Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 23, [Northern] Spring 2012
Issue 18 of Asia Literary Review has a sense of occasion about it. Like some previous issues, this one is devoted to a single nation. But a collection of English language pieces on China or Japan can confidently assume its readers will have heard of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or those poets who are in trouble, even if they haven’t read any of them. This one, on Korea, can expect to be giving many readers their first real look at a national literature. All the more so as both North and South Korea are represented. The sense of occasion is marked by an appearance by the journal’s publisher, Ilyas Khan, who contributes a note on his personal connection with Korea and his appreciation of the Korean people.
If the state of the short story is any indication of the vigour of a literary culture (a big if, I know, but think of Australia in the 1890s), then South Korean writing is thriving. All four short stories here are grippingly weird: in Kim Young-ha’s ‘Ice Cream’ (translated by Dana Zur) a suburban couple phone to complain when a packet of their favourite ice cream tastes of petrol, with unsettling results; Park Mingyu’s ‘Is That So? I’m a Giraffe’ (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) takes the situation where commuters are pushed into the underground trains of Seoul and turns the surrealism up to full volume; in Jeon Sung Tae’s ‘The Korean Soldier’ (translated by Jae Won Chung) the hero, who seems to be the author’s alter ego, has a thoroughly civilian and richly comic adventure in Mongolia; ‘Black-and-White Photographer’ by Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong) is a chilling tale on what Martin Alexander’s editorial tells us is a recurring theme, the lost child. The lost child turns up again in the other piece of fiction from South Korea, an extract from What You Never Know by Jeong I-hyeon (translated by Chi-Young Kim), which I’m guessing is a gripping novel – at least I was left frustrated when the extract stopped and nothing was resolved.
Of the South Korean non-fiction, the stand-outs for me are the excerpts from Liu Jiaju’s memoir, ‘My Experiences in the Korean War’ (translated by Martin Merz), and Michael Breen’s ‘Image and Identity’ (crosscultural reflections of an Englishman who has been living in Korea for thirty years).
Two North Koreans speak directly in these pages. The first, Jang Gil-su, does so in a pencil drawing he did when hiding in his mid-teens on the way to successfully escaping to the South. The drawing shows a man being executed by a uniformed figure with a rifle. The caption informs us that everyone is expected to attend executions in North Korea, ‘including children’. The other, the poet–defector Jang Jin-sung, is represented by five poems (translated by Shirley Lee) as stark as the drawing that precedes them. I don’t generally ‘get’ poetry in translation, but these speak to me very strongly. According to the editorial, Jang Jin-sung will be representing Korea at the Cultural Olympiads, which must be happening round about now.
Of the pieces about North Korea, I felt most enlightened by ‘Pyongyang: City of Privilege and Pretence’ in which journalist Sue Lloyd-Roberts ranges far and wide trying to make sense of the outpouring of grief at Kim Jong Il’s death, and Daniel Levitsky’s ‘North Korea’s Revolutionary Cinema’, which lays out a part of the jigsaw explaining how people can accept the regime. Possibly the scariest piece in the whole issue is the photo essay ‘Holiday Tours to the DPRK’ by Simon Cockerell, an Englishman who has been taking tourists into North Korea every month for the last ten years. His text is as carefully noncommittal as the faces in his photos, and any irony in his final sentence is totally deniable: ‘A week at a beach resort may be temporarily refreshing but the same amount of time in the DPRK provides an experience that will last for a lifetime.’
I’m writing this on the iPad in Kayaköy, near the Turkish Mediterranean, and creating links to all these articles is more complex than I’m prepared to do while at this particular beach resort (about which I’ll write something tomorrow – it’s seven Ks from the beach, and not exactly a resort). But I’ve listed the translators because everything here read beautifully in English and at the same time retained its sense of having come from elsewhere. Many of the pieces I’ve mentioned are up on the Asia Literary Review site, where there’s an online supplement of material that wouldn’t fit in the magazine, which is well worth a look.
I’ve read most of this issue in Turkey, quite a bit on public transport. One friendly Turkish man picked it up, skimmed the pages, and asked, ‘Where are you from?’, clearly failing to fit me to his mental image of a Korean. The Art Student kindly gave permission to use this photo: