Monday, February 15, 2016

Korean fiction hits the American literary mainstream

Image from Amazon.
Korean fiction occupies a very small niche in the American literary consciousness. Little gets translated out of Korean into English, and what does is usually picked up by university presses (Columbia, Hawaii) or a specialty independent publisher like the Dalkey Archive. To the frustration of the South Korean government, which would love to have a Nobel laureate in literature to tout, there is no Korean counterpart to Mo Yan, Liu Xiaobo, Kenzaburo Oe, or Haruki Murakami—the Chinese and Japanese novelists and poet who serve as gateways to their nations' literatures, and carry a disproportionate part of those countries' modern literary reputations on their shoulders. (It's a messy analogy, as China obviously wants the world to forget all about Liu, but my point is that international prizes confer tremendous influence and visibility to a nation's literature.)

So it has been striking to see—relatively speaking—huge amounts of attention given this past week to a South Korean novel from 2007, translated and published by a relatively new imprint, Hogarth (< Chatto & Windus < Vintage < Penguin Random House, for those of you keeping score). Titled The Vegetarian, no sooner did I see a review in the New York Times online than I heard about it on NPR the same evening, and then I saw Laura Miller's review for Slate. There are others, too—lots. It is no exaggeration to say that this novel is receiving more attention in America than any other piece of Korean fiction ever published. Here is Miller's description:
Although the title character, Yeong-hye, is a woman who suddenly stops eating meat one day, setting off a chain of catastrophes in her otherwise ordinary extended family, The Vegetarian is by no means a book about vegetarianism or the people who practice it and why. What The Vegetarian is about (always keeping in mind the caveat above) is abstention. Yeong-hye would prefer not to. At first she rejects meat, but eventually she will excuse herself from a number of other common human activities, as well. At last she refuses humanity itself.
As I have noted, most of the books on Korea that you will find at your average American bookstore—even a very good American bookstore—are about North Korea or the Korean War. So that makes it all the more striking to see a contemporary South Korean novel get this degree of attention. At the same time, a remarkable story popped up in the Guardian about a collection of short stories smuggled out of North Korea under the pen name Bandi. Titled The Accusation, this is how the book's agent, Barbara Zitwer, describes the book:
“The stories depict the everyday lives of various characters living in North Korea – they are personal stories that illuminate the umbrella of horror that North Koreans live under all the time. They are the voices of mothers and sons, fathers and brothers, sisters and aunts,” said Zitwer. 
One, she said, tells of a mother whose toddler is frightened of a huge poster of Karl Marx that he can see from their window, so she closes the blinds. A government official later comes to find out why her blinds are closed before a major parade that day, and she explains how her baby was scared of the image. “Within a few hours, however, the husband returns home and is scared to death that his wife was honest and shortly thereafter, guards come to take the mother, father and baby out of their home and they are put on a train to somewhere we can only imagine.” 

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