The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] 'Whale' by Cheon Myeong-kwan makes International Booker Prize longlist

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : March 15, 2023 - 16:30

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English edition (left) and Korean edition of English edition (left) and Korean edition of "Whale" by Cheon Myeong-kwan (Europa Editions, Munhak Dongne)

South Korean novelist Cheon Myeong-kwan’s “Whale” has been longlisted for the 2023 International Booker Prize, one of the three most prestigious literary awards in the world.

"Whale," a story of an ambitious woman making something of herself in the world, was among the 13 preliminary nominations that were announced by the organizer on Tuesday.

“Right now, I am just nonchalant because it has been so long, almost 20 years, since I wrote the book, that I have nearly forgotten about it,” Cheon, 59, told The Korea Herald on Wednesday.

“Suddenly I hear the news that it has been nominated. I think I am lucky that the book is not forgotten and mentioned like this. I am thankful,” he said.

"Whale" was translated by award-winning Chi-Young Kim and released by Europa Editions on Jan. 19. The International Booker Prize was established in 2005 to honor an author and a translator for a single work of international fiction translated into English, selected from entries published in the UK or Ireland.

The organizer introduced “Whale” as a fiction that "brims with surprises and wicked humor," written by "one of the most original voices in South Korea.”

Screencapture from the homepage of the Booker Prizes -- Cheon Myeong-kwan's Screencapture from the homepage of the Booker Prizes -- Cheon Myeong-kwan's "Whale" (The Booker Prizes)

The story revolves around Geum-bok, an ambitious woman who goes from being a village girl to a small-town entrepreneur, alongside her mute daughter Chun-hui.

Judges said the novel is “an adventure-satire of epic proportions, which sheds new light on the changes Korea experienced in its rapid transition from pre-modern to post-modern society.”

After working as a screenwriter, Cheon made his literary debut with “Frank and I,” a short story. His first full-length novel "Whale," published in 2004, won the 10th Munhak Dongne New Writer Award.

The judges at the time praised the book for its “compelling story” and “skillful and tightly refined structure,” according to Publisher Munhak Dongne.

Cheon's other novels include “Boomerang Family” (2010), which was adapted into a film starring Park Hae-il, Youn Yuh-jung and Gong Hyo-jin (2013), “My Uncle Bruce Lee” (2012), “Turkey and the Running Laborer” (2014) and “This is a Man's World” (2016).

“In a way, at that time, I was in a deadlock. I couldn’t do films anymore so I started writing. The novel did save me during a gloomy period of my life. It helped me to continue writing novels and it meant a lot to me.”

Cheon made a directorial debut in 2022 with the noir film “Hot Blooded” starring Jung Woo. He said he is currently working on some ideas for his next film.

Cheon Myeong-kwan (left) and Chi-Young Kim (The Booker Prizes) Cheon Myeong-kwan (left) and Chi-Young Kim (The Booker Prizes)

“It’s a true honor to be listed alongside such incredible writers and translators,” Kim said in an email to The Korea Herald on Tuesday.

Kim, who is based in Los Angeles, has translated over a dozen books including Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom,” which won her the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011.

“I love this book for its sprawling narrative, its unforgettable characters and its wry humor. … I thoroughly enjoyed being submerged in that world,” Kim said in an email interview with The Korea Herald.

“'Whale' is a shining example of the power of literature to shorten the distance between far-flung cultures,” said Europa Editions.

“There was something in the story that won us over almost immediately: the book’s sensitivity, its intriguing plot and the mythical atmosphere. … This is a novel that asks important questions about Korean society, with a strong sense of reality and social and political criticism but with literary value as well,” the publisher said.

Cheon is the fifth Korean to be nominated for the prize. Bora Chung’s “Cursed Bunny” and Park Sang-young’s “Love in the Big City” -- both translated by Anton Hur -- were shortlisted and longlisted, respectively, in 2022; Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” won the prize in 2016, with “The White Book” having been shortlisted in 2018; and Hwang Sok-yong’s “At Dusk” was longlisted in 2019.

The 13 books on the 2023 Booker Prize longlist (The Booker Prizes) The 13 books on the 2023 Booker Prize longlist (The Booker Prizes)

This year’s longlist includes: Zou Jingzhi’s “Ninth Building,” Amanda Svensson’s “A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding,” Guadalupe Nettel’s “Still Born,” Perumal Murugan’s “Pyre,” Clemens Meyer’s “While We Were Dreaming,” Laurent Mauvignier’s “The Birthday Party,” Andrey Kurkov’s “Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv,” Vigdis Hjorth’s “Is Mother Dead,” GauZ's “Standing Heavy,” Georgi Gospodinov’s “Time Shelter,” Maryse Conde’s “The Gospel According to the New World” and Eva Baltasar’s “Boulder.”

The longlist includes work from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America that have been translated from 11 languages. Three of the writers' works appear in English for the first time, the judges said.

The shortlist of six books will be announced on April 18, with the winning title to be announced on May 23.