The Avant-garde: Contextualizing Korean Literature and Experimentation

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Special Edition 2011
  • byKim Yeonsu

The history of modern Korean literature has been one that identifies the writing of literature with the question of what is literature. On the one hand the rise of realism and lyric poetry put verisimilitude before everything else; while on the other hand they treated the question of what it means to write as the subject of literature. Realism and lyric poetry are similar in that both seek to identify reality (or emotions) with the language of literature. Avant-garde literature in Korea departs from this mechanism of identity by objectifying the language and subject of literature, seeking instead to examine the difference that lies between the two. The writers in this school are associated with a strong commitment to writing in the modernist tradition.

This does not mean that their interest lies in modernism for its own sake. Questioning the identity of literature is also one of the most modern questions that can be asked about literature. The awakening of self-examination may be called one of the defining characteristics of modernism, and modern Korean literature took up that trend by writing about the question of writing itself. This involved proving in the most avant-garde language that the modern was the most realistic, rather than simply seeking out new experiments. In other words, these writers have avoided pitting modernity as a posturing against realism as an ideal. This aesthetic effort was made possible by the socio-cultural conditions of modern society that gave birth to a new generation of literary subjects as well as the cultural awareness that a freer literature could be the sharpest critic of reality.

One of the most iconic stories of the colonial period, Yi Sang’s “Wings” (1936), stands out as a symbolic milestone of this literary trend. This story may be understood as an examination of modern identity in an urban environment constructed by the forces of colonialism. The first-person narrator lives off the earnings of his wife, a prostitute, in a colonial city where personal and social spheres are completely detached from each other. The central aesthetic motive of the story lies in the desire to save the individual from the numbing and powerlessness that arise when a market economy takes over one’s life. Formerly paralyzed by ennui, childish self-isolation, and dependence, an outing to the city reveals to the protagonist how everything is ruled by the market and how ironic life is for everyone who lives there. Irony is the only way the “genius that became a stuffed specimen” in the story may expose the modernity of the city. He is the keenest observer within the colonial city as well as an introspective, self-destructive outsider thinking outside the city. By taking this sensation of being simultaneously fascinated by modernity and repelled by the modernity ushered in by colonialism to the extreme, Yi Sang is positioned at the avant-garde of literary modernity.

Seo Jeong-in emerged in the literary scene of the 1960s. His novel Talgung (1988) weaves together a series of interlinked stories. Seo’s unique style is central to examining his work, and that style is characterized by an ironic affinity for wordplay, anadiplosis, and anastrophe. The objective of this style is to dismantle the identification of ideas and reality. This in turn results from a tireless examination of reality and language. The book is divided into 300 sections that defy any attempt to summarize the plot, as all the characters appear in episodes of equal weight. In what may be called the confessions of a woman orphaned by the Korean War, the characters spend years wandering and repeating the process of escapes and returns. Their vivid exploits and realistic conversations make up most of the novel, in which through myriad relationships, Seo captures the tragic irony inherent to human life and society. The narrator’s remarkable self-perception and reserved, intelligent gaze discourages casual judgment. The aesthetic strength of this novel rests on its refusal to sacrifice any object or character to a dominant value or gaze.

Yi In-seong’s Seasons of Exile (1983) is a collection of interlinked stories by one of the most important writers of the 1980s in Korea. The stories of this ingenious collection may be read individually on their own merit or together as part of a novel. They follow the inner struggles of the first-person narrator on his way back to Seoul after being granted a compassionate discharge from the army because his father died. After visiting his father’s grave the protagonist is struck by guilt that his father’s death may have been his fault. He almost kills himself because of this, but eventually returns to Seoul with fresh resolve. The reason for the anxiety and suspense that accompany the main action of the collection is revealed only at the very end. The process in which this wound of love is revealed is a painful journey that traverses the very being of the protagonist, but clears the way for new questions and meanings in his life. Thus this collection of linked stories is both a kind of bildungsroman that records how the protagonist overcomes his suicidal urges and an experimental novel describing his innermost thoughts with excruciating detail. Breaking out of the accepted role of a narrator, the language of this work delivers nothing in a straightforward, linear manner but follows the every rise and fall of a troubled youth’s confusion and search for self. This singular example of experimental fiction from the 1980s sketches the inner life of a youth and an era in an intense, innovative style.

Kim Yeonsu is one of the most promising writers in Korean literature today whose short story collection I Am a Ghostwriter (2005) may be considered a turning point in his work. This collection brings together nine stories that illuminate the many facets of human and literary truth that lie beyond official records. The author shows adept skill at reconstructing superficial facts overlooked by official history and records, drawing upon numerous texts from the humanities. All in all the collection shows off the writer’s serious yet multifaceted interests, attentive, deliberate style, and witty, graceful humor. The eponymous ghostwriter narrator reflects the author’s perception of himself as a writer. While the protagonist may be a creator of fiction, that space does not belong to him alone. He is a ghost-like figure who is compelled to write the stories of relationships in society that have yet to be turned into fiction. The author explores the stories untold in the accepted canon, reading between the lines of history and official records in search of figures hidden in the dark. Notwithstanding his many endearing attributions as an author associated with humanism, a deep understanding of generational angst, and an unmistakably romantic bent, what makes Kim Yeonsu a key figure in modern Korean literature is his piercing grasp of the self and writing as evinced in the title story of this collection.

Park Min-gyu is another one of the most popular writers of the 2000s, writing with a light touch and levity about not-too-light subjects. His Legends of the World’s Heroes (2003) is a satire of American imperialism acted out through American comic book heroes such as Superman, Batman, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman. The exploits of these American-born superheroes serve as the perfect vehicle for exposing the supremacist assumptions behind them.

The protagonist Bananaman, named so because he is “yellow on the outside but white on the inside,” is forever doomed to remain on the fringes of a predominantly white society although he has managed to wrangle one of the superhero slots formerly reserved for white Americans. It is not too hard to read his role of perpetual sidekick to other, “real” American heroes as a satire of the Third World that is subjugated by the American heroes they idolize. Park’s treatment of an unusual subject for a Korean novel is ingenious to say the least, using comic book heroes to create a world where fantasy is indistinguishable from reality. It is easy to see what makes him so popular with his readers, from his humorous, wry style of writing to his fast pacing, unconventional spacing, ingenious interpretation of popular culture, and deep compassion for the so-called losers excluded from mainstream society. Most importantly, however, is the fact that this irreverent author still belongs to the tradition of modern Korean writers that consciously questions what it means to write literature.



1. Flores de Fuego
Yi Sang, Ediciones Bassarai, 2001
2. Legends of the World’s Heroes
Park Min-gyu, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2003, 187p, ISBN 9788982816796
3. Talgung
Seo Jeong-in, Seuil, 2001
4. I’m a Ghostwriter
Kim Yeonsu, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2005, 255p, ISBN 9788936436858
5. Saisons d’exil
Yi In-seong, L’Harmattan, 2004