The City: Modern Korean Literature Emerges from the City

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Special Edition 2011
  • byKim Kyung-uk

City life is one of the most universal experiences of modern people, which is not to say that this experience represents all facets of modernity, but it is true that it does encompass its most problematic aspects. The city is a product and process, not to mention the driving force of modernization. It is axiomatic that modern Korean literature not only delves into the problems of the city, but also raises issues with modernity. The foremost tasks for studying modernity in Korean modern literature are analyzing how cities are constructed in modern Korean literature, and how much of the urban sensibility is manifested.

Korean modern literature had its birth in the city. If industrialization and capitalism can be construed to be some of the most apparent factors for the changes in modern Korean history, then the city is a cradle of political and economic problems as manifested through its living spaces. A critical aspect of modernity in Korean literature is that the city is a complex construct and yet people still live there. Korean modern literature reveals how its aesthetics were formulated in the city context, by people of the city. The city shows that modernity is not some abstraction, but something tangible with specific images and experiences. In Korean modern literature the problems of the city do not belong to a conceptual or ideological domain, but are something that can be experienced through incidents discovered in specific texts.

1.Risky Reading
Kim Kyung-uk
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2008, 293p, ISBN 9788954606752

2. Ashes and Red
Pyun Hye-Young, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2010, 260p, ISBN 9788936433734

3. Gente di Wonmidong
Yang Gui-ja, Cafoscarina, 2006

4. Style
Baek Young Ok
Wisdomhouse Publishing Co., Ltd.
2008, 355p, ISBN 9788959132959

5. Mujin im Nebel
Kim Seungok, Peperkorn, 2009

The urban experience in Korean society is different from that in the West and therefore the method in which it is expressed in literature is also quite different. Urbanization in Korea took place during the special circumstances of colonial modernization and a dictatorship; accordingly, its process can only differ from those in the West. The problems of the city were first written about in Korean literature in the modernist works of the 1930s. That was because, analogous to 20th century Western literature, it was most apparent that urban life was fraught with tension and complexities through the perspective of modernism. Just like how the city life centered in Paris, New York, London, and Berlin was “translated” into literature, life in the 1930s Kyeongseong (the former name of Seoul as well the capital city of Joseon during the early colonial era) was the focal point of Korean early modernist literature. In the novels of the 1930s, the city appears not only as a spatial backdrop but also as an arena where poverty, crime, and conflict are integral aspects of an urban experience. However, the city at that time was depicted as mostly a smaller version of a colonial society where freedom was repressed.

It was only after the full-scale industrialization of Korea in the 1960s, when the population exploded in the capital city, that the urban novel became a full-fledged entity. The development of the city during the colonial era was subject to certain restrictions because of its special circumstances, whereas in the 1950s the restoration of the city from the destruction during the Korean War was far from complete. The main themes found in modern literature such as an individual’s loneliness, alienation, dissolution of society, and the breaking up of tradition were beginning to be dealt with in Korean novels of the 1960s. Kim Seungok represents one of the outstanding writers of this period who conveyed a new kind of literary worldview, sensibility, and writing style.

Seoul, Winter of 1964 is a book by Kim Seungok that delineates fear, ennui, and the thanatos drive of the individual against the backdrop of a metropolis called Seoul, and is also written in a stylish manner. The three male characters in the book each live a distinctively different life but all share one thing in common. All of them are alienated from the all-powerful system, as dictated by urban civilization, and feel strong despair and inertia as a result of their alienation. They desire to live a happy life while contributing to the betterment of society, but have great difficulty fulfilling their dreams. In order for them to be active participants in society, they must forsake their own happiness and exist as non-entities, foregoing their identities and honor. Under such circumstances, the only choice that these three men can have is to endure their despair and listlessness. As the title of the book indicates, the novel aptly renders the meaninglessness of the three characters’ lives in an urban setting, while raising issues such as human alienation, ennui, and existential questions, as found in Seoul of the early 1960s.

Since the 1990s, commercial popular culture has taken root in Korean society with the Internet and digital culture being widely disseminated. The stars of pop culture are idolized by the young, while pop culture simultaneously serves as a role model for life. Popular culture has instilled a new kind of sensibility; desire has become the dominant icon of Korean society. Koreans living in the metropolis have gladly become active consumers acquiring new desires and sensibilities, which results in emerging forms of relationships and pleasure. In short, the 90s was the start of a whole new world for Koreans, and the birth a new urbanite. Baek Young Ok and Kim Kyung-uk are two writers who most actively explored the relationship between popular culture and the problems of the city.

In Style by Baek Young Ok, the author excavates the pleasures of a person who is concealed behind her glamorous job in the fashion industry. Following the worldwide popularity of chick-lit books like The Devil Wears Prada, Style provides Korean readers with an appropriate version of a female protagonist in their 20s and 30s who works in an urban setting. Through their passionate consumption of food, fashion, and sex, the author delineates a portrait of contemporary young women in the 21st century, with their lives ablaze in intensity and conflict.

In contrast to the novels of the 1990s where the interiority of the characters was emphasized, in Kim Kyung-uk’s literary milieu, the character’s inner world is minimized and pop culture, as represented in film, takes its place. In Korean society the novel critiques the meaning and direction of phenomena such as the rapid invasion of popular culture in daily life, and the information industry, as epitomized by the Internet, that plays an important role as a means of communication. Moreover, the novel stays free from borrowing the lexicon and grammar of popular culture and the more so-called lowly genres, and instead earnestly delves into the relationship between literature and popular culture, while exploring the illusions of modern individuals in this new media. When new writers are said to borrow language from popular culture, it does not necessarily signify that literature is being dissolved into the realm of popular culture. In this case, questioning the relationship between the visual and textual cultures, as well as the Internet and books, is crucial. In the end, a book is a source and medium of literature, and ultimately has the critical power to reveal the truth of life that is hidden behind the glamour of the visual culture. This is the reason why Kim Kyung-uk deemed reading a risky endeavor.

A new generation of novelists who began their writing careers in the 2000s has chosen as their themes to focus on the light and the darkness of modernity, and the abundance and impoverishment of Korean society, while rejecting all too traditional methods of storytelling in an attempt to create a new literary narrative with a subversive imagination. Representing this new generation of writers, Pyun Hye-Young is a writer who looks for the madness of modernity, not in political oppression, but on the bleaker side of modernity or civilization. Pyun’s writing expresses not only the dissatisfaction and problems of modernity and culture, but also a meticulous dissection of the self-propagating principles of modernity. In other words, the capitalist system excludes, if not exterminates, that which hampers its existence and development, and her works are reportage of those discarded things. In particular, motifs like excretion, waste, foul smells, nausea, and decaying corpses have heretofore not been dealt with in Korean literature, and therefore can be viewed as a special beginning in Korean literature. Things that appear often in her novels are manhole covers, the sewage system, and a decaying reservoir veiled by the delusion of progress, all of which illustrate the dark side of the achievements of Korean society. Moreover, the frequent display of maladies found in her writing is not so much an expression of a diseased self but rather, a manifestation of a dystopian culture.