Monday, December 06, 2010

Korean Reading

Things I have learnt (directly and indirectly) through reading Modern Korean Fiction edited by Bruce Fulton and Youngmin Kwon.

1. Calling someone 'Older brother' etc is a term of endearment and familiarity.

2. Walls are made of paper.

3. Shoes are left outside.

4. Eyes encrusted, weeping and inflamed are considered a sign of poverty.

5. There are shamans. To become a shaman the person (usually a woman) has to undergo physical and mental pain which can only be relieved by curing someone. It can be a calling or it can be inherited.

6. The whole body is treated in Traditional Korean medicine.

7. There is a book called Donguibogam written by a sixteenth century doctor called Heo Jun which is still the bible for Tradition Korean Medicine today, and was last year added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. In it there are listed medicines which confer invisibility, the ability to see ghosts, and turn a female foetus into a male one. It has not yet been translated in English, but I heard from Park Dongchui, the President of the Korean Sericultural Association, at the Silk conference in Hangzhou last year that Heo Jun's work has caused the medicinal properties of silkworms and mulberries to be investigated. The result of this is that in Korea silkworms are reared not to produce silk but as vessels for the fungus cordyceps (Dongchunghacho) which allegedly cures cancer and strengthens the immune system.

8.There was a widespread curfew at midnight.

9. High class men wore a hat made out of horse hair, silk and fine bamboo, which looked like a shallow top hat and was used to go over the top-knot.

The stories were generally excellent and very interesting. I preferred the modern to the more traditional, and thought they seemed closer to modern western style than the older ones seemed closer to early twentienth century style.

My particular favourites were 'When the Buckwheat Blooms' by Yi Hyosok which was about an unfortunate itinerant seller discovering he had a son, 'Knifeblade' by Cho Sehui, about an encounter involving a dwarf and a tap, 'Another Man's Room' by Ch'oe Inho an allergorical tale about the transformation from traditional society to dehumanising modern, 'Mother's Hitching Post' by Pak Wanso in which the traditional clashes with recent modern history, 'The Old Hatter' by Yi Munyol, which is about the decline of tradition and could be a metaphor for much in today's world, ' Wayfarer' by O Chonghui, about a woman's return from a period in a mental hospital, The Gray Snowman by Ch'oe Yun about a woman's involvement with a clandestine left wing organisation and unrequited love, and 'Lizard' by Kim Yongha which a Freudian erotic tale in which a young woman's past plays a part in her present.

All in all I found Modern Korean Fiction well worth reading, although I didn't really find a 'Korean voice'. But maybe that was as ridiculous an aspiration as say finding a British voice in an anthology of Modern British Fiction. There was, though, an alien feel to many of the earlier stories, which I much appreciated, since I think reading outside normal experience increases creativity.

Since the last story was written in 1997 I now find I want to read more contemporary material, and have just downloaded Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick on my Kindle. These are tales of lives in North Korea, and I think they were complement what I've just been reading very well.


Blogger Sue Guiney said...

Fascinating, Clare. I know nothing about Korean literature and am ashamed to say never even gave it a passing thought. Thanks for the reference!

Tue Dec 07, 11:32:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

You're not alone, Sue! Until I a few weeks ago I had no firm idea of where Korea actually was - but I am finding the history and the people's reaction to that history very interesting.

Tue Dec 07, 11:43:00 am  

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