Looking Back at Modern Short Stories from Korea, the Very First Collection of Korean Fiction in English

By Charles Montgomery

Literature has always occupied a position of high cultural importance in Korea. The country’s history is thoroughly represented in its literature, and its literature is often centered on representations of that history. According to Understanding Korean Literature author Kim Hunggyu, “more than 6,000 collections of writings by individual writers from the 13th to the 19th century are extant,” and Korea is number one per capita internationally in poetry publications per person. This massive literary production occurs despite the fact that Korean literary history emerged as an object of formal literary study and concern relatively recently, beginning in earnest in the post-World War II era.

Fiction writing, especially short stories, has long been regarded in Korea as a mark of sophistication. Korean classical fiction was once written only by the yangban class (something like scholarly royalty), and, for most of the 5th-century Joseon Dynasty, entirely in Chinese. In order to be an author, therefore, one had to be highly educated, and possess the leisure time to write. This meant that Korea’s classical period tended to produce abstract, philosophical, and didactic works. The modern era follows the classical’s lead: writers must still undergo a formal vetting process before being awarded the title of “author.”

Korean literature entered the modern era as Japan colonized the country, responding either by turning pastoral, or toward the question of “what should be done?” Modern Korean literature was arguably created by a handful of Koreans such as Yi Kwang-su, who in the 1910s wrote two essays precisely defining what it should be — focused on modernity and modernization of the country — as well as writing the heavy-handed, didactic, cardboard character-populated novels Heartless (Mujong) and The Soil. Throughout the colonial period, from approximately 1910 to 1945, Korean fiction often could be characterized as either escapist or direly political and prescriptionist.

All of which makes Modern Short Stories from Korea, though originally published in 1958, still a breath of fresh air now. The book comprises 20 short stories (one an excerpt of a longer work) translated by In-Sŏb Zŏng, Dean of the Graduate School of Chungang University, the President of the Committee of College and University Counselor for Study Abroad, a one-time lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and a President of the Korean Center of the International PEN Club.

It is probably because of that last title that he translated this work. At the outset of literary translation from Korean into English, Korea’s PEN was, for good or ill, the primary player. In his introduction, Zŏng touches lightly on the much-discussed Korean emotional concept of han (without naming it, instead calling Korean writing full of “gloominess, indefatigability, and humor”) and calls Korean modern literature “the Literature of Resistance against Imperialism and Communism.”

The tales in Modern Short Stories from Korea are interesting partly because they show a side of Korean literature that was seldom translated after 1958. These stories originally appeared largely in collections done by PEN with its preference at that time for “representative” fiction. In this context, “representative” had two meanings: first, that the works chosen were all highly serious or pastoral, which was intended to demonstrate the solemn nature of Korean literature. (This led to multiple translations of stories like Lee Hyo-seok’s The Buckwheat Season, even though the nature of these stories’ content barely survives in English.)

The second problematic meaning of “representative” Korean fiction focuses on themes that are of intense interest within the culture but little interest outside it. As a result, many works seem vetted to show only the side of Korean literature that reflected on then-contemporary political problems. The genre of pundan munhak (division literature) meets both of these representative criteria, and, after 1958, crowded out the kind of entertaining stories with character depth showcased in Modern Short Stories from Korea. The literature of division probably makes up half of the short stories published during the 20th century in English, even though a quick trip to Amazon reveals that it simply does not sell.

Translator An Sonjae (also known as Brother Anthony of Taizé) recounts a remarkable example of this representational gatekeeping. An’s Eerie Tales from Old Korea compiles stories collected by missionaries Homer B. Hulbert and James S. Gale, both of them fond of ghost stories, which at the start of the 20th century were quite popular in English. They spent years fruitlessly chasing down Korean ghost stories, even as Korean scholars insisted that such stories simply did not exist, presumably because they were associated with folk beliefs and therefore not “serious” enough to consider. (These intellectuals were some of the first “gatekeepers” of Korean culture, deciding what was “representative” and “proper” to disseminate.)

Which brings us back to Modern Short Stories from Korea, which, according to An, is the first collection of Korean modern fiction translated into English. Ten of its 20 stories focus on “love and marriage,” and the rest are characterized as “social stories.” Most demonstrate a kind of depth and lack of didacticism that would soon almost vanish from translated Korean fiction. For that reason alone, this book is an interesting one for fans of Korean literature, since the truly character-driven and non-hortatory remain rare in translated Korean literature even today.

Three of the romance stories are character sketches, with Hyŏn Sin-Gŏn’s “The Dormitory Inspector and the Love-Letter,”The Bridle” by Yŏm Sang-Sŏb (far better known in Korea for his epic, and tedious, Three Generations) and “Penance” by Gim Mal-Bong providing short but amusing depictions of characters for whom things have gone quite pear-shaped. Several of the others delve into related social issues: “The Green Chrysanthemum” by An Su-Gil is the tragic tale of a girl forced into a marriage far too young, and it might remind knowledgeable readers of Lee Hyo-Seok’s better-known “Bunnyeo.” “The Wedding Night that Might Have Been” by Bang In-Gŏn, “Thirty Years” by Zang Dŏg-Zo, and “Repentance” by Bag Yŏng-Zun all tell complicated love stories that unspool across time.

Each of these stories also contains a telling representation of a social issue of the post-Joseon and colonial eras, but these issues are subsumed to the need for telling a good story with characters of depth. “When the Moon Rises” by Gim Song is similar, although marred by a rather shallow representation of the virtuous-and-therefore-chaste woman. The most overtly message-oriented stories of romance are “The Soil” by Yi Gwang-Su and “A Bad Night” by Gim Gwang-Zu. The former is an excerpt from the longer novel of the same name, and as much a love story between a man and the Korean land as between a man and a woman.

The excerpt is not nearly as fun as the novel itself, which, though quite hortatory, is also a predecessor to the Korean dramas of today, with their innocents in danger, mind-stretching coincidences, and villains who all but twirl their mustaches and tie damsels to train tracks. “A Bad Night” examines the plight of women who “dated” foreign soldiers after the war. It performs that examination in the context of a complete, satisfying, often grimly amusing story whose characters have clear, understandable motivations.

The social stories run a wide gamut, from the end of the imperial era to the life of lowly stock in captivity. Bag Zong Hwa’s “The Death of Yun Sssi, Mrs. Sin” is a short meditation on the steely determination of a married woman, her somewhat weaker husband, and the political machinations of a dying empire. “Sonata Appassionata” by Gim Dong-In is an entirely modern meditation on the nature of genius, which features a nearly post-modern narrative structure with an omniscient narrator sitting above two “lesser” narrators, as well as an additional epistolary narrative interjection.

Three stories focus on traditional social structures and how they affect the individuals within them. “A Mother and Her Sons” by Gim Dŏng-ni tells the sad story of a woman cursed with sons who do not respect their elders, and how in her declining year she is ushered between them. “The Pack Horse” by Gye Yong-Mug, whose narrator is a horse driver with a stammer and an unfortunately trusting nature, also explores a traditional relationship, that of homeowner to servant. “The Memorial Service on the Mountain” by Choe Zŏng-Hûi, thematically similar to “The Green Chrysanthemum,” features the horrific central proposition that imprisonment is preferable to arranged marriage, and its opening image of a rape will likely stay with readers for an uncomfortably long time.

Four of the other five stories inch toward the didactic tendencies that characterize the bulk of 20th-century translation, but only one crosses the line. Zôn Yông-Têg’s “Cattle,” among the best of these, has the lightest touch. By tracing the arc of a family, its cows, and the other cows of the village, Zôn deftly uses these animals as a symbol of stability, community, and planning. Although the ending is depressing and clearly meant to issue a moral warning, it doesn’t come unearned. Along similar lines,A Puppet” by Czoe Sang-Dông uses ducks to represent the dangers of collaboration and ends with a happy moment reminiscent of the key symbolic moment in Hwang Sun-won’s “Cranes.” “The Former Sports-Master” by Ham Dê-Hun, the most ham-fisted of this group, uses a transparently ironic motif and a plot that grinds obviously to its conclusion. Ham tries to warn against factionalism and moral decay, but his heavy-handedness undermines him.

Yi Mun-Yông’s “The Mind of an Ox” is an often amusing outlier in this collection, and in translated Korean fiction in general. This tale, of a self-aware ox and his traveling life, comments on mans’ inhumanity to animals as well as to man. The ox moves from owner to owner, family to family, interpreting his and their lots in life with a bemused, philosophical nature that is shocked to its very core at a sudden, horrible revelation. This is a nearly singular work, the only other example of its kind of which I am aware being Yi Ki-Kyeong’s “Tale of Rats,” a slightly more political story well worth tracking down.

The collection ends with Yu Zin-O’s overtly and intentionally nostalgic “The Story of Czangnang.” The narrator longs for his own past, but that past itself includes characters who themselves are nostalgic for an even earlier past that can never return. This clever doubly nostalgic structure ends with a vision of the terrifying roar of a black airplane flying into an unknown world “in the time it takes to draw a breath,” an entirely suitable conclusion to a book that has taken pains to consider Korean social history and where it has led the country, leaving open the question of what its future will hold.

In line with Korean literary history prior to the late 20th century, only three female authors appear in this book, helpfully (or condescendingly?) identified as “(woman writer)” in the table of contents. On the other hand, some of the works here feature rational depictions of international influences and almost cosmopolitan attitudes, all of which would shortly be erased by Korea’s civil war and its aftermath.

“Korean writers are expected to be cognizant of the modern tragedy of Korean history,” says noted translator Bruce Fulton. “Until recently, if you wrote out of imagination, with a sense of humor or playfulness, you were considered a lightweight, not to be taken seriously.” This has often made Korean fiction difficult for foreign readers to appreciate. The beauty of Modern Short Stories from Korea is that, while it is aware of modern Korean history, it also manages to be uniformly imaginative and often inflected with humor and playfulness even when addressing the direst topics.

This book is no longer in print, so it can only be found online. Readers interested in purchasing a copy should be aware that its price fluctuates wildly. I purchased my own for $20.00, but a search yesterday revealed an asking price of $250.00, which has unaccountably dropped to $125.00 today. This is one of those books worth owning (pick it up when the price drops).

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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. He currently lives in Oregon, where he appreciates all job offers. He can be found online at ktlit.com.

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