Virtual Roundtable on the Library of Korean Literature

In this virtual roundtable, edited and introduced by Seo Hee Im, Koreanists and scholars of world literature reflect on five writers recently published in the Library of Korean Literature series by ...

In this virtual roundtable, edited and introduced by Seo Hee Im, Koreanists and scholars of world literature reflect on five writers recently published in the Library of Korean Literature series by Dalkey Archive Press.


Joe Cleary on Choi In-hun, The Square

Wai Chee Dimock on Lee Ki-ho, At Least We Can Apologize

Seo Hee Im on Jung Mi-kyung, My Son’s Girlfriend

Charles La Shure on Park Min-gyu, Pavane for a Dead Princess

Jini Kim Watson on Ch’oe In-ho, Another Man’s City


Seo Hee Im

Over the course of their five-thousand-year history the Korean people have been variously thrust into political blocs led by more powerful neighbors—the Chinese, the Mongolians, the Japanese, the Russians, and the Americans. The peninsula’s present division at the 38th parallel attests to how Korea remains vulnerable to foreign colossi. Since 1953, Southern presidents have had to assure their American counterparts that the interests of the two nations still align, while Northern leaders have vilified all things American to consolidate their control.

In the absence of political and economic autonomy or unity, Korean intellectuals have often clung to the ideal of an independent national literature. After all, the Korean language miraculously weathered centuries of invasions and internecine conflicts to survive as a heritage uniting a peninsula riven in every other way; literature, more than anything else, might supply a powerful identity to a nation weakened by war and anxious about foreign influence. Thus in 1974, Paik Nak-chung—a prominent leftist literary scholar and leader of “the national literature movement” in South Korea—demanded that novels and poems function as cultural adhesives and pocket-size plenipotentiaries:

By assuming the most advanced tasks of world literature we are able to confirm our solidarity with conscientious writers and intellectuals from all over the world and to contribute our own progressive elements to the literary traditions of the so-called advanced countries, and from the unswerving perspective of national literature we shall be able to rediscover and reevaluate the literary fruits our nation has produced for generations—above all, to make into our own flesh and bone our achievements since the anti-Japanese modernization movement.1

Paik’s legacy suffered an irreparable blow this past summer, however, when Shin Kyung-sook, whom Paik long favored as an exemplary writer of national literature, came under censure for plagiarism. The cruel twist: Shin allegedly lifted lines from Yukio Mishima, a Japanese novelist frequently maligned in Korea for his right-wing politics.

Now, 40 years after the publication of Paik’s essay, the time seems right to evaluate the state of Korean literature, especially by turning attention to writers who have, with the exception of Choi In-hun, thus far not been particularly touted as potential winners of international awards. Few of the writers whose works are discussed below will have expected international exposure, at least not so soon. Even in the wake of the Shin scandal, and in a moment in which literature seems to be losing out to the flashier commercial sorcery of K-Pop and K-Dramas, these works still give us reason for optimism. For they reveal a cohort of Korean writers who have been eager not simply to “make into our own flesh and bone our achievements,” but rather to face up to the costs of those achievements and how those costs might be borne by the flesh and bone of our children. Those critical eyes, it seems to me, will be crucial to the survival of South Korea’s hard-won democracy, now, with the rise of the New Right, under threat from within.


Jump to remarks:

Joe Cleary, Wai Chee Dimock, Seo Hee Im, Charles La Shure, Jini Kim Watson


Joe Cleary


The peoples who have suffered political partition in the 20th century have experienced all of the usual dilemmas of modernity and, in especial degree, the problem of totality. Few concepts are more disputed, but in general terms “totality” refers to a condition in which humankind would feel itself an integrated part of a coherent universe blessed with inherent meaningfulness. Whether or not any people has ever lived such a non-alienated existence, a sense of the loss of totality, of our ability to grasp the world as a meaningful whole, is a signature condition of modernity. As Georg Lukács famously put it in The Theory of the Novel (1920), ours is “an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of life has become a problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality.”

German idealist and Western Marxist thinkers have done much to refine philosophically the concept of totality, but partitioned societies like Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, India-Pakistan-Bangladesh, Israel-Palestine, East and West Germany, Greek and Turkish Cyprus, and North and South Korea confront the loss of totality not only as a philosophical conundrum, but also as a quotidian political fate, a national neurosis, a dazed grief. In all of these regions puzzled schoolchildren have been offered accounts, variously spun, as to why there are or were two Irelands or two Germanys or two Koreas, rather than one. If a “nation” offers a people some sense, real or imaginary, of belonging to a home and a history, then any people formed with a consciousness of partition lives with a nagging sense of home and history as foundationally botched.

Choi In-hun’s The Square was first published in 1960, but it might profitably be read as a working-through of the conundrum of totality that Lukács wrestled with 40 years earlier. The Square is a terrifically thwarted novel that features a terrifically thwarted protagonist, a young philosophy student unable to reconcile himself either to the capitalist Korea in which he comes of age or to the communist Korea where he tries to escape his crippling alienation.

When the novel opens, this protagonist, Myong-jun, is aboard the Tagore, an Indian ship being piloted by an English captain through the South China Sea, in search of a neutral foreign country where, he hopes, “no one would know who he was” and “he would be reborn as a new man.” Having fought for the North and been captured by the South, Myong-jun is a released prisoner of war who has opted to go into exile rather than return to either country, but he is in fact too soul-weary to begin again, even if he could find “a neutral country” in which to do so. At the novel’s close, he throws himself into the ocean. For the Tagore’s crew, the seagulls that follow the ship are the souls of dead sailors; Myong-jun, noticing that the gulls have gone, thinks in his final moments of a mother and baby bird gracefully skimming the waves and, as he ends his torment, calls out for his own never-born daughter. Echoes of Coleridge notwithstanding, The Square is the rime not of an ancient mariner who can wrest meaning from his tragic suffering and return home to share his hard-won wisdom with his countrymen, but that of a modern mariner for whom suicide offers the only release from the sickness of transcendental homelessness.

Readers familiar with the literatures of other partitioned peoples will recognize many of the usual themes and tropes in The Square: the homology of divided nation and divided family, the romance-across-the-border motif, the sexualization of territorial attachments, the all-consuming sense of national deformation, the crises of masculinity provoked by historical trauma. For all the supposed differences of history and culture that separate partitioned lands from each other, it is uncanny how often the same figures reappear from one literature to another. The most ubiquitous of all is the identification of a particular country or state with the female body and the corresponding eroticization of national feeling. After Myong-jun is interrogated by the South Korean police about the activities of his father, Lee Hyong-do—described by his interrogators as “the commie bastard who founded the Namro Party (Labor Party in the South) with Pak Hon-yong and then fled to the North”—he leaves Seoul for Incheon, where he is smitten by the beautiful Yun-ae. But even in their most passionate lovemaking Myong-jun can never quite reach Yun-ae; this erotic longing and failure serve as a marker for a South Korea that can never provide him with a sense of home or meaning. In North Korea, Myong-jun runs afoul of communist comrades after expressing dissident views, then recants in disgust, but finds comfort in the arms of another woman, Eun-hye. Caressing her body, Myong-jun thinks himself “like a pilgrim who goes to the holy places several times in his life, killing doubt and reaffirming his faith,” and finds in sexual touch the last truth of which he feels certain. Later in the novel, the couple retreat to a cave where their lovemaking becomes a desperate bid for survival in a darkening climate of havoc and war. When Eun-hye is killed in action during the Korean War, Myong-jun is devastated, all hope for meaning now gone.

Partitioned societies confront the loss of totality not only as a philosophical conundrum, but also as a quotidian political fate, a national neurosis, a dazed grief.

The most graphic of these sexualizations of territory takes the form of a prisoner of war’s anecdote about how he had once stumbled across the corpse of a girl with “a green stick impaled in her crotch,” a violation attributed to an American military unit that had earlier passed through the area. As so often in the literatures of partition, complex sentiments of national attachment, repudiation, or defilement are expressed through an imagery of the female body, thus creating narratives in which the division of the national territory is conceived as a drama of female mutilation while the desire for a recovery of some lost totality is enacted as the frustrated thrashings of male desire.

Though it deploys these familiar figures in what might seem obvious ways, The Square is nothing if not an acutely self-conscious work. Its title refers to Myong-jun’s conception of life as thoroughly compartmentalized into political, religious, artistic, legal, scientific, and other “squares,” none integrated with the others nor capable of providing some totalizing meaning. As people lose belief in these “squares,” they retreat from public citizenship into the privacy of couples, but coupling proves unable to sustain the weight of expectation it is asked to bear. Published less than a decade after the end of the Korean War, a sense of dejection pervades Choi’s novel, but The Square never valorizes a retreat into privacy nor a truce with any political, philosophical, or artistic settlement. The novel knows itself to be a product of multiple modern revolutionary failures—“Just as the Dadaists had failed, the communists had also failed,” Myong-jun muses—but retains a stubborn determination neither to accept failure as the inevitable way of the world nor to avert its gaze from failure’s devastating consequences.

The ultimate “square” in the novel is a blank space of the unrepresentable where humankind must finally square up to the monumental failures of both capitalism and communism if it is to create a future worth living. Of the many novels of partition to which it might be compared, The Square is probably closest to Palestinian exile Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s The Ship (al-Safīnah), published 10 years later, in 1970. Like that great novel, The Square is essentially a philosophical fable of lost souls sailing in search of some new home but haunted by the lands they have already lost or renounced. Both novels are hugely burdened by late modernist intellectual despondency, but are charged, too, with a political determination to “in the destructive element immerse”—and still come through on the other side. And if no new homeland comes into sight in either The Square or The Ship, this is because, as Jabra and Choi know, new homes will not be found by turning our backs on those we have known, or by embracing a wholly deterritorialized cosmopolitanism or globalization, but only by confronting the wreckage we have made of the old homelands that were once, perhaps, ours.


Jump to remarks:

Joe Cleary, Wai Chee Dimock, Seo Hee Im, Charles La Shure, Jini Kim Watson

Wai Chee Dimock

At first glance, At Least We Can Apologize reads like Korean theater of the absurd. The novel opens matter-of-factly—“Si-bong and I first met in the institution”—and no less matter-of-factly goes on to recount the physical discipline the narrator is put through every day:

When I first entered the institution I was beaten almost daily. I was beaten in the morning, beaten at lunchtime, and beaten before bed. Sometimes I wasn’t beaten in the morning and then beaten twice at night, and I was even beaten twice at lunch and three times at night before. I was beaten with a pointer, beaten with a steel pipe, slapped, punched, kicked with a booted foot, and even beaten with a thick book. I was beaten with a chair, beaten with a trashcan, beaten with socks, and beaten with a shovel. After being beaten like this for some time, one day I looked over and there was Si-bong.

This punitive regime, endured with preternatural calmness and reported with comic understatement, brings to mind many modernist classics: above all, Kafka’s The Trial and Beckett’s Molloy. The affinity of At Least We Can Apologize to these two works seems self-conscious on Lee Ki-ho’s part (and aided by Christopher J. Dykas’ translation). The very title of the novel is a not-so-subtle wink and nod to these modernist masters, themselves already locked in a cross-referential dance of their own. In a January 1983 letter to Larry Shainberg, Beckett, fretting over the hopelessly slow progress of his work, brings up Kafka: “Such inertia and void as never before. I remember an entry in Kafka’s diary: ‘Gardening. No hope for the future.’ At least he could garden.” Echoing that phrase, At Least We Can Apologize also echoes Kafka and Beckett in its combination of horror and farce. A nightmarish regime could be funny from one point of view. Modernism has made its home here for quite some time.

What’s odd about At Least We can Apologize, though, is that by the time we come upon the passage quoted above about the daily beating, we already know that the institution is no more, having already been shut down at the end of Chapter 1. The two characters instrumental in its closure are the narrator and his friend Si-bong, who, egged on by another inmate, have been inserting a note into each box of socks they ship out (the institution produces them), asking to be rescued and signing it “The Pillars of the Institution.” In a month, the place is “swarmed with police officers, government workers, and TV news reporters,” and the two whistleblowers are there to greet them, “like true pillars of the institution, standing at perfect attention.”

Two inmates bringing down an institution they are an integral part of seems a parable of Lee Ki-ho’s relation to the Western canon. The novel is a card-carrying second-order experiment: not claiming to be the first, but not conceding too much either for not being the first. It is what we might call a “post-institutional” novel, not a story about a ubiquitous yet inaccessible regime (as in Kafka’s The Castle or Orwell’s 1984), but a story about how even after such regimes crumble, liberation remains elusive. The ordeal here is not the one Kafka outlines in Chapter 9 of The Trial, of being eternally before the law, held liable by it but forever stopped at its door. What oppresses here, instead, is a punitive urge embedded in everyday life, enlisting everyone, universalizing the right to pronounce guilt, while also exacting a psychological price on those who do so.

Promotional poster for a 2009 event sponsored by the Los Angelesbased Korea Policy Institute

Promotional poster for a 2009 event sponsored by the Los Angelesbased Korea Policy Institute

The word that spearheads this punitive urge is “apologize.” Unlike Kafka’s and Beckett’s relatively harmless gardening, apologizing here is peremptory and additive. It turns out to be the one activity practiced inside the institution that will have use outside its walls, surviving its demise to become a private initiative, with profits to be made, but also losses to be borne. Apologizing for others was what the narrator and Si-bong were assigned to do as “head residents” of the institution, making them intermediaries between the inmates and the caretakers. They discharged their duty with so much zeal that two inmates killed themselves under their ministration. Now, released into the world, they have no choice but to go back to the one skill they have mastered, hoping to make a living from it. At novel’s end, those financial rewards have yet to materialize, but casualties already have, in the form of broken friendships, failed businesses, and a death-by-hanging, unintended but not altogether surprising outcomes when the narrator and Si-bong offer their services as professional apologizers.

For apologizing can become a viable business proposition only if people can be persuaded to see themselves as guilt-ridden wrongdoers, desperately in need of making amends, to the point where they would hire someone to right their wrongs, or, at the very least, apologize for them. It does not matter to the narrator and Si-bong whether the guilt is real or imagined; already festering in the mind of the accused or freshly implanted there by the protagonists’ ingenuity and persistence. To profit from the sins of others, wrongdoing has to be made into a universal condition that can only be escaped with professional help and some expenditure of funds.

At Least We Can Apologize is divided into three sections—“Finding Wrong,” “Creating Wrong,” and “Cultivating Wrong”—section titles that speak for themselves. Behind them stand the legacy of the Korean War and the vexed presence of the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created, like its South African counterpart, to uncover past wrongs, in this case, perpetrated against prisoners of war and civilians accused of being Communist sympathizers. Unlike the South African Commission, however, which began its work immediately after the end of apartheid, the Korean Commission was not created until 2005, decades after the war. Since it does not have the power to make people testify or grant immunity for testimony, many veterans have chosen not to come forward, and many victims have stayed away as well, reluctant to open old wounds between neighbors. Uncovering wrongs and exacting apologies can be justice as well as hell, as a Korean writer knows. Kafka and Beckett have not been Lee Ki-ho’s only instructors in deadpan deadliness.

Jump to remarks:

Joe Cleary, Wai Chee Dimock, Seo Hee Im, Charles La Shure, Jini Kim Watson


Seo Hee Im


An old provincial Korean idiom warns of the perils of navigating Seoul, a place where, “if you close your eyes, someone will cut off your nose.”2 Clearly some considered this an understatement, for it was subsequently amended to reflect an even harsher view: “Seoul is where you can keep your eyes open but still have someone cut off your nose.” Jung Mi-kyung’s short story collection My Son’s Girlfriend is an ode to a city where surviving with face and mind intact can require superhuman tolerance.

Given that most of the stories in the collection describe the lives of ordinary people in the capital of a nation that seems to be geographically fated to be exploited by its more powerful neighbors, a comparison to a work like Dubliners is tempting, but Jung’s protagonists are nothing like Joyce’s soft adolescents, who are only faintly aware of the forces that shape their lives; they are professionals who have organized their beliefs and quotidian routines into so many protective shells. Professionals, then, in both senses of the term: workers who spend most of their waking hours performing specialized tasks and expert city-dwellers who buffer the merciless onslaught of metropolitan stimuli through selective attention and self-absorption.

Jung has a reputation for writing lowbrow stories reminiscent of television dramas; yet she first and foremost merits attention for her sedulous mapping of professions typical of the postwar Korean economy. Over the course of a literary career that includes four short-story collections and three novels, Jung has generated no less than an encyclopedic survey of South Korean labor. In this collection, her characters include a white-collar office worker, a sculptor, a primary school teacher, a rich stay-at-home mother, an unemployed PhD in German literature, an assistant set designer, a film director, and a pharmaceutical researcher. Elsewhere Jung has written about a North Korean refugee pianist, a derivatives trader, an exterminator, and a tour guide in Morocco, to name just a few of the more memorable examples.

That Jung’s many stories read so similarly despite this impressive range attests less to Jung’s limitations as a writer and more to the reduction of problems into a few predictable categories: predominantly money issues and then those complications that even the rich and talented cannot avoid, such as what one character in this collection calls the nonsynchronicity of love.

<i>Seoul in the rain</i> (2015). Photograph by Byungwook Ann / Flickr

Seoul in the rain (2015). Photograph by Byungwook Ann / Flickr

By tracking the occupations and preoccupations of Seoulites today, Jung diagnoses the prevalence of bourgeois myopia, the lonely shrinking of the world to private crises. Although characters in Jung’s stories constantly watch the news and sometimes discuss it, national events supply no more than the white noise humming above the personal dilemmas they find more pressing. “I Love You,” the first of the seven stories in this collection, opens with the unnamed narrator watching a news report on a man who has lost his house in the Niigata earthquake: “I would have been calmer if I’d been at the earthquake site. If I had other people to share the experience with, even fear would be tolerable, wouldn’t it?” Actually, Jung’s narrator shares his problem—poverty—with many others, but is alone in his scheme, which he pitches to his girlfriend, Y, over a stew of writhing live octopus: to have Y seduce his boss, a sexagenarian with prostate problems, so that he might earn favors as a go-between and Y, an adjunct lecturer, might bribe her way into a tenure-track position at a provincial university with his boss’s money. The story then tracks what the narrator calls “the butterfly effect of live octopus,” as the narrator’s plans to bring his boss and girlfriend together prove distressingly successful.

In the course of these stories, Jung limns a Seoul torn between the warring tribes of the haves and the have-nots, so often represented as the difference between Gangnam (South of the Han River) and Gangbuk (North of the Han River), in yet another contentious Korean North-South divide. In the title story, “My Son’s Girlfriend,” the narrator’s husband watches news of a fire in a distant city while the narrator puzzles over her inexplicable attraction to her son’s working-class girlfriend, Do-ran. Do-ran drops into her life after her son makes the announcement at the kitchen table: “Mom, her family is poor. Not poor by your standards, but really poor. They live in a shipping container. … I’m ready to break up with her tomorrow if I fall out of love. But I’ll never break up with her because she’s poor.” Snooping around her son’s blog and taking Do-ran out for meals and shopping expeditions, the narrator wonders whether her seemingly happy marriage is more business venture than romance.

Jung’s tragicomic sketches remind us that pathology and melancholia are not and need not be the only legacies of the nation’s successive wars, military dictatorships, and financial crises.

This volume, like the others reviewed for this roundtable, was translated under the auspices of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTIK), which offers training programs and fellowships to scholars and translators of Korean literature. This particular work—a valiant effort by Yu Young-nan—makes one think, again, about how a language so distinct in spirit from English may be effectively translated. Yu offers as literal a translation as possible. On the one hand, this preserves the collision between Korean and English, giving English speakers an almost ethnographic feel for the Korean language. On the other hand, the sentences sometimes sound labored, and Jung’s wit too often goes missing. In “I Love You,” for instance, the creative insults that Y and the narrator hurl at each other preserve next to nothing of their original flair. At one point, embittered by Y’s proactive pursuit of his employer, the narrator accuses the latter of stupidity, to which Y responds, “He graduated from your alma mater. Don’t spit while you’re lying down.” The classic Korean idiom, nimbly deployed in the original, turns flat-footed in English. What is lost is significant, for if Jung’s peers such as Shin Kyung-sook or Gong Ji-young have focused on victims of modernization who mourn for their destroyed pasts, Jung has attended to the dry-eyed, shrewder Korean youth who have combatted historical vicissitudes in less dramatic ways, with grit and grace and a sense of humor. Jung’s tragicomic sketches remind us that pathology and melancholia are not and need not be the only legacies of the nation’s successive wars, military dictatorships, and financial crises.

Jung’s latest story collection, Peurangseusik Setakso (The French Laundry), has not yet been translated into English, though it deserves to be. There, in a story called “The Lives of Others,” the narrator discovers that her fiancé, who is a doctor with a promising future income, has adopted the insipid language of self-help books and decided to search for his true self by becoming a celibate Buddhist monk. With exasperation, she exclaims that there is no value in mental peace found in a temple. “Who am I? That seems like a profound question, doesn’t it? Pah! If the question is not posed here, where daggers fly, where we stab each other and get hurt, obsess only to stop caring, break and bleed, if the answer cannot be found here, how meaningless is that question, that answer?”3 Seoul, not some secluded monastery, provides the ideal conditions for achieving spiritual transcendence.

The LTIK is not coy about its patriotism, explaining on its website that its “vision” includes “serving as a center of cultural translation for worldwide dissemination of Korean literature & culture” and, ultimately, “improving Korea’s national brand value.”4 What “national brand value” do Jung’s stories project? You can be the judge.

Jump to remarks:

Joe Cleary, Wai Chee Dimock, Seo Hee Im, Charles La Shure, Jini Kim Watson

Charles La Shure

Have you ever seen someone so beautiful that you were rooted to the spot and struck dumb with wonder? What about someone that ugly? This is precisely what happens to the narrator of Park Min-gyu’s 2009 novel, Pavane for a Dead Princess, which was made available to the English-speaking world in translation in 2014. Park is popular in Korea for his unfettered and unpretentious literary style, as well as for his stories of characters who don’t live up to society’s expectations for them. Pavane’s story centers on the relationship between our unnamed narrator and a girl he describes as “almost extraordinarily ugly,” a relationship facilitated and mediated by their mutual friend Yohan. They may seem like an odd couple at first, the handsome young son of a famous actor and a girl so ugly that the only attention she gets from men comes in the form of jokes and pranks, and indeed the relationship does not last. Fearful that she is falling too deeply in love with the narrator, and that this love will only lead to hurt and disappointment, the girl disappears. Much of the story is told in flashback, as the narrator searches for the girl.

Park writes, in a note at the end of the original Korean edition, that the seed of the novel was first planted shortly after he was married, when his new wife asked him if he would still love her if she were ugly. Forced to admit to himself that he could not love an ugly girl, he resolves to write what he believes might be the first novel to deal with a guy who loves an ugly girl, something he admits is “very unrealistic.”5 Perhaps this is why Park feels it necessary to justify the narrator’s attraction to the girl by means of family history: when his stuntman father finally achieves his dream of becoming an actor, he leaves the narrator’s ugly mother and takes up with a young starlet. Although the connection is never made directly, it is obvious that this experience makes the narrator far more sympathetic to ugly girls than to pretty girls.

This theme of beauty versus ugliness is woven into the fabric of the story. Yohan often comments on the tyranny of beauty, at one point noting that all men are “programmed” to like pretty women and later saying that 99 percent of the people in the world are dissatisfied with their appearance. The girl belongs in effect to the bottom 1 percent, and for this reason alone her life has been miserable: “When I was born, everything had been determined for me.” She even goes so far as to say that she wished she were disabled, because at least the world recognized a disability for what it was—there is no such recognition for the disability of ugliness.

Koreans have long worshiped the 1 percent, and it is this worship that gives them their power.

Just as beauty is only skin-deep, though, this contrast between beauty and ugliness only scratches the surface of the real issues here: privilege and inequality. Yohan expounds on the cycle of shame and envy that drives the 99 percent to strive to become the 1 percent, whether it be the 1 percent most beautiful people in the world or the 1 percent most wealthy. To many readers in the West, where the Occupy movement has become part of the cultural fabric, the idea of the 99 percent trying to become the 1 percent might not seem quite as progressive as the 99 percent trying to overthrow the 1 percent. But this is the reality of life in modern Korea. Korea is of course far from the only culture where socioeconomic advancement is often given top priority—the American phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” attests to that—but the belief that only the very top of the heap will do, and the openness with which that goal is pursued, can sometimes be jarring. Students strive to enter the top universities, young people dream of working for the top companies; the idea of “good enough” is not one ingrained in Korean society. There was even a series of ads in the early 2000s run by the SsangYong car company in which they touted their Rexton model as being for “Korea’s 1 percent.”  “I’m not very fond of our history of never having invaded another nation’s territory,” intones the narrator in one of these commercials. “I will conquer; I will continue to grow. Even if the 99 percent give up.”

We may be tempted to see the past through rose-tinted glasses and believe that this drive to join the upper echelons of society is a product of postindustrial society. However, this drive has long been present in Korea. During the medieval era, Korean society was strictly stratified, with little to no mobility between classes. When the medieval order began to collapse, the entrenched aristocracy naturally began to lose power as well. But a strange thing happened: rather than crumbling, the aristocracy expanded. One of the primary ways this came about was wealthy tradesmen and businessmen buying aristocratic status from impoverished aristocrats. No one wanted to overthrow the aristocracy; they all wanted to be part of it.

Koreans, then, have long worshiped the 1 percent, and it is this worship that gives them their power, as Park points out in his author’s note. This is the power that he wants to expose as empty in Pavane: the power that is created by the cycle of shame (an underestimation of self) and envy (an overestimation of others) experienced by the 99 percent. There is a power greater than that of beauty and wealth, though; as Yohan informs the narrator, love has the power to make anyone beautiful. The narrator himself later muses, “A life without love isn’t a life; it’s an act.” And this is the answer that Park puts forth in his author’s note as well: “I believe that stronger than any dictator, than anyone in power … than even any ideology, is two people in love.” The message is that if our interactions with others were driven by love rather than ambition, we would be able to break free from the cycle of shame and envy, from the tyranny of the beautiful and the wealthy. Yet for all this talk of the power of love, there is also a good deal of skepticism. The narrator says that “all love is founded on myth,” and Yohan declaims, “Love is imagination” and not part of our reality. If it were, “this world would be heaven.” Love may indeed be the key to the issues raised in Pavane, but we are still a long way from the ideal.

<i>Seokchon Lake and the Lotte World recreation complex, Seoul</i> (2014). Photograph by Teddy Cross / Flickr

Seokchon Lake and the Lotte World recreation complex, Seoul (2014). Photograph by Teddy Cross / Flickr

The end of the novel reinforces this idea that reality is not what it could or should be. In a chapter titled “Happy Ending,” the narrator is reunited with the girl, in Germany, and it is hinted that they live happily ever after. This seems to be an odd way to finish the story, especially after the narrator confesses early on, “The three of us were harboring wounds deep within us, and, therefore, our lives had no place for happy endings.” Following this chapter, though, are three very brief chapters in which we learn the truth: that the narrator died without ever experiencing that final reunion with the girl, and that Yohan wrote the entire novel as a way of giving his friend the happy ending he never had.

While this ending raises many questions, it should be noted that the English translation differs in some very significant ways from the original. In the original, the last three mini-chapters are printed on light purple pages, making it clear that this part of the book is separate from the rest. An additional two pages separate this section from the previous chapters: a blank page on the left and a page on the right that reads “Writer’s Cut,” in English. This is a reference to the convention of the director’s cut, where a film director goes back and edits the film the way that he or she originally wanted to but could not for the theatrical release. The “happy ending” that we get before this writer’s cut does seem a little too perfect, a little too saccharine—a little too Hollywood, perhaps. It is, however, an ending, and if readers were to stop there they would indeed have a “complete” version of the book: the theatrical cut. No reader would likely do this, of course, but the fact that the “true” endings are presented this way is important. This is reinforced in the author’s note, where Park says that he has written two or three endings, but the most important ending still remains: the reader’s ending. In the end, it is a choice.

Taken as part of the whole, the writer’s cut causes the reader to question everything that came before. Each reader will likely take away from this a slightly different message. The one this reader took away was: there are no happy endings, and there are no easy answers. But this is not a bad thing; not being able to find easy answers means that we will have to keep questioning, and it is only by continuously questioning our world that we can strip away the power of those at the top and expose this power as a sham of our own making.


Jump to remarks:

Joe Cleary, Wai Chee Dimock, Seo Hee Im, Charles La Shure, Jini Kim Watson


Jini Kim Watson

Since Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945, writers on the peninsula have had no shortage of dramatic social and political material to work with: a bloody civil war, ongoing national division, decades of dictatorship, and—in the South—rapid industrialization culminating in one of Asia’s model high-tech consumer societies. In a literary milieu shaped by the complex historical conditions of the Korean peninsula, what do we do with a writer like Ch’oe In-ho (1945–2013), whose fiction has often privileged the existential and the psychological over the social or political? In Another Man’s City (Nat igŭn t’aindŭl ŭi tosi, 2011), his final novel, Ch’oe takes up themes of individual isolation and alienation that he explored in his earlier work, but uses the larger, bleaker canvas of contemporary Seoul to present a devastating portrait of disconnection and paranoia, divine and natural chaos.

Ch’oe belongs to what is often termed the “hangŭl generation,” the first to receive a modern education in Korean script, rather than in the Japanese of the colonial period or the classical Chinese of the traditional scholarly elite. Other writers of this generation have dealt with the painful social realities of the peninsula in a variety of literary forms, from the “literature of division” (“pundan munhak”), to gritty realism and political allegory. Ch’oe, by contrast, appeared on the literary scene with startling short stories such as “The Boozer” (“Sulkkun,” 1970) and “Another Man’s Room” (T’ain ŭi pang,” 1971), which blended fantasy and reality in a unique surrealist style. His many short stories and novels cemented his reputation as a popular writer with a flair for highly imaginative, often cinematic, narratives, while his brooding novella inspired by a Californian road trip, “Deep Blue Night” (“Kipko p’urŭn pam,” 1982), won the coveted Yi Sang Prize in 1982.

To readers of Kafka, Ishiguro, or Murakami, Another Man’s City (in Korean, literally “the city of familiar others”) may seem itself like a “familiar other.” A nondescript everyman protagonist, “K,” wakes up one Saturday morning to find his world just slightly tilted on its axis: his wife seems oddly cold and unfamiliar; someone has switched his usual aftershave, “V,” for an aftershave called “Y”; his daughter’s puppy inexplicably bites him. The narrative follows the next 48 hours of K’s life as he wanders through a “helter-skelter mishmash of familiarity and strangeness”: minor characters reappear in multiple “roles”; family members mutate and menace; he becomes convinced that his wife—or perhaps he himself—is a “fake.”

<i>Seoul subway station</i> (2006). Photograph by Ian Muttoo / Flickr

Seoul subway station (2006). Photograph by Ian Muttoo / Flickr

As K comes to realize, with horror, that he is living in some sort of virtual reality or “shadow box,” he assumes that an omnipotent force must be pulling the strings—a “Big Brother,” the “producer,” a “Third Man,” or a “transcendent being.” K thus becomes the kind of paranoid character familiar to readers of dystopian fiction. K even acknowledges the generic conventions of the film-like reality he finds himself in, the “artificial settings, the unnatural antics of the players, the contrived productions.” References to “Kafka’s centipede” and to a film based on a José Saramago novel confirm Ch’oe’s conscious invocation of metaphysical thrillers and science fiction film.

While the paranoid everyman waking up to a nightmarish world might seem familiar fictional terrain, the novel’s other protagonist—Seoul—evokes a distinct spatial and urban milieu. Throughout the weekend covered by the novel, K, in his attempt to get to the bottom of this “mammoth conspiracy,” repeatedly finds himself in unfamiliar parts of the city. He relocates his lost cell phone; meets up with estranged relatives; visits a number of bars and clubs; and finally meets his own double or clone. K’s quest therefore resembles the particularly urban genre of the detective story whereby—as described by Fredric Jameson—the detective’s forays compel both protagonist and reader through a series of otherwise unconnected and unknowable urban spaces.6

In Ch’oe’s claustrophobic rendering, Seoul itself becomes a malevolent agent. K’s haphazard visits to parking lots, a cinema, a girlie club, transvestite bars, and red-light districts map a shadowy underbelly of Seoul, reflecting back K’s own rather Freudian sexual anxieties. At the same time, his wanderings trace the city’s own unsettling urban change and uneasy spatial politics: K remarks upon the Jamsil neighborhood’s stunning metamorphosis from “a wasteland” to glimmering shops and apartments, and later happens upon a face-off between a “phalanx of riot police” and “displaced residents [who] were demonstrating against a redevelopment project.” Intermittent news broadcasts throughout the weekend report on a major earthquake to the west of Seoul, the threat of aftershocks infusing the entire fabric of the city with a menacing brittleness—one that will be realized in the novel’s final, apocalyptic scene.

The central conceit of Another Man’s City is the equating of postmodern urban fragmentation with a hollowed-out individual subjectivity, figured by K’s repeated passages across the city, a city that—as in any Hollywood disaster film—must be concretely traversed and explored in anticipation of its spectacular destruction.

The question remains, then, how to read Ch’oe’s broader, discomforting meditation on individual alienation and delusion. If Orwell’s Big Brother allegorized the mid-20th-century danger of totalitarianism, what does Ch’oe’s 21st-century parable of clones, automatons, sexual anxiety, and urban paranoia indict? At one level, in line with a long tradition of pessimistic modernists, the narrative seeks to catalog the dehumanizing effects of both technology and liberal, popular culture. In the course of the novel, K dwells on the practices of cloning, plastic surgery, surrogate motherhood, transvestism, and anime. His paid escort in the adult club is dressed as an anime character, “a doll specially made to mimic the movement of the human body,” while he ponders whether his ersatz wife was created by a “surrogate god [that] can produce a mass-reproducing matrix.”

Put differently, the ultimate “transcendent being” responsible for K’s spatial and spiritual alienation could be read as consumer capitalism itself. At a family wedding, K is forced to pose for a family photo:

He felt like a carton of milk that’s past its shelf life, window dressing in the dairy section of a supermarket named Family, with his wife in the Wife aisle, his father-in-law in the Father-of-the-Bride corner, and his sister-in-law a new product sample. And there they all stood.

His closest kin thus appear to him as “a knockoff—same fabric and pattern, same stitching, same label attached to it, but in the end a counterfeit, a fake”; similarly, he speculates that going to confession at his church is a transaction that can be neatly summed up with a “‘Remission of Sin’ receipt.” On this reading, Ch’oe’s tale allegorizes the contemporary confusion between global capitalist consumption and intimacy; between commodification and spirituality; between neoliberal self-sufficiency and alienation.

Looking back at Ch’oe’s 1971 story “Another Man’s Room,” we find an earlier everyman protagonist who returns home to find his wife missing, his apartment empty and strangely menacing. The very objects of the room start to rebel, taking on lives of their own and requiring diligent inspection and examination. In the end, the protagonist decides, “The articles he was peering into were not, properly speaking, ordinary articles. They were not already yesterday’s articles.”7 If Ch’oe’s 1971 story spoke of individual alienation in the heyday of South Korea’s authoritarian-led march to industrial society, his novel of four decades later rewrites and updates the disconsolations of modernity. No longer is it simply ashtrays and chairs that threaten to come to life in disturbing ways, but that gleaming beacon of globalization and consumption itself—the megalopolis Seoul—that buckles, warps, and shatters on closer inspection.

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Joe Cleary, Wai Chee Dimock, Seo Hee Im, Charles La Shure, Jini Kim Watson icon

  1. Paik Nak-chung, “Toward a Concept of National Literature,” in “The Idea of a Korean National Literature Then and Now,” translated by John M. Frankl in collaboration with the author, positions, vol. 1, no. 3 (Winter 1993), p. 573. First published in Korean in Wŏlgan Jung’ang (July 1974).
  2. Some attribute this fear of sudden and violent nose loss to the late 16th-century Japanese invasions of the Korean peninsula, during which the Japanese are said to have collected Korean noses to tally enemies slain.
  3. Translation mine. “나는 누구인가! 그런게 심오한 질문 같지? 흥! 서로 찌르고 상처받고 집착하다 무심해지고, 깨지고 피 흘리고, 허공을 가르는 칼날로 가득한 이곳에서 던지는 질문이 아니라면, 이곳에서 찾을 수 있는 답이 아니라면 도대체 그 질문 그 답이란 얼마나 공허한거니?”
  4. Literature Translation Institute of Korea, “Vision” (accessed October 19, 2015).
  5. Other than passages cited from the translated novel under review, all translations are my own.
  6. See Fredric Jameson, “On Raymond Chandler,” in The Poetics of Murder, edited by Glenn Most and William W. Stowe (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), pp. 122–148.
  7. Ch’oe In-ho, “Another Man’s Room,” translated from the Korean by Kevin O’Rourke, in Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology, edited by Bruce Fulton and Youngmin Kwon (Columbia University Press, 2005), p 191.
Featured image: The Korean peninsula at night. Source: Korea IT Times