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.
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
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
1997, 246p, ISBN 8982810498
4. The Old Garden (2 Vols.)
Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2000, 331p, ISBN 8936435906 (Vol.1)