Fiction

Filth Mingling with Moments of Grace: The Lighthouse by Lim Chulwoo
Before filming my five-episode documentary series on South Korea, I immersed myself in the literature of this country, and in doing so discovered some major authors. Lim Chulwoo’s I Want to Go to the Island took my breath away. When creating my films, I asked to meet him, as I did with various other authors, musicians, and artists. Lim has an aura that struck me as soon as he walked into the café, and I knew that we would see eye to eye. I suggested filming him on the islands of Wando and Jejudo. It was an immense pleasure to...
Reading Korean Prose in Russian: What Took Place No One… by Kim Young-ha
With this year’s publication of the short story collection What Took Place No One … Russian readers have gained a great opportunity to discover the work of Kim Young-ha, a Korean writer with an outstanding modern sensibility. Usually when you decide to read a book by a foreign author from a completely different culture, you expect to find something exotic, and having assumed beforehand that the writer’s thinking and philosophy will be difficult to understand, you would probably be bracing yourself for some challenging reading. And although translators do bridge this gap, the descriptive style is often unfamiliar to foreign...
A Cloud Drifting over California: A Contrived World by Jung Young Moon
“I might title this novel Drifting Clouds ,” Jung Young Moon writes in the final paragraph of his new book (which is actually called A Contrived World ), “because this novel, which is a confused play on thoughts and words, has no point at all, like drifting clouds.” (p. 195) It’s true that not much happens in A Contrived World , at least not in terms of plot. The obsessive and somewhat aimless narrator visits California, gets drunk on tequila in the desert, talks to a few homeless people in Golden Gate Park, tries on some hats in Honolulu, then...
The Story of Hong Gildong
As translator Minsoo Kang notes in his introduction, “ The Story of Hong Gildong is arguably the single most important work of classic (i.e. premodern) prose fiction of Korea, in terms not only of its literary achievement but also of its influence on the larger culture.” It’s one of those books that Koreans tend to know about, even if they haven’t necessarily read it for themselves — Hong Gildong is such a dominant figure in Korean consciousness that his name is used as a conventional placeholder, as “John Doe” is used in the US. As a second-generation Korean- American, I’d...
A Small Contemplation of Life’s Big Problems: The Salmon Who Wanted to Swim to the Stars by Ahn Do-hyun
When I first saw Ahn Do-hyun’s The Salmon Who Wanted to Swim to the Stars on my desk, I wanted to put aside this thin book with its stylized Japanese illustration on the cover. To tell you the truth, I don’t normally find this genre, a fable for adults where the main character is a salmon who is different from the rest of the shoal, very interesting. However, I was drawn in by the title and began to read it. From the title I could make the assumption that the main character would be someone who yearns to go farther...
Cutting into the Darkness of Korean Society: Ginger by Cheon Un-yeong
Soft things change shape according to the vessel in which they are held, and transform to fit their environment. Accustomization is a form of chemical reaction, as well as a manifestation of the instinct for survival. Human existence is originally extreme, sensitive and soft, transfiguring according to time and place. Cheon Un-yeong’s latest book, the fulllength work Ginger , tells of the multipaced contrast between such a “vessel” and the mind and body, whilst also boldly cutting into the darkness of contemporary Korean society. The story begins with a monologue of a peculiar venom. The speaker, repeating the phrase “beautiful...
A Parable of Compassion: I Met Rho Gi-wan by Cho Haejin
Cho Haejin’s I Met Rho Gi-wan can meet various kinds of readers’ expectations and draw interest of those who seek tasteful reading, as well as those who wish to explore human psychology, or even those who position books as bearers of eternal values. The plot features several interwoven storylines centered around two main figures: a North Korean refugee named Rho Gi-wan, and the narrator, a South Korean scriptwriter who comes across Rho’s interview and decides to travel to Belgium to meet him. Both characters enter the story through personal tragedy. The narrator runs away from Seoul blaming herself for possibly...
Refugees in Purgatory
Like Dante’s Purgatorio , Kang Young-sook’s Rina describes a harrowing journey through a land that’s neither here nor there—an in-between realm of transient suffering, viewed, in this case, through the eyes of a teenage refugee, fleeing the hell of one country toward the eventual paradise of another. Born in 1967, Kang studied writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts and made her literary debut in 1998. She first came to prominence as a writer in 2002 with the publication of her short story collection Shaken , which set the tone of her later works by exploring the dark side...
Navigating Korea’s Modern Mazes
Characters in many works of contemporary Korean fiction bear a resemblance to those of Southern Gothic literature in that they are complex, ambivalent, insecure, and f lawed individuals struggling to navigate a social landscape that is indecipherable and sometimes hostile toward them. They make their way through modernity’s maze in stories marked by dark humor and the absurd, and they rarely end up any more enlightened in the end. But instead of focusing on poverty, oppression, and violence, the aspect of the grotesque in Korean fiction corresponds more to the technocratic and monetized structure of a culture floundering between East...
On Love and Lurking
Lee Seung-U’s novels have been praised for the way they probe the inner emotional and ethical mechanics of the human subject—often through the lens of theology and spiritual experience. The family drama that unfolds in The Private Lives of Plants is no different, but if one approaches it expecting a staid, predictable tale based on cookie-cutter Christian morality, well, one would be mistaken. Born in 1959, Lee studied theology and published his first novel, Portrait of Erysichthon , in 1981. He has won most of the prominent Korean literary awards, and J.M.G. Le Cléio once cited Lee as the Korean...

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