January 27, 2012 by markstani
On the face of it, South Korean fiction has the raw materials to make it big: partition, war, dictatorships and economic boom-and-bust, all played out against the backdrop of a deeply traditional, rigidly honour-bound society.
But while the likes of Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto have succeeded in ushering modern Japanese writing into global favour, their South Korean equivalents have struggled to make such an impressive breakthrough beyond their homeland.
Until now: this has been a stellar season for South Korean fiction, starting with Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mother, which as well as selling over one million copies at home, was released in 19 other countries, and is the first South Korean novel to be shortlisted for the prestigious MAN Asian Literary Prize.
Now comes Krys Lee’s Drifting House (pub. Faber), a debut collection of nine tight short stories which jab at the heart of her modern nation’s struggle to survive the myriad travails of its recent past.
Where Shin’s work was predominantly concerned with exploring the rural, matriachal perspective of modern Korean life, Lee’s book is very much urban and masculine: most central characters are husbands struggling to hold their families together under such an enormous, accepted weight of responsibility.
Lee’s world is one that stretches far beyond the confines of her own nation’s borders, to the countless Koreatowns dotting America’s west coast, yet her message remains the same. Delicately, devastatingly, she strips away the veneer of post-Olympics, post-dictatorship economic respectability, bringing into focus the almost pathological obsession with work and education that came with it: an obsession ill-suited to such rigidly structured family models.
Lee’s characters are people whose biggest fear, beyond family break-ups, beyond even death, is becoming a burden. They will gladly send spouses and siblings across the Pacific to escape it, consigning them all to a life of soullessness in the process, yet anything is better than the alternative.
The desperate period after the 1997 IMF crash which exploded the South Korean economic miracle is most starkly described in ‘The Salaryman’, in which an unexpected redundancy leads its comfortable, salaried central character into an alarmingly quick spiral of despair, culminating in his abandoning his wife and family and adopting a grotesque existence on the streets, simply unable to face the humiliation of going home no longer with a means to provide for them.
You, the docile fool, had believed that if you worked hard enough, you could protect those you loved.
While the first handful of stories in Lee’s collection provide the layers of insight
required to begin to understand South Korea’s unique society, the second half of the book is stronger. The stand-out, for sure, is the book’s title story, a gut-wrenchingly memorable story of abandoned siblings seeking to escape the hell of Kim Jong-il’s famine-ravaged north: a tale all too familiar to anyone who read the survivors’ testimonies in Barbara Demick’s seminal Nothing To Envy.
The day the siblings left to find their mother, snow devoured the northern mining town. Houses loomed like ghosts. The government’s face was everywhere: on the sides of a marooned cart, above the lintel of the gray post office, on placards throughout the surrounding mountains praising the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.And in the grain sack strapped to the oldest brother Woncheol’s back, their crippled sister, the weight of a few books.
‘Drifting House’ provides a superb, overdue insight in a fascinatingly complex culture which, in the context of global literary fiction, has been neglected for too long. Lee, whose forthcoming first novel has also been acquired by Faber, is talented enough to remain at the forefront of this shift-change. If ‘Drifting House’ is anything to go by, we have not heard the last of Krys Lee’s South Korea; not by a long shot.