[Foreword] Korean Literature, Present, Past, & Future

  • onDecember 22, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • byBrother Anthony of Taizé

I want to try to write something about Korean literature past, present and future. The past is easy, I’ve been there. I have been publishing translations since 1990. I used to have lunch with Ku Sang, Lee Hae-in and Pi Chundeuk, supper with Seo Jeong-ju, prayers in our house with Kim Nam Jo, and would drink two to three bottles of baekseju with Kim Jong-gil despite his doctor’s orders. He was so proud of having met T. S. Eliot in his office in Russell Square. That was long ago. I remember the day Kim Nam-ju died.

 I’m less sure if I can write about the future of “Korean literature.” All that most of us translate is “South Korean literature.” Suppose something unimaginable happened and Korea became a united country again? Who would be writing then? Who would be publishing? Who would be reading? Who would be translating? What would that be like? That’s one reason why I cannot easily write about the future. I’m not a prophet. It is so strictly unimaginable. And moreover, few people in South Korea today have time to read because they have to earn enough money to pay for somewhere to live, usually alone. Life is hard here.

 The literary scene in Korea today, as perceived through the English translations which are currently being published, is dominated by stories of pain, psychosis, murder, domestic conflict, and horror. On the margins are fantasy tales about humanized animals, whether hens or salmons, or the brass fish from a temple’s wind chime. Science fiction, too, struggles to find its voice. Is all that “literature”? What do we mean by “literature”? “English literature” begins with Beowulf, includes Chaucer and Shakespeare, and ends before I was born. Modern writing is not “literature” but designed for “entertainment” and to earn a profit. “Korean literature” includes Yi Gyubo, Jeong Yakyong, and probably ends with Yi Kwang-su or Kim Sowol. Who reads and is influenced by them today?

 After the war, Korean writing was dominated by alienation, division, conflict and the most admired style was documentary realism. People wrote about the war, industrialization, urbanization, the shift to high-rise housing, all kinds of modernization. What remains for the future? Fantasy? Realism? Confessional poetry? Cruelty? Korea’s society is full of competition, rivalry, intolerance, hypocrisy, like every other country’s, or perhaps even more so. It is as hard to be gay or unconventional in Korea as in most other countries, if not more so. Few dare write openly and personally about such topics. Yet the sensitive, compassionate depiction of human lives, whether personal or fictitious, done in such a way as to open reader’s eyes to wonder and hope, to the mystery of loving, is surely the enduring task of what is wrongly called “literature.” That kind of writing alone might in the end be worth translating.

 My own hope is that as Korea enters ever more fully into the world at large, so too Korean writers will increasingly be enabled to write works which can speak vividly to readers of every continent. The translators are ready, now they are waiting for the writers to catch up with them!


Brother Anthony of Taizé

Translator, Scholar