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Category Archive for 'Korea'

South Korean author Han Kang recreates May, 1980, as students and others rebel against military rule following the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee. Developing a circular narrative of six overlapping chapters, she depicts vibrant, realistic characters who participate in the rebellion and overlap and reappear in each other’s narratives, revealing different points of view of the action they have observed. Han’s prodigious descriptive skills are more than equal to the task of describing the one-sided warfare between naïve young men and their heavily armed opponents, but she also sees this action in broad thematic terms taking it beyond the themes of her previous novel, The Vegetarian. Here she delves deeply into the questions raised in the review’s opening quotation on whether human beings are fundamentally cruel and whether cruelty, with its damage and degradation, is the only thing we share with each other as a species. Is cruelty, in fact, the “essential fate” of mankind and is it inevitable, she asks. Han’s work takes an emotional toll, but every detail works, and no detail is gratuitous. Ultimately, she recreates the turmoil and human cost of more than two decades of Korean history, and she does it in a mere two hundred pages.

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Powerful, dramatic, and psychologically unsettling, author Han Kang’s prizewinning novel delves into the inner lives, the secret goals, the hidden fears, and the mysterious dreams, of three members of one Korean family. These family members – a young woman who has decided to become a vegetarian; her successful, married sister; and her sister’s artist husband – each become the intense focus of their own section of the novel, as they live their lives, make their mistakes (some of them drastic), and live with the results. The separate sections allow the reader to share each person’s thoughts and motivations from the inside. At the same time, the characters appear and reappear in each other’s sections, providing new information so that the reader sees each person interacting with others – a clever technique which makes it possible for the reader to observe the characters from the outside and to see how the actions of one affect the actions of all. Han Kang asks and illustrates many basic questions about who we are as humans, who we are in relation to the outside world, and how much control we have over our lives. Where the novel excels is in its ability to create psychologically rich characters who do not fit molds, a novel which is unsettling and sometimes overwhelming.

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Although lovers of international fiction can find a number of novels from Japan, China, and other Asian countries available in English, the number of novels from Korea is remarkably small. Though I actively look for novels from as many countries as possible, I have, in fact, reviewed only one other Korean novel on this website to date – Three Generations, by Yom Sang-Soep, a classic written in 1931. Kyung-sook Shin’s new novel, I’ll Be Right There, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, has therefore introduced me to a new, contemporary literary world, and I hope that other readers interested in unusual and rewarding fiction from an author who is almost unknown in the English-speaking world will feel as enriched by her work as I do. I’ll Be Right There takes place during the turbulent 1980s, a time in which Korean students demonstrated against the military dictatorship which had seized their country in a coup in 1979. It was partly because of these demonstrations, leading to the well-publicized torture death of a student, that the country’s leadership finally announced in 1987 that a direct election of the President would finally take place.

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Author “James Church,” a career diplomat with years of experience in Asia, including, one assumes, North Korea, sets his second mystery starring Inspector O of the Ministry of People’s Security, in the country’s capital of Pyongyang. Though O is an Inspector, he, like those he works with, has no idea who is really in charge of the investigations to which he is assigned. For Inspector O, the best approach has always been to keep his head down, do what he is told, try to laugh at the absurdities, and close his eyes to the atrocities. Hidden Moon continues the story of O’s life after The Corpse in the Koryo, and readers who have read that novel will have a decided advantage as they read this one. A shocking robbery at the Gold Star Bank, the first ever in Pyongyang, challenges the Ministry and Inspector O, especially since O is not called to deal with it until a week after it has happened.

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Described as a “masterpiece of Korean fiction of the twentieth century” and as “one of the outstanding literary achievements during Korea’s colonial era,” Three Generations, written in 1931, has recently been translated into English for the first time. The novel traces three generations of one family–the Jo family–consisting of the grandfather and family patriarch, his middle-aged son (Sang-hun, and his wife), and Sang-hun’s 23-year-old son Deok-gi (and his wife and baby), the character around whom most of the action revolves. The family lives in Seoul in a large traditional house with inner and outer quarters, separate living areas for the several families, and spaces for the family’s servants. Within the household, traditional family values are being threatened. Arranged marriages are sought and performed (even for Deok-gi) to protect the family’s wealth, and real affection is not a requirement since the taking of concubines is accepted. No legal obligations exist between men and these concubines if the women have children, and their difficult lives come under scrutiny here.

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