Read Your Way Around the World is a series exploring the globe through books.
Seoul is a megacity, with a population of nearly 10 million and a name pronounced like “soul.” There were times when I couldn’t stand its scale and pace of change, but I have managed to find a tranquil corner and continue to live in this city.
Although modern at first glance, Seoul has a long history. People first began to gather here 6,000 years ago. Over the centuries, the city was the center of dynasties that ruled the region, and it remains the capital of South Korea.
In other words, the city exists under thick layers of time. News of construction projects brought to a stop after digging in the city center unearthed drainage facilities from a thousand years ago or porcelain dating back hundreds of years is a reminder of that.
As I walk past the stone markers of old buildings destroyed during the Japanese occupation, from 1910 to 1945, or a brutal ideological war, from 1950 to 1953, I see the royal palaces and traditional private houses that have survived, the apartment complexes built since the 1960s that have evolved into high-rises, the commercial skyscrapers dazzling with night lights. These clashing, overlapping, converging sceneries shape the city’s very identity. It’s no surprise that many works of literature or art created here are infused with pathos.
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.
What books can show me other facets of the city?
“One Hundred Shadows,” by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon, is set in Euljiro, a characteristically busy and run-down area full of lighting fixtures shops. The novel follows a man and a woman working on these streets and getting to know each other. They matter-of-factly discuss a strange supernatural development: The shadows of marginalized people have started to “rise.” Once people follow these shadows, they lose their life. The pair’s delicate efforts to keep each other company, each carefully making sure that the other’s shadow doesn’t “rise,” leave a lasting impression.
What literary pilgrimage destinations would you recommend?
Start with a visit to the house of Yi Sang, who was born in 1910 and trained as an architect before becoming a luminous avant-garde writer and dying at the age of 27 from tuberculosis. Make sure to have a copy of “Yi Sang: Selected Works,” translated by Don Mee Choi, Jack Jung, Sawako Nakayasu and Joyelle McSweeney, on hand. The book is composed of exceptional poems, short stories, essays and illustrations by the writer, accompanied by intimate essays by the translators.
Although the space that displays the artist’s works is modest in size, it provides a special moment of contact for those familiar with his short, brave and fatigued journey from his childhood, when he was adopted by his uncle, to his final moments. From the small rooftop, you will get a view of the mountain Inwangsan.
From the house, I recommend you keep going up, following the gently sloping alley leading to the site of one of the poet Yoon Dong-ju’s boardinghouses. Yoon was arrested during the Japanese occupation, a period of intense oppression in Korea. He died in prison in February 1945, the final year of colonial rule, at the age of 28. Many in Korea, including some historians, believe his death may have resulted from medical experiments on humans conducted by the Japanese military.
Five more minutes up the hill, and you will enter a quiet valley where I sometimes dip my hands in the clear, cold water of a stream like a young Yoon did to wash his face each morning. The water that touches my hands is not the same that touched his, but he feels close.
Yoon was my favorite poet when I was in middle school. I especially like his short poem “Eight Blessings.” What was on his mind when he wrote, “Blessed are they who mourn” eight times over, then ended with “They shall grieve forever” after leaving one blank, silent line?
Twenty more minutes of walking along the trail will take you to the Yoon Dong-ju Literature Museum, where you can see his manuscript and photographs.
Any bookstores or libraries I should visit?
Wit N Cynical, in the Hyehwa-dong neighborhood, is a poetry bookstore run by a young poet, Yoo Heekyung, where there are weekly readings for newly published collections. Boanbooks, in Tongui-dong, has a cafe and a contemporary art gallery downstairs. Thanks Books and Achimdal Books, in the Sinchon area; Goyo Bookshop in Huam-dong; and Onul Books, which recently moved locations from the south of Seoul to next to Gyeongbokgung Palace, all have unique selections of books and an active literary event calendar.
If you’re looking for books in English, try Kyobo Book Center in Gwanghwamun. This huge bookstore offers a selection of books in foreign languages.
As for libraries, Namsan Public Library is a beauty. If you take a seat by the large window in the art books section on the fourth floor, Namsan forest, or “blue eyebrows” as the 18th-century writer and calligrapher Lee Deok-mu called it, will come into view. Beyond the lushness, you can see the distant slopes with busy roads and sinuous, intersecting paths spread out over the hills. When the day ends and the lights start to flick on in the dark, I hope you can feel the soul of Seoul: the city that embraces thousands of years of turbulence.
Han Kang’s Seoul Reading List
“Samguk Yusa: Legends and History of the Three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea,” Ilyon, translated by Ha Tae-Hung and Grafton K. Mintz
“Tales of the Strange by a Korean Confucian Monk: Kumo Sinhwa,” Kim Sisup, translated by Dennis Wuerthner
“The Story of Hong Gildong,” authorship unconfirmed, translated by Minsoo Kang
“Who Ate Up All the Shinga?”, Park Wan-suh, translated by Yu Young-nan and Stephen J. Epstein
“I’m OK, I’m Pig!” and “Autobiography of Death,” Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi
“Request Line at Noon,” Lee Jangwook, translated by Sun Kim and Tsering Wangmo
“Fifteen Seconds Without Sorrow,” Shim Bo-seon, translated by Chung Eun-Gwi and Brother Anthony of Taizé
“Cheer Up Femme Fatale,” Kim Yi-deum, translated by Ji Yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi and Johannes Göransson
“Beautiful and Useless,” Kim Min Jeong, translated by Soeun Seo and Jake Levin
“Flowers of Mold,” Ha Seong-nan, translated by Janet Hong
“Cursed Bunny,” Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur
“Love in the Big City,” Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur
“Shoko’s Smile,” Choi Eun-young, translated by Sung Ryu
“Concerning My Daughter,” Kim Hye-jin, translated by Jamie Chang
“My Brilliant Life,” Ae-ran Kim, translated by Chi-Young Kim
“Your Republic Is Calling You,” Kim Young-ha, translated by Chi-Young Kim
“One Hundred Shadows,” Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon
“Yi Sang: Selected Works,” translated by Don Mee Choi, Jack Jung, Sawako Nakayasu and Joyelle McSweeney
Han Kang has written poems, short stories, novellas and novels. Her work has been widely lauded and recognized with awards that include the 2016 International Booker Prize, for “The Vegetarian.” Her most recent book is “Greek Lessons.”
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