As a lot of us are likely to be spending more time at home over the next few weeks, I thought it would be a good opportunity to set out a list of recommendations for Korean literature in translation to keep you entertained while you’re unable to go out much. This was prompted in part by a recent request from a new acquaintance, but also by a list of “10 Works of Korean Literature in Translation for Fans of Parasite” on a generalist book website which seemed to be nothing more than the result of a random internet search for recently-published Korean fiction. I suppose supporters of Korean literature should in principle be pleased when Parasite is used as a lure to attract new readers, but it’s disappointing when not much thought seems to have gone into compiling the list of recommendations.
But the article got me thinking: what sort of titles would appeal to fans of Bong Joon-ho’s great piece of film-making? Thinking about some common themes across his movies, his storylines tend to have the following traits:
- They have strong narrative elements, often with some unpredictable plot twists
- They tend to transcend or blend genres
- They have a strong social conscience
- They give plenty of food for thought
I’m not sure that any single author combines all the above features. Maybe for that you’d need to bring together a combination of Kim Young-ha, Hwang Sok-yong, Pyun Hye-young and maybe others too. A tall order.
But why should fans of Parasite be restricted to books like Parasite? In the interests of challenging such readers to try something different, in the list of authors and titles below I have tried to indicate what sort of readership might enjoy each recommended work.
One thing that readers new to Korean literature should bear in mind is that while the novel is a popular literary form in Korea, maybe equal or even greater prominence is given to the short story, and many novelists make their literary debuts via short story competitions. Therefore some of the titles mentioned below are collections of short stories.
What is in the list?
In order to be included in the first and main part of the list below – the top ten recommendations – a title had to be available now from Amazon.co.uk, either in print or ebook format. And they had to be books I’d want to read for a second (or third) time. I’ve split the main list into two: the first subsection contains some pretty easy recommendations – authors who seem to be acquiring a reasonable following in the English-speaking world, with several titles per author published by relatively mainstream publishers. The second subsection has some authors who are less than mainstream but are nevertheless available in the UK. As it happens, the three titles in this subsection are the ones that particularly resonate with me, so if you want my top recommendations, take these. There’s one wild card in the top 10, which shouldn’t really be in there, but it’s my list and I’ll play by my own rules.
Lower down the page I’ve included some titles which either almost made the top 10, or might have been strong contenders for the list if they were in print. Or, in the case of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, it merits a mention because although I don’t particularly rate the reading experience highly, it’s an important and talked-about book. I finish off with a wishlist for translations that haven’t happened yet.
Dates given below are the dates of original publication in Korea, rather than of their English translation.
1 The top ten recommendations (in no particular order)
1.1 The mainstream recommendations
Kim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer (2013, translated by Krys Lee) is an ingenious tale about a former serial killer with progressive dementia who, as his mental faculties gradually begin to evaporate, has to try to hold himself together to protect his daughter who is likely to be the next victim of a new serial killer in town. The volume also contains three enjoyable short stories. All of Kim’s works are highly accessible – with the possible exception of his historical novel Black Flower (2003). Your Republic is Calling You (2006), about a North Korean sleeper agent operating south of the DMZ, is probably his best known and may be explored after Diary of a Murderer. But I Hear Your Voice (2012), an enigmatic story about a messianic biker, with a heavy dose of metafiction towards the end, is also extremely rewarding, and his debut work I have the right to destroy myself (1996) is also recommendable.
Good for: people who like a good story, with plenty to think about.
Shin Kyung-sook’s Please look after Mother (2008, translated by Chi-young Kim) won the Man Asian Literary Prize winner 2011, bringing contemporary Korean literature into the world of the popular book club. The novel explores what happens in a family when a grandmother goes missing in a Seoul subsway station. The ensuing search and flashbacks are told from the perspectives of different family members, with two chapters narrated in an extremely unsettling second person, seemingly addressing the reader personally. The book hasn’t been universally praised, with a many finding it shallow and over-long. Maybe I’m shallow myself, but I found it rather moving, having my own burden of guilt on this score.
People who dislike Please look after Mother tend to prefer Shin’s other works, The Girl who Wrote Loneliness (1995) and I’ll be Right There (2010), both of them semi-autobiographical pieces set in 70s and 80s South Korea – though I find them a little on the self-indulgent side. We’re all different, thankfully.
Good for: people who want a perspective on attitudes to motherhood – Korean and maybe universal too. Don’t blame me if you feel guilty afterwards.
It was The Vegetarian (2007) that brought Han Kang’s name to the attention of the reading public in English-speaking countries, when it won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. It is, to be frank, a little weird and a little difficult to figure out, telling the story of a young wife who becomes a vegetarian in part as an act of protest against male aggression, ultimately becoming more vegetal than is humanly possible. If that sounds a little outside your comfort zone, I highly recommend (and myself prefer) Human Acts (2014, translated by Deborah Smith), her haunting and incredibly powerful take on the 1980 Gwangju massacre. Her most recent book, The White Book, a collection of brief musings on loss, I find heavy going. By all means try it, but read Human Acts first, a book which explores the acts of cruelty and resilience of which humans are capable, seen through the experiences of a boy who was caught up in the tragedy.
Good for: people interested in exploring an aspect of Korea’s recent traumatic history. I challenge you not to be profoundly moved.
Bae Suah is not everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed, she wasn’t really mine until this year. But I’m prepared to keep an open mind, and Untold Night and Day (2013, translated by Deborah Smith) is such an unusual and magical thing that I’m putting it on this list, for adventurous readers. Other things of Bae’s that I’ve tried I haven’t really enjoyed, but this one is so tantalising with its plot loops and curious linguistic echoes that keep unsettling you with a sense of déjà vu. Bae Suah takes us on a journey around a weird dream world, and it’s an intriguing trip.
Good for: those who like a challenge and a puzzle. This book sure is an enigma, but you don’t need a Korean cultural primer to get to grips with it.
Hwang Sok-yong is one of Korea’s veteran novelists, and depending on how far your explorations go you should certainly investigate his work. At Dusk (2015, translated by Sora Kim-Russell) is probably one of his most accessible novels. At its centre is man who has worked his way up from the slums to be a successful architect. His success has been a result of some luck, and undoubtedly hard work (like the Kim family in Parasite, tutoring a rich family was a handy leg-up), though along the way he has also had to be hard-nosed and made sacrifices. As he comes to the end of his years, he comes to reassess what is important in life, in a tale that intertwines his story with that of a struggling playwright with whom he may or may not be connected. I’m recommending this title as an introduction to Hwang’s body of work, but you should in addition check out The Guest (2001) which explores an atrocity during the Korean War, which the North Koreans to this day blame on the Americans, but which in this novel is presented as being attributable to violent civil strife between communist and Christian factions. It’s a rewarding if harrowing read. Also recommendable is Familiar Things (2011), set among the impoverished families scavenging among Seoul’s rubbish dumps, with an occasional glimpse into a parallel spirit world.
Good for: those wanting a slightly wistful story that explores some of the social divides in modern Korea.
Pyun Hye-young is for those who like their stories dark and maybe a little twisted. The collection of short stories entitled Evening Proposal (2011) feature ordinary people leading ordinary, maybe slightly boring, lives who find themselves subject to forces outside their control. The stories are quirky, sometimes sinister or even verging on the disturbing, but always engaging. Her full-length novel The Hole (2016, translated by Sora Kim-Russell) is thoroughly dark, telling the story of a man who wakes up in hospital after a horrendous car crash which left him paralsyed and his wife dead. His only surviving family is his mother-in-law, who takes it upon herself to act as his carer. But as aspects of his past relationship with his wife gradually emerge, it also becomes apparent that his carer might not have his best interests at heart.
Good for: those who like their stories dark, mysterious and threatening.
1.2 The hidden gems
Here are three titles that are less in the mainstream. But if I was confined to a desert island, these three are probably the titles I’d make sure are washed ashore with me.
No one writes back (2009, translated by Jung Yewon) is one of those slow-burn, under-the-radar titles that somehow everyone loves. at the time of writing, it has the distinction of 100% five-star reviews on Amazon (though reflecting its under-the-radar status, that means there are only a handful of reviews). It tops Tony Malone’s Korean reading list and tends to get a lot of love from anyone who reads it. Not bad for a novel in which nothing much happens. But for what it’s worth, this is the story of a guy who goes on a long trip with his blind dog, writing letters to people he meets on the way.
Good for: those who don’t mind spending a bit of time savouring a narrative, seeing where it will take you, and trusting in the author to reward you in the end. Believe me, she will.
Yi Chong-jun (1939-2008) is Korean literature’s best-kept secret. There’s something about much of his work that seems to get at the mysterious heart of a traditional Korea that survives into the present time; he can also grapple with big themes such as religion, society, freedom and power. His short story The Abject (1985 – literally, Story of a Worm, Merwin Asia, tr Grace Jung and Jennifer Lee) provided the theme for Lee Chang-dong’s movie Secret Sunshine, while his collection The Prophet and Other Stories (1968-85, Cornell East Asia Series tr Julie Pickering) contains five absolute gems. His only full-length novel to be translated into English so far is Your Paradise (1976, Green Integer, tr Jennifer Lee and Timothy R. Tangherlini), a thought-provoking story set in the Sorokdo leper colony.
Possibly Yi’s most famous work in the English speaking world, thanks to Im Kwon-taek’s moving screen adaptations, is Seopyeonje (1976, translated by Ok Young Kim Chang), a powerful set of five interlinked stories about the vanishing art of pansori. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Peter Owen Publishers for taking on this title. Here’s an excerpt from the synopsis on their website: “The stories centre on a family of itinerant singers: a boy and his stepfather and half-sister; in one of the strangest and most haunting of novels, exploring themes such as forgiveness, the redemptive power of art and modern man’s loss of innocence and alienation from traditional values – the values at the heart of Seopyeonje.”
Good for: those who really want to explore Korea and its vanishing traditions, and that unique Korean concept of han.
Amazon link || Reviews: hard to find. I have a partially written round-up of my views on Yi Chong-jun’s works, majoring on Your Paradise, but it requires some polishing, so I won’t post it for a while.
Park Wan-suh (1931 – 2011) was a venerated author who merited her own obituary in London’s Times when she passed away. Her first work was not published until 1970. Her 1992 semi-autobiographical novel Who Ate Up all the Shinga tells of her experiences growing up in the troubled times around the Korean War. Lonesome You (1998, translated by Elizabeth Haejin Yoon) is a collection of nine short stories that tell of the experience of the older woman in contemporary Korea. I came to this collection with scepticism, but was won over by the wisdom in the stories that gently revealed itself to me. I was not expecting these stories to have anything to say to me, but I became fascinated by the psychology of Park’s characters and by the voice of the author herself. The familiarity of some of the characters and the way they behave and react (human traits are universal, regardless of country or context) reached out to me across the age, gender and cultural gap. They moved me deeply.
Good for: those wanting a perspective on the experience of the older Korean woman, with universal relevance.
1.3 The wild card
And finally, something which doesn’t quite fit into the list, but I’m going to include it anyway…
Yes, I know this list is meant to be about Korean literature in translation, and this was written in English. But Krys Lee’s debut collection of short stories, Drifting House (2012), deserves a place here, and not just because Lee is a regular translator of Korean literature into English (she’s particularly associated with the work of Kim Young-ha). These stories explore the Korean immigrant experience in the US as well as the experience of Koreans on the peninsula itself. Despite having read the book twice (loving it both times) I have yet to write a review: it’s one of those books which speak to you personally and which are consequently difficult to talk about objectively. But all the reviews in the mainstream outlets are positive, so I urge you to try it. The title story is a moving tale about North Korean border-crossers, and is informed by Lee’s work with escapees on the Chinese side of the border. She expands on those themes on her second book, a full-length novel, How I Became a North Korean (2016).
Good for: those wanting a multi-faceted window into the Korean experience at home and abroad.
2 The next ten – the near misses
We come to the titles that didn’t quite make it into the top 10:
- Richard E Kim: The Martyred (1964). Another rogue item on the list, having been written in English. This has the distinction of being the first novel by a Korean American to be included in the Penguin Classics collection. The novel, about the shooting of 12 Christian priests by the North Koreans just before the start of the Korean War, asks deep questions about truth and faith while in part having the feel of a detective story.
- Bandi: The Accusation (2014, translated by Deborah Smith). A collection of short stories written in secret by a dissident North Korean and smuggled out to the South.
- Kim Sung-dong: Mandala (1974, translated by Ahn Jung-hyo). Pretty much impossible to find now other than in second-hand shops or libraries, this novel looks at how Buddhists should practise their faith in a modern world: whether to retreat into asceticism and meditation or to engage with the world on its own terms. Adapted into a movie by Im Kwon-taek.
- Cheon Un-yeong: Catcher in the Loft (2010, translated by Bruce and Juchan Fulton). A novel that explores the relationship between a former police interrogator who has to go into hiding, and his coming-of-age daughter on whom he is totally dependent for his survival.
- Yom Sang-seop: Three Generations (1931, translated by Yu Young-nan). One of only two colonial era novels on this page, it chronicles the lives of an extended wealthy family in Japanese-occupied Seoul. As the old order gradually fades, the vultures descend for the pickings, while an underground of nationalists and socialists struggle to make a difference. This is a novel that can often be found on the shelves of good bookshops such as Daunt in Marylebone High Street. Review: Tony’s Reading List.
- Yi Kwangsu: Mujeong / The Heartless (1917, translated with introductory essay by Ann Sung-hi Lee). Said to be the first modern Korean novel, serialised in a newspaper, this Cornell East Asia Series publication is a pleasing read: a drama featuring a love triangle in a Korea that is gradually modernising. Review: Tony’s Reading List.
- Various: The Future of Silence (1974 – 2013, translated by Bruce and Juchan Fulton) – a great collection of short stories by female writers, including some mentioned above. For me, the standount in the collection is Kim Aeran’s title story, a witty, poetic, thought-provoking snapshot narrated in the first person by, of all things, an extinct language.
- Cho Nam-joo: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (2016, translated by Jamie Chang) – not a literary highlight, but an important book about gender imbalance in Korean society (and elsewhere) that comes with the recommendation of President Moon Jae-in.
And two final items to make up a nice round ten:
- From the many new thrillers out there to take with you on holiday, choose Kim Unsu’s The Plotters (2010, translated by Sora Kim-Russell)
- From the several other appealing titles from the Dalkey Archive collection, Haïlji’s The Republic of Užupis almost made it, but got pipped at the post by Lee Kijo’s zany At Least We Can Apologize (2009, translated by Christopher J Dykas)
3 The requests
And if anyone from LTI Korea, a translator, literary agent or publisher has got this far on the page, here are the
three four asks for titles that need to be translated in full and published in the UK, so that they can contend for inclusion in future iterations of the above list:
- Kim Young-ha’s Quiz Show. It’s got a French translation, and the English excerpt included in the sci-fi collection Readymade Bodhisattva really whetted my appetite for the complete work.
- Anything by Kim Aeran, particularly the complete My Palpitating Life, or the short story Goliath Under Water. We all need more Kim Aeran in our lives. [Edit] My Palpitating Live was published as My Brilliant Life in early 2021 and was one of my books of the year.
- Kim Insuk’s historical novel about Crown Prince Sohyeon. Kim’s work currently available in English tends to explore the experience of modern-day Koreans abroad. What could be more interesting than exploring the experience of a 17th century Korean encountering new ideas and new technologies as he is held hostage in the Qing court to ensure the good behaviour of his defeated pro-Ming father King Injo?
- [Edit] And while on the subject of historical fiction how about Kim Hoon’s Song of the Sword – an additional suggestion from a reader of this article. Or indeed any Kim Hoon. As far as I am aware, only two of his short stories have made it into English. Indeed, Colin Marshall in the LA Review of Books blog refers to him as “Korea’s Greatest Living Novelist Never Published in English“
4 Further reading
You can find an index of our book reviews here. Enjoy. Also, you will note from the numerous links in above article the sterling contribution to translated Korean literature made by Tony Malone. He posted a similar list on his website a couple of years ago. Be sure to check it out.
And please feel free to add some of your own favourites in the comments section.
5 [Edit] The top three recommendations
I’ve finally got off the fence and listed my top three from all the above. What are they? Find out here.