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Korean wordsmiths strut their stuff

by Mark Schreiber

YOUR REPUBLIC IS CALLING YOU, by Yong-ha Kim. Mariner Books, 2010, 326 pp., $14.95 (paper)
INTO THE LIGHT: An Anthology of Literature by Koreans in Japan, by Melissa L. Wender. University of Hawaii Press, 2011, 226 pp., $22 (paper)

I didn’t expect a novel about a North Korean mole ordered to return to Pyongyang to include an account of a sex orgy at a love hotel. But Yong-ha Kim’s entertaining work, which packs a potpourri of action into just one day, completely dispels any assumptions I might have held about modern Korean fiction.

One morning Ki-yong, a North Korean operative who has spent two decades under cover in Seoul, logs onto his office PC and reads a cryptic message ordering him to rendezvous with a mini-submarine on an isolated beach.

After so many years of living under cover, he’d thought his masters in Pyongyang had forgotten his existence, and he’s filled with dread at the prospect of returning to an uncertain fate.

In the hands of a less creative writer, this book would read like a serious political thriller.

But Young-ha Kim concocts a mixture of wickedly black humor that clashes head-on with North Korea’s dogmatic “Juche” (spirit of self reliance) state ideology, and the result is a rollicking read from cover to cover. “Sex is like pro wrestling,” Kim observes dispassionately midway through the orgy. “Only a game but at the same time a struggle. You have to be considerate of the other party while you attack, and you have to be somewhat aggressive to make it work.”

Ki-yong’s struggles are alternated with flashbacks of his student days. Although only Ki-yong is a spy, his wife Ma-ri and their adolescent daughter Hyon-mi also lead secretive lives which all three conceal from one another.

While the book’s theme is serious and suspense is maintained right up to the bittersweet ending, its humorously upbeat tone carries the day. Into the Light in English by or about Japan’s burakumin (descendants of former outcastes), such as the partial translation of Sue Sumii’s “The River with No Bridge,” Toson Shimazaki’s “Broken Commandment” and Kenji Nakagawa’s Akutagawa Prize-winning “The Cape: and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto,” have been available for some years.

“Into the Light” is the first compilation in English of 10 novellas, short stories and free verse by members of Japan’s Korean minority.

Spanning the years from 1939 to 1997, the stories feature situations in which Koreans in Japan grapple with prejudice and assimilation, as well as occasionally acrimonious relationships with their Korean compatriots.

In addition to Melissa L. Wender’s informative introduction, entries are preceded by instructive notes about each writer’s background.

“Foreign Husband,” a 1958 story by Kakuchu Noguchi (1905-1997), underscores the challenges of sharing a bed with a person of another ethnicity.

Even after the protagonist’s wife has born him four children, he’s still easily overcome by jealousy, and unable to reconcile his wife’s nonchalant attitude toward strangers — particularly Japanese males. The accounts of their fierce marital spats are reminiscent of the title of Issac Bashevis Singer’s 1972 novel, “Enemies: A Love Story.”

“In the Shadow of Mount Fuji,” published in 1951 by Kim Tal-su (1919-1997), was of particular interest because it focuses on an encounter between burakumin and Koreans.

Iwamura Ichitaro, a writer of buraku background, invites several Korean literati to visit his family’s farm in rural Yamanashi.

Everyone gets along fine until the Koreans write out their names and Iwamura’s family members only then realize their guests are not Japanese. From their chilly reaction, the reader is made aware of how even those on the receiving end of discrimination embrace biases themselves.

Kim allows his story’s narrator, sociologist Yi Kyong-kuk, to get in the last word on the matter: In elegant Chinese calligraphy Yi writes, “Those who are always treated with contempt become contemptuous of others.

But it is those who made it so who truly deserve contempt.”