Korean Readings

Now, now, don’t get excited. I’ve not yet read all of my Korean comic book,
놀부가 기가 막혀!… The grammar’s still a little hard for me at this point, and I stumble on the occasional chunk of archaic language, though I am nonetheless puzzling my way through the first part bit by bit.

No, the title of this post refers to other readings I’ve recently completed, and there have been a lot of them.

Korea: Tradition & Transformation—A History of the Korean People, By Andrew C. Nahm

First and foremost is Andrew Nahm’s Korea: Tradition & Transformation—A History of the Korean People. This book is actually quite different from the other book by Nahm I have read, which was a much shorter history of Korea. The detail in this book was quite useful and interesting, I found.

AHistKorPeople.jpg I picked up the Nahm book in the hopes of getting a lot of information on semi-recent history in Korea, specifically the Joseon Dynasty which stretches from about the time of the High Middle Ages in Europe until the present. I wanted this information because I am writing a ghost story set in Korea at the moment, and I figure from all of the nation’s fascinating history, most of the ghosts walking around would be from the last few hundred years, when the population has been at its highest.

Well, not only was there information on the ill-fated Joseon Dynasty, but a great deal of history before and after that period. The book is excellent, in fact, until the section on modern Korea. From about the time of the Korean War, there’s a problem with the book, though: it seems as though it was put together a little less carefully, with less painstaking attention to details and smoothness of text. While Nahm covers the history of Postwar South Korea well, he does it a little more sloppily than he handled the rest of history. It’s as if this part of the book were written in a hurry, and not only chronology but also clarity of explanation suffer a little, and increasingly so toward the end of the book. Granted, information about North Korea is harder to come by, but his handling of the North is so deficient—at times it seems more like an appendix listing numbers of goods and national wealth than a discussion of the Traditions and Transformations of the North, and I feel the coverage of the North is almost—though not quite—useless.

Not quite useless for it is, at least, intelligently critical of Northern policies. Nahm is, in fact, more openly critical of the North than the South, but he sometimes throws some surprising punches even at Southern leaders. Still, I think he was a little less condemnatory than I might have been in his shoes of the dictators who held Korea’s reins between the War and the late 80s.

But I can’t complain: I’ve come away with plenty of material for my writing. However, I think that if you’re interested in postwar Korea, or in North Korea, you’d better supplement your reading, as the Nahm alone isn’t going to do the subject justice. For my purposes, the historical background, especially in the Joseon period, is excellent, but I’ve signed out from the Uni library Don Oberdorfer’s apparently excellent The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History for more on North and South since the war.

효자동 이발사 (“The President’s Barber”), directed by Im Chang Sang.

On the subject too-soft treatments of the dictatorships in South Korea… recently, a friend (Myoung, actually) asked me whether I thought the movie 효자동 이발사 (The President’s Barber) wasn’t a too soft (I think he used the phrase “sugar-coated”) in its portrayal of the awfulness of the dictatorship of Park Chang-Hee. Well, I can understand why he would think so, but in fact, I think that for a couple of reasons, the film ought to be read otherwise:

  • The film shies away from showing torture, which is something I think does soften the blow of the fact that the boy was tortured. However, I think the film doesn’t shy away from showing the effects of torture: the son, when he is dumped in front of his family home, cannot walk or even move his legs. All he can do is cry out for help. Sure, the Christmas lights hooked up to the electric torture device are a cutesy thing, but I think the cuteness of the scene drives home two things: first, that this is a fairy tale about the period, and secondly, it harshens the horror of what we don’t see happening in the torture room later on.
  • The film is, unquestionably, satirical in its attack on the Park dictatorship. After the attack by North Korean spies/invaders under cover of night (an episode which I now know was based—very loosely—on a real event), there is a ridiculous purge of anyone who has “The Marxus Disease”, an illness that supposedly betrays anyone tied to the Communist North: the main symptom of Marxus Disease is, ridiculously enough, diarrhea. while it’s funny, and plays off the childish obsession with feces that so many kids have in this society, it’s also, to me, a pretty strong statement if you stop and think about it. You have the analysis of shit, the indictment and torture of people based on shit, accusations of treason based totally on shit. Not only that, but it seems to me to reflect the sick intimacy of a totalitarian state with its citizen-victims: no part of the citizen-victim, from his thoughts to his food and even to what comes out his rectum, nothing is above the scrutiny and control of the government. And a pathetic government, that is.
  • Allegory is also used very clearly, very resonantly in the film. Of course, one could read the scuffle between Dictator Park’s son and his Barber’s boy (and the insanity that follows it) as simply a concrete scene, but there is in fact far more to it, I think. The scene is a small emblem of the inescapability of power, of the nepotistic culture of the ruling group in a totalitarian society, and of its absolutely brutality (guns drawn, threats hollered, death always a possibility) hidden beneath the fake, fraudulent, sickening gentility of pomp, circumstance, and title (Park was never called Dictator but always “President”).

For these reasons and more, I think that the film is actually quite strong in its criticism of Park and all he did. While it’s possible, and maybe even likely, that the use of satire instead of direct, harsh criticism, was a measure by which the director could ensure popularity with a society within which I increasingly hear people say that someone like Dictator Park is once again “needed” (and I shudder every time I hear it), I think rather that even this is a gesture to bring alive once again a kind of intelligent criticism. For one thing, it evokes the only kind of criticism that would have been imaginable at the time, which was underground, under-one’s-breath, hinted and grinning criticism, like that old saying that young people still sometimes recognize when they hear it: 각하, 시ㅎ원하시겠습니다! (“Your Presidency, that must have been refreshing!”)hyojaposter.jpg Whether or not it’s true, that statement was attributed to an earnest Cabinet minister during a meeting with Syngman Rhee during some meeting, after he supposedly let out a big fart. According to the authors of the book How Koreans Talk: A Collection of Expressions, this ostensible quotation became a favorite among South Koreans in the fifties and sixties when they wanted to mock those who held authoritarian power, and poke fun at their cronies and underlings. In seeing all the undercutting jabs in the movie, I felt I was getting a sense of what protest and opposition to the dictatorship would have felt like for the averge Joe in Korea, at least those who grasped that Park’s dictatorship was ridiculous and out of hand. (After all, after his assassination his death was mourned by many common people as any king might have been mourned, and Nahm’s book makes it clear that most of Korean society had very little sense of what democracy might mean during Park’s lifetime.)

The last reason I see to see the movie’s treatment of the era as something more than a sugar-coated misdealing with the past is because it is, after all, a sature. Satire, first and foremost, is directed at the present day at least as much as it is directed at the past that it depicts; the stories we choose to tell now say a lot about the now that we’re choosing to tell them in. I for one see at least a little bit of parallel between Park’s absolute power and Noh Mu-Hyun’s pathetic claims that the opposition is “out to get him” every time they do their (ostensible but undeniable partisan-adversarial politics) jobs by opposing something he proposes. I also see a somewhat urgent criticism of people as being a little too ignorant and too trusting of their government; but then again, I also see a declaration of faith in the average Joe, or rather the average Chul-Soo (that being the only Korean I know for the average Joe); the movie suggests that even the most ignorant fellow can muddle his way through bullshit and see the truth, see mistakes for what they are, say truth sometimes despite himself, and so on. (As the barber does in one simple offhand comment to Park: Park says about him and his job as the President’s Barber, “You’ve done your job a long time.” The barber replies that Park, too, has done his job a long, long time. He does not even think of it as a political jab, though of course he realizes it very clearly is one, after he says it.)

Maybe another thing that helped me see the film in this light was seeing it with Lime. For her, the subtlest of things seemed to resonate very sharply, and she always intepreted the Barber as a character who consistently spoke truth in the face of power but only unwittingly, perhaps even despite himself. The strongest impression I got from her about the movie was that it was not a series of crimes that were being depicted, as much as aspects of a period of time, each of which she was being reminded in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. It’s not as if the average intelligent person is unfamiliar with the awful things that the movie gestures at; it’s just that they need reminding of them. Which makes me wonder when we in west culture will be due for a satirical remake of Birth of a Nation or Catch-22.

Anyway, I can see why someone might disagree, but I think that while it is a filmmaker’s duty to be critical and intelligent, I think there are an endless number of ways to go about doing that; I prefer to understand Director Im’s work as being sharp and clever satire of not only the past, but of certain questionable aspects of the present.

More Korean Lit in Translation

The Chronicle of Manchwidang, by Kim Moon Soo (translated by Chun Kyung-Ja)

With Her Oil Lamp On, That Night, by Lim Chul-Woo (translated by Agnita M. Tennant & Ahn Jung-hyo)

After a long time away from the series, I’ve come back to The Portable Library of Korean Literature, from which both of these slim volumes come. (They’re now in my to-be-sent-to-Ritu pile). They were both quite interesting, of course, but of the two, the latter, With Her Oil Lamp On, That Night, was both more interesting and, I think, a little more deftly translated. Not that the Chun translation is not well-done, it is and I think it’s deserving of praise: the awful story of Manchwidang is rendered clearly and simply, and perhaps it’s just that manchi.jpgoillamp.gifLim Chul-Woo gives his translators more to work with. But the stories in the Lim collection, which are the tale after which the book is titled, plus another called Sapyong Station, are both quite interesting. The latter tale I wouldn’t call brilliant—no story in which characters actually get around to asking explicitly the meaning of life can ever rate as brilliant in my books—but given that one thing, the handling of the whole story is nonetheless powerful, evocative, and painfully beautiful. So, by the way, is the title story, which is about a boy among a gang of political fugitives hiding in the mountains near his hometown, and his mother who returns to offer a food sacrifice to her dead husband, and the pains of their separation on that day.

Yes, yes, it is another story set near the Korean war, or perhaps even during it (I can’t recall exacty, I gobbled the tale up in one gulp, but it’s irrelevant since it deals directly with the repercussions of the conflict); sometimes it seems as if no Korean literature is allowed to stray away from the Korean War, or at least nothing that is breaking through the language barrier… which is sad, because Korean film tells a far different story of the way people live here, and is the fiction is anything like that, it could probably do better on the world market than the current fare is doing.

Still, of all the translations of Korean fictioneers I’ve read so far, Lim Chul-Woo (or the team of translators who took on his work) is the best at handling the description of nature and reflection of human experience through vivid depiction of nature. I’m looking forward to checking out a few more of these Korean novels in translation next time I get a chance to pick some up. I would, by the way, love to get my hands on something more substantial by Yi Sang, or Lim Chul-Woo. Ah, I notice at Amazon they’re using Lee Sang as an alternate anglicization. Okay, there’s a lead, at least. Such a thing exists. But I’ll hold off for now, as I have plenty more books to read right here in my apartment.

Faces of Korea by Richard Harris

Harris is not a newcomer to writing about Korea, I realized after, recognizing his name, I googled him. What I found were some recommendations to his previous book, Roadmap to Korean, on Blinger‘s and Kangmi‘s webpages. In fact, several books are listed here. While I haven’t read any of his previous work (and therefore know almost nothing about his writing), I have to say I find some of the interviews in this book fascinating.

Well, I’m not sure whether they’re exactly interviews, essays written by different people, or what. However he got the perspectives of these different people, the collection is often just familiar enough to me that I nod my head, but sometimes quite shocking, as well. The things that different people see and experience here isn’t solely dependent on their culture or background, as much as on the specific locales and circumstances of their experiences; sometimes I found I was more in agreement with Japanese nationals than with Canadians, for example.

But I also realized that the foreign experience of Korean encompasses so much more than what I normally see, which is focused on white and kyeopo (Korean-but-raised-abroad) English teachers in the countryside. Lawyers, spouses working whatever-jobs, Japanese professors, an Australian entertainer, francophone kyeopo teachers, Russians, South Asian office workers, a south Asian homosexual in a love affair with a Korean man who may marry some Korean woman and raise a “traditional family” at some point; people who’ve given up their citizenship elsewhere to be Korean citizens; people who have had all kinds of amazing, horrible, wonderful, and bizarre experiences here.

The diversity of foreigners’ experiences in this book, and here in Korea, in fact, is just overwhelming; I began by thinking, “Thank goodness there is more to this book than the complaints and skewed pedagogies of a few hakwon teachers and disgruntled professors,” but now I think there’s more to it than that: perhaps the book is a lesson in, “It’s all in how you look at it,” I think.

I’d say that the book is worth reading, though it’s a bit pricey by my standard for a book I’ll probably never read again. I have a feeling it will be someone’s stocking stuffer sometime this Christmas. But the once-through I am giving it is fascinating enough to justify what I paid for it, which is by the way much less than the list price on the Hollym Website (linked above), much, much less if you count the 10% discount I got as a teacher.

2 thoughts on “Korean Readings

  1. I remember that my college text for a History of Korea class I took was titled “Korea Old and New- A History.” The main author was a Harvard professor named Edward Wagner but I think a group of writers contributed. It might be out of print, but if you’re in Korea, I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find a copy. It was quite good- very complete as far as I could tell.

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