European Cities Reimagined

  • onNovember 2, 2014
  • Vol.18 Winter 2012
  • byHwang Sok-yong

The 1990s saw great advances in Korean political democracy. The collective demand for political democracy was mostly satisfied in this period that came at the end of half a century of political unrest and military dictatorship. Outside of Korea, the dissolution of socialism in the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s caused many Koreans to lose faith in or abandon their political ideals. This change in the political environment, consequently, greatly affected the daily lives of the Korean people. The 1988 Olympic Games marked the shift of Korean society into a highly consumerist one. People spent more money, in more spaces, and in different settings than before. It became more common to do business overseas, as well as to travel abroad for pleasure.

These societal changes gave birth to a new generation of globally-minded writers that began incorporating their overseas experiences into their work. More writers began writing about travelling or living overseas and gaining fresh perspectives on life outside the narrowly defined bounds of the Korean peninsula in pursuit of more universal values. Never before has the setting of Korean literature been expanded so greatly as in the work of these writers whose writing depict countries ranging from Germany and France to England.

Koh Jongsok’s short story “Requiem for a Dead Sister” dates from the years of rapid societal change in the 1990s. Taking its title from the 8th century monk Wolmyong’s famous hyangga, a poem of two to five couplets mourning the death of his sister, this story centers on the feelings of remorse upon the death of a cousin of the protagonist, a former reporter now studying in Paris. After wandering the streets aimlessly after hearing the news, the protagonist is at the Père Lachaise Cemetery when he realizes what her death means to him. His cousin was neither a revolutionary nor a fighter, unlike the Communards buried in Père Lachaise that sacrificed their personal lives for a greater cause. While the horrifying Gwangju Massacre that occurred when his cousin was in university awakened her social consciousness, she did not give herself over to radical activism but chose the quieter path of teaching at night school while studying to become a doctor.

The protagonist, however, realizes that the ordinary life his cousin led was truly a great one. It was made great by her selflessness and small acts of kindness that she practiced every day of her life. The Communards buried in Père Lachaise are revolutionaries, fighters, and politicians who wanted to change the world. They stand on the side of the collective, the greater good. The protagonist’s cousin, on the other hand, was merely an individual who practiced small acts of kindness in her everyday life, regardless of the changes in the outside world. Unlike the revolutionaries and fighters that become heroes regardless of whether their cause succeeded or not, his cousin will never be remembered by history. However her kindness to all those in her life including her patients, even up until the moment of her death, makes her life as heroic as any other.


1. Baridaegi
Hwang Sok-yong, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2007, 301p, ISBN 9788936433581
2. The Field of the Stars
Gong Ji-Young, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2004, 264p, ISBN 9788936436803
3. Requiem for a Dead Sister
Koh Jongsok
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
1997, 246p, ISBN 8982810498
4. The Old Garden (2 Vols.)
Hwang Sok-yong
Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2000, 331p, ISBN 8936435906 (Vol.1)


It is revealing that this story was written in the 1990s when the individual rose above the collective, revolutionary, and ideology-oriented mindset of Korean in the 1980s. Its defense of the individual and ordinary life in the face of collectivism and ideology comes to life in Paris, the bastion of modernity and the French Revolution. Only in the foreign space of Père Lachaise does the protagonist finally gain insight into the reality of Korean society.

The city of Berlin as a setting in Korean literature functions as a space of political freedom unimaginable in Korea, as well as a place that has achieved that faraway dream: reunification. This geopolitical environment influences the general perception Koreans have of Berlin as well as the lives and fates of the Korean characters living there. In short, Berlin is reconstructed as a space that represents the outcome or resolution of a nation’s division.

Gong Ji-Young’s The Field of the Stars features characters whose lives are directly linked to Berlin. The book is the direct result of the author’s year-long sojourn in Germany. Her Berliners series represents a different sort of literary potential than Hwang Sok-yong’s The Old Garden, in which Berlin is a post-Cold War city that has moved beyond leftist ideology towards a more organic view of the world. To Gong, Berlin is a place where the past and present meet, inspiring pain and remorse as well as a new way of life that cannot be reached through a narrower, more prejudiced view of the world. Berlin is a place to test out alternate ways of living and thinking.

In Gong’s work, Berlin appears as a melting pot of people haunted by anxiety and fear. It is the habitat of those exiled from their homes, the place where people of different nationalities and ethnicities meet and fall in love, and the space where those who have lost faith and love discover themselves anew. In her work Berlin does not mirror one kind of ideology but stands for a microcosm of life itself, free of any political or nationalistic concerns, where this kind of life flows free and gives birth to alternate ways of life. This is why it is possible to compare and contrast the values, customs, and manner of life in faraway Seoul with that of Berlin, to reflect on similarities and differences and gain new insights. Berlin is where the wounded may gain distance from the time and space that they once occupied and create a new life for themselves.

After the turn of the century, Korean literature set in Berlin completely departs from the narrative of Berlin as an archetypical bastion of political ideology. Young people that came of age in the era of globalization are free of the political preoccupations of the past, pursuing instead individualistic, nomadic, and artistic lifestyles.

Bae Suah’s The Essayist’s Desk depicts Berlin as a modern city like any other, not particularly political, but as a place where individuals such as the protagonist choose to make their life. In this novel Berlin is a space where it is possible to find one’s true self apart from the constraints dictated by society. The protagonist’s driving impulse is to erase all the “unclean” outside factors that interfere and infringe upon the independent, autonomous self.

Bae’s Berlin embodies a place where the individual may cut off all ties with the mundane world as long as one is living in society, and actually practice a life of undisturbed isolation. This kind of lifestyle, in Bae Suah’s case, is made possible by making one’s life in another country. Choosing the foreign backdrop of Berlin for the setting of this story has little to do with exoticism or the author’s personal experience. In this novel the city of Berlin, with its characteristic atmosphere of intellectualism embodied by its long ties with philosophy and music, functions as a space where the author might practice “the technology of self.”

Shin Kyung-sook’s Lee Jin is a period drama featuring the affair between a French diplomat and a Korean dancer in 19th-century Joseon, the last dynasty of Korea, when the political and cultural onslaught of Western powers began eroding the country’s feudal society. The protagonist of this novel, Lee Jin (alternately spelled Yi Jin), is based on a historical figure that appears in the memoir En Corée of the second French counsel to Korea, Hippolyte Frandin. Lee Jin fell in love with the French counsel and followed him to France, becoming the first Korean woman to set foot in that country; unfortunately, she returned to Korea to commit suicide.

This novel paints the tragic fate of a woman from a country stuck between feudal and modern values that ill-prepared her to deal with the ups and downs of modernity. The demise of the 500-year-old Joseon dynasty and the rapid shift toward a modern society completes the historical premise of the novel that sets Paris as the place where the protagonist gets her first taste of modernity. This part is described in detail in the second volume of the novel. The experiences that Paris has to offer are multicultural, from the arcades to the museums and other aspects of Western civilization that the protagonist has never encountered. Lee Jin’s Paris experience, in short, could be summed up as the shock of encountering new cultures and capitalism.

Indeed, her observations of the streets of Paris all point to the potential of modern capitalism realized to its fullest in such forms as the arcades, gas lamps, and department stores. This is a space completely different than what the protagonist experienced in Joseon, a society where advancement towards modernity was prohibited. In Lee’s eyes, Paris is a place where the freedom to change one’s station in life is a given. At the same time, however, it constantly reminds the protagonist of her position as a woman from an insignificant country in East Asia. The protagonist goes to the Louvre and visits art galleries in Paris, but it is when she witnesses real people from Africa being exhibited in Boulogne Forest that she realizes just how much power is wielded by Western imperialism and how tenuous a position many weaker countries occupy. Through the eyes of Lee Jin, an intelligent woman from a weak East Asian country, Shin Kyung-sook exposes both the positive and negative sides of Paris as a modern space, in the dazzling accoutrements of modernity and the barbarity of imperialist colonialism in the third world.


5. The Essayist’s Desk
Bae Suah, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2003, 198p, ISBN 9788982817786
6. Lee Jin (2 Vols.)
Shin Kyung-sook, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2007, 293p, ISBN 9788954603225 (Vol.1)


As for modern Korean literature that examines the universal themes of migration, expanding its cultural and geographical setting to Europe, look no further than Hwang Sok-yong’s Baridaegi. In this novel Hwang tackles the systemic nature of social oppression experienced by a woman protagonist from North Korea, who crosses the border to China, then ends up in England, raising the question of how to overcome conflict and division in the 21st century. For Korean literature to resonate with foreign readers it is not enough to expand across wider geographic and cultural boundaries; more writers must write about current themes that have universal appeal. This novel does precisely that, positioning itself to appeal to a wide audience by dealing with global issues and incidents that have captured the interest of readers around the world such as neoliberalism, international migration, the North Korean diaspora, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and terrorism in London. After the protagonist moves to England, the birthplace of Western modernity, she meets characters that are significantly different than when she used to live in China, forcing her to experience the most pressing issues in the world on a much more personal level. Most of the people that Bari meets in London are other migrants, illegal immigrants, or refugees that came to the city not entirely by choice. In London she learns how to coexist along with and eventually embrace these people. Her marriage to Ali, a Muslim, is a prime example of cross-cultural diversity in a postcolonial society made possible by the country’s long-established history of international migration. The real world has some catching up to do, however, and the timeline of the novel after their marriage progresses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that symbolic event of 21st century division and conflict.

In this novel London is depicted as a place where its inhabitants seek to move beyond exclusivity and discrimination towards solidarity and communication, and find hope beyond conflict and division. Korean literature today goes beyond the geographical bounds of the Korean peninsula. In short, Korean literature is expanding its imaginary landscape and depicting ever more diverse geographies, tribes, nationalities, and societies.