Photo: Korean bookstore at Starfield Mall in Soul (on my Bucket List!)
I keep track of the books I read for pleasure on Goodreads. I average about 40 books a year. I am not sure if it is a lot or not enough; some of my friends set goals of 100 books….
Louise Penny’s The Madness of Crowds did not disappoint. Reviewing the mystery for The Washington Post, Carol Memmott wrote: “Penny’s latest [book] offers little in the way of a soothing balm for nerves frayed by months of isolation and quarantine. Its chills don’t come from the icy winter temperatures in Quebec but from the dystopian story line and its uncomfortable reminder of some of the worst days of the pandemic.” Indeed, it is not an easy read, but Penny’s Inspector Gamache again makes us ponder moral questions tackled from different viewpoints of the characters as the narrative shifts among them ... “Correct and right were two different things. As were facts and truth.”
I also enjoyed the second installment of the Two Rivers new series by Anne Cleeves, The Heron's Cry, featuring Detective Matthew Venn. When Detective Matthew Venn turned his back on the evangelical community he grew up in, his family excommunicated him. Now he and his husband, Jonathan, are back. The series is as much about different mysteries as about Matthew coming to terms with his traumatic past. Set in North Devon, where the rivers Taw and Torridge meet, Two Rivers followed in the footsteps of the Shetland and Vera Stanhope series and has been adapted for television with Ben Aldridge as DI Matthew Venn.
Mysteries aside, in 2021, contemporary Korean (and a couple of Korean American) novels, short stories, and memoirs (in English translation, of course) dominated my reading list. I embarked on this adventure as part of my study at a distance of Korean culture … through Korean dramas (more on this, in my next blog post).
Since I knew nothing about Korean literature, I picked up books that were readily available in English. Many were quite memorable, but three have stayed with me: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo; Human Acts by Han Kang; and Friend: A Novel from North Korea by Paek Nam-Nyong.
South Korean #MeToo bestseller
When we meet Jiyoung, a 33-year-old mother of a one-year-old child,her life unremarkable until she begins to take on the personalities of other people, including her mother-in-law’s identity and speaks in a manner deemed inappropriate for her place in the age-based hierarchy of Korean society. Her father-in-law is outraged: “Is this how you behave in front of your elders?” he shouts. The clinical, dispassionate third-person account is annotated by reports from newspapers and official demographic data. Together the fictional narrative and the empirical data catalogue the systemic oppression Jiyoung faced. The runaway bestseller that sold one million copies helped launch Korea’s new feminist movement and at the same time became a lightning rod for anti-feminists who view the book as inciting misandry. The novel has been turned into a movie, directed by Kim Do-young and starring Jung Yu Mi and Gong Yoo. I have not seen the film yet, but plan to. I wonder, however, how the eerie prose has been rendered in the movie.
The harsh reality of oppression and the resounding poetry of humanity
In 1980, in Gwangju, South Korean government forces massacred pro-democracy demonstrators. The troops brutally and indiscriminately assaulted protesters but as well as bystanders. Their bodies were first stored in the hall of the complaints department of the Provincial Office and later—when they grew too many--they were moved to the school gymnasium. Dong-ho, a young boy, looks for the corpse of his best friend. His search is depicted in the opening story of Human Acts by Han Kang. Six more stories of the victims of Gwangju follow; each offers an intense psychological portrait of a character affected by the Gwangju massacre. In addition to Dong-ho who is labeling the dead in the gymnasium, there is Dong-ho’s dead friend, who has been killed by troops (“Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross”); an editor facing censorship; a prisoner who has been tortured for his involvement in the uprising; a factory girl activist; Dong-ho’s mother; and finally, the author of the book, Han Kang, who provides her own testimonial on how she was personally, though indirectly, affected by those 10 days in May 1980, when she was 9 years old. Human Acts interrogates the relationship between body and soul, trying to find where, exactly, humanity resides in our animal forms.
A rare glimpse into the North Korean literature
I stumbled, somewhat unexpectedly, on Paek Nam-Nyong’s Friend. It’s a rare glimpse into the North Korean literature. The novel is a tale of marital intrigue, abuse, and divorce. A woman in her thirties comes to a courthouse petitioning for a divorce. As the judge who hears her statement begins to investigate the case, the story unfolds into a broader consideration of love and marriage. A best-seller in North Korea, Friend illuminates a side of life in the DPRK that Western readers have never before encountered. Far from being a propagandistic screed in praise of the Great Leader, the novel describes the lives of people who struggle with everyday problems such as marital woes and workplace conflicts. Instead of socialist-realist stock figures, Paek depicts complex characters who wrestle with universal questions of individual identity, the split between public and private selves, the unpredictability of existence, and the never-ending labor of maintaining a relationship. A true page turner!
In 2022, I plan to continue reading Korean literature. I see many similarities between Korean and Polish fiction. It’s hard to put my finger on the exact features—perhaps I am imagining things--but both are dark, both often deal with the history of occupation, Japanese and German, respectively, both are written in languages not easily accessible to the general readership and have to rely on translations to enter the world stage of literature.
I also plan to read more scholarly analyses of Korean literature. I think I will start with What is Korean Literature? by Youngmin Kwon and Bruce Fulton.
If you want to see all the books I read this past year, you can find the list here.