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Book review: Modern Korean Literature — An Anthology 1908-65

Modern Korean Literature - and Anthology 1908 - 65Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology 1908-1965
Edited by Chung Chong-wha
Routledge / Kegan Paul International, 1995, 467pp

If you are looking to sample Korean literature in translation, the chances are that you’ll find more short stories than full length novels.

This collection, though not universally enjoyable, is extremely useful in giving an overview of the Korean short story, selected by editor Chung Chong-wha “on the basis of their historical interest and literary worth”. It contains many works that are extremely well-known – for example Hwang Sun-won’s Shower and Yi Hyo-seok’s Buckwheat Season. Chung, who also translated a number of the stories in the collection, has helpfully organised the thirty stories into three distinct sections:

  1. Historical and social view of the Korean experience of man confronting woman
  2. Old Korea and the old Korean way of life
  3. Modern Korea in the process of change

Part 1 — boy meets girl: angst, oppression and division

It’s difficult to know how to approach the stories in this first section. Should one try to rationalise away the strangeness of these tales by remembering that Korea was emerging from an age where parents and matchmakers arranged partnerships, where men and women were segregated, into a much more modern age where men and women were able to interact more freely? Possibly. Should one remember that some of these stories were written during the colonial period and are coded protests against the Japanese occupation? I suppose so. But it doesn’t make the reading any less tiresome.

No amount of rationalising away will make the first story in the collection a pleasure to read. In summary, the plot runs thus: higher class girl fancies lower class boy-next-door who maintains an appropriate and dignified distance. So she tortures his livestock to gain his attention. She pummels one of his chickens till her insides turn to soup, preventing her from laying eggs in the future. She forces his enfeebled cock to fight against her own much stronger one until the boy is forced to give in to her desires. Significantly, as they tumble into the camellias, it is the girl who is on top. Yes, I suppose the girl represents wealthy, modern Japan despoiling a poor defenceless Korea. But nothing you find in a Kim Ki-duk film comes close to this.

If the first tale, in reflecting on the cruelty of Japan’s dominance of Korea, presents a stomach-churning story of a supposed young love, Shower goes to the other extreme in its use of soft-focus melodrama. The story makes use of that rather over-familiar plot device, that of two lovers who cannot live in happiness because one of them dies of a mysterious and invisible disease. In Shower, which was made into a film in the 1970s, a schoolgirl gets a boy interested in her, only to drop dead of a minor chill after getting caught in the rain. Just get a grip.

If such a story seems rather self-indulgent, it is as nothing compared with The Young Zelkova Tree, which is about a girl who is inexplicably in love with her step-brother.

“…something compels me to stare back into his eyes, despite the turmoil inside me as I focus all my available resources in an effort to stem the flood of grief and unmitigated agony”

Oh Lordy. Enough tortured angst already. We’re only on page 2 and the author has done nowhere near enough work in the first page to prepare us for such a ridiculously hyperbolic sentence. Someone will probably tell me that the step-siblings are a metaphor for two halves of a divided Korea who are not permitted to be together (the story came out in 1960). But I really won’t care. I won’t.

Other stories in this section have a step brother and sister drowning themselves in a bog, and a young wife getting raped and seeming to enjoy it (because she roams the streets hoping to repeat the experience). The former, published in 1964, is probably another lament for a divided Korea, though I really can’t be bothered to work out how the metaphor applies, while presumably the latter is the young virginal Korea emerging into the world at the beginning of the 20th Century full of optimism only to be despoiled and ruined by an evil neighbour. Happy reading.

And then, most depressing of all, there are the Yi Sang stories featuring sexless, emasculated men languishing on a sick bed or being generally useless while their wives earn all the money by selling their bodies – again, I suppose these are meant to symbolise the powerlessness and hopelessness of an occupied Korea. (Wings and Meetings and Farewells, both 1936). When the most interesting and enjoyable story in the first part of the book is about a shaman who commits suicide in her final gut as her traditional practice is gradually eroded by the growth of evangelical Christianity, it’s really time to move on to part two.

Part 2 — A return to tradition

Just as one strand of Korean art in the colonial period explored “rural colours”, the short stories in the second part of this collection seek a return to rural innocence or a Korea of bygone days. And after the turmoil and tedium of part one, a section which seeks refuge in an ancient rural harmony or confucian tradition surely seems rather appealing.

Until you read some of the plot summaries in the chart at the bottom of this post.

On the plus side, there seems to be less in the way of obvious political allegory in these tales, which examine human relationships and a way of life which is gradually passing into history. The most enjoyable read is about a rickshaw driver who has a record day’s business as his wife lies dying at home (A Lucky Day), and the second most enjoyable (Buckwheat Season) is a short story listed in KTLIT’s top five Korean novels to avoid. So it’s clear that we’re in urgent need of skim-reading until we get to part three.

Part 3 — Modern Korea’s growing pains

Turning the page to part 3 of the collection, it feels like a heavy cloud has lifted. No longer does it feel as if this is foreign literature from a distant past and an alien culture. The stories speak to you directly. And while some of them have plots which involve death or suicide, you care because for the most part you can relate to the characters in the story, who are wrestling with issues or problems that you can maybe see yourself in. And if the second section seemed to promise a return to a rustic idyll, the first story of the third part actually delivers it.

Echoes (O Yong-su, 1959) gives a message of hope for the future, as a jobless couple seek refuge in the emptied-out valleys in the foothills of Jirisan. Over time, their hard work and the generosity of the land brings them a growing prosperity. This is a thinly veiled message of encouragement to a South Korea struggling to recover from the ravages of Japanese colonialism and the Korean War. And as goodwill ambassador for Sancheong County, I am pleased to see that the wisdom of the couple in settling there is properly rewarded.

That’s not to say that everything in part 3 is a pleasant read. Yi Kwang-su’s Obscurity for example is a rambling, directionless text about a handful of sick prisoners bickering with each other in the infirmary of a prison. As the editor points out, the prisoners presumably represent Korea “in the prison cell of Japanese Occupation”, and if so the darkly oppressive atmosphere of the story is presumably intended – but it is consequently a pretty depressing picture of the behaviour of Koreans under the colonial yoke. And the language of the conversation between the prisoners is so alien, so unlike a native English mode of speaking, that you wonder whether colonial Koreans were a completely different race from today’s native English speakers, or whether the translation is simply too literal.

The two really stand-out works in this third part are by Kim Seung-ok (김승옥). Reading A Journey to Mujin (무진기행), more than any other of the short stories in the collection, felt like reading the scenario for a film. It had the flavour of Song Il-gon (Git / Dance in the Wind) or Lee Yoon-ki’s Love Talk. But in fact Kim Su-Yong got there first in a film called Mist (1967). (Choi In-hun’s Laughter could also be turned into a very effective indie / art house movie). Similarly, Seoul: Winter, 1964, the second of Kim Seung-ok’s works in this third section of the anthology, strikes you as incredibly modern in the context of other stories in the book.


The three stories by Kim Seung-ok on their own justify acquiring this anthology, though only at a sensible price: at the moment it’s out of print and selling on at hugely inflated prices (£65 or more). You could download it to your Kindle for £101. Alternatively, if you’re happy reading on a computer screen, you can get it for free on Google Books.

Overall, and even without the Kim Seung-ok works, this collection is more than the sum of its parts. You might find some of the stories shocking, offensive or, even worse, pointless. But having a representative collection of short stories bound together in one volume is extremely useful.

The collection is probably not to be read from cover to cover in one sitting. That’s a mistake that I made, and probably in the table below I got rather punch-drunk and failed to see the beauty or interest in some of the tales. This is maybe reflected in the ratings of the individual stories below. As usual with my ratings, they are deeply subjective and personal, and reflect the pleasure or mental stimulation I felt when reading the work, or alternatively my boredom or downright irritation. No doubt in years to come I will revisit some of these ratings: maybe, for example, I will return to the Yi Sang works with more patience. But right now it’s the Kim Seung-ok works which stand out.

Annoyingly, given that the stories are selected in part “on the basis of their historical interest” the publication date is not consistently provided. And I know I am a lone voice in wanting this, but it really would be nice to have all author names written in Hangeul the first time you come across them so that you know how to pronounce them, and link them to other spellings of the same name. I’m really fed up with trying to work out which transliteration system is which.

The stories individually rated

Author Title The plot, in a nutshell Rating
Part 1: man confronting woman
Kim Yu-jeong (tr Chung Chong-wha) The Camellias (1936) Higher class girl fancies lower class boy who refuses her, so she tortures his chickens. score-1score-0score-0score-0score-0
Hwang Sun-won (tr Chang Wang-rok) Shower (1953) Higher class girl fancies lower class boy. They go for a walk and get rained on. Girl catches a cold and dies. score-2score-0score-0score-0score-0
Kim Dong-ni (tr Chung Chong-wha) The Marsh (1964) A boy and his step sister fall into a marsh where their mother probably died score-1score-0score-0score-0score-0
Han Mal-suk (tr Kim Dong-sung) The Flood Young newly-wed husband almost drowns trying to salvage a pigsty from a swollen river score-1score-0score-0score-0score-0
Kang Shin-jae (tr Shin Hyun-song) The Young Zelkova Tree (1960) A girl falls in love with her stepbrother score-0score-0score-0score-0score-0
Han Mu-suk (tr Chung Chong-wha) The Rock An unhappy and unhealthy widower fails to form a relationship with a young woman despite mutual attraction score-1score-0score-0score-0score-0
Yi Sang (tr Chung Chong-wha) Meetings and Farewells (1936) A sickly man’s on / off marriage to a kisaeng who keeps leaving him score-2score-0score-0score-0score-0
Kim Dong-ni (tr Chung Chong-wha) Picture of a Shaman Sorceress (1936) A shaman commits suicide during her final gut as her practice is crowded out by the arrival of missionaries. score-2score-2score-1score-0score-0
Yi Sang (tr Moon Hi-kyung) The Wings (1936) A sexless, useless man married to a prostitute is not bothered about how she earns her money. score-2score-0score-0score-0score-0
Kim Seung-ok (tr Eugene Chung) The Night Outing Young married woman gets raped. Seems to enjoy it and prowls the streets late at night hoping to repeat the experience score-2score-2score-0score-0score-0
Part 2: the old Korean way of life
Kim Dong-in (tr WE Skillend) Red Hills: a doctor’s diary Village bully finally does something decent but dies in the process. score-2score-0score-0score-0score-0
Hwang Sun-won (tr WE Skillend) Snow (1944) Harmless countryfolk chat about not very much. score-1score-0score-0score-0score-0
Hwang Sun-won (tr Bob Donaldson) Dogs in the Village beyond the Hills (1948) Umm… it’s about some dogs in a village score-1score-0score-0score-0score-0
Kim Yu-jeong (tr WE Skillend) Spring, Spring (1935) A sonless landowner forces his daughter’s suitors to provide free labour in exchange for the hope of marriage score-2score-0score-0score-0score-0
Yi Hyo-seok (tr Shin Hyun-song) Buckwheat Season (1936) Three itinerant pedlars muse about life and love on the way to market, and discover an unexpected connection. score-2score-2score-0score-0score-0
Hyun Chin-kon (tr Kathryn Kisray) The Fire (1925) A teenage wife sets fire to her bedroom, site of her nightly marital rape score-2score-0score-0score-0score-0
Hyun Chin-kon (tr Chung Chong-wha) A Lucky Day (1924) A Seoul rickshaw driver has a record day’s business as his wife lies dying at home. score-2score-2score-1score-0score-0
Kim Dong-ni (tr Chung Chong-wha) The Crag (1936) A leper woman dies looking for her son. score-2score-0score-0score-0score-0
Sohn So-hi (tr Angela Chung) The afternoon of Mellow Persimmons Two women with marriage problems retreat to a Buddhist temple, waiting for their husbands to come and get them. score-2score-1score-0score-0score-0
Yi Mun-gu (tr Shin Hyun-song) The Tale of Kim Takbo (1968) A lazy drunk spends all the money his wife earns from peddling salt. score-1score-0score-0score-0score-0
Part 3: modern Korean in the process of change
O Yong-su (tr WE Skillend) Echoes (1959) A husband and wife build a new life on the slopes of Jirisan in Sancheong County. A tale of hope after the horrors of war. score-2score-2score-2score-1score-0
Oh Sang-won (tr Kim Chong-un) A Betrayal A story of assassination and political greed in the murky world of the immediate post-liberation period score-2score-2score-2score-2score-0
Kim Dong-ni (tr Chung Chong-wha) Two reservists (1950) Two impoverished reservists are discharged from training and seek their displaced families in Busan score-2score-2score-0score-0score-0
Hwang Sun-won (tr Chung Chong-wha) Retreat An injured soldier and two comrades try to rejoin their unit. score-2score-2score-0score-0score-0
Kim Seung-ok (tr Chung Chong-wha) Winter, 1964, Seoul (1965) Two young men talk about life and trivia as an older man prepares to end his life score-2score-2score-2score-2score-1
Kim Seung-ok (Moon Hi-kyung) A journey to Mujin A man revisits his hometown, a place of refuge from the materialism of his life in Seoul score-2score-2score-2score-2score-1
Suh Ki-won (tr Kathryn Kisray) The Heir (1963) A young boy is oppressed by the weight of responsibilities in inheriting the obligation to honour countless ancestors score-2score-2score-2score-1score-0
Choi In-hun (tr Lee Sang-ok) Laughter (1966) A jilted prostitute travels to a spa town to commit suicide score-2score-2score-2score-1score-0
Sunoo Hui (tr Chung Chong-wha) The Revelation Two schoolteachers discuss the apparent Japanisation of Yi Kwang-su and a (fictional) contemporary poet who feigned dumbness to avoid taking a position on nationalistic issues. score-2score-2score-2score-2score-0
Yi Kwang-su (tr Lyndal Weiler) Obscurity An assortment of vile characters rot and bicker in a prison infirmary score-1score-0score-0score-0score-0


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