Before K-pop or K-beauty, there was Korean literature. Before the vivid, strange writing in translation of contemporary South Korean writers (including Han Kang, Hwang Jungeun, and Bae Suah) and writers of the Korean-American diaspora (such as Min Jin Lee, Patty Park, and Alexander Chee), there was literature being produced in the the city of Keijō—or Gyeongseong—where Seoul now stands. Under the rule of Imperial Japan, Keijo/Gyeongseong developed into a capital. Urbanization and colonization shaped modern Korean writers until the end of the Second World War, when Japan retreated. Seoul’s painful history has been razed and the city does not readily divulge its previous incarnation.
With the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, Japan launched a policy of territorial expansion that claimed Taiwan and Korea, among other countries. This policy indelibly marked the Korean peninsula, which was under Japanese rule from 1910–45. During this period, a generation of writers established successful careers. As in Taiwan, these Koreans were educated, spoke and wrote in Japanese, and had little or no memory of precolonial life. Later generations caught in the tumult of twentieth-century politics would judge them mercilessly. Many of the young men attended university in Tokyo, an epicenter of the arts, and returned to Keijo/Gyeongseong to contribute to the budding literary scene. They wrote under increasingly fraught political circumstances, which came to a head in 1940 when the Imperial State cracked down, banning the use of Korean entirely and even rounding up and torturing the creators of a Korean-language dictionary.
The country has emerged as a surprising literary force as a novel by the ‘Korean Henning Mankell’ bags a six-figure deal and sparks a global bidding war
Last December, Korean novelist Un-su Kim set out on an eight-month deep-sea fishing trip as part of research for his next book. Unreachable by phone or email until next August, when his boat docks in Fiji, he has no idea that his thriller The Plotters has been the subject of a wildly enthusiastic auction in the US, where it recently sold to Doubleday for a six-figure sum. German publisher Europa Verlag has called Kim “the Korean Henning Mankell”, while publishers in the UK, Czech Republic and Turkey have placed offers, and international film companies are also battling for rights.
His agent, Barbara Zitwer, who plans to meet him in Fiji to reveal the news, believes Kim’s novel, about an organisation that masterminds assassinations, has caught a wave of interest in Korean thrillers – a previously unknown quantity. “The world is finally embracing them. Korean thriller writers are invigorating the genre,” she said. “They are pumping new life into it. Readers are tiring of Scandinavian thrillers – they crave something new.”
Korean writing can seem new to English readers due to the unique cadence and economy of the language; translator Deborah Smith described the process of changing Korean to English as “moving from a language more accommodating of ambiguity, repetition and plain prose to one that favours precision, concision and lyricism”. There is no grand tradition of mystery writing in Korea. Writers there are creating something entirely new: sparsely worded, stylistically sophisticated page-turners that incorporate ideas important to Korean society, such as family, loyalty, nature and hierarchy.
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? The Star
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. Read more