Koreans in Strange Lands: The History- and Culture-Saturated Fiction of Jo Jung-Rae

By Charles Montgomery

One month ago, in this space, I discussed Jo Jung-Rae’s How in Heaven’s Name, a historical novel of a Korean citizen buffeted from army to army, and country to country, by war. (“Jo Jung-Rae” is the author’s preferred Romanization of his own name, but publishers have used others.) This week, following up on Jo as an author, I will discuss his other translated works, two novels and a novella: The Land of the Banished, Playing with Fire, and The Human Jungle.

Roughly speaking, Jo’s works are all historical — that is, they tell tales of things as they exist, or existed — and to the extent that they are “fictional,” they are entirely representative. All of Jo’s topics are, of course, related to Korea, but the works themselves can be split into the domestic and the international. Not surprisingly, Jo is strongest in the stories situated in Korea, and especially in The Land of the Banished and Playing With Fire with their focus on the country’s political experience prior to its civil war.

The Land of the Banished (also Land of Exile in the collection of the same name) is available in different small novellas, one from the Jimoondang Collection of Korean Modern Fiction and the other, more recent, from the Bi-lingual Asia Publishers Collection of Modern Korean Fiction. It tells the story of Mahn-Seok (a character to whom Jo will return to in Playing With Fire), a poor man at the end of his life, in flashbacks that lead up to his current state. Born a landless peasant, he consequently enrolls in the People’s Army when the class wars begin.

Jo begins with a clever feint: we first see Mahn-Seok as supplicant, an old man leaving a young son he can no longer support at an orphanage. Mahn-Seok, however, is a prideful supplicant, who despite his penury leaves money with the orphanage as well as a pair of underpants for his son. Even in this reduced position, we see Mahn-Seok as proud, leaving as a final bequest to his son a crumpled piece of paper with the family name written on it. Led backwardly (and often semi-randomly, which demands alertness to unannounced shifts in era) through his life, we discover a man both deeply flawed and deeply abused.

We see Mahn-Seok’s life as an itinerant laborer, his abuse at the hands of a rich family, and his chance to revenge that abuse when the Communist invasion allows the peasants to turn the tables on their previous “betters.” Mahn-seok sees his actions as righteous – as creating justice, though he is never imbued with any sense of mercy or understanding of consequence. Suffice it to say that consequences are dire and Mahn-seok is revealed to have been a beast. “Compared to a thing like me, you’ve been a courageous man. You’ve been a real man,” admits his friend Hwang when Mahn-seok surreptitiously returns to his hometown.

That these words come from the only other courageous character in the story speaks volumes. By creating this kind of character, one both righteous and evil, Jo asks questions not typically found in translated Korean literature (although Hwang Sok-yong’s The Guest does also work along this ambivalent line). This great story provides a snapshot of the social upheaval before, during, and after the Korean War.

Playing With Fire, another story of the turmoil and travail of post-colonial era, has a plot quite similar to The Land of the Banished. It begins as a mystery, with a “self-made man” named Hwang Bokman receiving a phone call that puts his life into the spinner. He believes he has left his past behind and become a massive success, but one question on the phone puts it all in jeopardy: “Mr. Bae Jomsu, haven’t you lived too long?”

As the story unfolds, it is revealed that Hwang Bokman, née Bae Jomsu, has killed 38 members (of course, a symbolic number) of his hometown’s dominant Shin family: he is like Mahn-Seok, but with a successful second act. Through flashbacks we follow Hwang himself as well as other characters along the threads of his past. Like Mahn-Seok, Hwang was abused; worse, his sister was sexually abused, and by a socially superior family against whom Hwang, when he becomes a powerful communist, takes complete revenge.

Hwang’s son is drawn into the story, traveling back to the family hometown to dig more deeply into these past events. Jo’s clever writing forces the reader to assess who is to be sympathized with, and why, and as the story winds down, Jo somehow manages to make this dog’s breakfast of history into as satisfying and “right” an ending as seems possible. More complex in its writing and plot than The Land of the Banished (though this could equally be a function of translation) it takes its place alongside Kim Won-il’s Evening Glow as a great story about political fratricide that manages to weave in history, social structure, legitimate character motivation on all sides, and relentlessly grim cycles of revenge.

Moving overseas, as Jo did in What in Heaven’s Name, we come to The Human Jungle, a sort of economic procedural. The story takes place in China with an international cast of characters, all of whom see an economic opportunity in the booming but chaotic Chinese economy. The story begins with a traditional Korean character as wel as a favorite of Jo’s: the man in exile from his homeland. Doctor So has bungled a plastic surgery in Korea and has apparently arrived in China one step ahead of complete ruin, and to support his family he must work there. His introduction to China lays out its economic frontier-town nature: when the car he is riding in apparently strikes a bicyclist, it turns out to be nothing more than a shakedown. The event is So’s very own “welcome to the jungle.”

Jo’s real skill in this work is portraying the venal nature of all the characters, although he has a very market-sensitive tendency to portray the Koreans as the best among the lot. Still, Jo seems to embed his criticisms of Korean characters in a kind of mirror: when they comment on China, it seems they are also subtly commenting on Korea. Each reader will likely see this the way they want, with some nuances certainly lost in any translation, though as the book’s plots and characters (alarmingly, some 40 of the latter) hop across China, Jo, ably aided by translators Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, keeps all the characters recognizable and it is rarely difficult to track them.

Jo does, however, have a tendency towards repetition, a known aspect of a certain Korean literary style, and throughout the book there are occasional data-dumps; apparently he knows quite a great deal about China and wants the reader to know it as well. As in How in Heaven’s Name, the writing is plainly descriptive, not elaborate, but the story moves at a good pace, and when I closed the book there were at least two story lines I would have wanted to follow farther.
Unfortunately, the works for which Jo is best known in Korea, The Taebaek Mountain Range, Arirang, and The Han River, will likely never be translated. As thick volumes of intensely Korean historical drama, they would likely be too much for a translator, and definitely too much for the common reader. But for fairly straight-ahead accounts of Korean adventures overseas, or more subtle and variegated tales of internecine warfare, Jo’s already translated works remain excellent choices.

 

Related Korea Blog posts:

A Rare Korean War Story in How in Heaven’s Name

 

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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