Early Korean Modern Literature: Collected Short Stories from Korea

Collected Short Stories from KoreaOh my, … in my last review of Modern Short Stories From Korea the first book of translated Korean modern literature in English I noted that it was naturalistic, non-didactic, and even occasionally funny. So next I picked up Collected Short Stories from Korea (Technically “Volume 1” but so far as I know the only volume ever published), which is the second work of Korean modern literature translated and….. oh my… the editor of the books says…

Some Americans who read Korean short stories say that the reading of them create (sic) gloom and pain, for practically all the stories deal with hard and tragic lives. The editor acknowledges that they speak the truth. But to the Korean writers and readers, the gay or happy life seems unreal and unnatural, because for generations the Korean people have lived in poverty and have been mercilessly oppressed. Readers would feel offended if they found their reading devoid of the pain of the mind as well as of the body.

Another common criticism by Westerners is that Korean stories are full of redundant passages. This also the editor acknowledges. Partly it is a heritage of the elder writers, and partly that of the peculiar nation of the Korean language.”

So, there’s that…..^^

And while Collected Short Stories from Korea is published only three years after the first collection of Korean fiction published in English, it already begins to reveal some of the problems that would develop in the Korean translation process. With only one book already published, Collected Short Stories duplicates one story and has two that would soon be translated again. In addition, rural reveries that lead nowhere pop up, while stories others fail to conclude and/or make little sense in translation.

In any case, here are the stories:

Annals of a Ranch by Ahn Soo-Gil is an utterly pointless story. It has random animals, very little plot, and an ending that sputters out leaving the reader nowhere. It is a bizarre slice of pig-farmer life including ear amputation, sleeping with pigs (non-sexual), and random references to a cow-shaped mountain. This story set the bar for the oncoming translations of Korean shaggy-dog stories

Chom-Nye by Actually a kind of classic that has also been translated in Cry of the Harp. Chom-nye is a more overtly political story, comparing the brief and unfortunate life of its title character to the much more be-starred life of the daughter of the local ex-landlord. It contains some scathing passages which portray the social schisms between rich and poor – while landlords and yangban may have been officially replaced, nothing much has changed, in fact, social superiors have even been elevated to the statuses of Gods whose mere presence can turn villagers to something like stone. The plot turns on a detail as small as a chicken, and pretty much everyone comes off poorly.

Blood Phlegm is by Choi Tae-Ung and I suppose the title is a bit of a giveaway.^^ And yet it isn’t completely what you might guess. It features illness, hospitals, blood, all of that, yet manages to be a delicate love story in that Korean “eventually lost love” genre (Hey, “love means never having to say you’re sorry” as one ultra-white character said to another in “Love Story”!)

My Mother and the Roomer is by Chu Yo-Sup and drove me crazy because I KNEW it is in some other collection, but I couldn’t remember which one. More research reveals it was in 1998’s A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction (reviewed here on KTLIT). The following passage is from that first review. Mama and the Boarder, by Chu Yo-Seop, features one of those preternaturally precocious narrators that can be annoying as nails on a chalkboard. Ok-hui is a six-year-old living with her widowed mother and uncle. And she can be cloying, moving from precocity to stupidity with amazing alacrity – at one point being taught how to play the organ at school and remembering “seeing  something that looked just like our kindergarten organ sitting at the far end of our room.” The story is also a bit of a drag, featuring a love affair that for social reasons must be broken up, and unless a reader is quite interested in that sort of thing, this is a story that he/she might skip.

The Cow by Chun Young-Taik is the same story as was published in Modern Short Stories From Korea as Cattle and it boggles the mind that a mere three years later the same group of folks (both P.E.N affiliated editors) would include it again, as it has no interest except as a small parable about the cost of losing social stability. Outlining the arc of a family, its cows, and cows in the village, Chun uses cows as a symbol of stability, community, and planning.

Home-Coming by Chun Pi-Sook is a brief but charming story of a man coming back to his village after the fall of Japanese colonialism. The story has some cliché elements to it, but is also told in a lovely fashion It also has a nice twist, and ends on an unusually optimistic tone that might have been intentionally ironic depending on when the story was written (since the Korean War was soon to put paid to the dream with which this story ends)

A Halo Around the Moon by Hahn Moo-Sook is (understandably) also printed in a collection of her stories title In the Depths (1965). Hahn is a revered and critically lauded author who wrote for five decades. A Halo Around The Moon features a narrator who is an elderly woman, widowed early in life, who has cocooned herself in a steely-withdrawal from all things sensual. When one of her tenants goes into childbirth, the widow finds herself face to face with a lifetime spent insulated from physical connection and must decide whether to follow control or in some way give in to life.

Coming Home by Kim Shung-Han is the dual narrative of a husband who goes to war and a wife who he leaves behind. Unusually, it also contains a very fully fleshed out story of the day-to-day battles of a soldier in the field. Philosopher Kim volunteers for the army over the strenuous objections and is wounded in battle. As he convalesces in the hospital he becomes close friends with a far less educated soldier. At the same time his wife is fending off the advances of a lecherous boss. As Coming Home concludes she is on her way to visit her husband at the hospital. And though that last sentence may make seem like another shaggy-dog story, in fact, it manages to have an ending that would likely satisfy a Korean or English-language reader.

Greedy Youth is by Kim Tong-ni a well-loved Korean author who has been multiply translated into English. It is a short and well-observed story of two boys, two ducks, and hunger. Kim is always strong at description and this story is no exception.

Mother’s Breast by Pak Ke-Ju is a short and bizarre story of two Koreans impressed into the Japanese army. Not much more can be said without giving it away, except it also ends in a spasm of patriotism.^^ Definitely one of those stories that would have appealed to Koreans of the era much more than it could have to readers in translation.

Dilemma by Pak Young-Joon is translated so archly that at points it is difficult to work through. This is exacerbated by the fact that the story is full of artificially constructed scenes between the two main male characters (a magical-manic-pixie girl also exists to keep the plot stoked) and also features dialogue in the form of political lectures.

The Lost Ones by Whang Sun-Won is a multi-generational weeper with traditional elements. Let’s just say that it is not giving much away to say that when, in Korean fiction, a young man travels far to visit his love or mother, she will certainly be dead on that young man’s arrival. It features the love of a star-crossed couple and their eventual sad endings. A bit predictable if you know Korean fiction, but not badly done for the genre. At the end there is a brief conclusion in which Whang concludes the story by referencing a very traditional bit of Korean folk-tale telling – it’s worth looking for.

Green Frog by Yi Chu-Hyon is a smaller melodrama and a thoroughly enjoyable one. A couple is forced to endure torrential rain while wondering if the dam they have built will endure the downpour or fail and destroy their property. But Yi makes this anything but a “bottle-episode” as Yi travels back and forth to his property, meets with his neighbors, and the detached narrator fills in important history and sketches out the caring but difficult relationship between the husband and wife. One of my favorites in this collection and that’s high praise as I usually don’t like this kind of translated fiction.

The Weather Chart by Yu Chu-Hyon begins with the description of an airfield and some charmingly offhand xenophobia and “slut-shaming.” It continues on in a fit of playing to the home team as an entire group of passengers on a plane is threatened with death. Which, of course, reveals their real character, completely to the advantage of traditional and noble Koreans. The Weather Chart is almost ludicrously anti-foreigner, which in fact makes it a very interesting read as it gives a sense of how Koreans thought during the Korean War (and post) era.

Not a bad collection, but as only the second collection of Korean modern fiction translated into English it is also a sneak-peek into the problems that would soon overwhelm translation into English. At the moment, there is only one copy available on Amazon, but it is fairly reasonably priced at $25.00.