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A Lunar Year Of Books

As I posted recently, I have decided that, this lunar year, I will take up the 50-book challenge, but I am taking it up as of Seolnal, the Korean New Year (which is the same as the more famous Chinese-New-Year). I was just too busy writing when the western New Year rolled around to start in on this, but Seolnal’s a good enough marker in time for such a challenge.

So here I am, starting with 4 books.

Book #1: Graham Greene’s The Comedians. This novel is a brilliant work of art. It’s a story set in Haiti in the 1960s, about a rootless man who comes returns there on a boat with a rather strange group of other people. There’s an old American couple who are dedicated to converting Haiti… to vegetarianism. (I swear, I know a couple who these people feel modeled upon.) There’s a shady fellow who seems a bit like a latter-day Rimbaud, but more pathetic in his foolish romanticization of himself, and his resultant death. There’s a protagonist with a haunting Catholic past, a bastard son who finds himself in the strangest of love affairs, a love affair without real love. Like so many of Greene’s novels, the white expatriate community here reminds me a lot of the one I live in now; the open secrets, the strange relationships, the sad cases, and the sense of being, in some ways, part of a strange fenced-off world that is somehow not quite under the control of anyone, while it is most definitely not under the control of those who live in it. And yet, with even the violence and horror of the Duvalier regime, this book is hilarious. Parts of it are the funniest things I’ve read in years, and had me laughing aloud on intercity buses. As much as the book is about all these things, it’s also an interrogation into faith and passion, and how people invest either or both. I think in some ways it’s also about the danger of belief in the wrong thing, or perhaps even the danger of too-innocent belief in anything at all. But the book, of course, is not really “about” these things, when you’re reading it. It’s just a wonderful, brilliant novel, and if I read many things better than it this year, I will be surprised. It’s a good way to start this exercise.

Book #2: When I got some gift certificates recently, I didn’t know what to spend them on. I couldn’t use them online, because the coupons were not of the right kind for that kind of purchase. I was on the verge of simply using them for movies, and planning to buy the books I’d wanted to get with my own money, justifying that I would have spent that money on movies anyway, when I stumbled onto some beautiful photo books in a local bookshop. I picked up two of them, the first of which was this book: Scenes From Early Modern Korea: Through the Looking Glass, which was edited by the Seoul National University Museum. Now, some people might object to me including a book of photographs in this list. They’re just pictures, after all. Well, actually, no, this book contains some text in English, as well, and while some of it proves to be a kind of simple re-hashing of Foucauldian understandings of taxonomy as a form of social control, I still found it interesting how the author extended this kind of scientific taxonomic project to include photographic documentation by the Japanese colonists of Korea. The book plays this out well, containing mainly photographs from the Japanese colonial period of Korea, stretching from the end of the Russo-Japanese War to the end of the Second World War. The author claims that Korea in these photos looks so poor and backward and underdeveloped because the photography of such scenes would have been used to justify the Japanese “development” of Korea as a form of aid, rather than merely exploitation.

The photos themselves are fascinating, depicting not only Koreans but Japanese of the period. Seeing buildings and sites as they were in the past, and how they look now, in side-by-side shots towards the end of the book, is particularly interesting. However, this is a book I will have to return to several times to really absorb. My girlfriend told me that if I could read all of the Korean commentary, I would get more out of it; she took the example of a single photo og a family posing for a shot. The son, she noted, was dressed like a scholar of a higher class—a yangban—but the father’s outfit was, she said, wrong for the ostensible class they were trying to “claim” for themselves in the photo. She said one of the things that hints at this is the type of hat the father wore. This, she explained, was a sign of the collapse of a rigid class system in Korea at the time. I wish, looking into these photos, I could walk away with as much from the whole book as she got from that one photo, but I think it will take some more reading (including some deciphering: the introductory text at the beginning of each chapter is printed in both English and Korea, but the captions on the photos are only in Korean), and thinking, and examining those photos.

Book #3: Another photo book I picked up at the same time I got the one mentioned above, this book is titled Lost Landscape, and it’s full of photos by Kim Ki-Chan. Although it’s a newer book (published in 2004) the photos are dated from 1967-1988, meaning up to the time of the Olympics, when (I’m told) massive economic development really got underway. The claim of the book is to show scenes of Korea which are now “lost”, but I must admit it all felt a lot more familiar than the scenes in the previous book, where many photos were sixty or eighty years old. The photographer in this collection has (had?) an amazing eye for scenes of absolute humanity, whether he was shooting a pair of abandoned buses, a little girl on the way home from school, or just dusty, gritty neighborhoods with straw-roofed houses and modern houses side by side. There are so many images in which you can simply feel the intertwining of hope and difficulty and resignation. It’s hard for me to believe now, but I’m certain some of the kids who ran about in rags in those photos are now dressed in suits and one-piece dresses, carrying cell phones and buying their own children clothes much prettier for their own kids. That’s not to exonerate Park Chung Hee, of course, but it is to say that the work of all those millions of people who made the country go from what I see in those photos, to what it largely is today, is still amazing.

But it’s also partly an illusion, for if you go deep enough into the countryside, there are still places where cell phones can’t call out, where there’s no internet in most peoples’ homes, where old women still cook in outdoor kitchens. As Lime said when she saw the title of the book, Lost Landscape, “It’s not really lost. You can still see things like that…” As with the previous book, I belive I shall have to come back to this book again and again to really, truly “get” it. But that’s a god thing.

Book #4: The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History by Don Oberdorfer. If you’re looking for a good, solid history of the interactions between North and South Korea, this book is for you. It doesn’t get too deep into the situation in North Korea for the average person, it’s more of a primer for the political (governmental) history of North and South Korea, as well as the roles that many other nations have played in affecting this stormy relationship.

I found the book riveting… sort of. That is, I was reading it alongside two other books, Andrew Nahm’s Korea: Tradition & Transformation—A History of the Korean People which I read last year and posted about here (and as you can see by the date, I’ve been reading this book for a long, long time), and another book which I am still reading, North Korea: Through the Looking Glass by Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig, which I am still reading now. I don’t think, if you read only the Oberdorfer that you’ll have a good sense of Korean history in the wider sense; I mean, you won’t have a really clear a picture of the social situation in each country, the politics, the internal rhetoric and faith of each society. (I know because, after reading it, I know I still don’t have that.) But I do think you’ll have a good starting point to understanding the history of the relationship between North and South Korea and the way other foreign nations have come into play in that relationship—or, rather, the kinds of relationships North and South have each had with other countries.

One of the important things that came out of this reading was, for me, a skepticism about the current “nuclear crisis” with Pyongyang. Everytime I see anything about it in the news, it sounds like the big new story, but in fact the whole issue stretched back a long time, and the current mess is just another chapter or episode in the bigger damned mess. Which isn’t to say it’s not a big deal, but it’s not new or sudden, as developments go. What’s new is an outright claim that the North has nukes. But other bloggers (namely the top few under the subject Korea in my blogroll) deal with that subject much better than I can hope to do.

Anyway, as one of several worthwhile books, I’d say it’s a must-read for anyone who wants to begin to know about Korea.

Coming next: I’m going to review North Korea: Through the Looking Glass by Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig, and try get myself back into reading fiction. Is such a thing possible? I’ve been finding it hard, but I’ll try.

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