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Japanese troops land in Korea, 16th century

“ In 1915, one of the fathers of modern Korean literature, Yi Kwang-su, laid out his modern manifesto. ‘We are a new people, without ancestors, without parents, that came from Heaven in the present.’ (Kim Hunggyu, 194.) This belief was amplified in 1930 by Ch’oe Caeso, who argued, ‘In terms of contemporary culture, our attitudes are dominated by those of Western culture, and not by those from the Choson period and before,'” wrote Charles Montgomery , who taught English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University, Seoul.

Choson, also known as Choseon or Joseon,  was the dynasty that ruled Korea for the longest period — five hundred years — before the Japanese invasion in 1910. Though Japan had tried to invade Korea earlier in 1592 and 1597-98, their impact at that time was minimal.  

Was that Mountain Really ThereHowever, in the twentieth century, the Japanese invasion lasted longer —  for four decades — till Japan was defeated in 1945 at the end of the Second World War by the dropping of an atom bomb. Subsequently Korea was split along the 38th parallell, one part being allied to the American and the other to Soviet Union. The pain of this partition was projected  beautifully by Park Wan Suh in her classic novel, Was The Mountain Really There? .

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The Seoul International Book Fair, started in 1954, claims to be the biggest event of its kind in Korea with participation of forty countries and 430 publishers, including Hungary, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, USA, Egypt and Indonesia. The guest of honor this year, at its twenty-fifth anniversary, was from Hungary.  

Hungarian Ambassador to Korea Mozes Csoma said in his opening speech: “Back in 1892, the Austro-Hungarian Empire already signed a treaty of amity with the Joseon Dynasty. Hungarian scholar Barathosi Balogh Benedek traveled the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century, and he hoped Hungarians would get to know more about Korea and Korean culture. Now I have a similar hope with his. I hope more Koreans get to know Hungarian culture and its literature.”

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South Korean writer, Hang Kan ,who was the winner of the Man International Booker prize in 2016 for her novel The Vegetarian, has joined the ranks of literary greats who are giving their writing for the Future Library Project in Norway started by artist Katie Paterson in 2014.

Katie Paterson, an award winning Scottish artist known to play with and find inspiration in nature using her imagination to create unique artworks based on natural phenomenons like glaciers,stars and the universe itself, planted one thousand spruce trees in the Nordmarka forest, just outside Oslo in Norway. The paper from these woods will be used in 2114 to print the books of the literary greats who are participating in the project, which include literary giants like Margaret Atwood and multiple award winning novelist David Mitchell and whose ranks Hang Sen joined last month.

 

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

“I have always loved books,” the head librarian confessed, “and my love of books led me to the love of scholarship. After reading so many books, studying so hard throughout my youth, it was a dream come true when I was appointed as a librarian here. What better place for me to have ended up than in the greatest library in the world, among so many books, so many treasures of scholarship. So I read and studied, until no one could match my erudition, not even the librarians who were older and had been here longer. So it was inevitable that I ultimately became the head librarian.

“But then, in the midpoint of my life, I was overcome by a terrible loneliness. I had spent so much time among books that I had lost touch with everyone I had known, including my family. I knew that both of my parents had died at some point, but I was too busy with my studies to attend their funerals. I know that they loved me, and I vaguely remembered loving them, but all that seemed like a story I read in book a long time ago.

“One day, while I was perusing a newly acquired work in my study, I heard some voices outside the window. When I looked out, I saw one of the younger librarians speaking with a girl from the town who worked as a cook at the library. They were holding hands, smiling at each other, and saying things that made them blush with happiness. The way the sun was illuminating them, they looked so fresh and beautiful that it caused a terrific pain in my heart. Perhaps it was a vision of what I missed out in my life, or perhaps it was the awakening of a feeling that lay dormant in my heart.

By Mitali Chakravarty

Was that Mountain Really there? by Park Wan-Suh, an award winning and well-known Korean novelist, has recently been translated by Hannah Kim and published by Kitaab. The novel depicts the trauma of partition faced by civilians in a war that reft the country in two, less than a decade after India was sliced into multiple segments. While Indians suffered in the name of religion, Was that Mountain Really There? portrays the suffering caused by a war created by the clash of communist and capitalist ideologies.

Park Wan-Suh was separated from her mother and brother by the border etched by the Korean War (1950-53) and found herself in the South while her family was in the North. Korean critic Kim Byeong-ik states that her writing is ‘the only record of how people survived in Seoul during the Korean War;’ however, her book is equally relevant in the current context of the ravages of war and refugee influx, a worldwide concern to date.

According to Theodore Hughes of Columbia University, ‘Park Wan-Suh is important for the ways in which her writing is at once popular (nearly all her works are best-sellers) and canonical. She is widely discussed in Korean academia and she has become the subject of dissertations. While this is also the case for many male writers, Park Wan-Suh may have combined the two levels more successfully than any other novelist.’

More than half a dozen of her novels have been translated into English, the latest being Was the Mountain Really There? Translating a book of this calibre is undoubtedly a daunting task and one that Hannah Kim performs very well. This translation highlights both the uniqueness of Korean life and culture and the universality of human sufferings and interactions that transcends borders of all kinds.

Hannah Kim is a translator and writer at Arirang TV. She has translated works on a variety of topics including literature, politics, music, visual arts, history and economics. She currently works in conjunction with the Department of Anthropology, Seoul National University. She combines a passion for music along with her passion for words and performs as a classically trained soprano in concerts in Southern California. In this interview, she highlights the challenges of translating and talks of Park Wan-Suh’s contributions to literature and the importance of words that can ‘inform, connect, and change the world’.

Hannah Kim

Mitali: The book is very personal – autobiographical in its historical sweep and    emotional proximity. How did you, as the translator, negotiate this emotional core? Did it involve research?

Hannah: Translating this novel definitely involved research but not so much for its emotional core. I had to study the events of the Korean War, the military tactics, and some period terms. Studying those technical aspects was not difficult. It was the emotional delivery of the text that was challenging. It was important for me as a translator to use the English language to conjure up the same or similar emotional reactions as those who had read the book in Korean. However, there were certainly cultural and linguistic barriers I tried to minimize, as there were words and expressions that could not directly be translated. So trying to get as close to the emotional core of the original language in English was definitely challenging.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh was one of the most remarkable women writers of her times. Can you tell us more about her life and works? What made you choose her and this particular book of hers for translation?

Hannah: She was and still is one of the most beloved and celebrated writers in Korea. What was so remarkable about her was how prolific she was given that she had made her debut as a writer in her 40s. She never received formal training in writing — she had attended only one semester at Seoul National University before dropping out at the outbreak of the Korean War.

I chose Was the Mountain Really There? because I liked her writing style. Her writing is unembellished, frank, piercing, and vulnerable all at the same time. Also, having grown up in the U.S., I was always interested in learning more about Korean history. My father was in middle school when the war broke out and he told us stories of how his family survived when my siblings and I were young. South Korea was destroyed and reduced to rubble when the armistice was signed and the war was suspended in 1953. The miraculous economic development of South Korea since the end of the war was dubbed as the Miracle on the Han River. I wanted to trace its history and see how the war was experienced and narrated by a civilian, not by a second-source historian.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh lived through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. Her first hand experiences are found in her autobiographical novel Who Ate Up All The Shinga, translated in 2009. In her foreword to the sequel, Was The Mountain Really There? she says she ‘wasn’t able to form the pattern (she) truly wanted’. What could have been the pattern, the sense of relentless change or of man taking over and destroying a natural way of life? Do you think the book has been able to convey this ‘pattern’ quite well despite how she felt about it as its writer?

Book Review: Was that Mountain Really There? By Park Wan-suh (Translated by Hannah Kim)

Reviewed by Anushka Ray

Was that Mountain Really There

Title: Was that Mountain Really There?
Author: Park Wan-suh
Translator: Hannah Kim
Publisher: Kitaab International Pte ltd
Pages: 332
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Autobiographies typically present the picture of perfect bravery; they are a testament to fortified bulwarks authors build up as they trudge along, with a complimentary voice depicting a clear story line and eventual victory. Was that Mountain Really There? is rare in its sense where the narrator remains at her core so impenetrably humble and human, it is no longer a retelling of a story. Instead, it becomes a reflection on adolescence, a growing up which just so happened to coincide with the 1950-1953 Korean War. Park Wan-suh upholds an honest narrative voice, with a raw sincerity that transforms even the most tumultuous of moments into something delicate and fragile.

Every word has a distinct purpose. Even the seemingly mindless title is explained in the author’s foreword, with the retelling of how Wan-suh witnessed the construction of a new gymnasium in replacement of a hideous mound in her hometown. This development, although praised by the neighbourhood, somehow struck a chord within her, as she campaigns to immortalize the memory of the small hill. The strange memory effortlessly portrays the sense of futility which existed in her childhood, especially growing up in an age where everything around was demolished. It is this fear of history being forgotten which compelled Wan-suh to publish the novel, a way to tell the world ‘that’s how we lived’.

Was that Mountain Really There? explores the life of author Park Wan-suh as a 20-year-old caught in the Korean War in 1951. Accompanied by her relatives, Wan-suh navigates the eruptive state of Korea, where the constant battle for power between the North and South Koreans controls their actions. She navigates the country both literally and figuratively, as she briefly escapes Seoul and finds a short-lived refuge in Gyoha (part of the then country Paju) before returning home. While a palpable fear is instilled from the opening pages with Wan-suh’s brother suffering from a North Korean inflicted gun wound, there is a clear reluctance to encounter South Korean soldiers due to the family’s previous communist history. All this accumulates to a constant state of paranoia when faced with any militia, and an underlying commentary on whether either army was in the right. This paranoia sustains throughout the novel but gradually grows subdued and muted, dictating their decisions yet not exposing them to any violence.

Reviewed by Anushka Ray

scorpion_cvr

Title: The Scorpion (Trans)
Author: Kim Won-il
Publisher: Kitaab International, Singapore
Pages: 445
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There is a throbbing ache of subdued anger throughout The Scorpion, an ever-present bitterness, which seeps through the most deadpan of narration and into the hearts of the readers. The Scorpion by Kim Won-il finds its footing with this: a constant pragmatic voice, but full of resentment, to emphasize the loss of desire to romanticize the world in which these characters find themselves.

The novel follows Kang Jae-pil, his father Kang Cheon-dong and, briefly, his father’s father Kang Chi-mu, as each man navigates the tension he faces in Korean society. Each alternate chapter adopts a different perspective as a way to seamlessly and organically transition between timelines and generations. We venture into the narrator Jae-pil’s thoughts and feelings as he grapples with life right out of prison. Kang Jae-pil’s matter of fact observations are riddled and tangled with acute detail, giving way to a man who perhaps has deep sensitivities, a startling recognition of guilt and gratitude for the family he let down. Jae-pil’s meetings with his step-sister Myeong-hee (who holds greater importance as the story continues) as well as his grandmother, excel in showcasing glittering remnants of humanity that he holds onto despite his seven years in prison.

Jae-pil vows to leave behind his gangster lifestyle in Seoul as he travels to meet his family and eventually begins writing his deceased grandfather’s biography as a way to show his respect and perhaps as a way for him to move on from the years he spent behind bars. His story is by far the most engaging, largely attributable to the first person narration, a man who feels regret and has potential. Won-il travels in time through flashbacks and dialogue to explore Jae-pil’s perilous journey and brings alive the Korean society as it morphs through the ages. As the novel unfolds, Won-il seems to gain in confidence and fluidity with Jae-pil’s character and begins to introduce more graceful description of the beauty found in nature. Despite this, at its core the story remains dark – Jae-pil is haunted by vices, much like his father was; we find ourselves screaming at him to resist his temptations when he begins turning to drinking and crime. While the lack in build up does not prepare us for this, it’s not surprising in the context of the character’s past. Regardless of this, Jae-pil stays the most likeable man of the three.