Memory, Time, and Politics

In a country where industrialization and democracy took root simultaneously, how will young Korean writers reflect on and investigate the issues of Korean modern history? These writers examine society’s social problems through a new reality and through new techniques. Within the prism of their vision, what will be the reality of the Korean society that they perceive?

 

After the 1990s, Korean society entered a new phase that was different from the past. People began agreeing that Korea was a rare case among developing countries in that it had accomplished both industrialization and democratization. Upon the realization of industrial and democratic goals, matters of individual desire begin to precede attitudes emphasizing public ideology.

Due to the intimate relationship between literature and society, this kind of social change has been organically reflected in novels. The concern of novels has gradually shifted from the public sphere to the private sphere. The position of nation, people, and ideology in novels has been replaced by matters of domesticity and private life such as issues of family, sexuality, social minorities, and so forth.

The changes are evident in the form of the novel. Varieties of media became more prominent, and the walls between high culture and low culture have broken down. With these social changes, the boundary between literature and other media has continued to collapse. Traditionally accepted aesthetics has lost its ground in contemporary Korean novels.

 

1 Goodbye Mr. Yi Sang Kim Yeonsu, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp., 2007, 278p ISBN 978-89-8281-358-6 03810

2 The Last Fan Club of the Baseball Team, Sammi Superstars Park Min-gyu, Hankyoreh Publishing Company 2008, 304p, ISBN 978-89-8431-104-6 03810

3 Having Been at a Loss, I Knew IT Went That Way Lee Kiho, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp. 2007, 328p, ISBN 978-89-546-0228-2 03810

4 Human Myth Son Honggyu, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp., 2005, 328p ISBN 978-89-546-0000-X 03810

5 So Quoth Bongseop Son Honggyu, Changbi Publishers, Inc. 2008, 335p, ISBN 978-89-364-3705-3 03810

6 The Trunk of Mr. Jo Paik Gahuim, Changbi Publishers, Inc. 2007, 311p, ISBN 978-89-364-3701-5 03810

 

Such a trend has paralleled the democratization and diversification of Korean society in general. The novel is no longer limited to being merely a medium for expressing the social consciousness of male intellectuals. The subjects of novels have extended in terms of gender, generation, and class. The objects of novels have also extended themselves to introspection, consciousness and beyond, to the imagination, fantasies, and the unconscious, distinct from the traditional emphasis on political and social reality.

Yet, various social issues that play important roles in literary self-expression are still at work in Korean society. There are authors who express their concerns about society in very new ways. They face this changed reality, accept different and new aspects of their community, and convert these changes into the varied content and form of their novels. Here are some exemplary examples from five male novelists in their late thirties.

In his novels, Kim Yeonsu focuses on the skepticism concerning the public history and memory of the collective. Absolute truths in history are non-existent to him since he believes that history can be interpreted differently according to one’s point of view. However, skepticism doesn’t always equate with the denial of objects. He explores the themes of history, memory, and artifacts, which the former generation had dealt with in different variations.

Goodbye Mr. Yi Sang (2001) explores the irony between reality and fiction through three related stories about the lost death mask of the brilliant poet Yi Sang (1910-1937), who died young during the Japanese colonial period. The short stories in Kim’s book, I’m a Ghostwriter (2005) show the contingencies behind the necessity of history in various ways. The possibility of writing postmodern Korean historic novels has been realized in his latest work, Whoever You Are, No Matter How Lonely (2007). It draws on late 20th century Korean history, centering on the May 18th uprising in Gwangju.

The historic times that Kim skeptically looks back on are now regarded with amusement by Park Min-gyu. Park looks back on Korean society’s past using movements of popular culture, not political events. Through a cosmic imagination, he also explores futuristic prospects of humankind.

The Last Fan Club of the Baseball Team, Sammi Superstars (2003) relays the story of a professional baseball team named Sammi Superstars, a team that went from the top to the bottom of the league from...