Early Modern Fiction

 

       Innovation in content, form, and style marked the works of Korean fiction composed at the turn of the century by such writers as Yi Injik, Yi Ha-jo, and Choe Chansik. Their work, however, still relied heavily on premodern forms of narrative. It was not until the publication of Yi Kwangsus The Heartless in 1917 that a significant break was made. In this seminal work of fiction, often considered the first modern Korean novel, Yi Kwangsu criticized traditional value-systems and customs and endorsed free love and the fulfillment of the individual self.

       Following Yi Kwangsu, writers in the 1920s continued to experiment with more modern forms of fiction. Kim Tong-in rejected didacticism in literature and sought to portray the fullness of human life in all its conflicting manifestations, while developing a language of greater sophistication. He stressed the purity of literary creation and emphasized strong characterization, especially through the depiction of interior psychological states. The first half of the 1920s was dominated by the rhetoric of romanticism as writers sought to express individual life in a state of despair and melancholy; in the later years, the rhetoric of realism became more assertive, with writers attempting an accurate description of the social realities of the Korean people. Among the notable figures from this period were Yŏm Sangsŏp, who emphasized the discovery of the individual while staying faithful to the sensibilities of modern realism; Hyŏn Chin-gŏn, who devoted himself to exploring the relationship between society and the individual;  Na Tohyang, a thoughtful investigator of the lives of the common people in an era of privations; Choe Sŏhae, who articulated in a passionate manner the alienated classes voice of furor and protest, based on his personal experiences; and Cho Myŏnghŭi, who synthesized the concreteness of realism and the ideals of socialism in narrative form.

       Greater variety, not only in subject matter and thematic content, but also in formal aspects, marked the fiction of the 1930s. Interest in both rural life, the seat of tradition, and emerging urban culture were high. Pak Taewŏn, Chae Mansik, and Yu Chin-o wrote works that explored the urban ecology and the commodification of human beings within this landscape, while Yi Kwangsu, Shim Hun, Yi Muyŏng, Yi Kiyŏng and Kim Yujŏng focused on rural life in various ways to illuminate the harsh realities of peasant farming. Yŏm Sangsŏp, Chae Mansik, and Kim Namchŏn wrote family sagas in which the fate of a single clan in the course of several generations parallels the fate of the Korean people as a whole. Yi Sang, Choi Myŏng-ik, and Hŏ Jun widened the horizons of psychological fiction, and Yi Taejun and Yi Hyosŏk achieved peerless articulations of the aesthetics of the short story. In addition, Kang Kyŏng-ae, Paek Sin-ae, Kim Malbong, Pak Hwasŏng, Choe Chŏnghŭi, Im Ok-in and Chi Haryŏn made important contributions to womens literature by sketching compelling portraits of women suffering under the impoverished conditions of colonial rule.

 

 

 

Postwar fiction

 

       The period following the end of Japanese rule was a time of renewed interest in the expressive potential of the Korean language. The use of the Korean language had been completely banned during the last years of the Japanese regime, and with the restoration of their native language following Liberation, writers embarked on new explorations of the Korean language as a literary medium. Aiding this sense of newfound freedom of expression was a profound change in the nature of literary organizations and publication procedures, which allowed the emergence of a new generation of writers. Still, the lasting division of Korea continued to impose ideological limitations on writers. In South Korea all literary works felt to exhibit leftist tendencies were prohibited; instead, works and writers espousing the ideology of conservative nationalism gained dominance.

       Perhaps on account of such sensitivity to matters of ideology in writing, the fiction of this period tended to focus on the universal human condition rather than matters of historical consciousness. The works of writers like O Yŏngsu, who relied on the native folk imagination, and Kim Tongni, who incorporated shamanistic elements of Korean tradition in his narratives, belong to this category. Even the so-called Postwar Literature dealing with the atrocities of the Korean War, which appeared in large quantities after the War, tended to focus on more fundamental questions regarding the barbarism of war and the sanctity of human life. But there were also works which dealt more specifically with historical issues by engaging realistically with the shattered mores and customs of postwar Korean society. Notable fiction writers from this period include: Hwang Sunwŏn, Choe Inhun, Son Changsŏp, Chang Yong-hak, Yi Pŏmsŏn, Sŏ Kiwŏn, Ha Kŭnchan and Yi Hochŏl.

 

       The postwar literature of the 1950s attempted to bring the bleakness of postwar society into the psychic interior of the suffering individual, but the trauma of the war experience often served as a limit of communicability. In the following decade, however, a new generation of writers came to the fore and took center stage. They came to be known as the 4.19 Generation. The 4.19 movement of 1960, despite its failure to secure enduring democracy, provided a powerful stimulus in the realms of literature and culture, by offering a glimpse of  the possibility of creating a society built on ideals of freedom. This glimpse served as an important catalyst for literary imagination. Moreover, the generation that spearheaded the 4.19 movement was also known as the Hangŭl Generation (Hangŭl is the native Korean alphabet), the first to have been educated in the Korean vernacular rather than in classical Chinese, as was the custom during the Chosŏn dynasty, or in Japanese, as was the rule during the colonial era. This generation, equipped with a vision of freedom and schooled in the literariness of the Korean language, provided a turning point in the development of Korean literature. Writers like Hong Sŏngwŏn, Yi Chŏngjun, Kim Sŭng-ok, Sŏ Chŏng-in, and Yi Cheha overcame the pervasive nihilism and victim mentality of the earlier generation and showcased a new, dazzling sensibility in their fiction.

 

From early explorations of the native Korean spirit, to late meditations on the meaning of human life and its relation to the divine, the works of Kim Tongni and Hwang Sunwŏn consistently display a religious orientation and a fundamentally humanistic approach. Matters of life and death, tradition and modernity, shamanism and Christianity, and the east and the west recur in the two writers attempt to address basic questions regarding what remains irrepressibly human in an inhuman world. Even the works of fiction dating from the middle of their careers, in which they focused on their contemporary reality dominated by the traumatic experience of the Korean War, tend to treat historical events as they are internalized by human consciousness and filtered through individual experiences. The works of Kim Tongni and Hwang Sunwŏn emphasize the human will to endure suffering and survive.

 

       Kim Tongni (191395) was a writer who espoused pure literature in opposition to the heavily ideological literature that proliferated in the Korean literary world immediately before and after Liberation. Exploring the subject of Korean tradition and autonomy, Kim Tongni dealt with relations between shamanism and Confucianism, Christianity or Buddhism through which he drew attention to the collision of Korean tradition with a foreign culture. He attempted to sketch the spiritual world that he viewed as uniquely Korean, not only through shamanism but also by incorporating elements of myths and legends, eastern thought on fatalism, and traditional views of nature.

       Kim Tongnis famed short stories, The Portrait of a Shaman (1936), Rock (1936), and The Legend of Yellow Earth (1939), all depict a world rich in local color and draw heavily on elements of traditional myth or shamanism.

             Following the Korean War, Kim Tongni turned his attention to the suffering of Koreans during and after the war. Returning Soldiers (1950), Evacuation of Hŭngnam (1955), The Times of Mildawon (1955), Non-Existence (1955), and The Call of Magpies (1966) all take place in wartorn Korea. Rather than dealing directly with the ravages of war, these works adopt a fatalistic view toward war and treat it as a catastrophe that human will or strength cannot prevent.

 

       Hwang Sunwŏn (19152000) is renowned for the lyrical and concise prose style with which he portrays human life in all its beauty, purity, and dignity. Most of the characters that appear in his fiction come to apprehend love by passing through extreme loneliness. Here, love is continuous with reverence for life and affirmation of existence. The foulness of the world makes it difficult to maintain ones purity, but the knowledge of this difficulty makes reconciliation and healing of wounds all the more important. This vision, which underlies the entire body of Hwang Sunwŏns works, impart to them a feeling of pathos, at once tragic and warm.

             The Shower (1953) details the pathos of an innocent love. A country boy and a girl from the city are drawn to each other, but the girl dies from an illness. The boy, on the girls death, learns that her final wish was to be buried in the clothes she had worn when she had first met him. The experience opens the boys eyes to what it is to experience suffering and so to questions regarding the meaning of life. Rather than emphasizing the negative, however, the author stresses the beauty of tender, short-lived love. Children often appear in Hwang Sunwŏns fiction, serving as symbols of purity that contrast with the corrupt world of adult society.

 

The historical tragedy of the division of Korea and the ensuing Korean War cast very long shadows on the Korean literary imagination in the second half of the twentieth century. Everywhere in the fiction of 1950s, the wounds of war could be felt; for the most part, those wounds were still bleeding. The barbarism of war had to be denounced, the mental and physical suffering of the Korean people had to be given visceral, empathetic treatment, but the writers of the time lacked the space for reflection necessary to think through the trauma of this experience in conjunction with the history of the country in the first half of the century, to say nothing of more fundamental questions regarding the existential condition of the individual human being.

       A turning point came with Choe Inhuns The Square (1960). Choe Inhun (1936 ) was born in the north, but moved down south during the Korean War; with intelligence and analytical astuteness, Choe articulated the existentialist question on the meaning of life and identity, but pursued it within the concrete context of modern Koreas turbulent historycolonization, war, and division. Choe also brought about a revolution in narrative style.

             The Square, published in 1960, the year that also witnessed the momentous 4.19 Revolution, was an immediate sensation. The work went far beyond the standard political narrative that had dominated the Korean literary world in the postwar era, and challenged both North and South Korea through the life story of a Korean man who finds himself at home in neither the communist North nor the reactionary South.

 

       Yi Chŏngjun (1939-) is a cerebral writer. To him, fiction is a kind of word-dream structured around the hope for love and forgiveness, for individual freedom and the liberation of truth. It is also a way in which life manifests its harmonious wholeness. To bring this word-dream to life, Yi Chŏngjun wrestles with oppositions of freedom and oppression, mercy and vengeance, the ideal and the actual, the truth of an individual and visions held by a collectivity, and struggles to bring them together in his imagination. With experiments in form, he ceaselessly knocks on the doors to new worlds. His fiction probes the invisible essence of existence rather than remaining on its surface; he emerges from its depths with precious symbols that provide clues to understanding the principle and the value of life.

       In This Paradise of Yours (1976), Yi Chŏngjuns best-known work, the subject is the relation between the individual and the collective. The setting is the remote leper colony on Sorok Island, where a clinic has been set up for the lepers. Cho Paekkŏn is the well-meaning head of the clinic who seeks to make his dreamthis paradise of yours, for the victims of leprosyinto a reality. The patients, however, remain skeptical of any notion of a paradise built as yours rather than ours, and do not give Dr. Cho their support. What the patients, including Elder Hwang, had dreamed of was our paradise, built with their own strength upon the foundation of shared love and a desire for freedom, the shaping of their autonomous destiny from within rather than from without or above.

 

       Heralding a revolution in sensibility, Kim Sŭng-ok (1941-) burst onto the 1960s literary scene with a unique style and a feel for language that differed utterly from those of earlier generations. A writer of many exceptional giftswitty analysis, meticulous plot, simultaneous apprehension of multiple currents of consciousness, sensory languageKim Sŭng-ok displays the ability to produce a kind of fictionality that brings reality and fantasy together in exquisite harmony and evokes the shock of unfamiliarity underlying the humdrum routine of ordinary days. In addition to Record of a Journey to Mujin (1964), a short story that established his reputation, Kim Sŭng-ok is known for Seoul, Winter 1964 (1965) and Moonlight in Seoul: Chapter Zero (1977), works that unveil the melancholia of current life through a modern urban imagination using sensory language.

       A Journey to Mujin, told in the form of a travelogue, is an account of three days spent in the provincial town of Mujin. For the protagonist, a man in his early thirties, Mujin marks a space of life alternative to the one he leads in Seoul, a place he visits after every failure or before every new start. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist has returned to Mujin once again, to wait out the period before his promised promotion at his father-in-laws pharmaceutical company. Though he does not love his wife, a widow he married after failing at love, he is indebted to her for his rising social status. But in Mujin, away from his life in Seoul, he agonizes over the weight of his existence. A painful dilemma between being and having, hanging over him like Mujins fog that symbolizes existential irony, confuses his identity and perception of self. And in Mujin, standing in the midst of the heavy fog, the narrator dreams of a life defined by existence rather than ownership, but only for a moment. A telegram from his wife calls him back to Seoul, where the life of having awaits him. The protagonists realistic compromise with the material world coincides with his retreat from subjectivity.

       Thus A Journey to Mujin illuminates, with critical sensibility, the inner consciousness of a generation set adrift in the atmosphere of material want and spiritual lack in the period after the Korean War. Wandering in the bleak world that overwhelms even the fantasy of a solitary individual, the main character experiences the irony of existence in a forlorn way. Probing such loneliness and self-alienation with impressionistic sensibility and style, the work achieves a high level of aesthetic modernity in both content and form.

 

       Sŏ Chŏng-in (1936-) consistently uses the fictional form as a vehicle of social critique, experimenting with formal aspects of the genre to expose the often shabby and coarse interior of modern life. . In Festival of Rhododendrons (1983-86), he incorporated dialogue as bursting with life as the characters who speak it, before attempting an even more energetic narrative experiment in Moon Bow (1987-90), where he borrowed techniques from the traditional sung narratives of pansori. Inheriting this tradition through a creative reworking, Sŏ Chŏng-in moves effortlessly between humor and pathos, and creates a form of rapport that embraces the material and spiritual lives of a wide variety of people, while revealing, in a critical manner, life in all its weariness and want. Combining the sheer energy of spoken words and possibilities of an open narrative form, Sŏ Chŏng-in seeks to capture in an authentic manner the shape of dynamic reality.

       A salient characteristic of the Korean fiction written in the 1970s is its focus on the problems attending the process of industrialization: the gap between the rich and the poor, the alienation of labor, growing materialism in society and corruption of customs, and the ongoing breakdown of agricultural society. Hwang Sŏg-yŏng, Yun Hŭnggil, Cho Sehŭi, Yi Mun-gu, Choe Illam, and Pak Taesun are among the writers who examined these problems in their works. Fiction also provided a medium for exploring the results of Koreas enduring division. Works by such writers as Kim Wŏnil, Cho Chŏngnae, Chŏn Sangguk, Yi Tong-ha, Yu Chae-yong, and Hyŏn Kiyŏng draw on personal experiences of the Korean War and the ensuing division of the country to reconfirm their tragic consequences, the wounds that resulted; at the same time, they seek ways to overcome this heritage of pain and contradictions.

       While shorter works tended to offer concise snapshots of a few concrete aspects of contemporary life, lengthier historical novels sought macroscopic and transgenerational reflections on the past. By following the shifting fortunes of a particular family, women writers like Pak Kyŏngni, Pak Wansŏ, and Choe Myŏnghŭi ruminated on the turbulent history of Korea in the modern age, especially as it had affected womens lives. In yet another direction, Choe Inho, Cho Haeil, Cho Sŏnjak, Han Susan, O Takpôn, and Pak Pŏmshin focused on newly emerging social customs with a kind of urban sensibility that appealed to popular tastes, and thereby expanded the readership for works of fiction.

        

             In the 1980s, borne on the wings of the democratization movement, more radical, strongly critical approaches to social issues became popular in both fiction and poetry. In fiction, Kim Yŏnghŏn, Chŏng Tosang, and Pang Hyŏnsŏk treated the conflict between capital and labor, and through this conflict, highlighted the alienation of laborers. A similar interest guides the poetry of Pak Nohae, Kim Chŏnghwan, and Kim Myŏng-in. Still, it can be argued that the most interesting and accomplished writers of this period were not those with the most radical social views, but those who offered a more subtle treatment of the times. A good example is Yi Munyŏl who came to stand at the very forefront of 1980s Korean literature with an imagination of great diversity and a sumptuous style. Also making major contributions to the richness to the fiction of this decade were: Pak Sangnyung and Kim Wŏnu, who conceptualized the problem of human existence; Han Sŭngwŏn and Kim Chuyŏng, engaged with the traditional Korean spirit, Yun Hu-myŏng, with his lyrical fiction that relies on imagery and mood rather than narration, Pak Yŏng-han, exploring the lives of ordinary citizens or the problem of the individual in a group-oriented society; Im Chŏru, attempting to refine his political imagination while examining the contemporary results of Korean division; Yi Insŏng and Choe Suchŏl, who succeeded in shattering traditional fictional grammar. In poetry as well, Yi Sŏngbok, Hwang Chi-u, Choe Sŭngho, and Pak Namchŏl rejected the existing poetic grammar and boldly adopted the rough, unhewn language of everyday life to probe its contradictions. The period also witnessed the activity of a wide variety of women writers, who had hitherto remained at the periphery of the Korean literary scene. Notable among fiction-writers were O Chŏnghŭi, Kang Sŏkkyŏng, Yang Kuija, Kim Chaewŏn, Sŏ Yŏng-ŭn, and among poets, Choe Sŭngja, Kim Hyesun, Kang Ŭn-gyo, Kim Sŭnghŭi, and Ko Chŏnghŭi.

 

       In 1971, a worker set himself on fire and jumped from a building in Seouls notorious garment district as an act of protest against the extreme exploitation of the workers in the sweatshops that served as the dark underside of the industrys remarkable growth. His death marked the beginning of an intense struggle for workers rights, a cause that was taken up by the fiction writer Hwang Sŏgyŏng (1943-) in Far from Home (1971). Employing a robust and realistic style, Hwang Sŏgyŏng portrays the lives of migrant laborers who begin work on the site of a land reclamation project. The workers receive wages lower than the legal minimum, with which they cannot meet the very basic needs of life; what is more, the wages are given in the form of notes that must be sold back to the management at a depreciated value for cash.

The rootless lives of people set adrift in the process of industrialization provide the subject matter for Hwang Sŏgyŏngs The Road to Sampo (1973). The storys characters are all people on the move

 

       Yun Hŭnggil (1942-) examines the problem of Koreas division and the lives of the urban poor. The Man Who Was Left as Nine Pairs of Shoes (1977) is set in one of the many unlicensed shantytowns that sprang up at the outer limits of Seoul as a result of the population explosion and concomitant housing shortage that occurs within the city under industrialization. Residents of these shantytowns were forcibly relocated by the government whenever their houses were demolished as a part of urban redevelopment. The man who was left as nine pairs of shoes is one such evictee. As the story opens, Kwŏn moves with his family into a room in Os house, located in Sŏngnam, a township just south of Seoul. Despite his impoverished circumstances, Kwŏn ceaselessly underscores the fact that he is a descendant of a high-class yangban family and a college graduate. He also makes it known that he was singled out as the leader of the group protesting the eviction of residents from an area zoned for redevelopment, and given a prison sentence. One day, Kwŏn goes out to earn the money he needs for his wifes imminent childbirth, and returns to Os house as a masked robber. However, O recognizes him and chases him out; Kwŏn disappears and O discovers nine pairs of neatly arranged shoes in Kwŏns empty room.

 

             In A Little Ball Launched by a Dwarf, Cho Sehŭi (1942-) explores the corrupt cityscape dominated by the omnipotence of capital as seen through the eyes of the children of a dwarf. The dwarf in this series of twelve linked stories is Kim Puri, an odd-job man standing only 117 centimeters tall and weighing 32 kilograms, the head of a family of five and the owner of a small shack at 46 Happiness District, Paradise County. A run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of Seoul, the district is zoned for redevelopment. An apartment complex will be built on site to accommodate the rapid increase in urban population in the seventies. The notice of eviction represents for the family of the dwarf the loss of the humble paradise that had given them the only happiness they had known; the city takes away the space in which Kim Puri was simply a father, not a dwarf.

 

       Under the drive to bring about rapid industrialization, the Korean countryside sustained the heaviest sacrifice as masses of poor peasants left the land and moved to the cities to become a part of the labor pool and lead the lives of the urban poor. This transformation of the countryside, the seat of traditional life, under the impact of industrialization is the subject of Yi Mun-gu (1941- )s best-known work, Essays on Kwanchon (1977). Set in Kwanchon Village in present-day Taechŏn, South Chungchŏng Province, this collection is an exercise in memory and consists of eight linked short stories or novellas depicting the native places of the authors childhood. The old Kwanchon of Yi Mun-gus memories stands for the traditional Korean village, before the onset of industrialization. It is not without its contradictions and tribulations, but the agrarian ethos stressing fundamental values of life such as simplicity and neighborly love form the fabric of communal life. Therefore, Essays on Kwanchon is a record of a lost home. As the title suggests, the collection is heavily based on the authors personal experiences, handled with a degree of artistic license. It also suggests that Essays on Kwanchon emphasizes the quality of reconciliation often associated with essay-writing, rather than the drama of fictional conflict.

 

       The Korean War and the resulting national division have served as the central subject of inquiry for Kim Wŏnil (1942-) throughout his entire career. Building upon his personal experiences, Kim Wŏnil has recorded the wounds borne by the generation that was too young to participate in the actual fighting during the Korean War. As the son of a man who went north during the War, he faced extreme poverty and social discrimination, and the harsh discipline of an austere mother.

             In The Spirit of Darkness (1972) Kim Wŏnil illustrates the confusion of Korean society shortly before the eruption of the war, through the innocent eyes of a young boy, Kap-hae. In the form of an initiation story, The Spirit of Darkness details the process by which the fathers leftist activities lead to the familys destruction.

 

Written after meticulous historical research, the opus Taebaek Mountain Range (1983-9) by Cho Chŏngnae (1943-) offers a study of monumental scope on the political events immediately following Korean Liberation in 1945. Written in ten volumes, the work covers the tumultuous period from the Liberation to the outbreak of the Korean War. Spatially, the narrative moves from the Pŏlgyo area of Chŏlla Province into the Chiri Mountains, and then all across the Korean peninsula along the Taebaek Mountain Range. Central to the narrative are the communist campaigns known as the Revolt at Yŏsu and Sunchŏn. He also traces the activities of communist guerrillas forced into the Chiri Mountains by the South Korean army. Here, Cho Chŏngnae attempts to show the real nature of the ideologies on which the different groups of Koreans staked their lives. For this purpose, he interweaves the lives of actual historical personages with those of fictional characters and displays meticulous precision in describing their lives and socioeconomic backgrounds.

 

The decades of the seventies and the eighties were a period of remarkable productivity for a large number of accomplished women writers. Previous generations of women had been unable either to sustain their writing for long periods of time or show a broad range of interest in their writing; a newly emerging group of writers like Pak Wansŏ, Pak Kyŏngni, Choe Myŏnghŭi, and O Chŏnghŭi overcame these problems, each in her own unique way. No longer a special category of fiction that needed to be qualified and evaluated according to a different set of standards, fictional works written by women finally began to be viewed fully and simply as literature. Pak Kyŏngni and Choe Myŏnghŭi are both known for family sagas that unfold around central women figures, but while Pak Kyŏngni approaches her subject matter from a historical perspective, Choe Myŏnghŭi adopts an existential one. Pak Wansŏ and O Chŏnghŭi both depict skillfully the trivial routines and daily happenings of womens lives. In Pak Wansŏs works, daily life is a vehicle for exposing middle class vanities; in contrast, O Chŏnghŭi offers an impressive glimpse of the violence that lies just on the other side of the ordinary and the routine, through meticulous descriptions of the psychological interior.

 

       Pak Kyŏngni (1926-) is a writer of strong critical sensibilities: From the beginning of her career, social contradictions and the absurdities that make human life wretched served as a frequent subject for her works of fiction. In Land (1969-94), an epic saga in seventeen volumes often considered her best work, Pak Kyŏngni preserves her critical outlook but expands the horizon of her interest. Land tells the story of Choe Sŏhŭi, the granddaughter of a rich landowner in Hadong, South Kyŏngsang Province, who resurrects the family fortune after its complete decline. The novel spans four generations of the Choe clan: Lady Yun, her son Choe Chisu, the granddaughter Sŏ-hŭi, and great-grandsons Yun-guk and Hwan-guk. Temporally, the work begins during the final days of the Chosŏn period and ends with Koreas liberation from Japanese rule; spatially, the story unfolds against the backdrop of Chinju, Hadong, Seoul, and Yongjŏng. The panorama also covers the landmark events of modern Korean history: the opening of ports, resistance by the Righteous Army in the Tonghak movement in the late nineteenth century, annexation by the Japanese, the Independence Movement, and Liberation. The vicissitudes of history that imprint themselves on the characters lives are harnessed as a way of reinforcing the central message that the family is both the foundation of life and the root of age-old sorrows.

 

       Pak Wansŏ (1931-) culls a varied range of themes from everyday life. Naked Tree (1970), Camera and Walker (1975), A Season of Thirst (1978), Mothers Stake I (1980), and The Warmth of that Winter (1983) realistically portray family misfortunes caused by the Korean War. The Crying of an Earthworm (1973), A House of Foam (1976), A Reeling Afternoon (1977), Children of Paradise (1978), A Lean Year in the City (1979) and Mothers Stake II (1981) indict the materialism and vulgar vanity of the middle class. The Beginning of Days Lived (1980), The Woman Standing (1985), and Are You Still Dreaming (1989) present persuasive portraits of women who suffer alienation from society. Pak Wansŏ brings out such varied themes in seemingly trivial tales, and in an accessible and engaging manner. For her gift in reaching the readers, Pak Wansŏ has been called a born storyteller.

             Pak Wansŏ is particularly skillful at depicting the lives of middle class women with an ordinary family home as the stage. She caricatures the wave of ostentation, selfishness and materialism that swept over middle-class women in the process of Koreas modernization, winning readers trust by skillfully employing concrete details and realistic episodes drawn from everyday life.

 

       O Chŏnghŭi (1947-), a writer mainly of short stories, depicts a world which appears to be quiet and serene on the surface. Within, however, life is found to be chaotic, often terrifying; hidden behind the false security and sense of peace that daily routine imparts lies life in its essential darkness. O Chŏnghŭi problematizes the enclosure marked by marriage and family by delving into the psychological inner world of middle-class women. The space of the family restricts and confines even as it provides security. Through impressionistic sentences, the writer fathoms the abyss of dark desire that lurks beneath the veneer of tranquility. Detailed psychological descriptions and meticulous composition reveal her finesse in the art of short-story writing.

 

       Yi Munyŏl (1948-) is a writer of great versatility, combining an elegant writing style, imaginative plots, and philosophical reflections on fundamental questions of life. These qualities were already evident in The Son of Man (1979), the first work that brought him critical recognition. An investigation of the question of god from an existentialist point of view and a rare example of sincere intellectual inquiry, the novel won a wide readership among the younger generations.

       The beauty as well as the agony of youth is the subject of works like The Portrait of My Youth (1981) and You Cant Go Home Again (1980), both based the writers own youth and his experiences in his native place. In The Age of Heroes (1984) and Borderland (1989), however, Yi  records the hardships and the despair suffered by Koreans, as well as the ideals they have pursued and conflicts they have undergone.

       The beauty as well as the agony of youth is the subject of works like The Portrait of My Youth (1981) and You Cant Go Home Again (1980), both based the writers own youth and his experiences in his native place. In The Age of Heroes (1984) and Borderland (1989), however, Yi  records the hardships and the despair suffered by Koreans, as well as the ideals they have pursued and conflicts they have undergone.

       Most of Yi Munyŏls works are rooted in a particular experience he has had or the historical or social context in which he finds himself. However, he almost never simply portrays the surface appearance of things, but probes the powers and order that control life, but which remain invisible. Hail to the Emperor (1982) examines the fundamental irreconcilability between the ideal and the actual in the realm of political rule. The Pig of Pilon (1980), Our Twisted Hero (1987), and Kallepa ta kalla (1982) also deal with questions of power and its relation to the masses. These reflections on the nature of power become more significant when understood in the context of the politics of the time, when violence was rampant. On a different register altogether, Yi meditates on the essence of art in The Wild Ox (1979) and The Golden Phoenix (1982) and examines the question of literatures social utility in The Poet (1990). These works are also indirect vehicles expressing the writers critical position regarding the tendency to view literature as an ideological or political tool that characterized certain segments of the Korean literary world in 1980s. Thus, Yi Munyŏls works maintain ambiguous relations with the contemporary context, even if these are often expressed allegorically.

 

To fiction writers as well, the pleasure-filled society of popular consumer culture is a double-edged sword. The works of Yun Taenyŏng, Yi Sunwŏn, and Kim Yŏng-ha are populated with characters that lead a life of consumption free from the strictures of established society or traditional order. Their lives serve as the canvas on which the values and lifestyle of the new popular consumer society are sketched. By showing the ultimate emptiness and meaninglessness of such lives, these writers assess the new world pessimistically. Another group of writers resists the dominance of popular consumer society in a different way. Ha Ilchi portrays this new world as that kind of nightmare where ones desires are stimulated endlessly but never satisfied. Sŏng Sŏkche mocks the new ethos in a manner at once playful and old-fashioned, and Shin Kyŏngsuk cultivates a deliberately slow, feminine, and inward-looking style to counter the new society of speed and pleasures.

       Another characteristic of Korean fiction during this period has been the vigorous activity of young women writers. In addition to Shin Kyŏngsuk, writers like Kong Chiyŏng, Ŭn Huigyŏng, Kim Insuk, Sŏ Hajin, Cho Kyŏngnan, Chŏn Kyŏngnin, Ha Sŏngnan, and Pae Su-a have set out to articulate feminine desire and challenge the phallocentric order of Korean society and its customs. Their works embrace womens liberation through characters that attempt to fulfill their subjectivity. These attempts typically take the form either of breaking away from the confines of the family or actively pursuing a life of sexual liberation.

 

In 1990s, the dissolution of grand narrativesteleological view of history or the rhetoric of the nation, for exampleassociated with postmodernism has led greater emphasis to be placed on the value of the individual. Much of contemporary Korean fiction reflects this value. Critics have identified diversification, decentralization and individualization as the three significant characteristics that have given the nineties fiction a flavor quite distinct from earlier literature; from Shin Kyôngsuks [DM1] attempts to capture intensely personal experiences that lie outside the pale of shared recognition to Kim Yônghas daring flights of imagination, the fictional works of this decade explore the desires of the self in a rapidly changing world.

 

The fidelity to the call of the inner self or the desiring subject glimpsed in Shin Kyôngsuks fiction may be said to represent an important characteristic of the new kind of ethos which emerged in the fiction of the 1990s. One observes this quality also in the works of Ûn Hûigyông (1959- ) Chôn Kyôngnin (1962- ) and Cho Kyôngnan [DM2] (1969- ), three women writers who articulate feminine desire in notably different ways. The common point of departure for all three writers is the recognition that communication with another human being is fundamentally flawed, although the ultimate impossibility of achieving this communication may only sharpen the desire for it. Moreover, this rift manifests itself in specifically gendered ways. In Ûn Hûigyôngs fiction, the dream of perfect communion is often presented as the myth of romantic love; her characters may dismiss this myth altogether or indulge in it for a time only to find themselves rudely awakened.

 

Kim Yŏng-ha (1968- ) is a writer of the digital age. Not only do his characters live in a world where communication has become electronically mediatedthe prototypical Kim Yŏng-ha protagonist might be the one in Wind blows (1998), a trafficker in pirate copies of computer gamesbut his works of fiction are themselves products of this age of simulation. Insistently aware of its own fictional status, Kims writing adopts a rhetorical strategy that is more parasitic than mimetic, based on the recognition that reality can no longer monopolize the realm of experience or serve as the sole guarantor of truth. Instead, reality is understood as something to be engineered, even digitally remastered. The absolute distinction between the virtual and the real is found to be untenable.

Communication, therefore, is strictly solipsistic for Kim Yŏng-has characters.


 [DM1]Insert inverted breve.

 [DM2]Inverted breves in all three names