NOTE: This article was published in a slightly different form in 10 Magazine
If you’ve worked your way through all of Stieg Larsson and the Twilight series is beginning to become predictable (Find neck, insert teeth. Repeat as necessary)? Then it’s time to delve into Korean literature. And there is no better time than now. As few as two decades ago, translated Korean Modern fiction was a dreary procession, tramping slowly but completely over the same dusty terrain: Colonialization, the Korean War; traumas of the political war that followed, and; the social and economic price of industrialization. A western reader, picking these books up and glancing over them, could easily be forgiven for putting them down with a shudder, and taking up less troublesome affairs like grave-robbing or self-mutilation.
For Western readers without knowledge of Korean culture and history, anything published before 1980 might seem a bit archaic and/or opaque. Having spent the first half of last century under the boot of the Japanese colonialists, and the latter half engaged either in an active or passive civil war, Korean modern literature has tended to grimness; combining the light-hearted joi-de-vivre of black-and-white Holocaust documentaries with a pronounced fratricidal tone that the Khmer Rouge would have immediately embraced. Unless you are a fan of history, or uncontrollable weeping, this is the literature to look past.
But a new wave (Hello Hallyu!) of Korean writers (and a sprinkling of evergreen perennials) has put much of that in the past, either moving on to new topics, or melding old topics to themes and stories that English readers can read and enjoy.