DESPITE EXPORTING FOOD, film, advanced gadgetry, and dance music with unprecedented fervor and pride, South Korea has still produced curiously little in the way of an international literature. As Japan rose from the aftermath of the Second World War, so did vital men of letters like Kobo Abe, Oe Kenzaburo, and Yukio Mishima — names discussed in the West to this day. Japanese women of letters, a thread of unusual strength and length for an East Asian culture, running from Lady Murasaki and The Tale of Genji in the 11th century, continues through Yoko Ogawa and Banana Yoshimoto today. Haruki Murakami rose from the 1980s — the bubble era when fear of the Rising Sun's apparent wealth and drive reached its apex — and would become the most globally appealing novelist alive, which he remains even today, when observers describe his country as well over a decade on the skids.
Now turned outward as far as Japan has often turned inward, South Korea draws enthusiasts from all over the world. But pity the literarily inclined Koreaphile, filled with high hopes and accustomed by Western fiction to at least a thin layer of allegorical padding, for he usually winds up mired in nakedly melodramatic, discomfitingly direct meditations on national suffering in general, and the separation of North from South in particular. One period of national suffering stands out: the years 1910 to 1945, when the Korean Peninsula endured, at the hands of the Japanese military, something between a suppression and an erasure of its cultural identity. Generations of South Korean writers look past that era of occupation with difficulty, and they struggle harder still to find subjects beyond their land's subsequent split into two.
Their descendants, however, have grown up without first-hand experience of a single Korea, under Japanese rule or otherwise. All take the division as given, and many have come to regard their eastern neighbor, even in the relatively isolated condition to which it has returned, simply as a nearby producer of entertainment. Born 15 years after the Korean War, Kim Young-ha leads the literary flank of this cohort — and, from the vantage of most English-readers, more or less solely represents it. In just over five years, three of Kim's major novels have appeared in English, each strikingly different from the others, none with a major focus on South Korea's painful past. All of them make intriguing promises about what, from Kim himself as well as his contemporaries, remains to be translated.
Look at the face 21st-century South Korea puts forward: abundant arrays of modestly priced but feature-rich automobiles and mobile phones; high-definition screens and the high-gloss music videos they display; the glistening forest of skyscrapers that Seoul has grown in six short decades. They offer inarguable evidence of an “economic miracle” that mere words on bound paper — objects enjoyed in the rich and poor corners of Asia alike — can’t. Like the South Korean government's much-publicized push through the 1970s and 1980s to replace the entire countryside's thatched roofs with tile, literature no doubt strikes some as a decidedly thatched form of entertainment, perhaps all well and good in the privacy of one's home, but only shamefully indulged on the world stage. Hence a writer like Kim, by no means an optimist about his country's direction, appears as both a green cultural shoot and a throwback. Possessed of a philosophically calm public persona, Kim seems to suffer from especially little anxiety about being seen as insufficiently modern.
But then having one's work published in America calms a South Korean writer's nerves. When one of Kim's Korean characters introduces himself to a woman as a writer, she immediately asks him not if he's had a book published, but if he's had a book published in English. This gives the fellow, still wholly unpublished, a moment of weary pause: no one in the world cares what you've written, he reflects, unless someone's reading it in English — or at least Chinese. The woman herself hails from Hong Kong, and meets the man in an Austrian museum, but even this thorough internationalism can't dent the notion that literary fame means literary fame in the Anglosphere. Chinese and Hong Kong writers have, like Korean ones, struggled to break into the West, and certain well-known Chinese authors like Ha Jin simply write in English to begin with. In the meantime, over in the developed, English-speaking world, novelists now strike poses of disdain for whether they count as modern or not, and any description of Jonathan Franzen's decrepit laptop will tell you the attitude isn't a function of status.
Whatever his preferred tools, Kim at this point in his career has the profile of the complete “cool” writer. He lives in New York, he wears thick-framed eyeglasses, he takes calls from filmmakers. He even looks a bit like Franzen, albeit East Asian and a decade younger. Kim, born in 1968, lands squarely in the South Korean “Baby Boom,” which came of age in its own climate of political turmoil: the democratization struggles and student protests of the 1980s. Then came the 1990s, when, still under 30, Kim wrote I Have the Right to Destroy Myself. Rendered in brusque prose and saturated with youthful anomie, generational despair, and hip cultural awareness, his debut novel reads just like one you'd expect from a Western novelist, or indeed a Japanese one, forged in the late 1960s.
Within 50 pages, Kim name-checks The Death of Marat, Henry Miller, Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, Gustav Klimt, B.B. King, Animal Kingdom, Chupa Chups lollipops, Chet Baker, Antonio Banderas, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Stranger Than Paradise, at which point the book only has 69 pages left. Comparisons to Murakami come easily, and those looking for his South Korean equivalent will, at least in this particular novel, find pieces of what they seek: modern topics, pop references, narration that refuses to strain for belletristic heights. But Kim writes with a harder edge, under a darker cloud; these fragments of Western culture signal less international engagement than personal isolation, and if some of Murakami's characters handle their aloneness happily, you can't necessarily say the same for anyone in Kim's first novel. Its nameless narrator, while not exactly unhappy, persists in a closed state of perfectionist drive: a drive, in this case, to scout out the potentially suicidal, stoke within them the conviction to actively take leave of the world, and finally position them to perform the act itself. His clients, who must pay in advance, clearly also pay handsomely: after each successful job, this narrator takes a long trip abroad — Prague, Vienna, Paris — and integrates the latest suicide's story into a novel of his own, to be published anonymously.
Into this short novel Kim also weaves two other threads, pulling off the rare literary trick of writing with great density — the exciting density on display in developed Asian cities, dictated by a great deal of content and vanishingly little space – without admitting oppressive textual heaviness. Each thread follows a brother: K, the younger, drives a “bullet taxi” at high speeds and over long distances, serving customers out too late to catch a train; C, the elder, makes video art. Both get involved, at different times, with a woman called “Judith,” so labeled early on for her resemblance to Klimt's eponymous portrait, later revealed to bear the given name Se-yeon. C “hates himself,” Kim writes in a chapter set on a highway in the middle of a blizzard, “for trudging through the snow looking for a woman who was having sex with his brother on the day their mother was buried.” Promiscuous, addicted to Chupa Chups, and captivated with the idea that she might one day walk to the North Pole, Judith/Se-yeon makes for an unpredictable, unappealing presence. She draws one brother's attention and then the other's, only because neither has much else to do, and later drifts into the business orbit of our suicide-facilitating narrator, who soon after draws his final client of the book: Mimi, another Judith lookalike, and a former muse of C's.
Some may call I Have the Right to Destroy Myself’s detached sexual encounters and unanswerable laments immature, but they provide an effectively jagged statement. South Korea's per-capita suicide rate famously is second only to Lithuania's, but the book doesn't feel like the confrontation of a national issue. Instead it examines the way young people submerge their consciousnesses into obsessive, essentially solitary pursuits. K must drive his taxi ever harder and faster, eventually without so much as a destination. C pushes himself into illness capturing on video the nude, hair-painting performance art for which Mimi lives. The narrator knows only the goal of using his one-man suicide business to gather stories for his book and funding for his European voyages. Se-yeon deliberately aims toward dissolution. “Nothing's changed although you've come a long way, right?” the narrator asks when sidling up to a new prospect. “Wouldn't you like to rest?” Only the women consider making use of his services, but I suspect all these characters would, indeed, very much like to rest.
Rather than twentysomething malaise, more intriguing trouble appears in Your Republic is Calling You, the third of Kim’s novels written and the second translated into English. It asks what happens when a North Korean sleeper agent, sent down below the Demilitarized Zone to live as a native in Seoul, loses contact with his command. The middle-aged Ki-yong didn't stop receiving orders last week; in over 20 years spent building a life, leading a career, and raising a family in the South, he hasn't heard a word from the North. One morning he receives the sudden, unthinkable coded order to come back home, and — seemingly just to make things difficult — to go not through China but directly north. Kim follows Ki-young through the unenviable 24 hours that follow. “It's a Korean version of Ulysses,” said a reader-on-the-street questioned in a New York Times Book Review “Sketchbook” panel. Joyce fans may recognize little on the surface of these 326 smoothly readable pages, but the reader has a point: I can think of no other novel that even attempts a daylong portrait of modern Seoul.
We see the city not just through the eyes of Ki-yong, who has loose ends to tie up (and real or imagined pursuers to evade) before forever abandoning his existence there. We also see it through those of his wife Ma-ri and teenage daughter Hyon-mi. Your Republic is Calling You catches its despondent characters just as they find their lives amounting to less than they might have expected; the older Ki-yong and Ma-ri have long since accepted this defeat. Ki-yong — trained for military glory with a discipline and intensity that makes earlier book's video artistry, hard driving, and suicide cultivation look like hobbies — could hardly appreciate the paunchy, middle-class, capitalist form his life has assumed. The bewildered Ma-ri, tormented by memories of her own childhood promise and world-changing teenage political zeal, wonders how it could all have possibly come down to a job at a Volkswagen showroom and an affair with a 20-year-old. By the book's end, even the still-optimistic, socially and scholastically strong Hyon-mi has to burn a little more energy suppressing faint but grim suspicions about the future.
Does Ki-yong's allegiance lay with the North, which raised him, trained him, and filled him with ideological purpose? Or does it lay with the South, which has provided his entire adult life, not to mention comfort, pleasure, and order unknown in his ostensibly utopian birthplace? As a reader, and specifically as one fascinated by North Korea, I hoped for, and received, a glimpse into a mind formed by the Hermit Kingdom as it collides with the outside world. A shopping arcade called “Paradise” makes Ki-yong remember the North's distinctive use of the word: “When he was young, he went around referring to socialist paradise this and socialist paradise that. At the time he never doubted that the phrase referred to Pyongyang and North Korea. But now he thinks it is a brazen slogan.” Soon after entering the South, he bought a ticket to Lotte World, the world's largest indoor amusement park. There he felt amazement not at the “brilliant shows or heart-stopping rides,” but at the South Koreans' ability to form a proper queue:
He was amazed that so many people patiently lined by for popular rides without fighting. Everyone waited for their turn, their faces elated with expectation. Nobody cut in line and even if someone did, nobody got angry. Everyone had to line up like that in Pyongyang, too, for the boat to cross Taedong River or to enter the School Children's Palace. There were always people who cut in line. Young soldiers doing ten years of service did it for the long years they would sacrifice for their country, the Party members did so out of a sense of privilege, and some did just because they knew someone up ahead. So tension mounted as the lines got longer. People became irritable and were poised to explode at the littlest thing. Cutting in line wasn't the only problem. Sometimes, without notice, people were turned away, for the simple reason that all the items were gone, or because of unforeseen circumstances. Then the line that had been building for hours would just melt away.
A “frightening thought flitted through his mind while he was at Lotte World: that a socialist paradise might be a lie and Lotte World might be the true paradise.” Ideologically depolarized by the intervening decades, the 42-year-old Ki-yong regards no place as paradise, and none as its opposite. “It's not that bad,” he says late in the day, trying to convince Ma-ri of the North's modest merits. “It's just that there isn't any fast food or computer games. Oh, and none of this pressure to succeed in school, the tutoring, the grueling college entrance system, the drugs, the underage sex.” Trying to verify his return order with the remains of the spy coterie that supported him on his entry to Seoul, he finds men even softer, wearier and less revolutionary than himself. I kept thinking of John le Carré's jaded Cold War combatants, reduced to an ideological agnosticism that looked for all the world like nihilism. Kim's Northerners, once crack agents, have lost George Smiley's technical mastery but retained his shambolic bearing.
And with whom does Ma-ri's allegiance lay? With her distracted husband, never particularly open for reasons obvious to us but not to her? With her Che-shirted, Marx-misquoting young lover? With her student-activist dreams of changing the world, or with her bland home and professional life? We could ask a similar question about Hyon-mi, divided between mother and father, between institutions and peers, with their fraught alliances and enmities that flare up and dissolve. Each member of the family contends with an excess of mutually irreconcilable claims, whereas the unmoored cast of Kim's previous novel suffered an absence of any claims at all. All of Your Republic’s characters feel, or have just begun to feel, the futility of the struggle. Yet most of them continue — despite suspecting, some of them strongly enough that the suspicion borders on knowledge — that they can look only to purposes as hollow as North Korean state promises. The ending finds Ki-yong — and, indirectly, the family from which he'd prepared to sever himself — wholly ensnared by one of the Korean governments, but in a way neither he nor we could have anticipated.
Kim bases his second novel, Black Flower, on an obscure, ill-fated 1905 migration from Korea to Mexico. After weeks of delay leaving Jemulpo Harbor, the British ship Ilford brought 1,033 Koreans to the Yucatán. There they dispersed into a kind of indentured servitude, performing harvesting work on henequen-growing haciendas without enough Mayan laborers to go around. As with any migrants dispossessed by what looks like temporary instability back home, these Koreans intended to earn money abroad in order to better establish themselves upon their return to the homeland. Like many of those migrants, they then endured what we might call unforeseen circumstances: the unreal heat of southern Mexico, the impossibility of saving any of the pittance earned by cutting henequen leaves, and the lack of a homeland to which to return.
The Ilford pushed out in April 1905; Korea would become a Japanese protectorate that November. Kim wastes no time illustrating the instant collapse of all social hierarchies. Soldier, shaman, thief, priest, or aristocrat — all on the boat must stand in line for their gruel and kimchi. The aristocratic family has a particularly rough time of it, even beyond the fact that their daughter happens to be the only desirable young woman aboard. Things get even worse when the patriarch realizes that, whatever Confucianism has to say on the matter, the hacendados still expect him to work. Not that he'd have preferred to stay on the boat; Kim, in the mode of the finest historical novelists, evokes in rich, faithful detail what it means to live for months in the medieval hell of a dank hold, without laundry, baths, or even toilets. He even stages a childbirth scene late in the voyage, rendered more harrowing by the layers of squalor on the floor beneath.
Nothing goes particularly well for the Ilford passengers Kim takes as main characters. Then again, the punishing lives of K, C, Se-yeon, Ki-yong, and Ma-ri primed me to expect as much. Despite knowing full well that the homeland of which they're working to claim a piece has gone, they persevere. Some latch onto whichever struggle next comes their way; upon the expiration of the contracts they'd signed before sailing, two of the Koreans get involved in the Mexican Revolution. In its short and bizarre third act, Black Flower depicts the post-Revolutionary career of one of these men, leading a doomed mission into the Guatemalan jungle, which culminated in the beginning, and subsequent end, of the nation of “New Korea” among the pyramids of Tikal. (I look forward to Korea's coming film adaptation of Your Republic is Calling You, but a cinematic version of Black Flower could do even better, with this high watermark of futility in its New Korea episode, assuming it finds the right director — Werner Herzog, for instance.)
The novels of Kim Young-ha, thus described, might sound like bleak, grinding affairs. But one important quality separates them from the hymns to loss and sorrow so common in previous waves of Korean literature: an animating spirit of speculation. Kim has an inclination to engage with and pursue the consequences of a what-if scenario, and he's demonstrated his ability to do it with equal force in stylized, realistic, and historical modes. Although his books may end, or indeed begin, in a dour, resigned mood, they have a curiosity: about how a feudal population would reestablish themselves in an alien land where none of their rules apply; about how a spy might jump-start his instincts after getting comfortable in the country he'd meant to infiltrate and undermine; about how a suicide entrepreneur would operate and why anyone would take him up on his offer. For all their dissimilarities in form or setting, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, Your Republic is Calling You, and Black Flower all concern themselves with the same overarching human scenario. While not exclusively relevant to a people who have reconstructed a once-occupied culture and rebuilt a decimated economy, the question must resonate with them more than anyone: what do we do when left no credible causes but the ones we assign ourselves?
Colin Marshall is the host of the podcast "Notebook on Cities and Culture."