LTI Korea’s FREE online (and i-APP) collection of 20 early-modern literature classics

LTI EbooksLTI Korea has done a rather cool thing and placed 20 works of early-modern Korean fiction online, where they can be accessed as PDF files or through an iPhone application that can bring them to a readers’ e-device. LTI has created the equivalent of a free collection of modern colonial fiction of Korea, and to use a term that may be too technical, it’s absolutely awesome, as it give overseas readers a snapshot (or snapshots) of the first ‘modern’ Korea and its discontents.

Readers may flinch at the pervasive sexism in these works (a feature, sadly, of the times), will certainly feel the pain Koreans felt at being colonized, and will get an in-depth look at the pain of poverty in a society with very clear social demarcations, and ones that could not normally be crossed.

This collection is also brilliant as an example of the “proto” modern Korean literature, for in fact these are the works that established the themes of modern Korean literature, and laid the spiritual and intellectual ground work for them.

Modern readers won’t find the existential work of Kim Young-ha here, but they will find his spiritual grandfather, Yi Sang – perhaps the first stylistically modern Korean writer. Chick-lit is not present here but Bunnyeo brings that spirit, and while the sex-roles in these works are horrible (wife-beating is both socially acceptable and a technique of ‘love’) the heroine of Poverty is certainly an early feminist hero albeit one struggling in a resolutely anti-female envirnoment.

* Download the app for iPhone/iPad here:

* Read the books in pdf format on your PC and mobile here:

It’s a brilliant collection, and below you can find a snapshot review of each work and an idea of what kind of reader would like it.

• Broken Strings
by Gang Gyeong-ae
Originally published in Korean as Pageum in Chosun Ilbo, 1931
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Sora Kim-Russell

Broken Strings begins like a trifle, a light story of weather and perhaps young love. The light, or naturalist aspect of the text is well represented by Sora Kim-Russell’s translation. As it goes on, it increasingly introduces the social realities in which the story is told, and as it comes to its end, its two young lovers are both separated and reunited, in quite different ways. Broken Strings reads a little like the stories of “socialist realism” that reached their apex in the Soviet Union and North Korea, but should not be read as part of that formalism, rather as a story of “new” (meaning self-chosen) love and the needs of the nation. Think of it as a shorter version of Yi Kwang-su’s nearly endless Heartless which explored these same themes even more didactically.

This story does suffer(?) from two noted omissions and a rather tacked on Animal House style ending.

• Lashing: Notes from a Prison Journal
Kim Dong-in
Originally published in Korean as Taehyeong in Dongmyeong, 1922-1923
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi Young

An evocative representation of a prison cell filled with far too many prisoners, which would have been a regular feature of the Japanese colonial regime as well as several Korean ones. The only way out seems to be by getting sentenced and when a 71 year old man gets sentenced to 90 lashes his cellmates want him to take accept the sentence to lessen, by one, the bodies in the cell. The hot, squalid scenes of incarceration, particularly the gruesome sleeping scenes make this desire quite realistic.

• Tale of a Mad Painter
Kim Dong-in
Originally published in Korean as Gwanghwasa in Yadam, 1935
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi Young

A kind of reverie and yarn-spinning by a solo hiker who discovers a spring and cave on Mt. Ingwansan. The story is of a grotesque painter. Perhaps because he is ugly he wants to portray “unique expressions.” He paints the wife he is too ugly to have in real life, but lacks a model for the face. When he finally finds the model, she is blind and this seems to solve several problems at once. Of course, it only solves the obvious problem, and brings many others.

A kind of atmospheric piece, Tale of a Mad Painter contains too much happy (and unhappy) coincidence.

• The Golden Bean Patch
Kim Yu-jeong
Originally published in Korean as Geum Ttaneun Kongbat in Gaebyeok, 1935
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Eugene Larsen-Hallock

An amusing fable containing a moral somewhere between the idea of a bird in the hand and counting your chickens before they hatch.

Kim Yu-jeong is an amusing writer, who writes his often thick characters with affection and cleverness as when a woman who had helped persuade her husband to dig up their fields for gold says, “Since her husband said he was taking up prospecting, he hadn’t found any gold, but he’d certainly found some bad habits.” And Kim carries this clever attitude right up to the ending, which is funny, literally earthy, and in a way sad.

Amusing and descriptive.

• The Heat of The Sun
by Kim Yu-Jeong
Originally published in Korean as Ttaengbyeot in Yeoseong, 1937
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Eugene Larsen-Hallock

A brutal love story, which has previously been published as The Scorching Heat in the book Camellias. It’s a sad story unleavened by Kim’s usual humor. As a loving husband carries his wife to and back from a trip to the hospital in the big city we see a detailed pointillist achievement of encroaching despair. The last sentence, a brilliant concoction of multiple short phrases, and cascading punctuation, puts the tragic message of the story home: This love may not end, but one life assuredly will.

Definitely worth reading.

• Home
Hyun Jin-geon
Originally published in Korean as Gohyang in Chosun Ilbo, 1926
Translation c 2013 by Sora Kim-Russell

A narrator on a train meets an amusing man dressed in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese clothes, who initially comes off as a bit of a clown. The amusing man is on his way up to Seoul after landlording has destroyed his home town, and driven him to Manchuria and beyond. Home is a lament of a life-style destroyed, and in that way a kind of precursor to Cho Se-shui’s The Dwarf, Hwang Sok-yong’s The Road to Sampo, and other similar books. A very common theme of modern Korean literature.

• Poor Man’s Wife
Hyun Jin-geon
Originally published in Korean as Bincheo in Gaebyeok, 1921
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Sora Kim-Russell

Perhaps my least favorite story here, it may have had a point in its day, but now reads like the whining of an intellectual who can’t succeed, a theme that has been dealt with better in other works including A Ready-Made Life (Ch’ae Man-sik) or A Society That Drives You to Drink (Hyon Chin-gon). Perhaps this was cutting edge in the day of arranged marriages, but seems dated now. I’d get the “other” Poor Man’s Wife by Eun Hee-Kyung.

One of last ones of this collection to read^^.

• After Beating Your Wife
Kim Nam-cheon
Originally published in Korean as Cheoreul Ttaerigo in Joseon Munhak, 1937
Translation c 2013 by Jenny Wang Medina

Notable initially for its stream-of-consciousness style (well, that and the most provocative title in the collection), it turns into an interesting attack on the socially motivated who don’t take care of home as well as a kind of meditation of what friendship between men is, or isn’t.

Still, difficult reading for the payoff, given its contentious sexual politics and difficult narrative style.

• Management
Kim Nam-cheon
Originally published in Korean as Gyeongyeong in Munjang,
1940 Translation c 2013 by Jenny Wang Medina

The story of a couple changing radically as society changes, the title is an amusing joke/pun on the plot. The narrator is initially self-centered and difficult to sympathize with but as the story continues this becomes one of the most “human” of the stories and has two endings, the latter of which seems tacked on so that there can be some optimism at the story’s conclusion.

• Into the Light
Kim Sa-ryang
Originally published in Korean as Bit Sokae in Munye Sudo, 1939
Translation c 2013 by Jane Kim

This one really could have used an editor, particularly in the first few pages.^^

Minami is a Korean who teaches at University in Japan and mostly passes for Japanese. One student loathes him for this and it develops that the student has a Japanese father and Korean mother. There’s a bit of K-drama (by which I mean unrealistic melodrama) in this story, but as it works its way to its conclusion, it becomes a satisfying meditation on the meaning of identity and the need to embrace it.

A nice story with an unusually happy ending.

• The Water Mill
Na Do-hyang
Originally published in Korean as Mullaebanga in Joseon Mundan, 1925
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Jane Kim

Well, translated, but lamentably so much in the passive voice. Also a bit obvious and the plot is from a penny-novel. Also the epitome of the horrible sexual politics of the time (again, this is realistic for the time and seems much more horrible from the view of the present day). OTOH, as I am exactly 55 years old in Korean age, the following line gave me some pause^^:

The old man, at over fifty-five years of age, is reaching the end of his life’s journey, heading into the pit of decline.

It’s a rather obvious take on the unfairness of the social system at the time.

• Poverty
Baek Sin-ae
Originally published in Korean as Jeokbin in Gaebyeok, 1934
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Janet Hong

Reminiscent of Kim Yu-jeong and if you like his works (as I do) you should read this one. Baek is clever, diminutive, dismissive and extremely economical. The commentary at the outset tell us that the story is about “the double suppression that has been exerted on destitute women,” but don’t let that bit of freshman women’s studies analysis detract from a story that is funny until it is tragic, and then it, perhaps gets too economical, jumping from one scene to another.

Still, a rather good story about the trauma of being poor and the will to keep going on in life.

• Gasil
Yi Kwang-su
Originally published in Korean as Gasil in Donga Ilbo, 1923
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Peter Lee

Starts of in the voice of a fairy tale, with a fair maiden and a brawny axeman. A really good story about the stupidity of war, who war serves, and the desire, particularly among Koreans, to return to their hometown. That arc of diaspora and return is extremely Korean, from the classic story Hong Gil-dong, to Choe In-ho’s Deep Blue Night.
Yi Kwang-su is a very interesting (if occasionally wordy and didactic) and problematic writer. He wrote the first ‘modern’ Korean novel (Heartless), but later became an apologist for Japanese colonialism. Read this work, and track down his other ones as well (Soil has just been published by LTI Korea and Dalkey Press).

• The Child’s Bone
Yi Sang
Originally published in Korean as Donghae in Jogwang, 1937
Translation c 2013 by Janet Hong

The more one reads of Yi Sang, the clearer it becomes that he doesn’t like linearity and direct description, and he may not be so fond of women either. It is kind of one man’s reflection on love and fidelity, with most of the flaws being found on the female side.

Yi is generally indirect, but also capable of, when considering his own suicide, ripping out a line like ““The accused has cooperated in squandering his life, so to extend his life by a single day would raise the operating costs of the universe,” and thus utterly reducing himself as well. He also asks some serious questions about the relationship between history and modernity (issues that were of paramount importance to Koreans at the time). It’s not an easy read, and as may of the other works here you have to wade through some rather obvious sexism, but the journey is worth it, and at the end you are left with a very Yi-ian character, one who thinks too much to act.

• Dying Words
YI Sang
Originally published in Korean as Jongsaenggi in Jogwang, 1937
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Jack Jung and Janet Hong

Published in the year Yi died (as was The Child’s Bone), given Yi’s relentless exploration of the territory of himself for his fiction

The introduction oddly defines Dying Words as “This story is one of three, along with “Wings” and “Child’s Bone,” that takes the relationship between man and woman as its subject, which utterly ignores Yi’s Encounters and Departures, which has been translated as part of Wings.

The story is a contemplation of upcoming death, beginning with “successful” death of long-lived soldier who was famous for only one event/escape, with the mess that Tolstoy managed to make. The text here, if not always narratively connected is powerful and driving (which has to be some kind of credit to the translators)

Dying Words is weirdly tied to Yi’s issues with women, but also a thorough description of desiccation of a living being into a corpse.

• The Farmers
Jo Myeong-hui
Originally published in Korean as Nongchon Saramdeul in Hyeondae Pyeongron, 1927
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Peter Lee

Wonbo is introduced during a drought, he is a thoroughly miserable man. It doesn’t get better and unremitting grimness of this story, while similar to that of Heat, does not at least have a love story at its core.

Not light reading.

• Frozen Fish
Ch’ae Man-sik
Originally published in Korean as Naengdongeo in Inmun Pyeongron, 1940
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Myles Ji

Frozen Fish starts of with the fish-eyed glaze of genial contempt that Cha’e Man-sik often brings to his characters. When he characterizes a director of films as (blustering) “on about his so-called “theory of universal stupidity” directed at every single film director in Joseon except himself.” Ch’ae reveals his authorly skill at letting character construct their own petards and noisily hoist themselves on them.

A Korean man meets an interested and interesting Japanese women and they embark on a semi-relationship that has no real future, this is well written, with dialogue and characterizations that make sense to a foreign reader.

But.. you know…. Long!

• Transgressor of the Nation
Ch/ae Man-sik
Originally published in Korean as Minjokui Joein in Baik Min, 1948-1949 Translation c 2013 by Jane Kim

A very longish short story about collaboration, partly written by Ch’ae to explain and partially defend his own collaboration during the Japanese occupation. As always by Ch’ae, extremely well written with many sardonic touches. Transgressors is reminiscent of “On the Eve of the Uprising” as well as Ch’ae’s own Constable Maeng, which is shorter, less defensive, and funnier (so, would be my recommendation if you can find it).

A good, if too long, story that end on a slightly forced note of rehabilitation and optimism.

• Harbin
Yi Hyo-seok
Originally published in Korean as Harbin in Munjang, 1940
Translation c 2013 by Ally Hwang
A very existential work, although written in the very concrete here and now of Harbin at that time, which seems very romantic and empty. Harbin, somehow, though although entirely different, seems in line with what Yi Sang is up to, casting doubt on meaning with its pairing of a skeptical narrator and his suicidal European friend.

A symptomatic line: “Stefan’s dreams lie far beyond. He has nothing in front of him.”

It’s a brilliant story of alienation that reminds me of some excellent English and French literature about existential emptiness.

• Bunnyeo
Yi Hyo-seok
Originally published in Korean as Harbin in Munjang, 1940
Translation c 2013 by Ally Hwang

A rather schizophrenic story with an appalling amount of rape mixed in, it begins with Bunnyeo having a dream of being pursued by a boar. This turns out to be her dream-mind dealing with a rape that occurs as she sleeps.

She soon figures out (in a clever way) that her rapist is a friend named Myeongjun, who then disappears to Manchuria. Unfortunately, Bunnyeo is raped again and again and again, by three other men (one unfortunately named Wang), and begins to take a fairly cavalier attitude towards it, in terms of how she thinks of men, how she thinks of her own body, and the material gains that it attend it (again, the sexual politics of the era during which all these works were written is quite pre-historic).

In the meantime her boyfriend is imprisoned, returns, sleeps with her, hears the rumors of her “sex” life, and leaves her. In the end, there is an improbable reunion, and what should be the trauma of the story seems to be miraculously erased in an ending that will likely please no modern reader.

Among the least enjoyable of the works in this collection

All in all, an excellent collection that will save the reader the price of several published collections!

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