Review of Brian Myers, Han Sorya and North Korean Literature: The Failure of Socialist Realism in the DPRK (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University East Asia Program, 2000)
by John Feffer
Han Sorya, the North Korean novelist, seems an unlikely subject for a book. He is little known outside his own country, and was purged and censored within North Korea itself. The few analysts to have studied his works declare him a writer of little talent. Even by his own estimate, Han Sorya was a “hack writer.” To top it off, Han Sorya couldn’t even follow the few simple rules of socialist realism, the Soviet-inspired philosophy that exerted a strong influence on North Korean literature from its inception.
It is this last of Han Sorya’s many failings that Brian Myers finds noteworthy enough to merit a book-length treatment of the career of what was, briefly, the leading light of North Korean literature. The re-publication of Myers’s doctoral dissertation, by Cornell University’s East Asia Program, coincides with an upsurge of interest in the U.S. in the life and culture of North Korea. Myers’s study is an extremely valuable contribution to our understanding of what remains even today an opaque society.
In many respects, Han Sorya followed a familiar career trajectory for a writer in the communist world. When the political winds on the Korean peninsula shifted after World War II, he attached himself to the rising North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and crafted his fiction accordingly. He tried to capture the spirit of the times – the proletariat constructing a new society, farmers rejoicing in collectivization, heroic Koreans fighting against Japanese and U.S. imperialists. In his most lasting contribution to North Korean culture, Han Sorya wrote the first paeans to Kim Il Sung, which eventually formed the basis of an enduring personality cult. In 1962, because of declining output, bureaucratic rivalries, and several inadvertent indiscretions, Han Sorya was finally purged. Shortly before his death (in 1969 or 1970), he was rehabilitated, halfheartedly it seems, and today he is no longer considered by the North Korean establishment to be a major writer.
On the face of it then, until he was purged, it appears that Han Sorya successfully imported socialist realism to North Korea. Through a close analysis of his fiction, Brian Myers argues the contrary, that Han Sorya diverged substantially from the Soviet literary model. His novels consistently focus on ethnic and racial differences, rather than the class divide. His villains’ defects seem biological rather than economically determined. And his heroes, rather than achieving revolutionary consciousness through communal action, generally end up defeated and their revenge thwarted; or, if triumphant, they remain spontaneous and naive rather than disciplined and committed like the emblematic Soviet hero. According to Myers, these peculiarities of style and content meant that Han’s work was either “edited” by foreign translators or simply not translated into the other languages of the communist world. To prove his points, Myers quotes liberally from Han’s work and even includes his own translation of the novella Jackals as an appendix.
How did Han Sorya manage to rise to the top of the North Korean literary pyramid when his work deviated so much from the standards of socialist realism? Myers focuses on Han’s ability to build a power base within the politico-literary establishment that emerged quickly in the new state. With the help of Kim Il Sung, Han Sorya became a leading writer and a prominent political figure. Therefore, by definition, his writings were considered orthodox. Variations in plot, theme, and language were interpreted generously. Authority established from above meant a great deal more in North Korea than a handful of imported literary guidelines.
Myers’s argument is important and necessary. But it is not sufficient. Certainly patrimonialism – or deference to authority and strict observance of hierarchy – is a key element of Korean culture on both sides of the DMZ. Perhaps if Myers had more closely examined the literature of other “satellite” communist countries, notably in Eastern Europe, he might have identified another reason for Han Sorya’s literary success.
After all, Han Sorya was not the only communist writer to violate the tenets of socialist realism. Socialist realism was a far more flexible doctrine in practice than what Myers describes in theory. It was subject to adaptation to various cultural environments. And it was often trumped by nationalist considerations, as was so clearly the case in North Korea. In Eastern Europe, for instance, communism eventually took on specific national characteristics, and the accepted literature reflected these differences. Even in the Soviet Union, Stalin adapted socialist realism to the needs of the times. During World War II, Stalin relied on old-fashioned nationalism to inspire the Russians to repel the Germans, and Soviet writers were as likely to exhort the population to make sacrifices for Mother Russia as for the Soviet working class. Communist regimes did not eliminate nationalism. Rather, communists exploited nationalist sentiment to bolster their legitimacy.
In North Korea, Han Sorya’s fiction reveals a similar grafting. His racist depictions of Japanese and Americans violated the norms of socialist realism but met the requirements of the North Korean state, which drew its legitimacy from an anti-Japanese insurgency not a working class uprising. The failure of Han’s protagonists to triumph over their opponents, while certainly a literary sin from the orthodox Soviet viewpoint, dovetails with the Korean sense of han or deep-seated resentment. The naive spontaneity of his characters, as Myers rightly points out, draws on earlier traditions in Korean literature and deeper trends in Korean culture.
In other words Han Sorya was successful not simply because he created a machine within the literary establishment. His novels, however artless, represented a new synthesis of general Korean cultural values, the specific political needs of a new state, and a set of dimly understood literary rules from a more powerful ally. It is not a failing of Han Sorya that his novels do not conform to socialist realism. His fiction had to serve several masters.
Myers, unlike Han Sorya, is a graceful writer. His book doesn’t read like a dry dissertation and his arguments are clear and well-presented. Given the paucity of materials in English on North Korean literature, his book opens an important window onto an virtually unknown subject. It can only be hoped that Brian Myers will tackle meatier subjects in the future, perhaps even the introduction to North Korean literature that he laments has yet to be written in English.
Korean Quarterly, Winter 2000