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Red Library: Korean Fiction

Amid a global wave of interest in Korean culture, Korean writers have created some of the most striking politicised fiction of the last few years.

If nothing else, the enormous success of (South) Korean culture abroad is an example of how industrial policy and culture are by no means mutually exclusive. Those brilliant, brutal films about class war, those ultra-cute, ultra-glossy TV dramas, those androgynous boy and girl bands, can all be traced in some way to the enormous state sponsorship of a Korean-language but highly exportable culture industry. At the same time as this relatively small country has achieved such a remarkable cultural reach, its impoverished, culturally closed northern half, severed by the still officially unended Korean War, has been a focus for more niche aesthetic enthusiasm — particularly for its guilty-pleasure monumental art and architecture. This Red Library is made up of some of the novels and stories that has been translated as a side-effect of this wave of interest in the country — and on how Korean writers have created some of the most striking politicised fiction of the last few years.

Some of this has been widely read — such as Han Kang’s astonishing Human Acts, a high modernist account of the Gwangju Uprising of 1980 against South Korea’s military dictatorship — while others are more obscure, but the presence of history and politics is strong in all of them. Some of the complexities of that history come out in the mere setting of the earliest of these translations — the Korean villages of Manchuria, northern China, during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s. Kang Kyeong-ae was a socialist writer from a poor peasant background in northern Korea, who lived and worked in Manchuria during that decade, writing the stories collected in the anthology The Underground Village. Her stories are gruelling, their harshness alleviated only by a sensuous, descriptive prose; her downtrodden characters have only one hope: Communism.

It would be tempting to throw Kang Kyeong-ae’s book together with a recent collection from her native North about life under ‘Communism’ — The Accusation, by the pseudonymous Bandi (‘Firefly’). Claiming to be written by a North Korean writer ‘for the desk drawer’ and then smuggled out to China and then the South, these stories were written during the late eighties and early nineties, when an authoritarian but stable society collapsed, leading to the famine the regime euphemistically calls ‘the Arduous March’. The story of how these stories came to be is intriguing, but unfortunately, they’re hectoring and leaden — perhaps with the exception of ‘Pandaemonium’, a hair-raising tale of the Kim dynasty’s grotesque personality cult accidentally rubbing up against appalling reality. You’ll find much less didacticism and much more literary style in Friend, the first ‘official’ North Korean novel to be translated into English. Paek Nam-Nyong’s 1980s account of a failing marriage, a bestseller in the DPRK, is warm, gently funny, and deeply conservative.

Conservatism is in short supply in the southern half of this Library, as is Friend’s faintly normative gender politics. We could start with the University of East Anglia’s Yeoyu project, a series of gorgeously designed pamphlets containing short stories by South Korean writers, but in terms of novels, a good beginning is Kim Yideum’s Blood Sisters, the story of a ferociously angst-ridden Mayakovsky-reading teenager negotiating shit jobs and violent misogyny in 1980s Seoul; or Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows, an intense, fractured narrative about workers at an electronics market in the South’s capital as they fall through the cracks of an economic miracle. Both novels are excellent in connecting their characters’ emotional lives to the chaotic politics around them, but it’s One Hundred Shadows that does so more effectively, especially through its subtle introduction of fantasy and science-fiction elements into its hard-edged realism.

A similar willingness to run realism and the fantastic together can be found in Bora Chung’s excellent story collection Cursed Bunny, which was shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize. Drawing on Soviet-era European writers such as Bruno Schulz and Andrey Platonov, Chung’s stories are full of paradox, body horror, and a mordant attitude towards ideology, in this case that of the consumer culture and relentless self-advancement of Korean capitalism. A recently translated novel that is more strictly sci-fi is Bae Myung-Hoon’s The Tower. Written in a country where high-rise living is the middle-class norm, it expands this principle to envisage a near-future independent state housed in a 670-storey tower block. Much of the intrigue in the novel comes from the efforts to describe how such a thing would work in practice, how it would be defended, governed, and bordered, and how it is structured in class terms. Like many of these books, it can and should be read as political allegory, but you’d miss a lot if you read it as nothing more.

  • Kang Kyeong-ae, The Underground Village, translated by Anton Hur (Honford Star, 2018)
  • Paek Nam-Nyong, Friend, translated by Immanuel Kim (Columbia, 2020)
  • Bandi, The Accusation, translated by Deborah Smith (Serpent’s Tail, 2019)
  • Han Kang, Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2016)
  • Hwang Jungeun, One Hundred Shadows, translated by Jung Yewon (Tilted Axis, 2016)
  • Yeoyu — New Voices from Korea (Strangers Press, 2019)
  • Kim Yideum, Blood Sisters, translated by Ji yoon Lee (Deep Vellum, 2019)
  • Bora Chung, Cursed Bunny, translated by Anton Hur (Honford Star, 2021)
  • Bae Myung-Hoon, The Tower, translated by Sung Ryu (Honford Star, 2021)