British travel writer Simon Winchester decides to visit Korea in the spring of 1987, just before the Seoul summer Olympics brought the infant democracy and rapidly growing economic powerhouse of Korea to the attention of the world. He follows the path (on foot)traversed by some unfortunate, shipwrecked and then imprisoned Dutch men in the seventeenth century from their wreck site on Jeju island, up along the western coast of the country and on to the Joseon capitol in Seoul. Captain Hendrik Hamel wrote of the sailors' struggles and travels, bringing the hermit kingdom to the attention of the Western world for the first time.
Winchester is an evocative writer. He possesses the talent of capturing characters and giving them an easy voice so that you feel as if you are traveling along with him. His research is also impressive, but effortlessly woven into the narrative. I was especially impressed with his passages on the Gwangju Massacre, as I had heard about the incident, but obviously it is much more distant in memory in 2010 than it would have been 23 years earlier.
This book shook me out of the blase attitude I had begun to effect regarding the country that I now call home. Although my life in Korea has become more "normal," he has revived my interest in travel around the countryside and given me some new places I want to visit. The book was a bit of a time capsule, considering that in 1987, South Korea still had a de facto military dictatorship and barbed wire fences along its coastline to prevent a Communist invasion. However, some things about Korean culture remain stubbornly and steadfastly the same.
The one thing I did not enjoy all that much were his (numerous) encounters with prostitutes. Although there is no denying the sex industry's ubiquitous presence in modern day Korea.
Winchester's Korea is one of drama, of melancholy, of change. It is an interesting, sentimental, and fairly balanced little portrait of one of my favorite cultures.