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WINTER 2008 Vol.22 No.4
Kimchi
Beauty of Korea
Byeoru (Ink Stone)
Background and Development of Korean Kimchi
Kimchi Ideal Health Food for a Well-being Lifestyle
Regional Influences Create Wide Varieties of Kimchi
Sharing Kimchi with Consumers Around the World
Seoul Hosts XXII World Congress of Philosophy 2008
Poet Ko Un “I am my own future!”
Archery Craftsman Yoo Young-ki Blends Strength with Resiliency
Elegant Earthenware Figurines Reveal Silla’s Spirituality
Magnum Korea Exhibition Images of Korean Society’s Diversity
Kevin O’Rourke Passionate Translator of Korean Literature
Sung Shi-yeon A Humble yet Forceful Presence at the Podium
Jeongseon’s Natural Beauty Endures the Passage of Time
Yaksik Rice Cake Tasty and Healthy Treat
Korea Delivers with Speed and Agility
Dance of Exorcism at the Fringe of Existence
SPRING 2008 Vol.22 No.1
  Journeys in Korean Literature
  Park Min-gyu Blends Adroit Humor with Insightful Criticism
  Lee Myoung-won
Literary Critic
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Park Min-gyu has produced two novels and a collection of short stories. As seen in these works, his most noteworthy literary talent is his keen sense of humor. As such, this humor, which does not get overwhelmed or buried in the storytelling, elicits a thoughtful reaction by maintaining a rational distance and restrained sensibility.
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The world illuminated by Park’s writing involves an old order that has come to shape our everyday life of today. In this world, a global system of capitalism has taken hold of people’s lives and souls, along with turning everything into an object of ownership. The characters in Park’s novels experience a sense of helplessness in this environment, which also includes corruptive aspects. His characters, burdened by financial difficulties and with limited potential for upward mobility, harbor a deep sense of self-resentment and propensity for failure.
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What can such downtrodden people do in this world that offers so little hope in the way of prospects for a brighter future? By necessity, they are engrossed in a game of survival, in keeping with the existing order. But there is no escape from their grave circumstances, which only worsen even as they exert their utmost efforts.
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This is certainly the case for Gi-ha, a main character in the short story “Korean Standards.” A person of staunch principles, Gi-ha is a democracy activist, a product of Korea’s struggle for democratization in the 1980s. But 20 years down the road, he is living a completely fruitless life. He attempts to uphold the convictions of his youth by promoting ecological activism in the countryside, but these efforts totally collapse in the face of reality.
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This failure is symbolically expressed through a wholly absurd account of an invasion by aliens. For Gi-ha, after having his dreams dashed in the city, he seeks redemption in the countryside, only to face utter despair. His desperation is rooted in the new industrial structure, which has severely damaged the livelihood of country people, along with eroding the personal relationships that rely on trust. Moreover, this state of affairs has taken root due to the notable transformation of people’s attitude toward life.
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The narrator of the story observes: “Quietly, from being someone hoping that society would change, I turned into a person hoping that his office ranking would change.” This confession clearly reveals the dramatic shift in the attitude of Koreans, between the 1980s and the 2000s. In the past, the younger generation, who were filled with Utopian ideals, believed that they could change the world, fundamentally and rapidly. But over the course of two decades, this younger generation has become today’s middle-age group, who somehow abandoned their dreams along the way. Meanwhile, their lofty hopes have been replaced by an overriding desire to simply survive.
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In this process, their lives have become unfulfilling and even wretched. But what distinguishes the author’s perspective is that, while depicting in detail the extreme desperation, he describes their situation with emotional restraint, thereby enabling readers to maintain a sense of objectivity. This emotional distance and objective perspective are hallmarks of Park’s style of humor, which embodies a mature pathos rooted in a dispassionate perception of reality.
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Another factor that facilitates this style of humor is the author’s literary mechanism of not allowing readers to develop an emotional empathy, or personal intimacy, with the characters. On the one hand, he does utilize hyper-realistic expression, but by introducing fantasy elements, such as an alien invasion, he tends to caricaturize the dire circumstances through the involvement of unusual or bizarre incidents.
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This approach causes Park’s readers to give up on the notion of developing an emotional bond with the characters. Moreover, the humorous and unpredictable unfolding of events, along with an absence of personal sentiments, encourage readers to seriously contemplate the reality of their world. That is, the story provokes questions about the underlying motivation for people to accumulate wealth and whether personal relationships are ultimately about gaining an advantage.
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As for Park, through his humor, he seeks to have readers discover a new prism for viewing reality, based on an objective mindset unclouded by emotional attachment. When the reader attempts to identify with the characters, an unexpected paradoxical situation occurs to disrupt this process as a result of Park’s humorous presentation. As such, this humor is best appreciated by those who are not overwhelmed by reality and can thus maintain a rational outlook.
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Park Min-gyu’s writing is characterized by an adroit humor and insightful criticism of reality, along with lending support to people’s struggles against suppressive elements. Interestingly, this humor is more universal in nature than it is about a particular Korean style.
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