Home-Coming is from the Modern Korean Short Stories series by UNESCO and Si-sa-yong-o-sa Publishers. Of the 10 books in that series it is among the most accessible, as many of its stories contain characters and plots that are comprehensible across culture. Even the stories that don’t quite work, with one exception, are good reads. The collection includes work by Kim Sung-ok, So Chong-in, Yi Chong-jun, Song Yong, and Hong Song-won; this number of authors is substantially larger than normal for this collection, and it may be that it is partly this diversity that explains how well this collection words compared to its brethren.
Kim Sung-ok’s Seoul-Winter 1964 is almost beyond the need to explain at this point as it has been recognized as one of Korea’s seminal works of post-pundan (for lack of a better name) literature. The story of three men meeting by chance, and randomly bouncing through Seoul, S-W 1964, and randomly bounced by society as well, it evocatively describes the new, anomic social relations of the city and economic development.
The Operation, by Kim, is the sad story of two peasant women, trekking to the abortionist because they fell for the lies of sophisticated colleges students on vacation. The relationship between the women is friendly and supportive, even in their dire circumstances, and the warmth of their friendship and nature of their shared predicament is well written and translated.
Good Bargain, again by Kim Sung-ok, is one of his two stories in this collection that don’t completely connect. It begins amusingly enough, with a college student identified only as K sitting, bored, on his campus while considering other students (a funny scene in which college students gear themselves out with newspaper stuffed backpacks, military boots, blue American denims, etc., in order to impress each other and onlookers) and scheming how to make his weekend eventful with only 20 won in hand. After this promising start, however, it degenerates into too many storylines for its length, and K’s central “trick” seems far too obvious to work. In the end, “K” might remind the reader a bit of Holden Caufield, and for me that’s a problem.^^
Record of a Journey to Mujin, is the least impressive of Kim’s work here, as the story is mundane, its writing style blank and its story oddly inconclusive. At 42 pages, it is also the longest story in the collection. Of course^^ because that’s what I believe, internet research indicates that not only is it fairly beloved in Korea, but has also been made into a successful movie. In any case, it is the story of a love triangle temporarily rendered a love quadrangle by the arrival of the narrator back at his home town, and the story is quite lyrical in places.
So Chong-in starts off modestly with Home-Coming. The narrator is in his last year of college and, while stranded at a bus-station, meets an old classmate named Tol-nam who seems to be successful. Tol-nam claims to run a gas-station at Karingbong-dong but offers a free black-market ride in a private car to the narrator for rounding other passengers up. Why this is such a horrible crime is never explained, which makes reading a bit puzzling. At first the narrator hops right in, but then the sight of policeman washes him with guilt, until he meets a stranded female friend. This leads to an interminable discussion of which form of language he should use to address her and a decision to help her get into the friend’s car and get home.
But here, the story picks up. The two men semi-tussle over the attention of the woman and there is a very amusing conversation once they get in the car, in which Tol-nam cleverly outlines the gap in perception between the rich and the poor, and how quickly comfort can change attitudes. The story ends up in a clever little summary of the differences between social classes that is played out in several aspects. A story that begins in a deceptively prosaic way ends up addressing major social issues in ways both amusing and profound.
The story is, however, riddled with annoying artifacts of translation. Translator Sol Sun-bong, who acquits himself adequately in other stories in the collection, drops a succession of howlers into this one:
- “Nine yeas” instead of “Nine years” (81)
- “Gentelmen” (85)
- An error in time (Narrator talks about Yong-ok as if she had already been introduced – though this could be a flaw in the story?
- “To tell with tickets” 87
- as well as some as some of the standard translation errors of the time (e.g. “from” meaning “since”).
Still, the parts of the story that seem obscured by non-shared culture are more than balanced out by the clever way So has characters offhandedly and naturally discuss the bigger issues of the time.
So’s light touch is put to an almost macabre canvas in The Way To Kumsansa Temple. The story begins as a trifle and ends as an icicle, with a callous and con-man of a youth traveling with a more phlegmatic older man to a destination that.. well .. changes. The story ends with a punch line that is more like a punch in the stomach.
Based on these two stories, I’d be interested to find any other translations of So Chong-in’s work.
Target, by Yi Chong-jun suffers from being obvious – the title give it away as soon as a reader completes the third page of the story. Worse, the often narrator, Chu-ho, carries around an animus based on the fact that he is called yeonggam, yet what yeonggam means is never explained! (spoiler – it means “old man”). This animus is further animated by the fact that the real yeonggam can pummel him at baduk. So, he takes up archery. He is impetuous and the archery teacher is a kind of Zen-jerk who says vague things (“Vain words are not required in learning archery. Words are to be abandoned.” Oddly, the old man says that in words) that suggest he has been chewing laurel leaves. The archery instructor won’t send his “flag boy” (the boy who flashes flags to show where an arrow has missed the mark – this boy is also his son) over to the targets because poor archers threaten him. Chu-ho, who wants to demonstrate his mastery, wishes that the instructor would, as Chu-ho has brought the yeonggam to the range, to demonstrate his superiority to them.
There is also a semi-comprehensible plot about the instructor’s daughter (it should be said that both the daughter and son are adopted), and the whole thing ends in a lyrically described, yet entirely idiotic, tragedy.
The Dream of a Mask, also by Yi Chon-jun, is called “The Dream of a Mark” on several pages, which gives it an entirely different meaning^^. It also has a phrase that made me wonder how deeply Yi Sang has influenced Korean literature with his 날개 – Did He fall on the ground while trying to soar up into the moonbeam-floating sky” (155) – seems similar to lines in “The Dwarf” and other short stories.
LOL – I’m probably suffering from confirmation bias here, but it’s not a bad thought that Yi Sang continues to influence Korean fiction.
In any case, the story is a brilliant metaphor about the price one pays to adopt the face of society – and it literally involves adopting faces. Somewhere between the story of a crisis of identity narrated by a loved one, possibly a sexual schism, and a werewolf story, it is brief, intense, and affecting. In some ways it is a reverse-image story to Lee Oyoung’s, The General’s Beard (soon to be reviewed right here on KTLIT!). The wife here is a bit compliant, but that’s standard issue for Korean fiction and she is at least given a rationale.
As usual, in the stories I really love, I don’t have much to say other than, “read it!”
Cock-Fighting, by Song Yong is a decent, but quite obvious, comparison between human life and the kill-or-be-killed world of cockfighting. Well, with one kind of creepy addendum – the cock-fighting is not competitive in the normal gambling sense, rather a competition that a bully creates in his own yard, between his own cocks, the champion of which he loathes. It’s creepy as a psychological study, particularly given the relationship the bully has to the narrator, although the ending has a particularly odious religious tone to it that reveals the entire story as a kind of setup.
Overnight at Matthew’s, by the same author, reveals that reservations that might have been raised by his first story are deserved – This work is full of incompletely comprehensible symbols, at least in translation. Too much goes on in this story to understand outside of the culture, and when the narrator decides to leave town, the reader might heave a sigh of relief.
A Boy In Search of Rest, by Hong Song-won shows how to carry off a story whose ending is implicit in its title. As in The Way To Kumsansa, there will be a chilly ending, but Hong, even after he hints at the ending, teases the reader that there will be something else in store.
This is a brutal story about a brutal time, and between the initial and concluding lines
“Late in the night”
“I can’t stand it, sister. I want to die.”
Lies a world in which broken connections mean broken lives.
At some point I’m going to have to go back and re-read all the books from this series, but at this moment I think this is one of the best of them.
------------------------- purely subjective things
PUNDAN MUNHAK RATING – some stories might separate you from your tears.
BUCKWHEAT SEASON POINTS – some culturally different things, and some totally incomprehensible, but generally in stories so understandable that this is insignificant.