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September 2003

Writing From North Korea

When we first began our search for literature from North Korea, we assumed we would tap into an underground stream of "dissident" work comparable to the rich "samizdat" literature circulating behind the Iron Curtain not so many years ago. But either writers in North Korea believe in their political system so fervently they must pay homage to it whenever they write -- or they are carefully watched to ensure a propagandistic mission for their work. Still, in the hands of translators Ha-yun Jung and Stephen Epstein, these works by Han Ung-Bin, Kim Byung-hun, and Kim Hong-ik give a fascinating glimpse into a foreign culture and frame of mind -- and at times, as in the excerpted passages from Han's Hopes for Good Fortune, a dip in a refreshing stream of lyricism and natural beauty that might yet persist in mountain places far from politics and power.

from He’s Alive
By Kim Hong-ik
In this 1995 story, Bun-nyo is an elderly superintendent at a reservoir in the countryside. She devotes much of her time and effort to taking care of a flourishing flower garden that she has planted in…
Translated from Korean by Ha-yun Jung
Toba Tek Singh
By Saadat Hasan Manto
Two or three years after Partition, the governments of Pakistan and India decided to exchange lunatics in the same way that they had exchanged civilian prisoners. In other words, Muslim lunatics in Indian…
Translated from Urdu by Richard McGill Murphy
from Hopes for Good Fortune
By Han Ung-bin
The narrator, a manager at a factory in the city, is sent on an urgent business trip to his wife’s hometown. As the hapless narrator sets out on his journey, his wife pressures him to visit his…
Translated from Korean by Ha-yun Jung
Playing Manto
I first encountered Saadat Hasan Manto by playing one of his characters. In 1994, I was doing fieldwork for an ethnographic thesis on social life in the Pakistani city of Lahore, where Manto lived, worked,…
Third Letter to Uncle Sam
By Saadat Hasan Manto
31 Laxmi Mansions Hall Road, Lahore15 March 1954Dear Uncle,Greetings,I write this after a long break. The fact is that I was ill. According to our poetic tradition, the treatment for illness lies in what…
Translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan
from Friends on the Road
By Kim Byung-hun
This story, written in 1960, is narrated by a middle-aged party committee chairman in the countryside who encounters a young woman on the train, on his way back from an important regional meeting. The…
Translated from Korean by Ha-yun Jung
How the Other Half Lives
After spending seven years in the U.S., I recently moved back to Seoul, the capitalist capital in the southern half of my divided country. When I arrived, both sides were preparing for the fiftieth anniversary…
Second Encounter
By Han Ung-bin
This is a story about something that took place over ten years ago, during the 13th World Youth Festival. It is now Juche Year 88 (1999).1 Outside our window slogans on the street, visible everywhere,…
Translated from Korean by Stephen Epstein
Encountering North Korean Fiction: The Origins of the Future
By Stephen Epstein
The new year is dawning. The thought that we are entering the last year of the current century arouses a different feeling within me than usual. My heart is overwhelmed with emotion and my thoughts come…
Agony in the Kitchen
By Juan José Millás
Surveying the men near him to see which ones looked more athletically inclined, he selected the members of a prospective rescue party.
Translated from Spanish by Tobias Hecht
from The Shadowboxer
By Inka Parei
For the last week it’s been quiet in this side wing of what used to be a fashionable Jewish apartment block in Lehniner Strasse. We’re the last two inhabitants, she and I. A wing full of gloomy…
Translated from German
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