What is the most important post war Korean novel?

the dwarf The Dwarf  by Cho Se Hui (1942 –  ) was published in 1978 and is the writer’s most famous work. Though written 40 years ago the issues dealt with in the book are still relevant today. Cho criticises how the rise in wealth has brought a decline in morals and humanity

There are 12 stories told from different points of view. The character of the dwarf symbolises the powerlessness of the ordinary working class folk – he is small not only in stature but also in power. The dwarf’s wife is afraid when her son tries to fight the system. She is right to be afraid. It can’t end well.

The book was a best seller and is considered to be an important post war Korean novel. I read the English version translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, published by University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2006. The book has been made into a film



The title story follows the fate of a dwarf and his family when they get an eviction notice – their home is going to be demolished. Their area is being developed and their home which is illegal must be knocked down. But they have no money and nowhere to go. Different members of the family deal with the problem in different ways with a tragic ending.

(I’ve done several posts on this kind of low income mountain housing in Seoul)

So with this theme, it’s obviously NOT going to be a jolly read and as I have mentioned before about other Korean literature – the tone remains gloomy throughout. Don’t expect any comic relief. There isn’t any. It is a dark, unstable vibe in an atmosphere where the threat of violence is never far away. The slum dwellers fight the men who come to demolish their homes. The laborours come to blows with their bosses. The poor have knives. It’s not safe for the rich either, who are involved in dodgy deals- a wealthy lawyer keeps a gun.


It’s hard to imagine what the city was like back in the 70s when there were few cars on the streets, the pavements were lined with pay phones, and having a fridge or TV was something to comment on. Much of Seoul was made up of shanty towns. See this article from the Korea Times.


picture: Korea Times, Cheonggyecheon stream, Seoul 1970s. 

President Park Chung Hee’s ambitious economic development plan to change Korea into an industrialised country was in full swing and Seoul was developing fast. The south of the Han River (Yeouido and later Gangnam) was developed and the first high rise apartments were built there for an emerging middle class.

But the Park administration was a military government suppressing free speech and human rights. Conglomerates were able to treat workers as they chose, all in the name of economic growth. And whilst the company owners grew wealthier the poor labourers worked under conditions reminiscent of workers in the cotton factories in northern England in the 19th century.

There are details of this later on in the book, when the dwarf’s family moves to the fictitious port city of ‘Ungang’ near Seoul (probably Incheon). It has factories built by the chaebol ‘Ungang group’. The story ‘City of Machines’ shows how the workers are not only treated like machines, but worry constantly about their health – the direction of the wind which can blow toxic air across the city


The stories jump around from different points of view – the struggles of the dwarf’s son with labour unions, the rich grandchildren of the conglomerate boss who live in luxury and refuse to see the suffering going on, the men profiting from selling real estate. Some stories are written in the third person and others in first person and it can take some time to work out who is speaking or who the story is about.

The class of the characters are clearly evident by where they live. The dwarf’s family lives in slum illegal mountain housing by a brick factory and sewer ditch. The middle class live in the new high rise apartments, and the wealthy chaebol families live in houses in the gated area of Mount Bugak in Seoul.

The class divide is pronounced. In The Spinyfish Entering My Net the grandson of the chaebol group shows how he has no sympathy for the workers and sees them as others, disgusted by how dirty and smelly they are and by their worn skin and haggard physical appearance (due to hard labour) which make them different to him.


The writer made the novel easy for anyone to understand by writing in a simple style and short sentences. The social criticism is clear but in some parts it gets a bit repetitive as he hammers his message home about the plight of the factory labourers. It’s an interesting read from a social and historical perspective. And it’s thought provoking, and the normalisation of violence is shocking. But I wouldn’t call the book ‘enjoyable’. Shin Gyoung Sook writes a semi-autobiographical (and gloomy) account of the the working conditions in the factories from a female perspective in The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness.

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