Ed Park in The New Yorker on the Dalkey Archive Press Series of Korean Literature
Novelist and Editor
In a recent article, "Sorry Not Sorry: Reading Dalkey Archive Press's Library of Korean Literature," to be found in the Books section of The New Yorker (October 19, 2015), the novelist Ed Park mentions my wife and me:
The novels in the Library of Korean Literature series are populated with the broken and the dispossessed, young drifters, like Jin-man and Si-bong, looking to carve out a place for themselves in an ungraspable, shifting world. Another such character introduces himself in the first sentence of Jang Jung-il's novel "When Adam Opens His Eyes," translated by Hwang Sun-Ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges: "I was nineteen years old, and the things that I most wanted to have were a typewriter, prints of Munch's paintings and a turntable for playing records." The nameless narrator (he's called Adam by a lover, in honor of his being her first man) hasn't scored high enough on the standardized exam to get into the university of his choice, so he plans to spend a year cramming.My literary name is now associated with Jang Jung-il's stories of sex and violence. Hmm . . . well, all publicity is good publicity, or so I'm told, but I'd be more at ease to be known as one of the translators of Yi Kwang-su:
Naturally, he doesn't lift a finger to accomplish that goal - which isn't to say that he does nothing. A hundred pages later, he buys a typewriter, and with it the promise of a different, differently programmed life. "If I write a novel, I will begin by depicting the portrait of my 19th year this way," he says, and then quotes the book's first paragraph nearly verbatim. This seems an optimistic conclusion - the narrator has made something of himself, and we've just finished reading the evidence - but, on the next page, Jang violently drops us into the novel's wildly discordant final section, "The Seventh Day." If the book's first stretch was a study in passivity, "The Seventh Day" is all action: sex, lots of it, between an unnamed man and woman, graphically described and mixed with literary chat. "No virgin finds climaxing easy in her first experience," Jang deadpans. "Except that this is a porno novel." (The transgressive 1999 film "Lies," which might be retitled "Fifty Thousand Shades of Grey," was based on another of Jang's novels.) Like the coda to Don DeLillo's "The Names" or Wong Kar-wai's "Days of Being Wild," the end of "When Adam Opens His Eyes" seems spliced in from a different work. Who are these nameless, insatiable characters? Maybe they are yet another product - concentrated, unbearably intense - of the narrator's typewriter, the vision that comes with Adam's newly gained knowledge of the world.
"When Adam Opens His Eyes" was published in 1990, before South Korea's great pop boom; the narrator's typewriter and cassette player are practical necessities, not ironic totems of a bygone age. But a number of more recent novels betray a certain nostalgia for an earlier, less technological time, when life didn't have to be constantly mediated by a screen.
The most appealing novels in the Library of Korean Literature capture the existential turbulence of han while keeping a sense of humor about it. The didactic moments in Yi Kwang-su's "The Soil," a social-realist tome originally serialized in 1932 and 1933, are balanced with wry observations of customs and people, such as the modern man who has internalized Japanese values and looks down his nose at his country's educational system: "Yes, there's the Department of Korean Literature. I really don't know what students learn there. I think literature is useless anyway. And to study Korean literature? Even worse." (Yi, the most famous writer in the series, was one of the country's first modernists and a leader of the Korean independence movement, though he was later tarred as a Japanese collaborator.)As most readers of this blog know, Sun-Ae and I also translated Yi Kwang Su's novel, and I'd like to have my fifteen minutes of Warholian fame associated with the high-minded Yi, but that's just my literary stuffiness talking. Actually, I'd most of all like to be famous as the author of The Bottomless Bottle of Beer.
Ed Park, by the way, is the author of the novel Personal Days, one of Time's top 10 fiction books of 2008. I've just downloaded it from Amazon onto my iPad and will report back when I start reading it.