Subject Korean Literature Series for English-speaking Readers / A Study of Korea’s Path to a Modern Sovereign State TWITTER THIS FACEBOOK THIS Count 2432
Author/Position Charles La Shure  
Photographer  

Charles La Shure (Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University)


“Library of Korean Literature” (Volumes 1-10)
By various authors, $65.00 (10-volume set), Champaign, Ill., U.S.; London; Dublin: Dalkey Archive Press (2013)

Introducing works of literature from non-English-speaking countries to English-speaking readers is very often an uphill battle. While readers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other English-speaking countries may be familiar with some of the more famous examples of translated literature, these works are just the tip of the iceberg, just a few shining gems from the treasure trove of world literature. They make up a very small part of the books read in English. John O’Brien puts it rather simply: “It is a fact known to most in the literary world that very few literary works from non-English-speaking countries are being translated into English.”
O’Brien is the founder and publisher of Dalkey Archive Press, a publishing company that specializes in bringing little-known writers to the attention of readers. In cooperation with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, Dalkey Archive Press is seeking to overcome the gap between the richness of Korean literature and the awareness of that richness (or lack thereof) in the English-speaking world with its “Library of Korean Literature,” a selection of 25 novels and short story collections.
Simply publishing these books, though, is only half the battle. The truth is that literary translations do not tend to sell as well as mainstream works, and for that reason major publishing houses generally shy away from them. As a result, it is left to the smaller concerns to publish literary translations, but these presses usually lack the resources to properly market their products. “The Library of Korean Literature is a bold experiment that will address these problems,” O’Brien says. Dalkey Archive Press and LTI Korea are jointly committed to seeing the process through, from the initial translation work to the media coverage and marketing efforts needed to catch the attention of readers who might otherwise never think of picking up a Korean short story or novel.
The first stage in this project is already complete, with 10 books published in November 2013; the remainder are scheduled to be published in fall this year. The series begins, at least chronologically, with a work that is often considered to be the first modern Korean novel, Yi Kwang-su’s “The Soil.” First serialized in a daily newspaper in 1932, the novel follows a social activist who attempts to enlighten the farming village in which he was born, bringing those who live there into the modern era. It paints a vivid picture of the social conditions in Korea during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), which led World Literature Today to include the work in its list of 75 Notable Translations of 2013.
The remainder of the works, though, were published during the past few decades and thus present to readers a broader depiction of a more modern Korea. The short story, which has always been a popular genre in Korean literature, is represented here with collections from three authors. Jung Young-moon’s “A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories” is a collection of tales that feature the strange and weird in a comical light; his work has been described as Kafkaesque. Jung Mi-kyung’s “My Son’s Girlfriend” uses irony to plumb the depths of life in urban, contemporary Korea, finding a silver lining behind the dark clouds of alienation. Park Wan-suh was a legendary figure in contemporary Korean literature, and her collection “Lonesome You” brings together tales from the perspective of an older writer as she offers her reflections on life.
Of the novels, three deal with biography and history. Hyun Ki-young’s “One Spoon on This Earth” is an autobiographical novel that presents the history of modern Korea through the lens of family and personal experience. Kim Won-il’s “House with a Sunken Courtyard” delves into one of the darkest times in Korean history, the period immediately after the end of the Korean War, through the story of six families living in the same house. In “Stingray,” author Kim Joo-young presents what he calls a “critical biography of my loving mother” through the story of a mother and son forced to eke out a living in a farming village in the 1950s.
The remaining three novels are an eclectic mix. “When Adam Opens His Eyes” is a tale of sex, death, and coming of age by Jang Jung-il, an author so controversial in Korea that he has even been jailed for writing what the Korean courts deemed pornographic. Jang Eun-jin’s “No One Writes Back” has been described as a modern picaresque, the tale of a young man who spends three years on the road, encountering a dismal cast of characters and then writing them letters of consolation. Lee Ki-ho’s “At Least We Can Apologize” is a humorous satire that focuses on an agency offering a most unique service: apologizing for the wrongdoings of others.
This bold project by Dalkey Archive Press and LTI Korea should serve as a meaningful introduction of Korean literature to any reader willing to dive headfirst into these otherwise inaccessible works. With the remainder of the series to be published later this year, the Library of Korean Literature promises to be a landmark contribution to the ever-broadening field of Korean literature in translation.



A Study of Korea’s Path to a Modern Sovereign State

”The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea”
By Henry H. Em, 265 pages, $24.95, Durham, NC: Duke University Press (2013)

Henry H. Em’s “The Great Enterprise” examines the Korean quest to establish a modern nation-state equal in status to all other nations (the “great enterprise” of the title), and how this quest influenced the writing of history in Korea. The author divides his task into two parts, first providing the historical background to Korea’s sovereignty as a modern nation and next studying the different threads woven into the tapestry of history in Korea, first during the Japanese colonial period, then later in the brief post-colonial period and the period of division that has continued to the present day.
Korea’s path to sovereignty and nationhood was not an easy one, and a prerequisite to understanding this path is knowledge of the cultural background of East Asia, first under the influence of China and later as it struggled with Western imperialism. In the first chapter, Em shows how Korea, while existing within the hegemony of China, was a “not-so-exemplary vassal state,” accepting the reality of a Sino-centric world but at the same time exercising a certain measure of independence. Within this context, it becomes easier to see why Japan needed Korea to assert its independence from China before it could assert its own dominance. In the next chapter, Em examines Korean sovereignty in terms of how it conformed to European standards, and he offers a fascinating discussion of the role played by language and translation.
The second part of the book begins with the re-discovery of Skkuram (Seokguram) by the Japanese, using this incident as a jumping-off point to show how Japan did in fact make a concerted effort to establish a unique Korean identity, contrary to claims often heard in Korea that Japan enacted a policy to obliterate the Korean identity. Em argues that Japan instead needed to establish a Korean identity — but one that was inferior to Japan — in order to rationalize their colonial ambitions, and locating the apex of Korean culture in the distant past (exemplified by Skkuram) was one way of doing this. Em goes on to depict the struggle between efforts to universalize Korea’s past by the left and to particularize Korea’s past by the right-wing nationalists. The book finishes with a chapter on post-colonial history writing in the era of division, showing how these different modes of historiography continue to interact to the present day.
“The Great Enterprise” is an informed, concise depiction of the problems of sovereignty and writing history in modern Korea, which draws on Korean, Japanese, and Western sources in an attempt to present an objective argument. There is no doubting the time and effort that Em spent researching his subject; the notes to the five chapters are over a third of the length of the chapters themselves, and the bibliography will provide any student of Korean history a fine starting point for further research in Korean, Japanese, and English. This book is a welcome addition to the scholarship on modern Korean history in English.

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