South Korea



Photo of Seoul by Jaako used under a Creative Commons license.

Young-ha Kim, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (Harcourt, 2007).
Chapters about a dark angel who roams Seoul looking for potential clients, incipient suicides, bookend stories of his clientele, though narrative games abound here as our nominal protagonist is self-consciously artistic about their stories. Indeed, discussions of paintings by David and Delacroix bookend the story as well; the self-consciousness about art and death is quite overt.

Google Books lets you check it out. Here’s Wikipedia’s entry on Kim Young-ha. Here’s the bio on his own site. The Complete Review calls it engrossing but creepy, a powerful but disturbing read. Wook Kim (EW) describes it as a determinedly ”literary” effort exploring the alienating effects of life in the late 20th century. Publishers Weekly (via Google Books) calls it a self-conscious exploration of truth, death, desire and identity, and says that though it traffics in racy themes, it never devolves into base voyeurism. Danny Yee calls it atmospheric and compelling in its presentation of characters and its evocation of a “noir” Seoul. Serdar says it’s not great, but interesting. Brian Jungwiwattanaporn calls it a good opportunity to explore some of the concerns of Korean society. Monique calls the writing dreamlike and cinematic, with a certain dark brilliance. Jonathan Messinger says there isn’t enough story here to accomplish what Kim wants to do. Charles Montgomery sees a Nabokovian hall-of-mirrors, and elsewhere calls it a post-modern meditation on meaning, art, and death. John Burns says it seems to say, better to die with style than to go on living. Ada Tseng says it’s representative of the postmodern turn in Korean fiction.  According to Paperclippe, it’s a disturbing, gripping tale of sex and suicide, of how lives are tangled up together even when they seem unfathomably far apart. Silk Stocking says it was a quick read. Hyun describes it as a slim, fast-paced novel about art, existentialism, sex and suicide, with characters desperately searching for meaning in their lives in contemporary Seoul. Grierson Huffman doesn’t recommend it. Joseph Mark Switzer says traditional Western themes are lifted from Camus, Klimt, and Kafka and woven into the urban landscape of Seoul. KBS interviews him. So does Dafna Zur.

Buy it at Half.com.

Naejangsa (Temple)
Photo by Peter Garnham used under a Creative Commons license.

David A. Mason, Spirit of the Mountains: Korea’s San-Shin and Traditions of Mountain-Worship (Hollym International Corp., 1999).
Writing about Korea in Salon‘s Literary Guide to the World, James Card says:

. . . Mason spent the last 20 years putting in trail miles and doing fieldwork devoted to his research of mountain shamanism. His book . . . offers a revelatory look at how this native religion is quietly practiced at individual shrines and Buddhist temples across the country. San-shin, a mythical persona, is depicted as a wizened white-bearded sage who inhabits the mountain valleys, creating sacred spots of power and spirituality. In the first sentence of the book he writes, “Right at this moment, as you read this page, no matter what time or season it is, mountains are being worshipped in Korea.” Mason dissects the iconography of tigers, pine trees and ginseng, and the book doubles as a travel guide to the shrines. Many guidebooks will tell you a thousands facts about a famous Buddhist temple, yet Mason’s book teaches you to explore behind the temple and follow a jagged path in the woods that leads to a weathered stone altar dedicated to the spirit of the mountains.

Mason’s web site has a whole lot of interesting stuff on it, including biographical information. This article about Mason seems to have run first in The Korea Times. Here’s a review by John Synott. And Brendon Carr recommends it. Here’s a lengthy discussion at The Well with Mason about the book. Mason prepared this annotated map of sacred sites in Korea. And here are more writings by Mason on the web site of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Buy it at Amazon.com (but n.b. — Amazon appears to think that the book’s author is named “Weatherhill”).