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.
According to the estimable translator Brother Anthony of Taizé (also known by the Korean name of An Sonjae), the first works of modern Korean fiction translated into English were translated by In-Sŏb Zŏng and collected in the 1958 book Modern Short Stories From Korea. These stories are partly interesting because of their early departure from the lamentable tendency to pick only serious “message” or “representative” fiction as the subject of translation from the Korean. Though often both serious and representative, they are also largely free of cant, naturalistic in nature, and reveal a streak of fun not present in many later translations.
The book’s introduction tells us that ten of the stories focus on “love and marriage” and the remaining ten are “social stories.” Three of the former are quick character sketches: The Dormitory Inspector and the Love-Letter by Hyŏn Sin-Gŏn, The Bridle by Yŏm Sang-Sŏb (better known as Yom Sang-Seop, author of the gigantic and tedious Three Generations) and Penance by Gim Mal-Bong. All of these provide brief but amusing depictions of characters whose lives have run quite off the rails.
A handful of the other “romance” stories delve into social issues related to love and marriage. The Green Chrysanthemum by An Su-Gil is the story of a girl forced into a marriage long before she is physically or emotionally ready (which might remind readers of the better-known Bunnyeo by Lee Hyo-Seok). The Wedding Night that Might have Been by Bang In-Gŏn, Thirty Years by Zang Dŏg-Zo, and Repentance by Bag Yŏng-Zun tell tangled love stories across time. When the Moon Rises by Gim Song runs along the same lines, although it is damaged by a rather shallow traditional representation of a “virtuous, therefore chaste” woman.
The overtly message-oriented stories of romance are The Soil by Yi Gwang-Su and A Bad Night by Gim Gwang-Zu. The former, an excerpt from the eponymous longer novel, is as much a love story between a man and the Korean land as it is between a man and woman. (To be fair, the title hints at that.) The story is not as fun as the novel itself, which includes suitably melodramatic innocents in danger, mind-stretching coincidences, and villains who do everything but twirl their waxed moustaches, cackle maniacally, and bind women to train tracks while awaiting the inevitable arrival of Dudley Do-Right. A Bad Night examines women who “dated” foreign soldiers after the war, but in a fairly matter-of-fact and non-judgmental way.
The subject matter of the social stories varies from the end of the imperial era to the life of livestock. The Death of Yun Sssi, Mrs. Sin by Bag Zong Hwa, is a brief take on the strong determination of a married woman, her more cowardly husband, and the political death throes of a dying empire. Sonata Appassionata by Gim Dong-In is a modern take on the nature of genius and what latitude it deserves to be given, whose postmodern narrative structure with an omniscient narrator sitting above two “lesser” narrators and an additional epistolary interjection make it interesting on structural grounds alone.
Three stories center on traditional social issues and structures. A Mother and Her Sons by Gim Dŏng-ni recounts the end of life of a woman whose sons could be described as non-filial. The Pack Horse by Gye Yong-Mug explores a different traditional relationship, that of homeowner to servant. The Memorial Service on the Mountain by Choe Zŏng-Hûi, similar to The Green Chrysanthemum, examines the depressing reality that imprisonment was sometimes preferable to arranged marriage. (It also opens with a fairly graphic rape scene, so if you’re easily triggered you probably want to skip it.)
Four of the remaining five stories begin to slide towards the preachy, but Cattle by Zôn Yông-Têg has the lightest touch. Outlining the arc of a family, its cows, and the other cows in the village, Zôn uses these beasts as a symbol of stability, community, and planning. Similarly, the moral tale A Puppet by Czoe Sang-Dông uses ducks to represent collaboration, and ends in a symbolic moment that will remind some readers of Hwang Sun-won’s Cranes. The Former Sports-Master by Ham Dê-Hun is the most grimly obvious story, with a transparently ironic riff on the idea of “a healthy mind in a healthy body” and a plot that grinds toward a dark, inevitable ending.
But most of the stories in the book are good, and only Sonata Appasionata (apart from the excerpt noted above) has been translated elsewhere. There are three female authors in this book, each of then bearing the amusing parenthetical label “woman writer” in the table of contents, almost certainly because the editors were aware that English readers could not identify the gender of Korean names.
Surprisingly, some of the works here feature rational depictions of international influences on Korea as well as almost cosmopolitan attitudes that failed to survive far beyond the Korean war, for reasons that are both obvious (subsequent invasions by a bunch of different foreigners in a variety of different ways) and subtle (the persistence of more traditional strains of Korean xenophobia).
The long-out-of-print Modern Short Stories From Korea can now only be found on Amazon. Its price fluctuates without apparent reason; I purchased my copy for $20.00, but a search just last week revealed a ridiculous asking price of $125.00. It is worth picking up, if not at quite that cost, as it reveals a breadth of approach that once existed in Korean fiction before the war, and would disappear from not long after it — besides being generally quite fun reading. Just monitor the price before buying.
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?