The Explorer’s History of Korean Fiction in Translation: War and Separation

By Charles Montgomery

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.

In pundan munhak, the most common subject matter is the suffering of ordinary people. The so-called witness literature encompasses various kinds of misery such as family dispersion, unfulfilled wishes, and poverty. The majority of these works share the feeling that national division and war have been the primary cause of all these agonies. -Novelist Hahn Moo-sook

Pundan munhak (“division literature”) can be difficult for Western readers to understand. The social influences stifling agency in some characters and producing nothing but painful acceptance in others puts up one barrier; the other is the Korean historical knowledge that many Western readers, having never learned it, can’t bring to bear in understanding the literature of this era. All of the books in this chapter, however, stand alone as literary works, independent of any special understanding of Korean history on the reader’s part.

Several themes developed, or continued, in Korean literature after the Korean War, most commonly the division of country and families and the fratricidal struggle between true believers on separate sides of the ideological gulf. Woven in with these themes were others that had been developing since the Enlightenment, including the tension between traditions that dated back to the early years of the Joseon Dynasty. Added to these influences were those of the modern world, both ushered in willingly by some Koreans as well as imposed by external forces, first Japan and then the United States. Emerging capitalism and the late introduction of Christianity were among the powerful new forces that began to emerge at this time, and they would continue to shape Korean literature far beyond the era of pundan munhak. In the North, these forces would also include versions of Communism and/or Socialism.

For the second half of modern Korean literature, the Civil War and splitting of the nation was the key — as well as the overwhelming political, psychological, historical, and economic reality. The idea of pundhan munhak never really goes away in Korean literature, and in fact, literature of one kind of separation or another (that of a kisaeng and a lover, or of a nation nearly split from its language and culture) is a Korean constant. With the country still spit geographically and ideologically, separation literature continues to be written, and it seems unlikely that this is going to change in the near future.

Most of the writers of the fifties were of a new literary generation born in the twenties and thirties. After the brief hope of national unification in the post-colonial period, dashed by the Korean War, works between 1945 and 1950 might be described as the final gasp for many of the themes and topics of the previous generation. In a new environment of political, social and ethical collapse, one that featured incredible amounts of violence both military and political, much of the literature focused on the death, devastation, and pain that the war and its aftermath visited upon average people. In many ways, it was a time of attempting to come to terms with the previous half a century.

Other themes involved the implosion of Korea’s traditional value systems, and authors who addressed these issues were numerous.  Most if not all were participants in the war, including Yeom Sang-seop, Kim Dong-ni, Park Gyeong-ni, Seo Gi-won, Oh Sang-won,  Lee Beom-seon, and early Park Wan-suh, to name those who have been translated into English. Literary critic and professor Kim Chi-su notes several main themes of the fiction of the time: first, ideological struggle, particularly that of the communist ideology against landowners; second, the utter destruction of humanity that the war sometimes created; third, the destruction of family, particularly for the young, and the post-traumatic stress disorder that this caused; fourth, the abandonment of children that the war caused, and how these children did or didn’t overcome it; fifth, the power of love, particularly as expressed by women, as they sacrificed themselves for their families; and sixth, the refugee experience in general.

In the seventies and eighties, literature of the Korean division became more active, with works focusing on the pain of the victims, and particularly on the pain of families torn apart by the division. In the eighties, the literature of division semi-morphed to the idea of unity, sometimes with suspicion of what that unity might mean and sometimes with romanticism about its potential results. In the nineties that continued, with an additional focus on re-examining the reasons for the division. Finally, as the century ended, Korean literature moved to what could be called “postmodern” literature, which began to focus on divisions of entirely different, often psychological natures.

A Stray Bullet by Lee Beom-seon is a long but remarkable story of a family almost literally dying one piece at a time. After their placement in “Liberation Village” (now the fashionable neighborhood known as Haebangchon), a family that has fled from the North unravels one seam at a time. The constant beat in the background is the repeated senile plea of “Let’s go” by the narrators mother — meaning back home, across the 38th parallel. Though both grating and pathetic, and impossible besides, that request sounds, by the end, like a Cassandra-esque plea for sanity and safety. A Stray Bullet is a brutal story, but one told well enough that you read through it before the cumulative effect of that brutality becomes clear. In 1960 the book was made into a movie, one often called, according to Wikipedia, “the best Korean movie ever made.”

Chŏn Kwangyong’s Kapitan Ri is one of those “looks back” at the difficult times of the early twentieth century, but from the new reality of the post-war era, and a remarkably cheery portrayal of collaboration at that. Dr. Yi Inguk (whose name, a subtle joke in Korean, means “man of of perfect virtue to his people”) is a collaborator with a “can-do” attitude extending to everyone except Koreans, exuberantly proud of past his collaborations and coming to accepting his new collaborators, the Americans. Yi reminisces about the fruits of the Japanese period, recounts how he came to terms with the Soviets, and realizes that the American “big-noses” present another such opportunity — despite his discomfort with the fact that his daughter is marrying one.

Some authors struggled to suggest that reconciliation could be found, and Hwang Sun-won’s Cranes was an early example of such an effort. Published in 1953, it was set near the 38th parallel and centered on the reunion of two childhood friends: Tokchae, a former vice-chairman of the Communist Peasant’s League, and his friend/captor Songsam, a South Korean police officer. Tokchae is to be taken away and shot, but at one point as Songsam chaperones him to his fate, he is reminded of their shared childhood experiences: sharing chestnuts, freeing a crane that the duo had bound. In the end, Songsam performs an act of a mercy that suggests, perhaps, that all hope of mercy is not lost.

Other works were not quite as positive. Choi In-hun’s The Square (1960) attempted to explain separation in ideological terms. Yi Myong-jun, the “hero” of the story, is unable to find an ideological home in either version of Korea. Choi characterizes South and North, respectively, as a “chamber” and a “square,” and Yi “finds he can live in neither.” The Square of the North Korea is entirely too public while the Chamber, of the South is too entirely individualistic. Yi attempts to live under both systems, even undertaking love affairs in both countries, only to conclude that he cannot find what he wants under either system.

Yi begins the story as a naive and weak university student dragged (like his poetic predecessor Kim Sakkat and authorial colleague Yi Mun-yol) into ideological warfare. When he begins to see the South as a stifling autocracy, he moves North, but there, sadly, he finds the situation no better. His father is a minor functionary, North Korean yet supremely bourgeois, and Yi cannot find anything he considers truly revolutionary in either the South or the North. He makes a decision to leave both Koreas, which leads to an unexpected ending. The Square was written just after the student revolution of April 19th, 1960 overthrew the staunchly anti-communist, anti-North president Syngman Rhee, which led to a short period of time in which nearly open political discussion was possible. Choi took advantage of this opportunity to write this book, in part as an argument for a “third way.”

Choi’s focus on ideology makes some sections of The Square heavy sledding, given the narrator’s tendency to lecture to himself and the reader, but it provides an excellent outline of the ideological struggles of the era and is considered a classic of Korean literature. A reader should be sure to purchase the Dalkey Archive Publishing version of the book, which contains three priceless prefaces written by Choi at in different periods his life. Choi revised the book several times, each time he also revising the preface, moving from the apparent hope of a “dawn” for Korea to an extremely pessimistic final preface:

Despite turbulence and calamities, Lee Yong-jun’s Korea was full of hopes and dreams for a better society. Although he later realized that dreams could not easily come true, he would never have imagined that Korea would be under virtually the same circumstances forty years later. Aside from surmising the protagonist’s psychology, even I, as the author himself, did not expect Lee’s problems would still continue today.

Western readers might find his A Grey Man a bit easier to read. Although a bit longer, it is told in a less lecturing tone, the narrator seems a much more comprehensible character, and the palpable irony is also highly entertaining. It is worth the price of purchase if only for the remarkably aggressive introduction, which includes this awesomely dismissive passage: “The author succeeds in a uniquely Korean perspective, and the result is more concrete and more educational than the reveries of the superfluous men of European existentialist fiction.” As usual, Choi’s preface alone make this book worth the price of purchase.

During this period, some writers moved away from war and post-war literature, seeing it as nostalgic and no longer relevant to the Korean experience. Many of these authors began to grapple with contemporary political issues, and consequently much fiction moved toward the openly political. At the same time, modernism began to affect Korean fiction. While division literature continued to be popular, and the ideas of division and diaspora are remain present today in Korean fiction, new themes emerged as Korea began to emerge from the rubble of its civil war. In the 1960s, as the next chapter will demonstrate, entirely new kinds of fiction emerged based on economic and political development loosely characterized as the “Miracle on the Han.” But even that did little to staunch the flow of separation literature.

 

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

Literature as Japanese Colonialism Fell

What About War?

 

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.

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