European Cities Reimagined

Works set in the so-called old world of Europe bring not only a modern perspective to the Korean characters that find themselves in cities such as Berlin, London, and Paris, but also a fresh perspective on the lives they left behind in Korea.

 

The 1990s saw great advances in Korean political democracy. The collective demand for political democracy was mostly satisfied in this period that came at the end of half a century of political unrest and military dictatorship. Outside of Korea, the dissolution of socialism in the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s caused many Koreans to lose faith in or abandon their political ideals. This change in the political environment, consequently, greatly affected the daily lives of the Korean people. The 1988 Olympic Games marked the shift of Korean society into a highly consumerist one. People spent more money, in more spaces, and in different settings than before. It became more common to do business overseas, as well as to travel abroad for pleasure.

These societal changes gave birth to a new generation of globally-minded writers that began incorporating their overseas experiences into their work. More writers began writing about travelling or living overseas and gaining fresh perspectives on life outside the narrowly defined bounds of the Korean peninsula in pursuit of more universal values. Never before has the setting of Korean literature been expanded so greatly as in the work of these writers whose writing depict countries ranging from Germany and France to England.

Koh Jongsok’s short story “Requiem for a Dead Sister” dates from the years of rapid societal change in the 1990s. Taking its title from the 8th century monk Wolmyong’s famous hyangga, a poem of two to five couplets mourning the death of his sister, this story centers on the feelings of remorse upon the death of a cousin of the protagonist, a former reporter now studying in Paris. After wandering the streets aimlessly after hearing the news, the protagonist is at the Père Lachaise Cemetery when he realizes what her death means to him. His cousin was neither a revolutionary nor a fighter, unlike the Communards buried in Père Lachaise that sacrificed their personal lives for a greater cause. While the horrifying Gwangju Massacre that occurred when his cousin was in university awakened her social consciousness, she did not give herself over to radical activism but chose the quieter path of teaching at night school while studying to become a doctor.

The protagonist, however, realizes that the ordinary life his cousin led was truly a great one. It was made great by her selflessness and small acts of kindness that she practiced every day of her life. The Communards buried in Père Lachaise are revolutionaries, fighters, and politicians who wanted to change the world. They stand on the side of the collective, the greater good. The protagonist’s cousin, on the other hand, was merely an individual who practiced small acts of kindness in her everyday life, regardless of the changes in the outside world. Unlike the revolutionaries and fighters that become heroes regardless of whether their cause succeeded or not, his cousin will never be remembered by history. However her kindness to all those in her life including her patients, even up until the moment of her death, makes her life as heroic as any other.


1. Baridaegi
Hwang Sok-yong, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2007, 301p, ISBN 9788936433581
2. The Field of the Stars
Gong Ji-Young, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2004, 264p, ISBN 9788936436803
3. Requiem for a Dead Sister
Koh Jongsok
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
1997, 246p, ISBN 8982810498
4. The Old Garden (2 Vols.)
Hwang Sok-yong
Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2000, 331p, ISBN 8936435906 (Vol.1)

It is revealing that this story was written in the 1990s when the individual rose above the collective, revolutionary, and ideology-oriented mindset of Korean in the 1980s. Its defense of the individual and ordinary life in the face of collectivism and ideology comes to life in Paris, the bastion of modernity and the French Revolution. Only in the foreign space of Père Lachaise does the protagonist finally gain insight into the reality of Korean society.

The city of Berlin as a setting in Korean literature functions as a space of political freedom unimaginable in Korea, as well as a place that has achieved that faraway dream: reunification. This geopolitical environment influences the general perception Koreans have of Berlin as well as the lives and fates of the Korean characters living there. In short, Berlin is reconstructed as a space that represents the outcome or resolution of a nation’s division.

Gong Ji-Young’s The Field of the Stars features characters whose lives are directly linked to Berlin. The book is the direct result of the author’s year-long sojourn in Germany. Her Berliners series represents a different sort of literary potential than Hwang Sok-yong’s The Old Garden, in which Berlin is a post-Cold War city that has moved beyond leftist ideology towards a more organic view of the world. To Gong, Berlin is a place where the past and present meet, inspiring pain and remorse as well as a new way of life that cannot be reached through a narrower, more prejudiced view of the world. Berlin is a place to test out alternate ways of living and thinking.

In Gong’s work, Berlin appears as a melting pot of people haunted by anxiety and fear. It is the habitat of those exiled from their homes, the place where people of different nationalities and ethnicities meet and fall in love, and the space where those who have lost faith and love discover themselves anew. In her work Berlin does not mirror one kind of ideology but stands for a microcosm of life itself, free of any political or nationalistic concerns, where this kind of life flows free and gives birth to alternate ways of life. This is why it is possible to compare and contrast the values, customs, and manner of life in faraway Seoul with that of Berlin, to reflect on similarities and differences and gain new insights. Berlin is where the wounded may gain distance from the time and space that they once occupied and create a new life for themselves.

After the turn of the century, Korean literature set in Berlin completely departs from the narrative of Berlin as an archetypical bastion of political ideology. Young people that came of age in the era of globalization are free of the political preoccupations of the ...