What can the 10 South Korean writers selected for the book fair this week tell us about a country that has been cut in two?
After two years of political hot potatoes – first China and then Turkey – this year’s “market focus” country presents a different challenge to the London Book Fair, which runs this week: Who wants to read books from Korea? The choice of name could be dismissed as opportunistically misleading; Korea is two countries, but the 10 writers who will be at the book fair are all from the south.
We’re desperate to hear the inside story of North Korea because it is the stuff of nightmares, locked in unending cold war, complete with nuclear bombs aimed at unknown targets. We have no access to the first-hand stories of its citizens, so we rely on Western writers, whether of novels, such as Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master’s Son, or of journalism.
Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy: Real Lives In North Korea won the 2010 Samuel Johnson prize, while John Sweeney was more recently accused of putting a group of London students at risk by joining them incognito to research his book, North Korea Undercover.
While the North appears to be tale of economic and social catastrophe, South Korea is one of the great success stories of the second half of the 20th century – yet its literature remains tantalisingly remote. It is home to the poet Ko Un, tipped as a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize, but nearly all its high-profile authors are based in the west.
Economist Ha-Joon Chang, author of the 2010 book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, has spent much of his career in Cambridge, novelist Chang-rae Lee moved to New York when he was three.
Short story writer Krys Lee, author of the award-winning debut collection Drifting House, grew up in California and Washington, though she has since returned to South Korea. She will be at the book fair but is not one of the 10: “It’s difficult because I believe I’m part of a generation of Koreans (and Asians) who left the country as children, not necessarily out of choice), and have returned, and there is no real category for people like us yet,” she says.
So what can the 10 writers selected for the fair – Hwang Sok-yong, Yi Mun-yol, Lee Seung-U, Kim In-suk, Kyung-sook Shin, Kim Young-ha, Han Kang, Kim Hye-soon, Hwang Sun-mi and Yoon Tae-ho – say about a country that has been sawn in half for 60 years?
Two, in particular, dramatise the intractable situation in which their country finds itself. Hwang Sok-Yong was born in Manchuria in 1943, when it was under Japanese occupation, fought in the Vietnam war, and began publishing in the 1970s. The Shadow Of Arms (1985) is set in the black markets of the Vietnamese city of Danang during the Vietnam War, and is based on his experiences as a mercenary for the South Vietnamese.
Hwang is a rarity in being read in the North and the South, though his 2001 novel The Guest (2001) infuriated both sides. It revisits the Korean War in the story of two brothers, both of whom have moved to the US and become priests. When one dies, the other signs up for a tourist trip to North Korea, to meet the family that stayed behind and make peace with the two foreign “guests” that have split his country: Marxism and Christianity.
He finds his relatives haven’t fared as badly as he’d feared. The novel ends with an offertory ritual as the surviving sibling burns the rags of his family’s conflicted past to atone for his brother’s war crimes.