In the mid-1990s, I had to interrupt my studies in the U.S. to fulfill my mandatory military duty. After I was discharged, I took some time off to recover from the experience, spending much of my time familiarizing myself with the contemporary literature of my country. That was when I discovered the novels of H. I became such an admirer that I not only read everything he had published but also translated one of his shorter works into English. Several years later, after I moved back to the U.S., a part of my translation was accepted for publication in a literary journal. This led to the opportunity of meeting H in person during a summer visit. He turned out to be a very welcoming and entertaining person, so I ended up seeing him on subsequent trips. On one of those occasions, as we discussed the current state of national fiction, he related a story about his encounter with the writer Y, which I found significant enough that I asked if I could write about it. He refused, citing the personal nature of the anecdote. Over the next years, I pressed him until he finally relented under the condition that I do not identify the people involved (thus the names of the writers H and Y) and change certain details to make it a work of fiction. What drew me to the story was that it revealed the nature of being a writer of a small country, working in a language that only a few non-natives are familiar with. It even occurred to me that keeping the characters and their environment anonymous had the advantage of making the narrative universal, as it could have unfolded in any number of places that existed under the shadow of larger and more powerful nations capable of imposing their culture upon the world stage.
A few years before I met H, he found himself unable to work on his new novel due to too much demand on his time by friends, relatives, as well as faculty and students at the university where he taught as a writing professor. So he made his escape to J Island with the help of an admiring acquaintance at a cultural organization who arranged for him to stay at a comfortable room at a beachside facility. As he was able to write there in peace for a few months, he made good progress on his work.
One day he received a call from the local contact at the organization that was sponsoring his stay. He was informed that the writer Y was visiting the island for a few days and, learning that H was there, asked if they could meet. H was wary of interrupting his productive work schedule, but he ultimately felt that he could not snub the lofty personage.
Y was undoubtedly the single most important and celebrated writer of the 1970s and 80s. Most literary critics named him as the top practitioner of the socially engaged realist style that defined much of the country’s modern fiction. I myself admired Y’s writings, especially his masterful short stories and novellas, but he was not my personal favorite as he represented the traditional strain of national literature. One of the reasons I loved H’s works was that they broke away from the constraints of the mainstream to strike out in new and exciting directions. But in ontrast to the universal acclaim Y received, the critical assessment of H’s work was sharply divided as he became one of the most controversial writers in the country since he began publishing his unorthodox novels in the 90s. H had attended graduate school in France where he studied the nouveau romanciers, writings his thesis on Georges Perec, and utilized their experimental method in his own fiction. Some praised his works for their innovative techniques while others decried their eccentricity and obscurity. His most vociferous critics went so far to characterize his writings as a betrayal of national literature’s mission of social criticism, even hinting at the unhealthy influence of the foreign in his solipsistic style. The controversy, however, turned out to be a positive thing for his book sales, and his first novel was made into a movie which also became a succès de scandale.
On a sunny and clear morning, H picked Y up at his hotel and drove him to various natural sites that the island was famous for. They then had a pleasant lunch at a seafood restaurant by the seashore, sharing a few bottles of soju. On the drive back to the hotel, after a period of silence in which they both enjoyed the pleasant warmth of inebriation and the sunlight caressing their faces, Y suddenly addressed H.
“Teacher H, I just realized something strange.”
“We spent our last hours discussing politics, history, recent events in the news, and this island, yet the one topic that never came up was literature.”
“Ah yes. I suppose that’s true.”
“Why do you think that is? An interesting puzzle to pose – why did two novelists meeting for the first time on an island never discuss literature?”
“Well…” H said and hesitated. He considered letting the question stand, but for some reason he found himself going on. “Perhaps because I didn’t want to discuss literature with you.”
“Ah!” Y said. “I suspected as much. Every time our conversation veered toward the subject you either said something obscure or introduced a new topic. I thought I might be imagining it, but I now see that I wasn’t. You actually don’t want to talk about literature with me. Is it because you think that we have hold such different views that we might get into an unpleasant argument?”
“It’s not that,” H said and paused for a moment before he went on. “As you can imagine, ever since I published my first novel I’ve gotten into countless arguments about literature. Many of them quite serious, some even personal. I never minded that much but recently…I can’t seem to countenance such talk any longer.”
“Well…it’s like this. There is this great and vast river called World Literature that is racing by us all. Our literature, our endless arguments about national literature…it’s like a thin stream that flows out of that grand river and ends at a tiny pond. And in that pond a group of toads are croaking and yelling at each other about the importance of that pond, the loftiness and the sanctity of the pond. All the while the great river runs on, heedless of the toads’ vain pronouncements. That’s what our literary scene is like. For me, I hope that one day I can swim in that great river, even if just once. So the arguments and goings-on in that little pond mean little to me.”
As silence fell in the car, H thought that he may have offended Y who, after all, was the most celebrated novelist in what he referred to as a little pond. Just as H considered apologizing for his harsh words, Y let out a deep sigh.
“Teacher H,” Y said, “I think I know what you are talking about. In fact, there was a time a few years ago when I felt the same way. That was when the ministry of culture was making a concerted effort to have our culture better known in the world. As part of the initiative, they arranged a reading tour for me in America. I was to fly to New York, do a presentation there, then go to a number of major cities, then return to New York for my flight back.”
“I remember that,” H said. “I read about it in the newspaper.”
“In New York the consulate there organized a banquet for me. One of the dignitaries they invited was W, a famous and influential literary critic, who was sat next to me. After an evening of pleasant conversation, he told me that it shamed him to confess that he has never read a novel from my country. But he promised to find a translation of one of my books and read it while I was away on the tour. He suggested that we have lunch when I return to New York to discuss the work, and I agreed.
“So I embarked on the tour, went to a lot of interesting places, met many fascinating people, and returned to New Work. The day before my flight back, I met with the literary critic W. I was anxious to hear what he had to say about my writing, but I found him strangely evasive and uncomfortable. So just like us today we ended up talking about a lot of other things, mostly about my impressions of America. We parted on good terms with promises to keep in touch. It was only when I was on the plane home that it occurred to me why he had acted so strangely. He read my novel and was so disappointed that he avoided saying anything about it out of politeness. I was then filled with shame as I imagined the great literary critic thinking, ‘He is the most famous writer of his country and this is all he can write?’ I had a great time on that trip, but that last thought, it ruined the whole thing for me. Since then, I have turned down all offers to send me abroad to promote my works.”
H pulled into the hotel’s parking lot and stopped the car before he turned to Y and bowed to him.
“Teacher Y!” H exclaimed. “I have always appreciated your writing as well as your character, but now, at this moment, I admire you more than ever before.”
“Your story. How painful it must have been for you to tell it. In fact, I can’t think of a more terrible story a writer could tell from his literary life. Yet your spirit is so magnanimous and your self-awareness so profound that you had the sheer courage to tell it in the most honest way possible. Ah, Teacher Yi, how I am impressed with you. And I will admire your work all the more from this day on.”
I too was taken by Y’s perspective on his experience in New York, especially his honest acknowledgement of his shame. But then I discovered something that added a new perspective into the story. After H told me about the meeting on J Island, I became curious and did some research. I found out the year of Y’s trip to the U.S. and looked into which of his writings were available in English translation at the time. Although a few of his short stories had been translated, there was only one full-length novel that the literary critic W could have gotten a hold of. I was familiar with the work in the original, a historical narrative that was also an allegory of the country’s recent tumultuous history. It was not Y’s best but I was still surprised because it hardly merited such a negative reaction on W’s part as it was a solid work with a meaningful political message for our time.
When I managed to obtain a copy of the English translation, however, it all became clear to me. I was utterly appalled as I read the book, seeing how Y’s simple but elegant prose was systematically mangled by the translator who seemed to have only a rudimentary grasp of English grammar and style. The overly literal rendering of expository passages made the story incomprehensible, while metaphors and other complex expressions were flattened out in the most prosaic manner possible. In one example that particularly annoyed me, a participant in a seventeenth-century bandit rebellion looks upon the great mass of government soldiers sent down to destroy them and utters the following words of despair: “We are like a single torch before a great storm.” The translation read: “We are facing a Goliath.” Why the hell would the character allude to a figure from the Old Testament, a book that was unknown in the country at the time? And why did the translator think that an English reader would not understand the simple metaphor of a torch before a storm? It was no wonder that the literary critic W could hardly talk about the novel. Unfortunately, Y would never know that his humiliation was the result of the failings of his translator, and that he might have had a much different experience with W if competent renderings of his best works had been available at the time. In fact, given W’s powerful position in the American literary community, it could have become the occasion for Y’s works receiving significant attention in the U.S. And the few translations of Y’s other works that were made since then failed to draw much attention.
That is, in essence, what it is to be a writer of the small country – the frustration at the insignificance and pettiness of the toads in a small pond, but also the envy and shame that comes from being neglected and misunderstood by those who swim in the great and vast river of World Literature.