First it was BTS, the band who rode the wave of K-Pop and washed up on Western shores playing sell-out gigs, topping charts, and adorning the cover of Time. Then came Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s blockbuster that overcame the Academy’s historic anglophonic-philia to become the first film not in the English language to bag Best Picture. So perhaps it is not a huge surprise that the lowest-hanging part of a peninsula perched between the giant might of China and the nuclear-armed thuggery of North Korea is also starting its inexorable colonisation of the literary canon.
Hang Kan’s unsettling The Vegetarian won the inaugural Booker International Prize for a single work of fiction in 2016 and dropped a pin on the map of Korean fiction. Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom (the first Korean winner of the now, sadly, defunct Asian Booker Prize) sold two million copies and cemented Korea’s reputation as an emerging literary leviathan. But it is Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny, a collection of short stories shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize that will cement the country’s considerable cultural reputation.
The nine stories, swinging from sci-fi to horror, from the hilarious to the horribly strange, form a vast interior universe ruled by the uncanny. In the first story in the collection, ‘The Head’, a doppelganger emerges out of the bowl of a toilet, composed of everything that had been flushed away. In ‘Cursed Bunny’, the title story, the narrator recalls how her the grandfather aggressively avenged the ruination of his friend by a competitor. In ‘Home Sweet Home’, a family moves to the suburbs to buy a bigger place and live a better life, only to find suburbia empty of all promise, all social expectations defunct. The question, what does it mean to live in contemporary South Korea? lingers.
South Korea, a darling of development that shot from poverty-stricken obscurity to boasting an economy that now outstrips that of Russia – and all without a single barrel of oil or can of gas – has seen seismic societal shifts in the past fifty years. Korean fiction is where the national character is being re-written, and Bora Chung leads its charge.
Reviewed by a library member