Fiction

Loss Is the Tie that Binds: I'll be Right There by Shin Kyung-sook
A woman receives a phone call early one morning informing her that a beloved college professor is dying. The jolt of this impending loss sends her tumbling back into memories of her youth, when her life and the lives of her friends were transformed by loss. She begins with the now eight-year-long loss of a lover and then vaults us back to the beginning, to the loss of her mother. Jung Yoon, the narrator of Shin Kyung-sook’s latest novel, I’ll Be Right There , recounts how she was sent to live in Seoul while still a teenager, as her dying...
Passive Resistance: La Vegetariana by Han Kang
When faced with a novel like La Vegetariana ( The Vegetarian ), Western readers might wonder whether a political reading is appropriate. The plot can obviously be seen as a metaphor for the role of the family in Korean society and what could be seen as oppressive cultural strictures. Readers anywhere might wonder whether these strictures, linked to familial traditions but also the overbearing presence of capitalist society, represent the author’s critical vision or whether they function as a kind of crass realism: a portrait of a society racked by evident class tensions. Han Kang astutely leaves both avenues of...
Rivers of a Life: Sept méandres pour une île by Yi In-seong
The title of this book, Sept méandres pour une île ( An Island at the Mouth of the River ), both in Korean and French, brings to mind that time and place where the river of life dips into the sea of infinite whose ultimate horizon is death. The alluvium-rich island denotes an ever-evolving life. After the river completes several sequences of exemplary loops and is on the brink of fleeting fullness, it looks like a vacillating “I” that is a human being, who is gradually taking possession of his “me” that is an island. As a fluid narrator, he...
Lessons Hard Learned: Na Krayu Zhizni by Cheon Myeong-kwan
The novel Na Krayu Zhizni ( Aging Family ), written by the well-known writer Cheon Myeong-kwan, introduces us to the life of a small Korean family. A mother, sons, a daughter, and a granddaughter are living with difficulties, haunted by a series of misfortunes, losses, and trouble. In-mo, the younger son in the family, narrates the story. He is a 48-year-old intellectual who likes to ruminate on his life and ruins himself by drinking. He once showed great promise in cinema, which made his family proud. Unfortunately, those expectations were not met and the very first movie he directed failed...
Alienation Without Pity: No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-jin
I can’t remember having cried at the end of a novel before, particularly one in which nothing much happens. No One Writes Back is a beautiful gem that works its slow magic on you over the course of 152 numbered paragraphs of which the shortest is only three words, at least in the English translation. The blurb on the back of the book rather undersells it, pitching Jang’s writing as “ … this sly update of the picaresque novel.” I had to look up what a picaresque novel was, and still have no idea why it might need a sly...
An Old Book About the Recent Past: The Man Who Was Left as Nine Pairs of Shoes by Yun Heunggil
I started reading Korean literature about three years ago. Before that, I had never been exposed to works by Korean writers. The only Korean narratives that I had encountered was through a few Korean films. The first Korean book that I read was The Map: An Anthology of Short Stories in Korean Literature ( Ji-do: antologia de la narrativa coreana contemporanea ), a collaborative project between Argentine writer Oliverio Coelho and Professor Kim Un-kyung. By introducing short stories by various prominent writers, this anthology presents a rich panorama of the unique culture of Korean society. I was not only intrigued...
A New Horizon for the Korean Coming-of-Age Novel: Anchovy by Kim Joo-Young
I teach at a university in China, with a degree in Korean Literature. It follows, naturally, that I should take part in promoting Korean literature in China. I am truly grateful for the opportunity I have been given to do so through the translation grant program of the Korean Literature Translation Institute. While studying literature in Korea, I encountered many authors indirectly through their work. As I was merely a student at the time, direct encounters with authors in most cases seemed only a remote possibility. Upon returning to China, I came across a chance to participate in a Chinese-Korean...
The Significance of Hong Sung-won’s Novel However
However , a novel by the late Hong Sung-won, was published in Japan in April, marking the second anniversary of his death. The novel depicts a character that staged a fight against imperialist Japanese to secure independence for Korea but later betrayed his own country and led a shameful life. The novel chronicles the miserable life of the turncoat and the tragic life of his descendants. The editor who helped publish the Japanese edition explains the significance of the novel. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Japanese annexation of Korea. A turning point in Japanese history, various attempts...
An Unavoidable Desire: Wanting to Go Insane, Yet Unable by Yi In-seong
Yi In-seong’s full-length novel has been published by Imago in France, with the French title set as Interdit de Folie. The novel introduces a central character who has lost both his youth and love during the 1980s at the height of the student-led democracy movement against the military regime in Korea. The novel follows the character’s attempts to figure a way out by writing. It is quite interesting to examine what kind of route it takes for works of Korean literature to be translated into French and reach bookstores in France. It is especially the case with Yi In-seong’s full-length...
Remembering Society’s Forgotten: The Last 4½ Seconds of My Life by Song Sokze
Since modern Korean literature for years has been dominated by the theme of the Korean War, the division, and all the consequences for individuals, nowadays there are young writers of a new generation who are finding their very own subjects. We are grateful to translators for turning our attention to these writers. One of them is Song Sokze, born 1960, who is known for his partly unreal, partly absurd stories, in which often minor figures of society are at the center of attention: there are drunkards and thugs, criminals, and swindlers. The stories in his recently published book Die letzten...

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