Man at His Best

Opinion: Delve Into The Best Of Korean Literature

Authors from Japan and India might dominate the conversation but who are Asian literature’s hidden gems?

BY Yong Shu Hoong | Apr 14, 2017 | Books

There was a time when the Land of the Rising Sun was more dominant in illuminating our headspace—whether in the form of innovative Japanese brands adorning our electronic gadgets, or cultural influences like manga and Japanese pop infecting the minds of Singaporean youth.

These days, in terms of what’s fashionable and popular, South Korea is the new Asian powerhouse to be reckoned with. Even though I’ve never quite jived to K-pop (Psy included), I’ve watched my share of Korean movies—from art-house hits like Secret Sunshine (2007) to commercial blockbusters like Train to Busan (2016). And, oh, my phone is Samsung.

Yet my knowledge of Korean literature has remained in the embryonic phase—as compared to Japanese literature, for which I can at least name a few writers that I’ve read, such as Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto and Shusaku Endo.

Two years ago, while visiting the New Delhi World Book Fair, I chanced upon the Korean pavilion where I first discovered The Vegetarian, a novel by Han Kang first published in 2007 and, at that time, just translated into English.

Born in 1970 in Gwangju, South Korea, Han currently teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. When I heard about her book again, it had already garnered great acclaim, winning the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Last September, I finally bought The Vegetarian, which I finished reading within a few days.

My immediate reaction was to compare it to Murakami’s work: quirky turn of story events, accompanied by eroticism. Then another writer-friend of mine pointed out that this book is deeper, darker, more psychological.

The novel is divided into three parts, written from different characters’ viewpoints. For example, the first part starts innocuously enough, in the voice of Mr Cheong, the husband of main character, housewife Yeong-hye: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.” Then all hell breaks loose when Yeong-hye’s insistence drags on.

The book’s other parts are depicted from the perspectives of Yeong-hye’s concerned elder sister In-hye and Inhye’s unnamed artist-husband. When we, as readers, realise that the reason behind Yeong-hye’s sudden embrace of vegetarianism is a dream, and she subsequently abstains from all kinds of food and expresses a wish to become a plant, the story takes on a surreal tone.

But strangeness aside, the book explores the immense pressures on a woman to conform to familial expectations and societal norms, as well as the complexities of the human mind—one which I assume to be descending into madness initially, though I begin to wonder about it by the end of the story.

If The Vegetarian, which has been described by some critics as Kafkaesque, sparks your interest, it’s not too late to place it on your 2017 reading list. And while you’re getting into K-lit, check out other Korean writers like Kim Young-ha and Shin Kyungsook too.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, April 2017.