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Korean novel gets world’s attention

(Author Shin Kyung-sook at a press conference in New York on Tuesday. Yonhap News)
(Author Shin Kyung-sook at a press conference in New York on Tuesday. Yonhap News)
(The cover of Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom,” published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. Yonhap News)
(The cover of Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom,” published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. Yonhap News)

Korean novel “Please Look After Mom,” written by Shin Kyung-sook and translated into English by Kim Chi-young, is making an impact internationally, entering the top 40 bestselling books on Amazon.com.

The book was brought out in the U.S. market for the first time on April 5 by big name publishing house Alfred A. Knopf, and it ranked 34 on the list of Amazon.com’s 100 bestselling books as of 2:30 p.m. on Friday.

At Barnes & Nobles, the largest bookseller in the U.S., Shin’s novel made it into the top 80 for bestselling books and top 20 for novels.

The novel’s international popularity is unprecedented for a Korean work even though many Korean books have been translated into many different foreign languages. Shin’s novel is to be published in 22 countries worldwide.

“Please Look After Mom” tells the story of a mother who goes missing in a busy subway station in Seoul while traveling with her husband from their home town to the city to celebrate their birthdays with their grown-up children.

The story is told from shifting points of view of the family members ― the eldest daughter, the eldest son, the husband ― who are searching for “mom,” physically and psychologically. They hand out flyers with her photo, contact the police, visit hospitals and revisit the subway station where she was last seen.

Another chapter is told from the view of the mom, Park So-nyo, who says in the last line of the chapter that she needed her own mother throughout her life.

The mystery of mom’s whereabouts is not answered in the book, but the husband asks the elder daughter to “please look after mom” on the phone and the daughter asks the Pieta, the sculpture by Michelangelo, to “please look after mom” during her trip to Rome.

Joseph Lee, president of KL Management, which handles the copyright sales of the novel, said Shin’s book was able to meet three requirements for international success ― the writer’s unique personality and prose with a universal theme “mom”; the editor and the translator’s meticulous work; and publishing house Alfred A. Knopf’s prestigious label and its accumulated know-how in PR and marketing.

“Mom is universal material for a novel because everyone has a mom. And every one loses mom some how. That feeling of loss resonates with people not only in the U.S. but in other countries,” Lee told The Korea Herald.

“The translator shifted sentences in such a flowing manner so that the book didn’t sound like a translated version,” he said.

Lee said another Shin novel, “I’ll be right there,” will be published in the U.K. and Poland on the back of the popularity of “Please Look After Mom.”

Kim Joo-youn, president of the state-run Korea Literature Translation Institute, which helps get Korean literature translated into foreign languages, said Shin’s success overseas is the outcome of accumulated translation works by the institute.

“As we’re a government agency, we help agencies get the right translation done. We had sent a sample translation of Shin’s novel to the agency KL Management. Shin’s success is just a start of many Korean novels’ future success,” Kim said.

“Shin has been participating in the institute’s overseas events for more than 10 years and that also helped her build networks with the overseas publishing industry well,” he said.

Knopf’s involvement is big as well. Founded in 1915, Knopf has published 17 Nobel Prize and 47 Pulitzer Prize winning authors so far. Its list of authors includes John Updike, Dan Brown, Michael Crichton and Haruki Murakami.

Shin’s book received a favorable review from the New York Times.

“Shin’s prose is intimate and hauntingly spare in this translation by Chi-Young Kim, moves from first to second and third person, and powerfully conveys grief’s bewildering immediacy,” the article said.

Not all the attention has been positive.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, called the book a “manipulative sob sister melodrama,” “kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction” and said it conveys “the anti-city, anti-modernist, anti-feminist messages.”

By Kim Yoon-mi (yoonmi@heraldcorp.com)


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