There was a certain level conceit to what I was trying to do. Becoming an “expert” in a foreign national literature? Attempting that in translation? Attempting it with little background in the culture or literature?
Somewhere in background I could hear Malcolm Gladwell laughing his head off.
So I did what anyone would.
I Googled it.
Google informed me that one of the earliest modern works, and one that demonstrated the generational stresses in Korea and its literature (an important point that I will return to was Yom Seong-sop’s Three Generations.
I ran out to the bookstore to purchase it.
The first thing I noticed was that it was rather large. 476 pages of largesse, to be exact.
It was too thick to use as a shim for my short table-leg, and I had no fireplace. It was either read the thing or of have it in the house as some large but inexplicable object of worship, an obelisk to which all who entered must pray. Which, sort of, is how Korean critics react to it.
Mainly, I was still boggled by it’s length. It was a bit daunting, but I waded in
But the names! The names were weird. Weird even for Korean.
I had come to terms with Kims, Parks, Yis, Choes and Chois, but this was over the top: Sang-hun; Deok-gi, Gyeong-ae, Byeong-hwa, and Pil-sun. My mind was boggled and I had to keep checking back to the beginning of the book to re-establish which character was whom.
This is a common problem for readers of Korean fiction, because Korea names are often completely unfamiliar, wickedly similar, and composed of sounds we don’t understand. Some of the names use phonemes that aren’t our native languages, and the bizarre Romanizations that Korean scholars have come up with sometimes make Korean names seem like hieroglyphs from ancient Egyptian cave walls. Somewhere between a third and half of Korean last names are Kim, Lee and Park and names within families often sound quite similar.
I was confused.
I dove into the Wikipedia where I learned that. “Many Koreans have their given names made of a generational name syllable and an individually distinct syllable, while this practice is declining in the younger generations.” Meaning that my Korean sort-of brother in laws have exactly the same name all the way til the final syllable which is also similar.
Yi Jong-Q meet Yi Jong-eun!
This leads to some difficulty for those of us whose brains are old an inflexible.
So, there was the epic size of the book and the fact that I couldn’t keep the names of characters straight. Finally, as I discovered myself and later heard from critics, the book was a bit of a snooze.
The website, “The Complete Review” says:
Expectations and traditional ways do not permit for clear communication: it’s rare that a character will actually say what is on his or her mind, helping muddle matters much more — and making for some frustration for the reader.
Further, some damage seems to have been done in translation:
“Much of his narrative voice, a delicate mix of social satire and psychological depth, relies on nuanced exchanges among Seoul’s social classes (…) presented in their distinctive dialects. For Korean readers, this is where the books true pleasure lies. (…) (W)hen it comes to dialogue (…) the texture feels a bit too bland and the tempo has been slowed.” – Ha-yun Jung, Bookforum
I made three attempts and the book and each time I was repulsed.
It was an inauspicious start.
Luckily, one day I was shopping at What The Book.
Every English-speaking expat eventually learns of What the Book from some other friendly expat. “What the Book” is the English bookstore in Korea and no trip to Itaewon is complete without visiting it.
My first trip was back in the days when What the Book was still in its original rather colorful Itaewon neighborhood. The store has since moved to swankier digs down the main street towards Gyeongnidang and farther from bar-fights, vomit and the other excitements of the “hills” of Itaewon. The new store is nicer, bigger, and an easier trip. Still, I miss walking past the “hills” to the left, buying my book then leaving my wife to her longer browsing, and heading to the cool “Phillipina” bar down the street and getting a drink. Just a beer (after one encounter with a “soju-bucket” left me nearly legless) and a book.
Good times for literature and alcohol!
But, back at the old store, on the bookshelf I saw an irregularly sized book with rather primary-colored cover upon which what were scattered something that looked like runes. I opened it up and read the following sentence: “Why is that murders always happen on Sundays?”
Bang! Here was a question I understood and a character-voice that I already liked. I sped through Kim Young-ha’s The Photo Shop Murder and then through the second story in the book, Whatever Happened to the Guy in the Elevator.
Kim’s stories left me wanting more, and I was in luck, as I looked at the back pages of the book I discovered that it was part of a Jimoondang/KLTI series of 25 small works.
I read a second book and was entirely hooked. So, as my introduction to Korean literature I set myself out to read all of these books and review them on the KTLIT website.
This series was one of the Korea Literature Translation Institutes finest moments. The books were like chapters of a textbook on Korean modern literature. From Yi Sang and his colonial stories to Yang Kwi-ja, and with everyone in between, these books lightly covered the topics and authors of Korean modern literature. And the books were brief and frequently contained more than one story. I laughed out loud at the blustering narrator of Ch’ae Man-shik’s My Innocent Uncle. Yi Munyol’s An Appointment With My Brother began to give me an understanding of what a split country really means. Deep Blue Night, left me gasping in despair on the California coast with Korean expatriates in the U.S.
Out of those 25 books I believe there was only one that I panned on my website. That’s a remarkable achievement for any publishing project.
As usual, my personal project was a failure.^^
I finally did read all the books, but as I go back on the website and count the reviews, I seem to have somehow missed a formal review of My Innocent Uncle by Ch’ae Man-sik. An odd thing to overlook as it is one of the cleverest (in translation) stories from the collection.
But this collection led me, in short but steady steps, into Korean literature. At times the translations weren’t brilliant, but they were never bad. The stories were a decent mix – ones I could dive into immediately; with known genres and understandable characters; also ones that were a bit difficult. But the mix, an idea I keep coming back to, was enough to keep me slogging through the tougher stories, knowing that the wisdom I earned in those stories would pay off in spades in later stories.
And it was just that way.
Thanks to Jimoondang and KLTI for saving me from Three Generations!