When Worlds Collide: Sketches of Nightlife by Kim Seungok

  • onDecember 3, 2019
  • Vol.46 Winter 2019
  • byAlex Cigale
Зарисовки ночной жизни (Sketches of Nightlife)
Tr. Sofia Kuzina Hyperion

A volume of the Korean writer Kim Seungok’s collected prose since the 1960s was published this year by St. Petersburg’s prestigious Hyperion press in its Contemporary Korean Literature series. Only two of Kim’s stories are readily accessible in English, his earliest, “Seoul: 1964, Winter,” and “Record of a Journey to Mujin,” and so even the most conscientious reader is faced with the daunting task of having to navigate rudderless across not only three languages, but three cultures and two time periods, all of it without any direction from the original. (Kim stopped writing in 1979, so these stories are also speaking to us across a distance of over forty years!)

That the book’s title, Zarisovki Nochnoi Zhizni (“impressions,” or “sketches,” of nightlife), is an adaptation of the title of one of his stories, “Scenes from the Nightlife,” speaks volumes of a strongly felt need for contextualization. (Perhaps similarly, in adapting his own “Mujin” into a film, Kim transposed that story’s title to the inferior, I think, title of Mist). What I mean is, the reader’s primary difficulty, of having to figure out “how” to read these stories, is initially disorienting to the point of distraction. We come to the texts having been told that Kim had captured the zeitgeist, what it felt like to be Korean during the turbulent ’60s, with its attendant industrialization, political tyranny, and intellectual ferment, and expect psychological realism and, perhaps, sentimental fiction.

What I believe we have here is nothing of the sort: always ironic, tongue-in cheek, often caricaturish to the point of verging on “bad” writing. (It is apropos to note Kim’s early work as a caricature artist.) Sofia Kuzina’s translation is occasionally able to rise to the level of lyricism necessary to capture such flat, minimalist prose, especially when the conclusion achieves a certain pathos, as some of the earlier pieces here do (“His Wife’s Body,” “Christmas Gift,” “The Husband’s Pockets”). I am afraid that most don't quite live up to that standard, and the dialogue often reads like a pastiche of clichés and stilted expressions. I can’t say if this is so in Korean, but suspect it is not, because the reader is in on the joke. Generally speaking, the book comes across as painting the canvas with broad strokes, slap-sticky, always intentionally artificial. In the West, the best of it would be categorized as post-modernist, experimental, or genre fiction (campy). There is simply no equivalent “in our culture” for Kim’s jokey tone, which seems to belong to some earlier, oral tradition of storytelling.

And so it is the later pieces, which stray the furthest afield from realism, that hold, I think, the greatest literary interest. Like “The Ocular Finger,” in which a wife’s desire for a third eye, on her index finger, is fulfilled, these at times adopt the fable for their form. “We Are the Weekly Papers” consists of a conversation between a Humor, a Scandal, and an Erotic rag on a recycling trash pile. Typical is the “prophetic” late short story, “Chun’s World,” which straddles dystopian fantasy, dreamlike folk narrative, and the Absurdism that would be immediately familiar to a Russian reader, through the work of the beloved Russian “surrealist” writer Daniil Kharms whom I have translated into English.

It features advanced telecommunication technology, self-driving cars, artificial wombs, and electromagnetic pulses that disrupt the aforementioned. (The piece has the feeling of social satire, but I am uncertain of even that.) The following incident, or chapter, has Chun’s mother appearing on a national Big Brother “Breakfast with the President” TV program; their talk of some criminal on the loose smacks of Kafka’s The Trial. We later learn that he is a serial killer of young women, and then receive a long address apropos of the subject by a “mad scientist,” who also happens to be the expedition leader of Earth’s mission to Mars and the first man born of an artificial womb. All of this proceeds in dream-like, nightmarish fashion, with recurring references to Chun’s own dreams.

Though difficult for me to judge definitively across two cultural divides, I suspect that Kim’s book is more likely to find sympathetic readers in Russian than in English because of their more closely shared oral traditions. There is a kinship here with the Russian love for telling “anecdotes.” I would also conjecture that Kim’s early study of French literature accounts for another shared heritage, that of the humorous journalistic sketch, “the feuilleton.” If I am correct, then this volume is likely to become a welcome addition in a language that, moreover, counts some half a million ethnic Koreans (the Koryo-saram) among its speakers.



by Alex Cigale
Author, Russian Absurd: the Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (2017)

Author's Profile

Born in Osaka, Japan in 1941 and raised in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, Korea, Kim Seungok graduated from the Department of French Language and Literature at Seoul National University. He made his literary debut in 1962 when his short story “Practice for Life” won the Hankook Ilbo New Writer’s Award. In the same year, he founded The Age of Prose, a small literary magazine, along with his friends, such as Kim Hyeon and Choi Ha-rim. Kim launched into a literary career by publishing the short stories “Geon” and “Fantasy Notebook” in the magazine. Throughout the 1960s, he continually published short stories, including “Yeoksa,” “A Trip to Mujin,” and “Seoul-1964-Winter.” In the 1970s, however, he began winding down his writing career while intermittently publishing short stories such as “The Moonlight of Seoul, Chapter 0” and “Our Low Fence.” Kim received the Dongin Prize in 1965 for the short story “Seoul-1964-Winter,” the Yi Sang Literary Award in 1977 for the short story “The Moonlight of Seoul, Chapter 0”, and The National Academy of Arts Award (Literature) in 2012 for his significant contribution to the arts.