Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Korean Variations

 Here is something of a treasure trove of short fiction out of Korea about which I become more enthusiastic with each volume that I read: The Portable Library of Korean Literature.  Published by Jimoondang Press in Seoul, the PLKL consists of more than 25 pocket-sized books, each about 100 pages in length. A brief preface in each book explains:

The Portable Library of Korean Literature introduces readers around the world to the depth and breadth of a vibrant literary tradition that heretofore has been little known outside of Korea. These small books, each devoted to a single writer, will be appreciated for their originality, for their universality, and for their broad range of styles and themes. The goal of The Portable Library of Korean Literature is to bring Korean creative writing into the mainstream of world literature, where it deserves to be, by making Korean literature accessible to a wide audience. This is achieved by thoughtful selection, careful translation, and judicious editing

I can’t add much to that except to affirm what it says and offer my unalloyed support of the PLKL’s goal. I might also add that each volume contains either a novella or two or three short stories drawn from modern and contemporary Korean literature. The oldest selections I’ve read date from the 1930’s, the most recent from within the last 10 years. At the risk of appearing even more of a dilettante than I already am – knowing little to nothing about Korean literature, culture, or history, and also conscious that any collection can be skewed editorially, for any number of reasons, to exclude exceptional writers or offer a particular vision of what constitutes literature worth promoting – I still feel confident in recommending these books to anyone who appreciates engaging, imaginative, and outstanding fiction.

I stumbled upon the PLKL a few years ago thanks to France’s weekly Courrier International newspaper, which had published a series of “tear-out” supplements of short fiction from around the world. Each story impressed me, but I was dazzled by a selection from Korea (to my immense frustration, I can neither find my copy of the story nor, even worse, remember its title or author or seem to locate them searching Courrier’s on-line archives). When a subsequent issue of the paper featured a glowing article on another Korean writer, Gong Ji-Young, I was determined to have a look at what might be going on over there. I tracked down a slim volume of Gong’s work translated into English as Human Decency (translators Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, Kim Miza and Suzanne Crowder Han), which turned out to be one of the volumes of the PLKL. Out of curiosity, I picked up another in the series off an adjacent shelf in the library, Kim Young-Ha’s Photo Shop Murder (translator, Jason Rhodes). I greatly enjoyed both books and made a mental note to check out further volumes of the PLKL in the future.

Recently, I had occasion to think again of the PLKL, so I picked out four additional titles at random and fairly devoured them in an afternoon. What the PLKL preface says is true: the offerings represent a vibrant literature of widely varying themes and styles. I enjoyed each volume greatly, and, while not surprised by this variety, I was surprised by the consistent high quality of the selections. Though I would recommend all of these volumes, of the six I was particularly impressed by Kim Yu-Jeong’s carefully crafted, folktale-like stories in The Camellias, reminiscent in some ways of Saki’s biting humor and sharply conceived, situational vignettes; Kim Young-Ha’s clever and memorable take on the murder mystery genre in Photo Shop Murder (Kim appears to be one of the few contemporary Korean writers whose novels are available in English); Hwang Soon-Won’s “Bibari” in the collection A Man, an unusually evocative tale of a frail young refugee’s infatuation with a shellfish diver on Korea’s Jeju island; and Pak Wanseo’s riveting, starkly unsentimental novella Three Days in That Autumn, the story of a victim of a war-time rape who seeks her revenge by becoming an abortionist.

It would be absurd to try to draw any inferences about Korean literature as a whole from my reading of these six short volumes, but I have been impressed with the consistently mature, grounded quality of the writing. This does not appear to be a literature of cheap effects, abstract experimentation or trivial concerns. Nearly all of these books seem to deal with one or another of the great shocks to Korea over the past century: the Japanese occupation, the Korean War and American military presence, the brutal repression of intellectuals and students by the dictatorship, and, more recently, Korea’s emergence as a consumer society and the attendant loosening of tradition. This is not to say, however, that the works lack humor.

Courrier International’s hints that Korean literature may offer a number of literary treasures has been more than borne out by my tentative explorations within the Portable Library of Korean Literature. While I’m certain the PLKL represents a mere smattering of what’s to be found in Korean fiction and only the slightest hint of what today’s writers may be producing, I’m finding it a great introduction to a literature of which I have been until now, regrettably, almost completely ignorant. 


  1. If you find yourself liking the PLKL (which sometimes really has so-so translations) you will probably love a new (like, a month old) short-story collection, "Waxen Wings: The Acta Koreana Anthology of Short Fiction from Korea".

    It is available for sale on Amazon and is extensively reviewed at KTLIT.

  2. Charles - Many thanks for the tip. I'll certainly look this up.