The last couple of nights I’ve been busy…reading.
I haven’t read a lot of Korean literature, but there are a few writers I kind of followed over the years. Living abroad means I live without newly published Korean books for years at a time. When I’m in Korea I go often to a big bookstore and spend hours browsing, and every time I end up taking a pile of books home.
I’ve been aware of 한강 (Han Kang) for a long time. My sister had a book of hers from 1995 which I read, and at some point she also brought out a book with a CD. I remember she wrote the music and the lyrics, and sang them as well.
Last autumn I was in a bookstore in Seoul, and discovered a book of hers on the shelf. I sat down and started casually reading, and within three pages I was crying. I was crying so much that I had to leave, taking the book with me. That book had a profound effect on me. I just don’t know how the writer could be so close to pain and yet tell us about it with such clear voice. How one can be completely involved and keep distance at the same time. And all that in words so…poetic. Poetic is perhaps too easy a word. But then that exactly might be the meaning of poetry, being the real thing and far beyond it at the same time.
That book is called ‘human acts’ in English translation.
In the last week or so, Korean media was quite busy with the news that Han Kang got the international man booker prize with her novel(s, it was initially three novels linked together) “the Vegetarian”. It was published in Korean 10 years ago but I had missed it. So I got the book, in English translation.
It was not an easy read and there were tough moments. Images were explicit, and the naked truth (coz I know so much of what she tells us IS true, in mine and in other people’s lives) often brutal. And sometimes I couldn’t help putting the book down and ask myself if I really can, or want to, take it. But I carried on, and it was a good read. In fact far more than a good read. Because art which is truthful is strong. I have always been interested in artists who seek a ‘frontal’ confrontation with all that life is. In the subjects as well as ways of dealing with them, there are two movies this book reminded me of. One is Lars von Trier’s “antichrist”. The other one is a Korean documentary film; Heung-Soon Im’s “factory complex”.
When I read about 30 pages I thought, ah it’s about trauma. Then it was something else. And something else. It’s about so many things. Man. Woman. Body. Sexuality. Violence. Patriarchy. Oppression. Guilt. Aggression. Passive aggression. Creativity. Death wish. Society vs Individual…the list would be endless. And it’s a story of a woman who refused, in other words could not force herself to, be ‘normal’.
The guardian filmed her saying a few words. There’s an ad in the beginning, but I think it’s worth waiting for.