Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Novels on Korean History?

Dear Korean,

I would really enjoy reading something that encompasses the entire history of Korea in novel form, just as “The Covenant” by Michener does for South Africa. Does such a book exist?


There are two difficulties with finding a novel that encompasses Korean history. First, Korean history is just too long, arguably stretching all the way back to 2333 B.C.E. if you believe in the Dangun myth. There may be epic novels that cover, say, a 50-year period, but the Korean is not aware of any novel that covers the entirety of Korean history. Second, even if there was such a novel, it would be tough to find it translated into English. This is too bad, because much of Korean fiction draws from various periods in Korean history. For example, recently the best selling novel in Korea was Song of the Sword [칼의 노래] by Kim Hoon, which was written from the perspective of the heroic Admiral Yi Sun-Shin who lived in the 16th century. If you prefer to go even farther back, there is Goguryeo [고구려], a very recent novel by Kim Jin-Myeong that covers Korean kings of the 4th century. It is a pity that these novels are not more widely available to the worldwide readership.

Try as he might, the Korean's first thought was Land by Park Kyong-Ni. It covers Korea in the early 20th century, which is probably more relevant to those who are interested in understanding contemporary Korea. It is also one of the few Korean epic novels that were translated into English. But unfortunately, Land is made up of five parts, and only part 1 is translated -- and part 1 alone is more than a thousand pages. Apparently there are plans to translate the remaining parts, but no one knows just exactly when the entire novel will be translated. (The Korean is not holding his breath -- it took Park 25 years to finish the novel.)

Yup. This is just Part 1. There are four more parts not translated yet.
Therefore, the Korean turned to the ultimate authority on this one: Professor Charles Montgomery of Dongguk University, who is the proprietor of the blog, Korean Modern Literature in Translation. How would we trace the history of Korea in translated novels? Below is the response from Prof. Montgomery:
I’d do it in a series of books.

The first book that springs to mind is “Three Generations” by Yeom Sang-seop. It doesn’t cover all of Korean history, but does a good job of a really critical time -- i.e. the 20s and 30s. By invoking the three generations, it actually covers a bit more historical territory. After that I would perhaps read Cho Se-hui’s “The Dwarf” and Yang Kwi-ja’s “A Distant and Beautiful Place” These books would get you adequately through the 80s or so. Then on to Ch’oe Yun’s “There a Petal Silently Falls”, which is at least brief-ish.

To cover Korean War (actually one of my least favorite topics, as the literature is rightfully, but horribly monochromatic) I might also add “Who Ate Up All the Shinga” by Park Wan-Suh. Then “I Have The Right to Destroy Myself" by Kim Young-Ha would get us up into Apgujeong and rampant materialism in contemporary Korea.
Sounds like an excellent reading plan. Readers, do you have any Korean historical novels that you like? (Please don't talk about historical dramas, the Korean begs of you.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. This one doesn't cover more than the first half of the 20th century, but "The Calligrapher's Daughter" by Eugena Kim is an excellent read. I think it was written in English to begin with, but it's still a very interesting account of what life was like for Koreans during Japanese rule.

  2. When I was a naive Freshman, I wanted to translate "Taebaek Mountains" for my thesis/creative project. :D

    But yeah, I think Jo Jung Rae's works (Arirang - Taebaek Mountains - Han River) does a great job covering most of Korea's 20th century history. I doubt that there are English translations (and that there ever will be), but still.

    And I find Kim Jin Myung to be... a tinsy bit too nationalist. And by tinsy bit, I mean "Patrick Henry called; he wants you to tone it down a little."

  3. Yes, but for those of us who are admittedly lazy and busy and deplorable, maybe a post in the future on the best of historical dramas?
    Shallow but Interested

  4. And I find Kim Jin Myung to be... a tinsy bit too nationalist.

    Are you saying that it's too nationalistic to write a story about how North and South Koreas come together to nuke Japan? ;)

  5. @peachyb: I really liked Great Queen Seondeok. It was on Hulu for a while.

  6. "Encounter" by Hahn Moo-Sook. A novel set in 19th century Korea that is somewhat of a fictionalization of the lives of real Confucian and Christian scholars. It can be a bit dry at times but is beautifully written and gives insight into the lives of early Catholics in Korea.

  7. Aquariums of Pyeongyang by Chol-hwan Kang.

    It does not really cover an extensive period of history but interesting and engaging. This book is about the life of the author as a child who grew up in North Korea, thrown into 're-education' camps before escaping to the South (via China).

    btw, I am thankful for this entry. I have been looking for Korean novels to read but not sure what is available. Local bookstores here (Singapore) are sadly limited in this particular section.

  8. This is not a novel, but I can't recommend "The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong" strongly enough. I almost literally stumbled on it at Commonwealth Books in Boston - it was at the top of a stack of books on the floor waiting to be shelved.

    It covers the events around the death of Prince Sado, who was locked in a rice chest by his father. It took him eight days to die - horrible! The memoirs are written by his wife and read almost like a novel in four parts. She wrote them in hangeul which was unusual at the time when most literature was written in Chinese, so they have a very natural and modern feel. Prince Sado, his death, and the events around it are one of more fascinating moments in Korean history and he often pops up in Korean historical dramas and movies, so this is a great book if you want to learn what really happened told by someone who was there.

    The book I have was translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush and she has a lot of great historical commentary in it as well.

  9. The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble!

  10. Following the thread of Prince Sado, I suggest Everlasting Empire by Yi In-Hwa (Professor You Chul-gun), which examines the aftermath of that event on the next generation and the next king, King Chongjo, who established the Royal Library. The primary narrator of Everlasting Empire is a librarian who investigates a suspicious death. As a book lover myself, I was hooked on the idea of a librarian sleuth narrator. There was a thorough discussion of the many warring factions and alliances (Divergent has nothing on brutal factions compared to this period of Korean history) as well as the introduction of scholarly writings and poetry.

    Everlasting Empire is a sort of novelized history text--more successful in the portrayal of this period of history than as a novel. Too many narrators and too much authorial intrusion slowed the book. At least for me.


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