Memory, Time, and Politics

  • onOctober 22, 2014
  • Vol.1 Autumn 2008
  • byKim Yeonsu

After the 1990s, Korean society entered a new phase that was different from the past. People began agreeing that Korea was a rare case among developing countries in that it had accomplished both industrialization and democratization. Upon the realization of industrial and democratic goals, matters of individual desire begin to precede attitudes emphasizing public ideology.

Due to the intimate relationship between literature and society, this kind of social change has been organically reflected in novels. The concern of novels has gradually shifted from the public sphere to the private sphere. The position of nation, people, and ideology in novels has been replaced by matters of domesticity and private life such as issues of family, sexuality, social minorities, and so forth.

The changes are evident in the form of the novel. Varieties of media became more prominent, and the walls between high culture and low culture have broken down. With these social changes, the boundary between literature and other media has continued to collapse. Traditionally accepted aesthetics has lost its ground in contemporary Korean novels.


1 Goodbye Mr. Yi Sang Kim Yeonsu, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp., 2007, 278p ISBN 978-89-8281-358-6 03810

2 The Last Fan Club of the Baseball Team, Sammi Superstars Park Min-gyu, Hankyoreh Publishing Company 2008, 304p, ISBN 978-89-8431-104-6 03810

3 Having Been at a Loss, I Knew IT Went That Way Lee Kiho, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp. 2007, 328p, ISBN 978-89-546-0228-2 03810

4 Human Myth Son Honggyu, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp., 2005, 328p ISBN 978-89-546-0000-X 03810

5 So Quoth Bongseop Son Honggyu, Changbi Publishers, Inc. 2008, 335p, ISBN 978-89-364-3705-3 03810

6 The Trunk of Mr. Jo Paik Gahuim, Changbi Publishers, Inc. 2007, 311p, ISBN 978-89-364-3701-5 03810


Such a trend has paralleled the democratization and diversification of Korean society in general. The novel is no longer limited to being merely a medium for expressing the social consciousness of male intellectuals. The subjects of novels have extended in terms of gender, generation, and class. The objects of novels have also extended themselves to introspection, consciousness and beyond, to the imagination, fantasies, and the unconscious, distinct from the traditional emphasis on political and social reality.

Yet, various social issues that play important roles in literary self-expression are still at work in Korean society. There are authors who express their concerns about society in very new ways. They face this changed reality, accept different and new aspects of their community, and convert these changes into the varied content and form of their novels. Here are some exemplary examples from five male novelists in their late thirties.

In his novels, Kim Yeonsu focuses on the skepticism concerning the public history and memory of the collective. Absolute truths in history are non-existent to him since he believes that history can be interpreted differently according to one’s point of view. However, skepticism doesn’t always equate with the denial of objects. He explores the themes of history, memory, and artifacts, which the former generation had dealt with in different variations.

Goodbye Mr. Yi Sang (2001) explores the irony between reality and fiction through three related stories about the lost death mask of the brilliant poet Yi Sang (1910-1937), who died young during the Japanese colonial period. The short stories in Kim’s book, I’m a Ghostwriter (2005) show the contingencies behind the necessity of history in various ways. The possibility of writing postmodern Korean historic novels has been realized in his latest work, Whoever You Are, No Matter How Lonely (2007). It draws on late 20th century Korean history, centering on the May 18th uprising in Gwangju.

The historic times that Kim skeptically looks back on are now regarded with amusement by Park Min-gyu. Park looks back on Korean society’s past using movements of popular culture, not political events. Through a cosmic imagination, he also explores futuristic prospects of humankind.

The Last Fan Club of the Baseball Team, Sammi Superstars (2003) relays the story of a professional baseball team named Sammi Superstars, a team that went from the top to the bottom of the league from season to season.

However there is one miraculous season. This work restores the memories and artifacts of people who have dropped out of modern Korean society. Park’s current novel Ping-Pong (2006) demonstrates the possibility of narrative on a broad scale. This story of two middle-school outsiders links the end of the world with a cosmic imagination. This fantasy novel gives two isolated teenagers, losers among the crowds, the responsibility of radically choosing to keep “the installment of the world” as it is, or to perform “the un-installment of the world.” This radical attitude is indeed the expression of the consciousness of the suppressed.

In the stories written by Paik Gahuim, the phases of history are perceived not by the specific indicators of the times but by the types of sexual relationships that unconsciously rule the community members. In that sense, the obsessed, neurotic, male characters in Paik’s stories symbolize the unconscious restraints from which Korean society is unable to free itself. Additionally, the intensity of the neurosis is said to be one of the barometers that tell us how far we have advanced from our past.

The short stories in Crickets Are Coming (2005) contain a full set of sexual perversions accompanied by violence, at the root of which the frustration of sexual domination lies. In Paik’s second collection, The Trunk of Mr. Jo (2007), the gravity of the problem of sexual relationships has eased; what flourish are the amusing aspects and the pliability of the narrative resulting from peculiar characterization, vivid dialogue, and the reversal of narratives. However, Paik’s stories still focus on the dark side of Korean society.

The world Paik perceives through a negative lens is, for Lee Kiho, a comic scene. Lee changes stories into comic tales with his voluble tongue and imagination, as well as with his exploration of alternative forms for the novel. To him, the novel is a hybrid experiment with which he can create new ideas of the novel by using unpopular and unfamiliar narrative forms.

In the short stories in Earnie (2004), strange, untraditional ways of expression such as gangster rap or the pseudo-classic style of the Bible is used. In his second collection, Having Been at a Loss, I Knew It Went That Way (2004), Lee tries other experiments, including an audio novella and a story written like a cookbook. In this manner, his ability as a novelist can be shown best through his storytelling abilities. By blurring the border between the narrator and reader, his novels attempt to communicate in a new way.

Whereas Lee Kiho introduces contemporary subculture to the novel form, Son Honggyu explores prehistoric storytelling traditions such as myths or tales. He deconstructs the diachronic progress of time by arranging different times in the same space. The characters in the short stories of Human Myth (2005) often reveal the bestiality in themselves. Since the reality is so beyond their expectations that it leads to a loss of humanity, they seem to reverse reality by stepping back into nature. Son’s unique literary illusions spring from a place where rapid external time is faced with the resistance of internal time. In his second collection, So Quoth Bongseop (2008), his illusions become smoother and more delicate, but they sometimes enlighten the memory of a fundamental essence that extends beyond the bestiality in human beings. 


Kim Yeonsu
was born in 1971 in Kimcheon. His novel Walk While Pointing to Masks won the Writer’s World Literary Prize in 1994. His most recent novel is Whoever You Are, However Lonely You Are.

Park Min-gyu
was born in 1968 in Ulsan. He published the novel The Last Fan Club of the Baseball Team, Samni Superstars. His most recent novel Ping-Pong was published in 2006.

Paik Gahuim
was born in 1974 in Iksan. His more recent efforts include Crickets are Coming (2005) and The Trunk of Mr. Jo (2007).

Lee Kiho
was born in Wonju in 1972. He currently teaches creative writing at Gwangju University. He has published several collections of short stories, including the experimental Earnie.

Son Honggyu
was born in Jeongeup. He has published several books, including his first short story collection Human Myth (2005) and the novel The Age of Ghosts.