You can rely on a professional writer to come up with some well-honed soundbites, and the 10 authors who came to the London Book Fair were no exception. Even when delivered through an interpreter, they retained their impact. You might have got the impression that some of them were well-rehearsed. But a quote is a quote, and some of them were damn good.
Kim Young-ha is fluent in English as well as Korean. So he should be able to read the English translations of his novels. So, how does he feel when he reads an English translation of his novel?
“It’s like caressing your lover with your gloves on.”
A nice analogy … you just don’t get the full experience that you have when reading it in language you wrote it. There’s a certain distance. But how about when you come across your works translated into a language that you could never hope to understand?
“It’s like when an ex-girlfriend comes up to you with a baby and says: ‘this is your child’ “
I’m not sure that Kim was admitting literally to having lovechildren by several ex-girlfriends. It was more to illustrate a feeling of emotional distance between author and a completely alien translation.
On the publishing industry
Hwang Sok-yong was telling us about the Koreans’ love of reading.
In the 1950s, when I was in the first grade, my family fled to Daegu. As refugees we lived in a city of tents. Mother went to the market one day and brought me back a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. Amazing woman, and an amazing country. When a country is in such chaos, “who would think of publishing at a time like that?” Who would think of buying a book at the time of such poverty? As a child I used to take advantage of this. I used to ask for money for books, and spend it on candy.
A pretty incredible story. But that was in the 1950s. What about now? Again, Kim Young-ha came up with the killer soundbite:
The publishing industry is like the string quartet on the Titanic.
Coincidentally, the fiddle belonging to the first violinist in the string quartet that famously went down with the Titanic recently came up for auction, raising £900,000.
But maybe he’s being a bit pessimistic. According to Hwang Sok-yong:
When I left prison, I had nothing. I had enough money to last a month. I was 57. But “my readers brought me back to life.” I sell well in Korea, where the very best-selling book can sell up to 2.5mn. Readers are very loyal to their writers, unless the writer betrays that trust.
On film adaptations
Hwang Sung-mi said it best:
The book was more beautiful.
On the burden of history
Hwang Sok-yong, who spent five years in jail and lived through turbulent times, gets annoyed when Westerners say they are envious of his having lived in “interesting” times. In return, Hwang is envious of Westerners who are free to write about whatever they like. He feels compelled to write about Korea’s modern history.
“History is like a worrisome wife, constantly laying burdens on you”
On novels as autobiography
Lee Seung-u’s Reverse Side of Life is said to be autobiographical.
There was a great quote from one of the discussants, not Lee himself, which provided a very visual analogy for the process of writing a novel:
Writing a novel is like doing the striptease backwards
The thought encapsulated here is that the writer starts naked, with his own identity and his personal story, and progressively clothes the story in successive layers of fiction.
On the search for originality
“Writing is a war against cliché” said Han Kang. It was such a good quote that one of the panellists shouted “Tweet That!”. The British Council duly did. Looking back at my notes of the session, I definitely have that quote written down, but it seems to have come out of nowhere, the discussion up to that point having been on the subject of tradition and modernity.
On North Korean literature
Yes, it was the Republic of Korea that was Market Focus of the London Book Fair. But of course the audience and moderators were often more interested in hearing about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the gangster state north of the DMZ. Shirley Lee, who as translator of Dear Leader – the memoirs of the former North Korean “Poet Laureate” and a contributor to the New Focus International website has some unique insights into North Korean literature. She’s also a classicist.
In North Korea, it would be impossible to have a Homeric rosy-fingered dawn. It would have to be red.
The constraints within which writers have to operate are extreme. A North Korean would have no concept of using adjectives such as “Dear” and “Respected” independently. They are only used of the current or past leader of the country.