A Series of Interconnected Islands: Risky Reading by Kim Kyung-uk

  • onJune 24, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byRosalind Harvey
Lecturas peligrosas (Risky Reading)
Tr. Alejandro Alderete

Although the eight short stories in Kim Kyung-uk’s collection Lecturas peligrosas do not at first seem to be connected in any way, at least in terms of characters or setting, we soon realise that there are in fact repeated motifs and images threaded throughout the book, and that these ‘risky readings’ are at once discrete tales that can function on their own and something closer to a melded whole. This ‘unconnected interconnectedness’ cleverly reflects the most pressing theme in the collection, that of the seeming contradiction that while there is often very little meaning (a word that might also be expressed as ‘connection’) possible in life, it is inevitable that humans will continue to seek it out, and it is this which makes us human.

Kim Kyung-uk writes in a sparse, realist style for the most part, albeit with a touch, in a significant portion of the stories, of magic: the website that allows you to rent ‘anything’, including ‘comprehension’ and ‘solitude’ in ‘Solitude for Rent’, one of the highlights of the collection, or the wife who seems to come from outer space in ‘The Thousand Year Princess’. Exploring themes of alienation or isolation from the other (the unknowable, possibly alien wife in the aforementioned story, or the husband’s horror at his wife’s decision to keep the twins resulting from a surrogate pregnancy in ‘The Man who Swallowed a Snail’) or from community and society (as in ‘The Defence of MacDonald’s’ and ‘Enchanting Adolescence’), the stories here are a reminder that we are all islands, and yet at the same time that the continual search for connection belies our island-like nature.

Despite a preoccupation with death and the seriousness of belles-lettres, there is much humour in the collection, too. Kim Kyung-uk displays a playful relationship to literature, which emerges as a fundamental and yet also faintly ridiculous human practice. There is gentle humour when we realise that the high-minded efforts of the pompous ‘reading therapist’ of the first story (‘Risky Reading’) have been in vain: the young woman he has been attempting to educate, Pygmalion-style, has made her own way in life by setting up a cake shop and has an independent existence blissfully unencumbered by Literature with a capital ‘L’. In another story, the schoolgirl Sujin learns that she has misremembered a key line from Rilke in a billet-doux she sent to the boy she loves and is so mortified she cuts off all communication with him. Books and literature are held up both as immensely potent players in the lives of the protagonists and absurd distractions that have very little to do with what is genuinely important in life – the actual living of it.

The author also plays with the idea of the physical side of writing – the signs and posters read by the precocious little boy Gwangsu in ‘The Rules of the Game’; the snippets of articles the troubled character ‘K’ reads to fall asleep, all taken from the newspapers he has lined his floor with (‘Solitude for Rent’); the endless books lining the cell-like, lightless study of the would-be writer in ‘The Woman of a Thousand Years’, all of which his wife has mysteriously managed to read. Words here are both signs representing sounds and meanings, and objects that have taken a very tangible place in the characters’ lives. When Gwangsu reads the misspelled sign for the sale of ice (an English version might read ‘Ice Soled Here’), it is both a banal detail that highlights how disappointing the world around him is, and a representation of the power of words (it is reading this sign that leads his parents to realise his genius) coupled with the simultaneous failure of language (of writing), and thus possibly of literature also, to accurately represent this world. This is an idea that reappears throughout the book – signs (whether the written word, or numbers, or insipid set phrases) that can either represent some kind of hidden or transcendental meaning and are seized upon by the characters to make sense of their life, or which conversely reveal a lack of meaning and thus illustrate the futility of life or the stupidity of an individual’s endeavours.

The stories in this collection invite a reflection on the impossible yet unavoidable search for meaning which is both the arduous task of many of the narrators here as well as the intrinsically hopeful task or project of writing (and of the writer) itself. It is a book about literature’s place in our lives and about questioning and ambivalence, and so ultimately about the human condition.


by Rosalind Harvey
Literary Translator
Royal Society of Literature Fellow
Teaching Fellow, Spanish and Translation Studies, University of Warwick


Author's Profile

Kim Kyung-uk debuted in 1993 with the novella Outsider published in the quarterly review Writer’s World. His short story collections are Is Leslie Cheung Really Dead? (2005), Risky Reading (2008), God Has No Grandchildren (2011), and Young Hearts Never Grow (2014). His novels are Like a Fairytale (2010) and What Is Baseball? (2013). He won both the Hyundae Literary Award and the Dong-in Literary Award.