Looking back at this year, it’s been one of the best for new translations of Korean literature that I can remember. There have been at least ten new fiction titles, and unusually for me I managed to get through all the titles I was intending to. All of them are recommendable in their different ways.
Of the short story collections, Bae Myung-hoon’s Tower (tr Sung Ryu) and Kim Bo-young’s On the Origin of Species (tr Sung Ryu) have been my favourites for the sheer inventiveness of their imagination. I would probably have enjoyed Kim’s I’m Waiting for You (tr Sophie Bowman, Sung Ryu) collection more if I’d read it in print format rather than listening to the audiobook, but even in the audio format the title story will stay with you for a long time. Chung Bora’s Cursed Bunny (tr Anton Hur) is seriously dark and disturbing, and will appeal to fans of the macabre. Choi Eun-young’s Shoko’s Smile (tr Sung Ryu) is lovely in a quiet and melancholy way, with stories that recall the gentle wisdom of Park Wan-suh, though two of them are tinged with the sadness of the Sewol disaster.
Of the longer works, I enjoyed Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (tr Soje), which manages to be both bleak and human at the same time, and Park Sang-young’s racy but poignant Love in the Big City (tr Anton Hur); Kwon Yeo-sun’s Lemon (tr Janet Hong) was a nice tease, and Kim Unsu’s Cabinet (tr Sean Lin Hilbert) bristled with fun ideas. But the one I enjoyed most was the one I started first and finished last.
Before I get to that, I’ll mention a title published late in 2020: Kim Soom’s One Left (tr Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton). The first full length novel in Korean to address the “Comfort Women” issue, it’s well worth a read. Despite the obvious wealth of research that went into it, there’s a human story to be told here and it deserves a wider readership.
I really wasn’t feeling in the mood for fiction earlier this year and I started Kim Aeran’s My Brilliant Life (tr Kim Chi-young) almost out of a sense of duty, and then put it aside because I wasn’t ready for it. I then read all the above slightly lighter-weight1 material pretty much as soon as it was published. Towards the end of the year the sense of guilt mounted, and I resolved to finish it before I started sending out my Christmas cards. I kicked myself for waiting so long: it made me both laugh and cry. It’s not as immediately appealing as some of the other titles published this year, which seem to vie with each other in their sparkly glamour; but Kim Aeran’s title is a keeper in its low-key way, and in Han Areum she has created an endearing and memorable character.
I was less successful this year in reading the non-fiction titles that I wanted to. In fact I only got through two non-fiction titles published this year: the translation of Hwang Sok-yong’s memoir (tr Anton Hur, Sora Kim-Russell), which I had been looking forward to for a while, and the translation of St Andrew Kim Taegon’s complete correspondence (tr Brother Anthony of Taizé, Brother Han-Yol of Taizé), which arrived completely unexpected on my doorstep thanks to the generosity of one of the translators, and which immediately queue-barged its way to the top of my reading pile.
Although I found both titles interesting and rewarding (I’d particularly like to re-read Hwang’s memoir) undoubtedly the favourite non-fiction read this year was Michael Gibb’s A Korean Odyssey, published towards the end of 2020: a great way to travel to Korea without the inconvenience of a 10-day quarantine.
I’d have loved to have had the time (and the money) to have explored many of the other non-fiction titles: there are plenty published this year that look interesting. But they will have to wait until that indeterminate point in the future when there are more free hours in the day – and when the titles can be picked up second-hand or in paperback form: rather too many of them are currently priced at a prohibitive £120.
Thanks in particular to all the translators who are bringing us these amazing titles.
- except, obviously, Kim Soom’s title