A Parisian Encounter with Korean Literature by Aurélie Julia

Wednesday, March 16, 5:00 p.m. The 2016 Paris Book Fair opens its doors. Hundreds of people crowd the entrance to what has become an unmissable gathering point for the French literary scene. Started in 1981 in a bid to rescue publishing from a protracted crisis, the fair has been introducing the public to the major players of the literary world for thirty-six years. And while today there is endless grumbling about this important event, nobody wants to miss out. Don’t let this apparent contradiction confuse you, dear readers: France has the largest number of moaners and malcontents on Earth! The French complain about everything at the Book Fair-the location, the lighting, the radiators, the organization, the draughts, the rain—and yet it’s unthinkable that they would miss the festival. The setting is certainly a little drab: an enormous grey hall measuring 55,000m2, surrounded by wide paved areas, with barely a tree to be seen. Inside, the architecture is functional rather than decorative, consisting simply of walls and a roof. This vast hangar is the venue for numerous fairs throughout the year, with themes ranging from agriculture and automobiles to chocolate and the sea. Horses, chickens, cows, boats, and cars all pass through. It is the stage for shows and political meetings alike, and books, too, have found their modest place in the schedule.

     5:30 p.m. The queue stretches a long way back on this late winter day. With the November 2015 attacks still a fresh memory, the police are vigilant. Bags are searched, then searched again, and invitations checked: nobody is spared the treatment. We hop from one foot to the other; the French don’t like to wait around. We’ve been given access to the opening ceremony, so why are we being made to wait in the freezing cold? Forty-five minutes later, we gain entry and catch sight, near the middle of the Fair, of the rather attractive Korean literature pavilion.

     Since 1998, France has granted one country a year the chance to present its own literary culture, with Portugal, Russia, India, Mexico, and various other nations having already received this honor. In 2016, it is Korea that is to enliven the Fair over its four-day duration. Thirty authors, twenty or so editors, and an intense schedule of meetings and signings—the Koreans don’t do things by halves. Paris meets Seoul: talk about a clash of cultures! Just imagine, on one side, 24/7 workers whose motto could be the well-known phrase ‘palli-palli,’ and on the other, officials who won’t even answer the phone after 5:54 p.m. Six or seven years ago, organizing a Korean literature stand at the book fair would have been unthinkable, even the best-stocked bookshops in the capital had about ten Korean books in their catalogue. In 2016, the situation has changed dramatically; Korea’s excellent policy of supporting translation has enabled the spectacular rise of its literature in France. Bookshops now have dedicated shelves for Korean authors.

 

From the left, Aurélie Julia, Han Kang, Oh Junghee, Kim Ae-ran, and interpretor Choi Mikyung

 

     Saturday, March 19. It’s cold. I shuffle along in the queue with some rather grumpy members of the public. I’m hosting two round tables at the Korean pavilion: the first features Oh Junghee, Han Kang, ...