oh Sae-young
When Oh Sae-young was a toddler, World War Two had just ended, Independence had arrived, and Korea was a Cold War battlefield. When he was a teenager, the civil war had killed nearly three million people. Then martial law and the dictators arrived. At twenty-three, Oh began his career as a poet. But what kind of poetry could be written in such a tragic era, darkened by reminders of the previous generation’s sacrifices, and shadowed by questions of existential meaning? Not surprisingly, Surrealism seemed an appropriate stance for many in Oh’s generation: dislocation, doubt, and psychic dissonance. Now in his...
Crime Pays: The Plotters by Kim Un-su
I’m not a reader of detective novels. I’ve never been able to rid myself of a vague condescension towards the genre, which often seems to forgo the real world in favor of fantasy — a little like, and yet so different from, fairy tales. So when I recently read Kim Un-su’s The Plotters , it was out of pure curiosity, intrigued as I was to see an author I admire (I deeply enjoyed his short stories and debut novel translated into French) 1 offering readers his first detective novel — and a weighty one at that. But I must confess...

Pages