On the outskirts of Seoul there is a village dedicated to the great writer Hwang Sun-Won, and every autumn literary events are held there. This year scholars and translators gathered to engage in intense discussion regarding the challenges faced when translating his works. Serving as the MC for this seminar I was able to ruminate on the intense linguistic awareness to which Hwang Sun-Won held fast throughout his life. He was a writer who mastered a concise and yet elegant style of prose, and created a beauty in his sentences at once poetic and precise. Like the contemporary writer Han Kang, who was recently awarded the Man Booker International Prize, Hwang began writing from the foundations of poetry, and so the sentences of his prose have a wonderful way of cradling abundant meaning in the shade beneath their surface.
As Korean literature is now in the global spotlight more than ever, I cannot help but notice that it is the writers who hold most dear this poetic beauty in their sentences that are receiving the lion’s share of attention. Literature is a linguistic art, and in that vein it only reaches the level of an art form when the possibilities of linguistic expression are pushed to their limits. In Korean literature, just as in the literatures of other countries, there is a tradition of taking great pains to carefully trim and polish language, and it seems as though this artful writing has ample appeal to draw in readers from around the world.
The featured writer of this issue of Korean Literature Now is Lee Ho-cheol, whose literary mentor was Hwang Sun-Won. Lee Ho-cheol was born in Wonsan, a port city in North Korea, and as someone who fled southward during the Korean War, he has been one of the most important writers of the post-war and division periods. As a writer who could not return to his home, as a writer who embodied the reality of division on the Korean peninsula, from the 1950s onwards he continued to write and publish challenging works of literature. During the past two years I had the honor to meet Lee Ho-cheol on many occasions. Sadly however, around June this year he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and after a long stay in hospital he passed away on the 18th of September, just before the autumn issue went into print. I hope that in some way this issue of Korean Literature Now can serve as a fitting eulogy to Lee Ho-cheol, a writer who crafted great literary works out of his extraordinary life experiences. As the Korean peninsula has been divided for many decades, I believe that stories about the lives lived and events occurring here will become an important and meaningful chapter in world literature.
Also in this issue is an introduction to important works of fiction and poetry that address the theme of apocalyptic literature, and I think that these works speak to the great diversity and depth of Korean writing. Disasters are something which humanity has had to deal with throughout history, but in the modern world natural disasters are now accompanied by a growing range of man-made calamities, and the scale of the damage caused by such events is reaching previously unheard-of proportions. Yet as grave as these tragedies are, in the midst of the adversity such disasters bring about, a new consideration of humanity and human nature has emerged.
Although South Korea has now become an affluent country, it has suffered through an incredibly turbulent modern history. It can be said, however, that through the vitality with which writers do not let such circumstances hold them back, a beautiful literary world has been created. This issue of Korean Literature Now is an opportunity to discover these aspects anew.
by Bang Min-ho
Professor of Korean Literature, Seoul National University