There are divergent opinions in the world about when the second millennium and the twentieth century end. In any case, this last issue of Korean Literature Today before the year 2000, and the last of the current year's volumes, should certainly be special in some way. Indeed, this may well claim to be a special issue, in view of the quality of the works of fiction it contains.
The names Choe In-hun, Hwang Sun-won, O Chong-hi, Yi Mun-yeoll, and Pak Wan-seo are outstanding in the history of contemporary Korean fiction, and this volume contains works by all of them! We should indeed be proud of being able to offer such a rich array of major Korean works of fiction within a single cover.
Choe In-hun's "A Christmas Carol" was published some 35 years ago, yet it has scarcely aged. It evokes the difficulties a Korean living in a foreign culture experiences, and at the same time suggests the ways in which foreign cultures have entered Korea, leaving Koreans ill at ease at home as well as abroad. It takes place mainly in the memories of the central character, but the memories of life abroad are in fact provoked by the celebration of Christmas that has come to Korea. Past and present social values, appearances and reality, stand in tense relationship.
O Jeong hi's "Evening Game" (1979) has another focus. A daughter lives with her widowed father and feels life escaping from her, together with prospects of love. In an elegantly fashioned narrative, where lies hang in the air between the two generations, we are brought to a sudden awareness of dark chasms lurking under apparently tranquil lives. When the traditional forms of extended family are lost, it seems, little but unhappiness results.
Korean readers are familiar with the way in which Yi Mun-yeol's entire life was profoundly affected by his father's decision to defect to the North during the Korean war. The story "An Appointment with His Brother" is a direct reflection of the author's own situation as the central character arranges to meet his defector father in China, only to learn that he has died. Instead, he meets his half-brother, his father having taken a North Korean wife a few years after his defection.
Their conversation and slow discovery of one another's true feelings provide the substance of the novella, which attempts to portray the division of Korea in a nuanced and hopeful manner.
Pak Wan-seo's "Dried Flowers" of 1995 earned her the Manhae Prize, but would not seem to encourage elder women to expect much from life in modern Korea. A widow, not yet 60, meets a retired professor in a bus and begins to spend time in his company. They seem to enjoy simply being together, there is no suggestion of sexual interest on either side. Their daughters learn of their meeting and seem to expect them to get married. The woman suddenly realizes that she would be obliged to look after him as he grows old; her feelings have been romantic fantasies and she decides to end the relationship by going to visit her son in America. The very limited perspectives life offers the elderly in Korea are delicately suggested.
For only the second time, we are able to publish the translation of a play. This volume contains the first part of Cha Beom-seok's "Burning Mountain". The dramatist has played a leading role in the development of today's Korean theatre and it is especially good to be able to present this work here. He is currently the head of the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation.
A collection of major poets completes this number. Yu Chi-hwan is a famed pioneer, he was immensely influential in launching and encouraging many modern poets. Kim Chong-sam is a far less well-known and in a sense almost a more interesting poet, with his modernist explorations of form and narrative and his Bohemian lifestyle. As a radical young poet concerned with social issues, Cho Tae-il was imprisoned and his books were banned in the 1970s and early 1980s. His early work was often centered on memories of a childhood spent in the poverty and simplicity of Cholla province. More recently, he has turned to themes inspired by nature, as if he can find no creative impulse in modern Korean society. Of almost the same age, Chon Yang-hu¢ši is a more mystical poet, again turned more toward nature than toward society. Lee Tae-su is likewise an idealist, his poems are expressions of dream and inner quest, in which the poet seems concerned to restore a lost innocence. Kim Myeong-in began by writing poems directly inspired by the sufferings of orphans and the most wretched in society, but then turned to subjects more often related to nature and more directly reflective of his own inner world. In his work, as in so much modern Korean writing, past and present stand in an uneasy, mutually incompatible relationship.
At the end of our fourth year of publication, we must express our gratitude to all the translators whose punctuality and respect of often tight deadlines have enabled us to produce each volume within the time allotted to us. There are more and more signs of recognition reaching us from many parts of the world and it was most gratifying to see that the most recent issue of P.E.N. International contained no less than three works reprinted from Korean Literature Today.
In this way, slowly, the world becomes aware of Korean literature. That is the goal toward which we are working.