The Long Path Home: Fiction, Translation, and Anatoly Kim's Rediscovery of Korea

(Commentary delivered at the 1999 Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities)

Peter Rollberg

The George Washington University


Deeply touched by the honor of having been invited to speak at this colloquium, I would first like to commend its organizers for the benevolent spirit of cultural appreciation that has permeated this annual event since its very inception. Far from the troubling notions of ideological divisiveness and methodological separatism in the Western humanities of our time, the Hahn Moo-Sook colloquia harmoniously blend linguistics and history, religion and literature, philosophy and cultural anthropology. And the colloquia's inclusiveness goes even farther--in an outstanding manner, they generously open the academic discourse to an interested public.

Without knowing the Korean language, and knowing shamefully little about Korea's history and culture, I do, nevertheless, feel a personal connection to the plight of this country which has been divided for decades--as was my native Germany, for forty years. Yet my participation in the colloquium can be justified on a professional level, too: For several years, I have been researching the oeuvre of Russian-Korean author Anatoly Kim (b. 1939). I wrote articles on Kim, conducted and published interviews with him, and edited two volumes of his works in German. For one of these volumes, White Mourning (1989), I translated a number of short-stories. Therefore, Yu Young-nan's and Bruce Fulton's thoughtful contributions about the difficulties of adequately translating cultural specifics found an eager listener in me.

At today's morning session, literary creation has been compared to "a voyage in search of a new continent" and an "encounter" (Ch'oe In-ho), but also to the "free reign of imagination" and, more bluntly, "the pleasure of lying" (Pak Wan-sô ). The spatial and epistemological commonalities between these metaphors are obvious, and they can fully be related both to writing and translating (that is, viewing the translator as someone who follows an earlier voyager's path, or as someone who retells pleasurable lies told by somebody else...). Clearly, the words "creation" and "re-creation" that are contained in the colloquium's title point first and foremost to the author and the translator. But we should not forget that a translation turns the reader into a re-creator, too, and does so to a greater extent than in literature written in one's native tongue. In other words, the translator acts as an enabler without whom most readers would not be able to even begin "recreating" in their minds a work of verbal art. It is the translator's noble task to enable the reader to experience aesthetic delights that would otherwise be closed to him.

In related ways, the literary critic and the teacher of literature also are enablers who can help readers in decoding aesthetic systems formerly alien to them; at their best, they are mediators between cultures. I, therefore, passionately disagree with George Steiner's radical concept in his provocative book-length pamphlet, Real Presences (1989) which states that art, including verbal art, must be perceived in unmediated ways, "purely," in order to be adequately relished. Similarly to the function of the literary translator, the "statements of personal intuition" (Steiner) that both scholars and teachers of literature and culture produce can play the same eye-opening role with regard to a work of art that the work of art does with regard to the world...

Due to historical and personal circumstances, writers such as Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov experienced transitions from one culture to another not on a theoretical level but in their own biographies. The technical challenge they were facing--to appropriate a foreign culture on such a high level that it would allow them to create verbal art in the foreign language--is still the aspect most impressive to common readers. Equally challenging, however, was their immersion in a new culture, a dramatic process which they customarily thematized in their fiction. A characteristic effect of such a transition was that it freed these writers from the usual cohesion with a location: a country, a city, a landscape. In Nabokov's case, this loss of local gravity led to a sometimes cynically presented exchangeability of characters, peoples and settings. In Conrad's, it opened the path to a universal embracing of humanity in her entirety.

Anatoly Kim lost this local gravity twice, and both times years before he was born. For him it was a trauma (I called it the "prenatal author's trauma" in one of my articles--as opposed to the actual personal or historical traumas such as Pak Wan-sô 's experience of the Korean war). As the offspring of the Korean minority on the Far Eastern island of Sakhalin--several hundred thousand people whose ancestors had once fled Japanese troops--Kim knew about Korea only from his family members. But in the fall of 1937, Stalin's government decided to deprive this minority of their newly acquired homeland of fifty years. Supposedly because of a possible franternization with Japanese military in the pending war, those hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to leave their homes on Sakhalin overnight; they were handed out coupons for the harvest that they had just gathered--those coupons later turned out to be invalid--and loaded on trains that took them to Kazakhstan, thousands of miles away. Those without college education were dropped off in the middle of the steppe where thousands died in the first rough winter. The more privileged ones--Kim's parents among them--were given permission to settle in Kazakh towns.

Until the age of eight, Anatoly Kim spoke only Korean. Then he learned Russian and unlearned his native language forever1. Studying painting and later literature in Moscow, Kim's short-stories and novellas have as varied geographical backgrounds as his own life. In some narratives, Kim alluded to the Korean community on Sakhalin or in Kazakhstan, but he never told of the horrible events of 1937. And only when he was in his fifties--after the Soviet Union crumbled--could he visit Korea for the first time. This voyage, as well as his subsequent stay there for a number of years as a professor of Russian, proved a veritable revelation. For Anatoly Kim's discovery of the real Korea was that same "voyage in search of a continent," only that it was not an entirely new one. It was the continent of his roots.

"I am deeply convinced that the landscape of a country, its typical climate and the weather conditions in a region are fully reflected in the psychological features of the people who were born in this country," Kim wrote. In his "Letters from South Korea" (1994)2, the author acts as an explorer and a cultural mediator: loosely connecting travelogue, anecdotal observations and philosophical reflections, Kim tells Russian readers about a culture of which he himself had known solely from hearsay, and from fairy-tales and ghost stories told by his grandmother. Years later, in his "Letters," Kim's stated goal is to comprehend the nation's soul of a people to which he belongs ethnically but hardly culturally, and to interpret it through the prism of the Russian culture which had become his haven. Thus, in Korea he is both foreign visitor and native, creator and translator.

His first discovery relates to nature. Which season, Kim asks his students, do they like the most? Their unanimous answer is: spring. Kim generalizes that the psychological essence of Koreans can be compared to blossoms in spring, and he finds the expression of this seasonal preference in various Korean celebrations. During spring, the author muses, the Korean soul is most happily congruent with itself, whereas Russians, in Kim's view, have been shaped by the spirit of winter, a time when they feel most euphoric and congruent with themselves. Kim links the Koreans' fascination with spring to their attraction to beauty and the ability to openly and seriously express their enthusiasm for somebody beautiful. Kim's unexpected and rather poetic approaches, as well as his speculations about popular Korean aesthetics may appear somewhat bewildering, but they make perfect sense when related to major themes in Russian culture, physical beauty and the link between nature and culture being two of them.

In "Letters from South Korea," the chain that leads from the seasons and spring to beauty is then continued with the significance of the ever-present Korean mountains which also "teach beauty," as Kim puts it. He hypothesizes that "the entire subtle aestheticism of the Korean character, in other words, the universal sense of beauty that is inherent in all Koreans, emerged in them from those lessons in grace which their mountains taught them." He finds Koreans less disposed to bartering than other nations, but regrets that the young Republic has nonetheless become part of the "total war of universal commercial exchange in which everybody is forced to participate." Yet the most drastic discovery for the Russian writer is Koreans' attitude toward pain, in particular, toothache (not a trivial matter at all--as a motif, toothache played a central role in Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground," 1864). Having suffered his entire life from episodes of aching teeth, Kim now confesses to having tried to rationalize the inevitability of pain in ways that corresponded with Russian cultural traditions, namely that suffering and pain are preconditions of happiness and must be accepted.

Because of his "Russian" conviction that "toothache is eternal, like the world," Kim undergoes a moment of physical and spiritual awakening when the dentist Dr Ha demonstrates to him for the first time that much-feared procedures can be performed completely without pain. And it is in Dr Ha's tiny clinic that the Russian-Korean author Anatoly Kim arrives at an astonishing conclusion: suffering is unnecessary. As banal as the pretext to this epiphany may sound, the relevance of the writer's conclusion should not be underestimated. In a moment of beautiful clarity and insight, Kim's intercultural voyage--as much a voyage to himself as a voyage home--ends at a point where experience, humanity and humane spirit become one.

I happen to believe that all our efforts: of writers, translators, critics, teachers, readers, are meaningful only insofar as they lead us to that same spirit. Today's colloquium has strengthened this belief in me once again.






1 In 1996, Sim Min Ja defended a dissertation on Kim at the University of Chicago, the only thesis dealing with this writer in the United States of which I know. Sim Min Ja also translated several works by Kim into Korean, for example, the novellas "The Herb Gatherers" and "Nightingale's Echo."

2 Kim, Anatolii. "Pis'ma iz Iuzhnoi Korei," Druzhba narodov, 1/1994, pp. 187-200. All translations are mine - P.R.