Category: South Korea Page 1 of 2

Un Su Kim: 벗 캐비닛 (The Cabinet)

The latest addition to my website is Un Su Kim‘s 벗 캐비닛 (The Cabinet). This is a wildly inventive novel, telling of Deok-geun Kong, a South Korean office worker, who gets involved in a project to document all cases of symptomers, those people who show signs of abnormal behaviours. These range from people who survive on a diet of petrol or glass or even electricity, to those who meet their doppelgängers, from those who lose several months or even years of their life to those who rewrite their memories and a host of others showing anomalous behaviour. Kong’s boss, Professor Kwon has a theory – that they represent a new species evolving from Homo sapiens. But are they just lonely people in the big city? However, Kwon is dying and Kong is not keen to carry on the work, while the evil Syndicate will do anything to get hold of the papers.

Choi Jin-young : 해가 지는 곳으로 (To the Warm Horizon)

The latest addition to my website is Choi Jin-young‘s 해가 지는 곳으로 (To the Warm Horizon). This is the first full-blown pandemic novel I have read since covid but do not let that put you off as it is very good novel, first published in 2017. We follow a major pandemic – people often die within an hour of contracting it – and its effect on a few groups of people. In all cases the people flee Korea and end up in Russia, not entirely sure of where they are going but just going. It soon becomes apparent that the biggest problem is not the pandemic but the behaviour of people, men in particular, as brutal violence, rape and random killings are the norm, even by men who would have behaved responsibly pre-pandemic. Indeed, the only love that seems to work is romantic love, not involving men.

Yun Ko-eun: 밤의 여행자들 (The Disaster Tourist)

The latest addition to my website is Yun Ko-eun‘s 밤의 여행자들 (The Disaster Tourist). Yona works for Jungle, a Korean disaster tourism company. When she has problems at work with her boss, she is sent to evaluate a project in Mui, Vietnam, which seems disappointing. However, on the return journey, she gets separated from her group and only returns to Mui with difficulty. She finds that a mysterious conglomerate is upgrading the project with real disasters and real dead bodies. Gradually, she finds that she is going to be more involved in this project that she expected or wants. Yun Ko-eun tells an excellent story, dealing with issues relevant to today about the needs of the community as a whole versus those who may be suffering.

Hye Young-Pyun: 선의 법칙 (The Law of Lines)

The latest addition to my website is Hye Young-Pyun‘s 선의 법칙 (The Law of Lines). This is another first-class novel from the South Korean writer. It tells the tales of two young women who both have tragedies. In one case her house burns down and her father is badly burned and later dies. In the other case, a teacher’s half-sister kills herself. Both women feel someone is to blame for what happened and both set out to investigate. Inevitably the two stories intersect. The root cause seems to be poverty and what people do to escape it, not always making wise decisions. Indeed, as well as the two women and the two victims, we see quite a few others who suffer and, in some cases, die because of the poverty trap. It may be grim, as are his other books, but it is a very well-told tale, with twists and unexpected turns.

Kim Sagwa: 나b책 (b, Book and Me)

The latest addition to my website is Kim Sagwa‘s 나b책 (b, Book and Me). The novel tells the story of three Korean misfits, b, Book and Rang (the me of the title). Rang is badly bullied at school by the baseball boys. b’s family is very poor and she and Rang become friends till they have a falling-out. When Rang disappears from school, the boys bully b till she lets the leader fondle her. Meanwhile both girls join Book, a young man who lives in a hut on the forest and spends his life reading books. He and many other people from the seamy side of town seem to be having treatment at the local mental hospital. Above all, this book is about the misfits of Korean society: the poor, those whose parents are too busy working hard to pay attention to their children and those that just do not fit in.

Hwang Sok-yong: 해질무렵 (At Dusk)

The latest addition to my website is Hwang Sok-yong‘s 해질무렵 (At Dusk). This is a superb book about an architect who, though successful, is a bit lost in his life, his wife having left him, his friends dying and his increasing concern about declining values. He receives a note asking him to phone a number – that of his old girlfriend he has not seen for years. At the same time we follow the story of a twenty-something would-be theatre director and playwright. It is not going well for her and she has to supplement her income working the graveyard shift at a convenience store. She has an enigmatic friend, whose mother she meets, but considers her life hopeless. These two stories eventually merge, of course. Part of the novel is about the changes (for the worse) in South Korea over the years and part simply about two people who are struggling to fit in.

Hye Young-Pyun: 재와 빨강 (City of Ash and Red)

The latest addition to my website is Hye Young-Pyun‘s 재와 빨강 (City of Ash and Red). This a grim Kafkaesque story about an unnamed man from an unnamed country, who works for a pesticide company. He is sent to the head office of the company, which is located in another country, where he barely speaks the language. On arrival, there is an epidemic and he is held at the airport for checks. He then goes to the flat the company has given him but it is in area where there are huge piles of rubbish because of a strike, and looting is taking place. His case is stolen at the building, which is then put into lock down because of the epidemic. He learns from a friend (actually his ex-wife’s second and now ex-husband) that the police are after him. When they come looking for him, he escapes through the window and is left to fend for himself among the piles of rubbish, other down-and-outs and lots and lots of rats. Hye Young-Pyun lays it on, as our hero, plunges further into a nightmare.

Yi Mun-Yol: 아우와의만남 (An Appointment with My Brother; later: Meeting with My Brother)

The latest addition to my website is Yi Mun-Yol‘s 아우와의만남 (An Appointment with My Brother; later: Meeting with My Brother), a new translation of a book that was previously published in English as An Appointment with My Brother. It is partially based on the life of the author. In real life, his father defected to North Korea during the Korean War, leaving his wife and three children. The family never saw him again but later learned he had married and had five children. In this book, the protagonist, Professor Yi, plans a meeting with his father in Yanji, a Chinese town just over the border from North Korea. He hires an intermediary to make contact but, before the father is tracked own, he has died. Instead, as the title tells us, he meets his half-brother instead. Not surprisingly, relations between the two half-brothers from two related but very different countries are not entirely easy. Yi Mun-Yol, one of Korea’s foremost writers, tells a superb story of a country separated by ideology and the problems this causes for families, without being mawkish or overly sentimental.

Hwang Jungeun: 百의 그림자 (One Hundred Shadows)


The latest addition to my website is Hwang Jungeun‘s 百의 그림자 (One Hundred Shadows). This is a very original work, which has had considerable success in South Korea, about very ordinary people in South Korea, whose shadows behave erratically. This may mean rising up or even detaching themselves from their owners. There is no obvious reason for this and, indeed, it can be read literally, as a sort of fantasy about shadows. However, it does seem to occur when the individuals concerned are undergoing some sort of stress. The story is about two young people, who have both dropped out of school and now work in small businesses located in a huge market shed in a poorer part of town. He – Mujae – works for a man making transformers and she – Eungyo – works for man who repairs electronic appliances. Despite their apparent attraction for one another and their ongoing friendship, their romance does not progress but they do both have the shadow problem. Hwang Jungeun tells an excellent story with considerable sympathy for the poorer parts of society but it is the strange shadows and their erratic behaviour that makes this book so original. As far as I can determine this is the second book published by Tilted Axis Press, a press founded in 2015 that publishes the books that might not otherwise make it into English, for the very reasons that make them exciting to us – artistic originality, radical vision, the sense that here is something new. I look forward to more of their books.

Han Kang: 소년이 온다 (Human Acts)


The latest addition to my website is Han Kang‘s 소년이 온다 (Human Acts). This novel concerns the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980 against the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan. Han Kang was born and brought up in Gwanju and was nine at the time of the uprising. She very skilfully describes what happened, from the point of the view of the students who opposed the uprising, telling the stories of a few individuals involved. The military reaction was ferocious and brutal and she spares us no details, giving detailed description of the wounds on the dead bodies, of the putrefying bodies stacked and finally burned by the South Korean military (this section is narrates by the spirit of one of he dead students) and of the horrifying torture of those students found with guns. We also learn of the after-effects on the those that survived, with huge psychological trauma, frequent suicides and the inability to function properly in later life. Of the main characters that we meet, several are killed, others survive but with difficulty. It is a very grim book but superbly well written and tells us in the West about a period of South Korean history, though quite recent, which many of us will know little or nothing about.

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