As I’ve expanded on some bits of this, I thought I’d blog the whole thing. It was first published in Acta Koreana in June, 2008.
The expanded edition of “Land of Exile” (first published in 1993, republished by M.E. Sharpe), translated and edited by the late Marshall Pihl, and Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, takes a very good, but slightly dated anthology, and with an infusion of four new stories improves the quality of the original volume while simultaneously bringing it into the twenty-first century. The new stories substantially broaden the brief of the anthology, expanding the narrative styles as well as extending the geography of exile that constitutes the main theme of the collection.
A reader of the first edition might be forgiven for assuming that all Korean fiction was about exile. There was a tension between the anthologies’ tight focus on exile and realism, and its self-proclaimed status as “the standard English-language anthology of post-1945 Korean short fiction.” The anthology still revolves around exile, but it has extended its purview beyond only the specific Korean exilic experience, and on to more generalized experiences of alienation. This expansion should make the collection accessible to a broader range of readers.
This new edition also brings the anthology current. The first edition had a balance of stories from the years between 1948 and 1984. This is an interesting symmetry, but one that left the anthology without representation from one-third of the post-colonial era. The new edition adds a story from the 1980’s, one from the 1990’s, and two from the new millennium. These additions allow “Land of Exile” to properly assume the crown Thomas Hughes grants it as “the richest, most comprehensive selection of postcolonial South Korean short fiction currently available.”
Two themes thread in and out of the short stories in “Land of Exile” – collaboration, and cyclicality. Collaborators stud these works and while collaborators are exiles in one sense, they are also a particular and protean kind of exile. These works show collaborators at work on all levels of society and with a wide range of intents. The consistent theme of cyclicality in these tightly drawn dramas suggest that they are merely showing one turn of the wheel, but that the wheel will continue to turn. Some of the pain contained in these stories is exacerbated because the author allows no possibility of future alteration. These stories dramatically remind us that the theoretical concept of contested terrain is an ethereal version of what contested terrain amounts to in the geography of real life. This is one of the powers of this fiction – although it never precisely happened, it gives us glimpses of the humane and the inhumane.
The stories published in the previous edition are largely powerful reading and primarily examples of the “tight” exilic theme. Three of the original works are not as substantial as their companions. “The Wife and Children,” by Ch’ae Manshik is a trifle of a story. With its ‘returning-only-to-exit’ husband, and confused wife and child, it is short on character motivation and of light emotional impact. Kim Tongni’s “The Post Horse Curse” also seems a bit light for the topic of the anthology. Its plot is a hoary “mistaken identity” one that seems heavy-handed and obvious even as it is read. Finally, “Land of Exile,” the story for which the collection is named, may be its weakest story. In attempting to concatenate subplots of an alternately bitter and sentimental old man leaving his son at a orphanage, going home to die, two instances of family betrayal, and several turns of the revolutionary wheel, author Cho Chongnae simultaneously attempts too much and too little. “Land of Exile” is overwhelmed by a soap-opera plot and clumsy dialogue.
Kim Sungok’s “Seoul: 1964, Winter” is much more successful and was recognized as something new in Korean Literature immediately upon publication. It is, as its anomic title indicates, existential, nearly ludicrous, and represents a first step away from an ultra-narrow focus on traditional exile. Two young men meet an older man and attempt to spend the money he has received for selling his wife’s corpse. After reading this story it comes as no surprise to learn that Kim studied French Literature and apparently, learned some of its lessons well. The three men meet as atoms might collide. Just as when atoms do collide, they create a short heat and careen apart. An outstanding work and one whose title, unfortunately, was not suited to be used as the name of an anthology.
The remaining stories are also excellent. Hwang Sunwon’s “Mountains” is an impressive and brutal tale featuring, in shifting third-person narration, multiple levels of exile and a relentless ending suggesting the cycle of exile is unbreakable. When the narrator receives the advice, “As long as you live in the mountains watch out for large animals – don’t even think of going near them,” neither he nor the reader cannot foresee that this exilic advice extends to the largest of animals, man.
“Kapitan Ri”, by Chon Kwangyong, is a remarkably cheery portrayal of collaboration. Dr. Yi Inguk is a collaborator with a “can-do” attitude extending to everyone except Koreans. He is exuberantly proud of past collaborations and the story is partly of his accepting his new collaborators. Yi reminisces on the fruits of collaboration with the Japanese, recounts how he came to terms with the Soviets, and realizes that the American “big-noses” are another such opportunity despite his discomfort that his daughter is marrying one. Yun Hunggil’s “The Man Who Was Left as Nine Pairs of Shoes” implies that anyone can become collaborator – the unfortunate character of the title notes that “There are times when you can do something you wanted absolutely no part of, and not even realize it …Just because you haven’t cooperated [with the police] in the past doesn’t mean you won’t cooperate [with the police] in the future”
Pak Wanso’s “Winter Outing” is a sobering mixture of personal alienation and a horrific story of the impact of political bifurcation. An alienated wife travels to the country and meets a heartbreaking victim of internecine Korean brutality. O Chonghui’s “The Bronze Mirror” and Im Cho’ru’s “A Shared Journey” are linked by their consideration of the cost of rebellion and ensuing exile. In “The Bronze Mirror” an elderly couple live with memory of their son, killed twenty years earlier in the April 1960 student revolution. “A Shared Journey” by Im Cho’ru, tells a story subsequent to the 5.18 Massacre in Kwangju. When one protagonist still on the run and another uneasily settled back into day-to-day life meet, they find that once common ground has become mysterious and obscured. Physical exile and return mirrors the exile and return of unfortunate memories.
Hwang Sogyong’s “A Dream of Good Fortune” is reminiscent of Choi Se-Hui’s “The Dwarf” without that work’s relentless depression. “A Dream of Good Fortune” is a tightly realistic depiction of the marginal life of the underclass. It is notable for it’s description of how, on social and economic margins, small events are of magnified importance. The plot revolves around the unlikely combination of the pregnancy of
a family member and the neighborhood joy brought by coming into the possession of a dead dog.
“The Boozer,” by Ch’oe Inho, is a story of loss and delusion. The unnamed narrator is a young boy searching for his drunken father. The tale is told in semi-fantastic narration in which verb tenses slip from the present, to the past, and back to the present, and the impossible is presented as real (“You know, once he took copper and made it into gold. Gold!” ). The nature of the boy’s quest alters subtly through the course of events, and the ending is poignant, suggesting the story is one day of an endless cycle in lives that also endlessly cycle.
It is the four new stories — “Scarlet Fingernails” (1987) by Kim Minsuk; “The Last of Hanak’o” (1992) by Ch’oe Yun; “Conviction” (2003) by Ch’oe Such’ol; and “From Powder to Powder” (2004) by Kim Hun — that extend the metaphor of “exile” so far as to make it stand for a more general alienation. This allows the anthology to dramatically increase its range. In a review of the original volume, Kevin O’Rourke noted that “People keep saying ‘Korean fiction is not much fun’ … one feels bound to point out that until Korean fiction becomes fun to read it will not make much of a mark on the international stage.” While the new stories are serious, sometimes harrowing, they are also fun in the literary sense: These fictions play with expectations and expand forms. These works, though difficult, are ‘fun’ to read.
Of the new works, “Scarlet Fingernails” hews the closest to the traditional Korean narrative of exile; in fact its subject explicitly is exile. It is a family story written in a style that balances the exuberant and tragic. “Scarlet Fingernails” tells the tale of a wife and daughter (and her husband and children) who have repudiated a ‘communist’ husband and father who defected to the North. This defection ruined their careers and that he returned to the South and was promptly imprisoned, has antagonized them more. Now, on his 61st birthday, an event of some importance to Koreans, everyone must come to some kind of terms. The conclusion is surprisingly light-hearted, which makes this work unusual among its companions.
“The Last of Hanak’o” is a story of a different kind of exile and the main plot turn at its end may not come as a complete surprise to a Western reader. Yet Yun handles the narrative and plot deftly. “The Last of Hanak’o” concludes with an additional half-twist that gives the story a masterful partial inversion of the typical story of exile. By the conclusion of “The Last of Hanak’o” it is unclear who is exiled from whom, and who has done the exiling. It is also worth noting that this is the only story of the collection set in a foreign land. This reflects the Korean reality that exile is very often an intra-national affair and thus where Korean writers typically focus, as well the fact that the new edition of this anthology is stretching such traditional boundaries.
“Conviction” is positively J.G. Ballardian and teases the contention of the introduction that the anthology does not contain extra-reality (“Boozer” also contains surreal touches, particularly in descriptions of exteriors and in its young narrator’s internal monologue). The introduction to “Life In Exile” notes that “Conviction” tells the story of “a man whose mind and body are increasingly but subtly estranged,” and compares it, properly, to Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” That comparison surely suggests that Ch’oe’s goes beyond specific issues of Korean exile and into general issues of body and mind? “Conviction” is a compelling story of a man’s struggle, conceived of as a competition between water and desiccation. The story weaves a web in spiders, sand, the River Styx, mold, and the death of a childhood playmate by drowning. The final image is literally arresting.
The concluding story, “Powder to Powder” hammers a cyclical message home with bleak nihilism, leavened by flashes of alarming humor. The story begins at the deathwatch of an advertising executive’s wife. The death scenes are harrowing, and the conclusion is even more so. At a crematorium the theme of cycles and alienation is mechanical and explicit:
Incineration 121: Will the bereaved please come to the observation room to receive the ashes.
Incineration 122: Cycle to end 130 PM
Incineration 123 Cycle to end 1:40 PM
After the death of the narrator’s wife, a series of unexpected but not unlikely events result in the narrator severing all personal connections. The narrator concludes with a passage that can be read as a threat, a Buddhist promise of nirvana, or simple banal evil. “That night, for the first time in a long while, I slept deeply, ever so deeply, my awareness dissipating into nothingness.”
As a grateful reader of works translated from Korean, I should take a moment to praise the wonderful literary quality of this translation. The text is smooth and elegantly idiomatic while the essentially Korean nature of the works comes through cleanly. In addition the editors have, particularly with the inclusion of the recent four stories, done an outstanding job choosing stories that will engage western readers. The Introduction seems to need a slight overhaul – it is adapted from the original introduction and still has too much of that genetic material in it. But beyond that minor point, the upgrade to the volume is substantial and impressive. It may be a bit premature to hope for, but I already look forward to what the next edition will bring or, even better, to the next volume of short stories newly translated and anthologized by the Fultons.