Any visit to one of the great Seoul bookstores only serves to remind us of the vast number of works of poetry and fiction still being published in Korea, despite repeated alarming reports that publishers are bankrupt and no one is reading literature any more. It has been estimated that Korea has 2000 living poets whose works have been published.
That serves to keep us humble as we edit this journal. We know that what we print here represents only a tiny fraction of the Korean literature that has been published in this century. We can only try to indicate a few of the most important names and make known through translations one or two of their finest works.
That in turn leads us to reflect on the nature of Korean literary reputations. In England, Salman Rushdie is supposed to have joked that the good modern novel is "not dead but buried" In a world where too many books are published, we have no guarantee that we will ever discover the few that deserve to be read; they are buried under a mass of mediocre "pot-boilers."
In Korea, literary reputations have been even more fragile. In past decades, certain fine writers enjoyed the disapproval of the ruling military, or of dominant critical schools. This was no doubt good for their art, since it is very bad for a writer to become too famous. Certain writers have been praised to thheavens for less than art while others have written in silence, in the hope that one day the quality of their work will be recognized.
This had less than we might think to do with questions of 'pure' or 'committed' literature. In any case, it is in the nature of the historic process to be revisionist. With hindsight we see writers and works in a different way, applying other criteria. So that a literary reputation has little to do with momentary fame, or numbers of copies sold.
In this number, we continue our efforts to discern the writers of past and present who truly represent the best that modern Korea has produced. The tragic death of Yi Sang in 1937, when he was only 27, robbed Korea of what might have become a remarkable voice, original and immensely creative. We shall never know what we have lost. In this issue we publish his "Phantom Illusion" as an indication of what might have been.
At the same time, we mourn the passing of one of the very great figures in the history of modern Korean poetry. Pak Tu-jin was almost the last living representative of the generation of poets who brought Korean poetry to new birth after Liberation. Chon Pong-gon, too, is no longer with us, yet his poems were of immense importance and retain their originality even in today's very different world. To them we join works by Hahm Dong-seon, Lee Keum-bae, and Lee Song-bu in our gallery of modern Korean poets from different schools.
The fiction that fills most of our pages is equally drawn from a variety of schools and decades. A first installment of Hwang Sun-won's great novel Namu tul Pit'al e soda (Trees on a Slope) heralds the start of an important serialization project that we anticipate will see us into the new millennium. The story by Ham Mahl-sook, "Tired of Love," contrasts well with Kim Moon-soo "The Chronicle of Manch'uidang" and Yoo Jae-Yong's tale "The Relationship." In their different ways each of these tales evokes the fundamental difficulty of human relationship in an uncertain and changing world; in each we may sense the outcome of tensions between the traditional rural past and the harsh industrialized present that so deeply mark modern Korean culture.
Finally, some of the best-known short stories by the immensely popular Cho Se-hui bring us closer to the world of what has come to be known as committed literature, for he was virtually the first writer to make the daily life of the poor factory workers of the 1970s a subject of literature.
In this way, we hope to make better known in the outside world a little of the work in which modern Korean writers have been trying to come to terms with their land's recent history. In the end, any history of literature must be a kaleidescope where a variety of tones blend and interact in an ever-shifting pattern of similarities and differences. This issue can only represent one glimpse of that swirling scene.