Society & The Imagination: Novels Testify to Their Era

Japanese literary critic Karatani Kojin once talked of the death of modern literature. Although literature used to deal with matters that politicians couldn't handle, he claimed that in the current era, modern literature had given up this role, thereby signaling its own demise. An interesting fact is that Karatani held up Korea as evidence of this decline. In reality, South Korean writers exposed various contradictions facing society, focusing their efforts on portraying the people's difficulties in navigating a paradoxical society. They accomplished many achievements big and small in visualizing these struggles. It is no exaggeration to say that the power of social visualization played a dominant role in the work of Korean writers. Due to this influence, we can see the various detailed facets of life from historical periods portrayed in fiction. On the other hand, to achieve a better understanding of Korean novels, one sometimes has to be informed about the social, political, and historical currents prevalent in Korean history.

Choi In-hun's novel The Square covers the period immediately after Korean liberation to the beginning of the armistice ending the Korean War in 1953. The protagonist is Lee Myong-jun, a college student in the South who is persecuted for having a father in the North. He returns home and participates in the Korean War on the side of the North. Lee is captured and after the armistice chooses to live in a third country. On his way to a new land, he flings himself into the sea.

After independence from Japan, the most urgent task facing Korea was so-called nation-building. Discussions followed about what political system the new nation should have, whether it would be a bourgeois democracy or a democracy of the proletariat. The Worker's Party of South Korea proposed a third way, compromising between the two systems. In 1948, however, the South established its own separate government, making further discussion moot. After the Korean War broke out and ended in armistice, national division became an irrevocable reality. In The Square, Lee Myong-jun's path through the South, the North, and finally a third country was an abbreviated illustration of this process. In Lee’s view, both the South and North had problems: the sole philosophy of bourgeois democracy in South Korea was that everything had to occur behind closed doors, while the sole ideology in the North was that of the public square. If so, we can imagine a third space that belongs to neither South nor North, but as Lee's suicide at the finale suggests, such a space for Koreans did not exist. This also meant that there was no third way that either side would have been willing to accept, a conclusion which corresponded with the historical realities at the time.

1. Le vieux jardin
Hwang Sok-yong, Zulma, 2005

2. La Plaza
Choi In-hun, Editorial Verbum, 2007

3. Ce paradis qui est le vôtre
Yi Chong-Jun, Actes Sud, 1993

4. Der Zwerg
Cho Se-Hui, Verlag am Hockgraben, 1997

 

 

Author Choi In-hun once said that he wouldn't have been able to write this book had it not been for the April Revolution. During the Syngman Rhee regime of the 1950s, South Korean society was under the sway of anti-communist ideology. Freedom of thought was restricted and it was almost impossible to freely criticize realities in the South or praise the system in the North. This situation was resolved by the April Revolution (April 19th, 1960), which bestowed freedom on South Koreans for a short time. Although the revolution ultimately failed, ideologies from both the South and North as well as attempts to find a third way were openly discussed during this period, thereby influencing Choi.

Yi Chong-Jun's This Paradise of Yours is set in Sorok Island, a leper community, shortly after a military coup in South Korea. Hospital Director Cho Baek-heon envisions a plan to build a paradise for lepers on Sorok Island, but runs into trouble with his patients when he tries to carry out his plan. The novel details the events that transpire before the director's vision ends in failure. In this story, Yi asks readers whether it is possible for humans to build heaven on Earth. We have often seen in history that attempts to build utopias lead to human oppression, which is not too different from the events in Yi’s novel. As part of the hospital director's plans to create a leper's heaven, he wants to reclaim land from the sea to be used as fertile land for farming. This announcement is met with suspicious glares from the island's residents, who have seen similar plans proposed by others before the appointment of Director Cho. Although they accept his proposal to transform Sorok Island into a paradise, and are willing to make sacrifices to realize his plan, in the end obedience to authority is required of them.

As the title of the novel suggests, a paradise built in such a way can only be “yours,” not “ours.” Even Director Cho cannot overcome this barrier. Eventually the director’s ill-fated attempts to use the apparatus of power give rise to a powerful idolatry. He then realizes the necessity of firmly choosing the values of fr...