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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism


Han Sorya and
North Korean Literature

Brian Myers

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To purchase Han Sorya and North Korean Literature

Title: Han Sorya and North Korean Literature
Author: Brian Myers
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1994
Length: 188 pages
Availability: Han Sorya and North Korean Literature - US
Han Sorya and North Korean Literature - UK
Han Sorya and North Korean Literature - Canada
  • The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK
  • With a translation of Han Sorya's Jackals

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Our Assessment:

B : approachable, and interesting overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Far Eastern Economic Rev. . 2/3/1995 Ann Lee
Pacific Affairs . Spring/1995 Kichung Kim
World Lit. Today . Winter/1995 Yearn Hong Choi

  From the Reviews:
  • "How can Myers say that he is not a socialist realist? How can Myers say that Han's thought is not compatible with communist ideology ? I can understand Myers's views on orthodox socialist realism, yet I see socialist realism abundantly present in North Korean literature: North Korean writers still advocate socialist realism. Myers simply does not interpret socialist realism as they do. (...) Nevertheless, I appreciate Myers's book, because Han's rise and fall in North Korean political life and the vicissitudes of factional politics themselves are striking stories even within literary circles." - Yearn Hong Choi, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Presented as "a slightly amended version" of his doctoral dissertation (at a German institution, no less -- Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen), and with this particular subject matter, Brian Myers' Han Sorya and North Korean Literature might not sound like a very appealing or approachable work, but, in fact, it's quite fascinating -- and certainly very readable.
       Han Sorya was, for a time, a leading North Korean author. He was born in 1900, and Myers notes that his best work came relatively early -- but it was after the end of World War II and Japanese occupation that he truly rose to prominence -- but largely by playing politics, not by writing well. As chairman of some of the leading writers' and artists' associations in the years that followed, he had considerable power -- and his output was (officially) treated as though it were both significant and good. Not that everyone was convinced of either: Myers quotes what seems to be one fairly accurate assessment:

Whenever Han Sorya produced a novel other writers would cut it down behind his back. Han devoted almost all his works to the glorification of Kim Il Sung. That was all well and good, but he wrote clumsily and almost completely without the formal quality vital for a novel.
       As successful as he was, Han's career also crashed very suddenly, and he was purged from the party and his positions in 1962-3, and sent into internal exile. Eventually there was something of a rehabilitation, but even the date of Han's death (1969 or 1970, Myers suggests) is uncertain.
       Uncertainty is one of the major difficulties in preparing a study about Han (and almost anything North Korean, closed-off as the place is): as Myers notes, he did not have access to many of Han's writings -- and "Requests for book-related assistance were mailed to relevant institutions in both Koreas but were never answered". Still, Myers makes the best of the situation, and with the focus of the study on literary issues manages to present an interesting introduction to North Korean literary history and this one very prominent and very bad writer.
       In the sections of his study Myers first offers an historical overview of the period in question, and then focusses on Han's writing of that time. Also included is a translation of the novella Jackals -- "Han's most lasting success in the DPRK"
       Myers major argument and point is that the North Korean writers, and Han in particular, failed almost completely in adhering to that literary (and artistic) ideal that was the standard for all the Marxist-Leninist regimes, 'socialist realism':
     This was in other words a literature which, for all its affirmation of a revolutionary regime and its policies, remained marked by tendencies incompatible with both socialist realism and the Marxist-Leninist discourse itself: the ethnocentric pastoralism, anti-urbanism and anti-industrialism which had become part of the country's "cultural matrix" (Im Hongyong) during the colonial era. Ironically enough, these tendencies were nowhere quite as clearly expressed as in the writings of the man most responsible for implementing socialist realism: NKLFA chairman Han Sorya.
       How strong the argument about the North Korean failure to live up to socialist realist-ideals is is debatable: certainly Han's work was far-removed from Soviet-style socialist realism (which also carried the day in the Warsaw Pact countries), but arguably the North Korean approach was merely a (very) different one. But Myers has a point: Han certainly seems to have been a failure at any sort of politicized (or indeed, other) writing, a cartoon-version of the government-approved author.
       That Han was a bad and then ideologically incompetent writer seems incontrovertible, even if one assumes Myers is being one-sided in his presentation. The examples suffice: indeed, Han is so bad a writer that it's actually -- in these small doses and summaries -- entertaining. As Myers' run-down of Jackals suggests, this is writing so confused and impoverished that it's hard to understand how Han's career was sustainable as long as it was:
     The racist character depiction, the fairy-tale remoteness of the setting, and the triviality of the incident that sets the plot in motion (a children's squabble over a ball !) combine to disabuse the reader of hopes for a "social" storyline. In contrast to Chinua Achebe in the Nigerian classic Things Fall Apart (1958), Han makes no effort to explore just how Christian missionaries serve as forerunners of Western imperialism, apart from the preposterous implication that the hospital doubles as a credit house.
       Mercifully, the novella is short -- and (unintentionally) amusing in its bizarreness. it's an example of ideologically-motivated literature that is so clumsy that it undermines even the best intentions.
       Myers is particularly concerned with showing how North Korean literature did not adhere to (Soviet) socialist realist ideals -- noting that, for example:
     Elena Berman, a Soviet translator, hired by the North Koreans to prepare a Russian-language anthology of Han's short stories, found Jackals ideologically offensive enough to warrant a "translator's adaptation", i.e. a thorough rewriting
       In making his case, Myers does offer a solid background of Korean efforts to present literature-with-a-message -- and he shows how they were hampered by specifically Korean traditions that they were unwilling and unable to let go of (for example, a certain sense of sentimentality). With a solid knowledge of Russian and (Eastern) European socialist realism (in practise and theory), Myers readily makes the Korean approach look immature by comparison -- and as far as Han goes, he does live up to his promise and shows that: "Han's very worldview is fundamentally incompatible with the ideology a socialist realist literature is by definition obliged to reflect" (emphasis in the original). The question of course remains whether the Soviet model is the one to judge the Korean efforts by, or whether 'socialist realism' was adapted and became a completely different concept in Kim's North Korea
       Given how little information is available about North Korean literature over the past six decades, much less of actual examples available in translation, Han Sorya and North Korean Literature is a significant contribution and useful introduction, and certainly recommended for anyone interested in Korean literature, as well as literary practise in the 20th century Marxist-Leninist regimes (as it is also a work of comparative literature). But one does hope that eventual regime change will make vastly more material accessible in the future, allowing for more in-depth studies, as well as access to more of the source-material.

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Han Sorya and North Korean Literature: Other books by Brian Myers under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Brian Reynolds Myers teaches North Korean studies.

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