Society & The Imagination: Novels Testify to Their Era

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Special Edition 2011
  • byChoi In-hun

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 freedom, love, and common destiny in order to build a paradise. Director Cho leaves Sorok Island, but returns to preside over the wedding of two residents free of leprosy. In this last scene, we can surmise that Cho will make another attempt to build a utopia, but in a different manner than before.

Although this novel didn't directly describe the realities of contemporary South Korean society, it did obliquely criticize the dictatorship that ruled under the guise of modernizing the nation. The author poses difficult questions through the character Cho Baek-heon. Namely, can a prosperous nation as planned by its leaders be viewed by the people as a paradise? Can the good intentions of rulers truly be well-intentioned without the free consent of the governed? In this regard, we could say that the political nature of this novel is quite strong.

Cho Se-Hui's A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball is set in the 1970s during South Korea's rapid period of industrialization. Post-70s Korean literature revealed Korean society's moral dissipation, collapse of community, the deepening of the gap between rich and poor, and other problems that appeared during the process of industrialization. Most of the works from this period used these themes as their motifs, and A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball was one such novel.

A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball consists of 12 independent short stories in serial form, with each story focusing on the same cast of characters, including the dwarf's son, daughter, and miscellaneous characters from diverse social classes with whom they interact. The narrative focus alternates between these characters who act as “focalizers” as their stories are told. In juxtaposing and connecting stories told from different points of view, Cho creates a consecutive narrative. (For example, the plot order recounts the dwarf's eldest son becoming a factory worker; trying to form a labor union to improve working conditions, but failing; in the course of events, the son stabs the factory owner's younger sibling to death; the son is sentenced to death; he is executed.) The novel also illustrates the effect that social class differences had on how Koreans perceived the world, and vividly portrays the difficulty of reconciliation.

Author Cho Se-Hui views the world in very simple terms. From his point of view, the poor, the wealthy, laborers, and employers are classified as either good or evil, with the only possible interactions between them being full-scale confrontation and conflict. In this context, we can understand why the dwarf's eldest son had no choice but to commit murder.

Unlike other similarly-themed novels from this era, Cho’s novel possesses a very strong anti-realist streak. Cho uses a succession of short sentences without conjunctions, mixes past and present tenses, freely juxtaposes fantastic and realistic elements, and uses powerful symbolism which makes his novel-in-stories uniquely aesthetic. The very fact that Cho took a very realistic story and wrote it using an experimental prose format was enough to make it a significant addition to Korean literature.

Hwang Sok-yong's The Old Garden was set in the period from the late 1970s to the late 90s. These years saw a succession of major events including the collapse of the Park Chung-hee dictatorship, rise of a new military government, the Gwangju democratic uprising, Chun Doo-hwan’s presidency, the June 1987 uprising, Roh Tae-woo’s presidency, the emergence of a civilian government, and the worldwide collapse of socialism. Hwang recounts the lives of characters living during those tumultuous times.

The protagonist Oh Hyun-woo participates in a group opposed to the military dictatorship, thereby becoming a wanted criminal. He is arrested and spends many years in prison. His life itself is an atlas of the path that Korean society walked in the late-70s. In order to talk about the life he had lived, he had no choice but to call for social change, and in this sense his life could be called a public one. Instead of minutely reconstructing all the events that Hyun-woo experienced, the novel focuses on his reminiscences of the period before the late 90s. Hyun-woo's recollections of the past are not conscious, however. While on the run, Hyun-woo was aided by Han Yoon-hee, an art teacher in a rural village with whom he falls in love. Upon his release from prison, Hyun-woo reads the letter she left for him before she died. While reading, he naturally begins to reflect on the past, focusing on the pleasant memories they had shared. Up until The Old Garden, novels written about changing the world often left out the daily details of humanity and life, so the focus on Hyun-woo and Yoon-hee’s halcyon memories signaled an important change.

Towards the end of the story, there is a passage describing Yoon-hee's trip to Germany where she witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and was greatly moved. The collapse of the Berlin Wall, which divided East and West, symbolized the collapse of two ideologies. If there is an alternative to the two, what might it be? That is the question posed to us by The Old Garden.