A Parisian Encounter with Korean Literature by Aurélie Julia

  • onAugust 3, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • by

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, and Kim Ae-ran; the second Han Kang, Lim Chulwoo, and the French writer Christine Jordis. I was given the theme for the discussions a few weeks prior; the first was “Women’s Voices.” Upon reading the proposal, I had been a little frustrated (in case you’d forgotten, I’m French, so I grumble a lot). No one would have thought to suggest a debate about “men’s voices.” The notion of “women’s literature” suggests to me some kind of sub-literature. I needed to dispel this negative impression as soon as possible, so I asked myself why a theme like that might have been submitted. What did it mean in 2016? In the West, Korean society is often considered to be highly patriarchal, derived from Neo-Confucianism: women are defined first and foremost in relation to the family and their role as mother. Wasn’t it time to shake up these stereotypes? Weren’t women moving out of this internal, domestic space and becoming independent? Weren’t they becoming a more noticeable feature of the literary landscape? These questions came pouring out during the round table. Oh Junghee, Han Kang, and Kim Ae-ran agreed with me; all three disapproved of the label “women’s literature.” They wanted to talk about their Korea, the Korea of yesterday and today, a Korea which is losing its bearings and is witness to an extreme violence between humans. Via their entirely unique styles, these authors acquaint French readers with both Korea’s recent history and the day-today experiences of a changing country.

     The second theme was “Does the past still have a future?” Golly. Philosophy never has been my strong point… What does the question mean? Is Korea’s past under threat today? Is it a barrier to the future? Is a future possible for Korea without its past? The works of Han Kang (Human Acts) and Lim Chulwoo (The Lighthouse) explore, in their own way, memories, remembrance, and transmission. Han Kang was ten at the time of the bloody repression of student and trade union revolts in Gwangju by the dictatorial regime, which took place in 1980. She explores the tragedy in seven chapters of unbelievable intensity. The audience listens to her evoke spiritual torment and also hope.  People may try to bury the truth, but it will always emerge one day. A seventy-year-old Korean lady speaks from the audience with tears in her eyes: she didn’t know about this historical tragedy that took place in her own country. Lim Chulwoo, sitting to the right of Han Kang, witnessed these dramatic events, but the words get stuck in his throat: he chooses not to talk about them. The book he is presenting at the Book Fair deals with his childhood in a poor, dirty, and harsh country—a Korea that the West is almost entirely unaware existed. He discusses solitude and his own experiences—sometimes joyful, sometimes cruel. We have to love our memories, he concludes, even if they are tinged with ashes and despair. They speak to us; they can act as beacons—or “lighthouses”—for future generations. The audience, moved, is just preparing to leave after a long round of applause when Lim Chulwoo calls out a final piece of advice: “Never forget. Dreamers find their way in the darkness. You have to discover your own dream!”




by Aurélie Julia

Editorial Coordinator, Revue des Deux Mondes