What books are good for savoring the layers of time in the city?
One of the most captivating books from my childhood, “Samguk Yusa: Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea,” which goes back thousands of years, was compiled by the Buddhist monk Ilyon in the 13th century, during the Goryeo dynasty. It consists of bizarre, supernatural tales — kings born from eggs, a magic flute that hushes the storms to sleep. “Tales of the Strange by a Korean Confucian Monk: Kumo Sinhwa,” by Kim Sisup, a collection of five stories from the early Joseon dynasty, which started in the late 14th century, is also gripping, but in a gentler way. The male protagonists spend a few days with the ghosts of graceful, candid women with whom they fall in love, and live the rest of their lives in solitude and grief.
“The Story of Hong Gildong,” also from the Joseon dynasty, was recently translated into English by Minsoo Kang. Gildong is born into a noble family but can’t claim his own father because of the lowly status of his mother. Suffering institutional discrimination, he becomes a thief, redistributing wealth to the poor. The book has long been purported to be the work of a progressive thinker, Heo Gyun, who was executed for treason in the 17th century, but questions about its authorship have been raised in academia.
For a more recent depiction of Seoul’s past, Park Wan-suh’s memoir “Who Ate Up All the Shinga?”, translated by Yu Young-nan and Stephen J. Epstein, deals with the 1930s to the 1950s. After starting with sparkling childhood memories in Kaesong — now in North Korea — the narrative shifts to Seoul in the midst of the Korean War. The city empties out, with most citizens fleeing in fear, but Park’s family chooses to stay to care for her ill brother. The ending, where she looks out onto the strikingly quiet streets and resolves to write about all these ordeals one day, is compelling.
What should I read before I go to Seoul?
Poems by the poets who are now living in Seoul. If you randomly open and read collections such as “I’m OK, I’m Pig!” and “Autobiography of Death,” by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi; “Request Line at Noon,” by Lee Jangwook, translated by Sun Kim and Tsering Wangmo; “Fifteen Seconds Without Sorrow,” by Shim Bo-seon, translated by Chung Eun-Gwi and Brother Anthony of Taizé, “Cheer Up Femme Fatale,” by Kim Yi-deum, translated by Ji Yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi and Johannes Göransson; or “Beautiful and Useless,” by Kim Min Jeong, translated by Soeun Seo and Jake Levine, you can get a collective sense of Seoul.
Likewise, short story collections will offer a sample of various aspects of life here. “Flowers of Mold,” by Ha Seong-nan, translated by Janet Hong; “Cursed Bunny,” by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur; “Love in the Big City,” by Sang Young Park, also translated by Hur; and “Shoko’s Smile,” by Choi Eunyoung, translated by Sung Ryu, are all available in English. And novels such as “Concerning My Daughter,” by Kim Hye-jin, translated by Jamie Chang; “My Brilliant Life,” by Ae-ran Kim, translated by Chi-Young Kim; and “Your Republic Is Calling You,” by Kim Young-ha, also translated by Chi-Young Kim, reflect the ambience of Seoul.