Korean writers turn inward


Divided: Older writers in the South, long preoccupied with a broken culture and questions of national identity, are giving way to a younger generation interested in smaller, more personal issues

April 07, 2003|By Edward A. Gargan | Edward A. Gargan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SEOUL, South Korea -- They are a central symbol in the consciousness of nearly all South Koreans: twin fences crowned with rolls of barbed wire. They divide this peninsula -- husband from wife, parents from children, brother from sister. The North-South fence line that rips Korea for 150 miles has remained not just a political divide but a psychological scar in the nation's literary culture for half a century.

Modern Korean literature was born in the nation's rupture in 1953 after three years of warfare. And in some of the most powerful novels to emerge from Asia over four decades, Korean novelists have wrestled with the meaning of a nation torn in two, of an internally broken culture, and most agonizingly, with the central issue of Korean identity.

While their work remains almost unknown in the West, this generation of Korean writers has long dominated the literary scene here. But that is changing: A crop of younger writers is challenging the preoccupation of South Korean literature.

Critics here are calling it the "era of interiority."

For many young South Koreans living in a time of rapidly rising affluence, and with no memory of the three-year war that divided their country, the North is but a distant, alien land, a place of little relevance to their lives. More important to this new generation are the concerns of modern life, of love, of family -- grist for a new literature that has swept the country in the past decade, and has begun to displace that of an older generation of novelists.

"I didn't experience the war. I have no experience with the North. I have no impression of the North," explains Shin Kyoung Sook, at age 40 one of South Korea's best-selling authors. "I'd describe myself as a blank slate. Even though the North is close by, it's further away than places like Japan and Korea." The fact of national division, she says, does not penetrate her fiction.

This shift in literary temperament is no small issue in a country of ravenous readers. Korean literature may be hard to find in the West, but at the basement-level, blocklong Kyobo Bookstore in central Seoul, it is almost impossible to push through the dozens of aisles walled by bookshelves, to squeeze past tables laden with new books, to reach one of the dozens of cash registers without a five-minute wait. Koreans read, and they read a lot.

In the vast literature section, where the works of older-generation writers huddle against those of newer authors, where thrillers hug romantic fiction, readers crouch on the floor, devouring the opening chapters of their favorite writers, paw through stacks of newly arrived fiction and harangue clerks about books that are, inexplicably, out of stock.

It was in this ferment that Shin's short story, called "Where the Harmonium Once Was," appeared in 1992. As David McCann, a professor of Korean literature at Harvard, observes, "The narrator, a young woman, is concerned with her own life and its challenges, not the cultural aftermath of occupation, division or war." The story, McCann says, "blew the doors off the Korean publishing world."

Shin comes from a poor, rural family. As a teen-ager, she moved to Seoul and witnessed the rapid industrialization of Korea, and what she later came to identify as the social dislocations associated with such rapid social transformation. "A lot of people had difficulty adapting to this new society," she says. "As people tried to adapt, they encountered new kinds of problems. People found themselves exiled in a way."

The dilemmas of this internal exile course through her novels and stories, concerns that distance her from the old-guard writers.

But as tensions between North and South Korea have become more acute in the past few months over Pyongyang's insistence on its right to build nuclear weapons, writers such as Lee Ho Chul -- who grew up in the North -- and several other South Korean novelists with long experience with the North and a focus on the nature of national division maintain that the vision in their work is newly relevant.

Even more, they insist, their personal experiences provide important windows onto the process, however slow and halting, of reconciliation with the North, which they see as essential and inevitable.

Writers such as Lee -- who fought with North Korean forces 50 years ago and ultimately settled in the South -- strive not to criticize the new literary direction. But they argue that the younger generation is forsaking the central -- and enduring -- crisis in Korean society for more individualistic concerns.

Captured in 1950, Lee decided to remain in the South when the war ended, despite leaving his entire family behind, and soon established himself as one of Korea's most prolific and penetrating novelists.

"I know very well about the system of communist North Korea," he says during a conversation at a traditional Korean teahouse. "I have had the experience of living under that regime. It is a rigid mentality. It is the way of communist society."

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