Novels on Korean History?

Dear Korean,

I would really enjoy reading something that encompasses the entire history of Korea in novel form, just as “The Covenant” by Michener does for South Africa. Does such a book exist?


There are two difficulties with finding a novel that encompasses Korean history. First, Korean history is just too long, arguably stretching all the way back to 2333 B.C.E. if you believe in the Dangun myth. There may be epic novels that cover, say, a 50-year period, but the Korean is not aware of any novel that covers the entirety of Korean history. Second, even if there was such a novel, it would be tough to find it translated into English. This is too bad, because much of Korean fiction draws from various periods in Korean history. For example, recently the best selling novel in Korea was Song of the Sword [칼의 노래] by Kim Hoon, which was written from the perspective of the heroic Admiral Yi Sun-Shin who lived in the 16th century. If you prefer to go even farther back, there is Goguryeo [고구려], a very recent novel by Kim Jin-Myeong that covers Korean kings of the 4th century. It is a pity that these novels are not more widely available to the worldwide readership.

Try as he might, the Korean's first thought was Land by Park Kyong-Ni. It covers Korea in the early 20th century, which is probably more relevant to those who are interested in understanding contemporary Korea. It is also one of the few Korean epic novels that were translated into English. But unfortunately, Land is made up of five parts, and only part 1 is translated -- and part 1 alone is more than a thousand pages. Apparently there are plans to translate the remaining parts, but no one knows just exactly when the entire novel will be translated. (The Korean is not holding his breath -- it took Park 25 years to finish the novel.)

Yup. This is just Part 1. There are four more parts not translated yet.
Therefore, the Korean turned to the ultimate authority on this one: Professor Charles Montgomery of Dongguk University, who is the proprietor of the blog, Korean Modern Literature in Translation. How would we trace the history of Korea in translated novels? Below is the response from Prof. Montgomery:
I’d do it in a series of books.

The first book that springs to mind is “Three Generations” by Yeom Sang-seop. It doesn’t cover all of Korean history, but does a good job of a really critical time -- i.e. the 20s and 30s. By invoking the three generations, it actually covers a bit more historical territory. After that I would perhaps read Cho Se-hui’s “The Dwarf” and Yang Kwi-ja’s “A Distant and Beautiful Place” These books would get you adequately through the 80s or so. Then on to Ch’oe Yun’s “There a Petal Silently Falls”, which is at least brief-ish.

To cover Korean War (actually one of my least favorite topics, as the literature is rightfully, but horribly monochromatic) I might also add “Who Ate Up All the Shinga” by Park Wan-Suh. Then “I Have The Right to Destroy Myself" by Kim Young-Ha would get us up into Apgujeong and rampant materialism in contemporary Korea.
Sounds like an excellent reading plan. Readers, do you have any Korean historical novels that you like? (Please don't talk about historical dramas, the Korean begs of you.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at