The LARB Korea Blog is currently featuring selections from The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation, Charles Montgomery’s book-in-progress that attempts to provide a concise history, and understanding, of Korean literature as represented in translation. You can find links to previous selections at the end of the post.
As Japanese militarism increased in the 1930s, ideological pressure was applied across the Korean cultural spectrum in an attempt to to fold Korea into the Japanese nationalist cause. This is the period author Janet Poole refers to as “when the future disappears” in her book of the same name, a time when the Japanese tried to eliminate not just the Korean language but Korean names, and any “Korean” future seemed unlikely. In 1940 Korean newspapers were shut down, and Korean-language journals the next year, by which point it became nearly impossible to get published in the Korean language. As the search for a common Korean ideology, which had been the focus of the country’s enlightenment and first three decades of the colonial era, waned, literature began to fracture and explore new approaches and tactics.
“Modernism” continued to be important to Korean authors. “A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist” by Pak Tae-won is self-consciously modern, drawn to some extent directly from Pak’s reading of Ulysses during his time in Japan. As the title suggests, it presents one day of Kubo’s life, recorded in the order of events and told in a present tense stream-of-consciousness interspersed with a stream of consciousness forays into memory. Pak, also an often perspicacious essayist, stays away from the overtly political and adopts a “fly on the lapel” narrative approach as the narrator attempts to find his position, somewhat blunted by an apparent case of writer’s block.
The story lasts part of day and late into the night. Kubo looks for “joy” and companionship but sometimes shies away from it when it comes, and it doesn’t necessarily calm his fevered mind even when he accepts it. This takes us on a tour of Seoul, past Gwangwhamun Palace, bars, teahouses, a train station, even a row of prostitutes. As an added bonus, the original story was illustrated by Yi Sang, whose black and white drawings capture the vignettes Kubo tells. Kubo’s day ends on a little note of random happiness: surrounded by bar girls, he comes to a kind of semi-epiphany in which he decides he will rededicate himself to writing and the happiness of others.
As for Yi Sang himself, his emblematic work “Wings” is so important to Korean literature that it deserves a close look. In it, he skirts the inarguably political by cloaking his work in a deliberately obscure style. “Wings” can be read an allegorical complaint against colonial oppression, an exploration of the shattering effects of artificial modernity, an existential/Dadaist/surrealist/suicidal withdrawal from the insanity of contemporary life, or, more prosaically, as the schizophrenic decline of a man who has lost his relationship with his wife and the world. Yi uses alienation, disassociation, even the admission of schizophrenia to separate his narrator from the world in which he lives.
The story begins in random bursts, with short paragraphs and almost nonsensical epigraphs slowly coalescing into the narrative of a profoundly alienated man and “wife.” The narrator so convincingly describes his own alienated state that his continual ignorance and avoidance, interlarded with the brutal comeuppances that bring him face to face with it, seem perfectly logical. Near the outset, the narrator notes, “The only practical use a mirror has is to show your face,” yet he staggers, barely comprehending himself, through the perplexities of modern life, and the reader staggers along with him. Eventually he regards the hordes from the rooftop of the Mitsukoshi Department Store (today the Shinsegae Department Store on the edge of Myeongdong), itself an important symbol of the Japanese introduction of consumer culture in Korea, and describes the trap of the modern city: “I looked at the grimy street. Weary lives floundered there, oscillating like the fins of the goldfish; lives that couldn’t get free, tangled around an invisible sticky cord.”
Yi there ends the story on an ambiguous note, with the reader given the opportunity to decide what the narrator is ultimately calling for, and whether he will fly or fall. He deals with similar themes in the companion stories of the volume: the first, “Encounters and Departures,” tells of doomed love, focusing on physical passion and illness and a female protagonist most likely based on Yi’s real muse and “femme fatale.” Similarly, in “Deathly Child,” he trains his microscope on a narrator incapable of navigating day-to-day relationships, reporting them as absurdist travelogues between mutually incomprehensible natives of the same language, land, and city, even of the same relationships. The story comes in titled fragments and, as the translation reveals, may be among the first Korean short stories to include English loanwords.
In “Meetings and Farewells,” from which the collection takes its name, Yi examines the same issues, even going so far as to explicitly identify himself as the narrator who describes meeting, openly living with, marrying, and in many cases supporting, his kisaeng (a kind of geisha-like entertainer) of a wife. Yi, who died at the romantically young age of 27 (as calculated in Korean years) and whose remaining photos suggest a rugged handsomeness, is an author begging for a biography in English. Yi Sang was what he was called in Japan, his given Korean name having been Yi Haegyŏng (Yi is his family name, and Sang is what Japanese used in place of “Mr.”), and he carried his Japanese name into literature for use as a pen name.
That Yi is now considered a Korean writer at all is interesting enough, given the amount of literary work (24 out of his 56 poems, for example) he composed in Japanese. The short biography in the Asia Publisher’s edition of “Wings” darkly hints at the existece of his aforementioned femme fatale, apparently a kisaeng from Pyongyang, while other sources indicate that he might also have had an opium habit, an unfortunate tendency toward financial insolvency, and a fatal case of consumption. As is traditional for a certain kind of Korean writer of the era, he ultimately ran afoul of the Japanese authorities, who certainly hastened his death.
The closer the war drew closer, the harder Japan clamped down on all aspects of Korean culture. In 1935, the Japanese forced the Korean Artists Proletarian Federation out of existence, but by that time censors had already stamped out any published reference to socialism or any other political issues that might reflect poorly upon Japan. Korean authors were forced to either write along Japanese political lines or find non-political issues about which to write. Some authors chose to avoid the impact of colonialism by writing outside of its purview entirely.
In a brief explanatory note, Yi Hyo-seok’s “In the Mountains” outlines colonial influence on the author’s work by arguing that the Japanese forced the naturalist tone of the work. Yi had originally written political work, back before the Japanese suppressed proletarian literature in Korea and forced authors toward less controversial subjects. Ando so this story follows a man forced out of the city to discover bliss in the countryside. Yi operated along similar lines in “When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom,” the story of two traveling salesmen who turn out to be related. Tales such as these focused on the eternal verities of village and countryside life, completely leaving out most political content.
Kim Yu-Jeong’s “The Camellias,” one of the few translated works of this era that manages to be funny as well as romantic, tells a “first-love” story in which a rather bumpkin-ish boy interacts with Jeomsun, a girl with a crush on him. The tone is rough and humorous as Jeomsun is only capable of showing her interest through aggression. Complicating this young love is the fact that Jeomsun is the narrator’s social superior, which causes him to see Jeomsun’s solicitude mixed with aggression as a form of class warfare. Kim plays this for broad comedy as the unnamed narrator’s denseness nearly justifies the lengths that Jeomsun feels she has to go to in order to demonstrate her love for him. The story ends semi-happily, with the uncomfortable narrator symbolically crawling toward a greater destiny: “I had no choice but to crawl away on hands and knees, up along the rocks towards the mountain peak.”
In Kim’s stories, usually set in the mountains of his hometown outside Chuncheon, he does not see his subjects ideologically, either as potential enlightened citizens or recipients of class consciousness, instead describing them as they exist in their social positions. Certain other authors, of course, managed to appear rustic while actually making political points, and even “The Camellias,” after all, derives a fair amount of its humor from the class structure of Korea and the slapstick abuse it allows even a little girl to indulge in.
For female authors, the colonial period was bleak. While the focus on modernism and a kind of sexual equality did open some intellectual doors for women, it also failed to provide reliable outlets for those who became ideologically or intellectually aware. Sometimes, especially to the modern eye, the stylistic requirements of didactic literature render their works difficult to read (which, of course, was also true of fiction by male authors). Perhaps the clearest stylistic example and explanation of that problem can be found in Na Hye-seok’s “Kyonghui,” whose title character is straight out of modern North Korean literature.
Always brave, noble, and ecstatically happy at the thought of additional work, Kyonghui turns the education of the “New Women” into a training ground for developing ever more efficient housekeeping tactics. The other characters are similarly simple, cutouts who only serve to further the didactics of the story. Kyonghui conducts completely politically correct lectures in her own head; those who disagree with her are gossips and whoremongers, although the mysterious power of Kyonghui’s mere presence at least temporarily converts their reactionary thinking whenever she is near. Though well written, including at least one clever narrative shift, the story can’t overcome its own hectoring tone. While it now reads as a painfully prescriptive, it did explore the ideas, new to Korea, that women could have education and thoughts of their own, proposing that, despite the somewhat reactionary conclusions to which Kyonghui herself ultimately came, a woman could have a mind of her own.
Kim Weon-ju’s much more ideologically varied “Awakening” has a clever double-epistolary structure, beginning with an apparently happily married woman (although when her husband leaves for Japan, he does so with no more intimate gesture than a handshake) who goes through a process of discovery that leads her from a life entirely dependent on him to one entirely separated from him, and even contemptuous of him. In fact, the husband himself creates this contempt, and at least when the narrator concludes with a bit of semi-moralizing about what she has learned, it is the knowledge earned through the experiences of the story, not the lecturing of Kyonghui.
Kim Myeong-sun was a bit of a wonder child, winning her first literary award shortly after her high-school graduation for the story “A Girl of Mystery.” Unfortunately, her history as the child of a wealthy merchant and a kisaeng haunted her career: though a revolutionary writer, she could not escape the moral strictures of her time, which rarely ran parallel to literary aspirations of modernity. Becoming increasingly successful as a writer in her twenties, when a collection of her works was published, she was essentially spent by 1925, and her life from then on was an only occasionally interrupted downward spiral. In 1939 she moved to Tokyo, where she lived destitute and died in an asylum. Unmarried, without “practical” skills, and supposedly reduced to street peddling in her final years, she simply hadn’t fit into either the culture that was dying or the new one coming into existence.
Kim had attempted to revive her waning career with poetry, some of it meant for children and some of it shockingly confessional, but this did little to affect her ostracism, and she wrote her last poem in 1939, the year of her death. Her career and the others of these first Korean female novelists are a narrative history of the risks that women took in deciding to become writers during the colonial era. The biographical information included in Questioning Minds, a collection of Korean female authors across the twentieth century, reveals the unbelievably unfortunate endgames for the three authors just mentioned, all of which must have made it a very daunting for prospective female authors who might follow. All three were initially successful before, their destruction, for various reasons, by society itself.
Na Hye Sok in particular became a symbol of the risks women took by writing. Her fate became the basis of the oft-heard question, “Do you want to become another Na Hye Sok?” rhetorically asked to deter daughters or younger sisters from lives of writing. Living the literary beliefs of the time, she married for love, but the union collapsed under the strain of separation and accusations of adultery. The resulting divorce disgraced her, and although she continued to paint and write her, fortunes continued to decline and she died in a hospital for vagrants. To this day, the site of her grave is unknown. Kim Weon-ju, at least, apparently retreated from society on something like her own terms. After writing a scandalous article called “My View of Sexual Purity,” in which she argued that spiritual purity outweighed its physical counterpart, she slowly retreated into Buddhism, ultimately dying in a Buddhist temple.
This period was important for Buddhism, Shamanism, and other indigenous religions, particularly as they began to interact with Christianity, which had found its way into Korea prior to Japanese colonialism. Kim Tong-ni is perhaps the most famous author to write about religious battle, publishing the short story “The Shaman Painting” in 1936, then taking the ideas from that work and extending them into a full-length novel, Ulhwa the Shaman, in 1978. Both of these works focus on the battle between Christianity and Shamanism, including elements of Confucianism and Buddhism in the society that Christianity invades.
“The Shaman Painting” is a contentious tale. When a Shaman who lives with her deaf-mute daughter is reunited with her son, now a Catholic, the two fight for religious supremacy. In the end, attempting to wrestle a Bible away from her son, the Shaman stabs him and he eventually dies. In her final performance, the Shaman submerges herself in a lake, essentially predicting the present situation with her ways increasingly submerged (though undeniably still, present with the number of Shaman in Korea currently estimated between 40,000 and 250,000) and Christianity is the ascendant. It is worth noting that in Ulhwa the Shaman, Kim still chose to still have the Christian son die, but ended with the Shaman still alive — and a paper lantern hung from the eaves of her house as a symbol of the wisdom of Buddhism.
The peripatetic Yi Kwangsu converted to Buddhism in the 1930s (after having converted to Christianity in 1908), and this altered his tone, as expressed in several stories in Kashil and Best Essays by Yi Kwang-su. Yi struggles with desire and meaning in all the book’s stories. “The Narrative of Selling the House” explicitly notes that both Buddha and Jesus have guided the narrator, that the root of all suffering is desire — a very Buddhist idea indeed — and that change must be accepted. Yi also ponders the role of fate: “The cruel death of my eight-year-old son drove me to think about humanity, life, and death. What is humankind? Why have we been born? What is death, and what happens after death? So I believe that my deceased son, Ponggun, came and went in order to lead me into Buddhism.”
Some sentences might be taken as indications of where Yi stood on his way away from Korean nationalism: “I have realized how superficial the nationalistic movement was and how powerless the moralistic rebuilding of character was… Although my recognition that the way to revive the Korean people was not in political movement but in moral rehabilitation of character.” The narrator’s response to the privation of “The Crow Caws” is, more simply, “Please bear it a little longer,” accompanied by the recognition that without faith, Catholic or Buddhist, it would be impossible to endure. Yi also touches on the weight and inevitability of fate, the universality and sadness of desire, and several fairly transparent character sketches intended to portray the unfairness of life. In the end, the narrator finds solace in Buddhist teachings. It is sad to note that although Yi settled on collaboration during this time, his work was nevertheless censored by the colonial government in 1944. After Korea’s liberation, Yi was imprisoned by the Republic of Korea, eventually to end up dying in North Korean captivity at the age of fifty-nine.
The Colonial period was a tumultuous one. While Japanese colonialism cannot be defended, the fact that Korea had fallen so easily caused Korean intellectuals to re-examine much of what they thought they stood for. At the same time, under Japanese rule, resistance, collaboration, and accommodation all co-existed as Korean writers attempted to confront or deal with the nature of the colonial beast, always from a position of lesser power. Some, like Hwang Sun-won, performed heroically, going underground to avoid conscrption into the Japanese Army and continuing to write in the Korean alphabet hangul during a period when it seemed unlikely that any such texts could ever be published again. Others, like Yi Kwang-su, performed in more ambivalent ways, while still others like Ch’ae Man-Shik collaborated with the Japanese and wrote regretfully and amusingly about it after liberation.
Still, the Korean literature of this era is a vivid portrait and reminder of a time in which the country did not control its own destiny during a time of both rapid development and war. Interestingly, but perhaps not all that surprisingly, a unified hatred of the Japanese coupled with the Japanese control of the means of literary production also a brief return of oral literature. With books censored and mask dramas flat-out banned by the Japanese, Koreans returned to folk songs described as an “underground broadcasting system for the populace,” given to stark portrayals of the colonial reality: “Those who are fluent of speech are summoned to court. Those who can work end up in the public cemetery. Girls who are lusty and fertile get to be whores. And those who have muscles are called to slave labor.”
The collapse of Japan at the close of World War II put an end to all this, and after a brief interregnum, the trauma of colonialism was replaced by the trauma of separation caused by the Korean War. Where did literature go in translation, and why, today, have so few international readers heard of the vast bulk of it, or even a small part of it? Part of the answer to this perplexing question lies in translation. What has historically been chosen for translation? Who has done the translation? Who has published these translations and where? Finally, how have these works been introduced to the non-Korean reader? The next chapter will take on these questions.
Related Korea Blog posts:
Where is Korean Translated Literature?
What Shaped Translated Korean Literature?
Why Does Korean Literature Use an Alphabet?
How Did Korea Get Fiction in the First Place?
Heroes, Fantasies, and Families: What Went Into the First Korean Novels?
Enlightenment Fiction and the Birth of the “Modern” Korean Novel
Literature Under the Japanese Occupation