Pak Wan-sŏ (not how she preferred her name to be Romanized, which was Park Wansuh), is a beloved Korean writer whose writing can at first appear deceptively simple; women’s works, so to speak. It is easy to lump her work into the category of that of Amy Tan in the United States, or how Kyoung-sook Shin has been received in the west. But, like Kyoung-sook Shin, Pak’s work may seem as smooth as a mirror, but beneath that smooth surface whirlpools and dragons reside. Mother’s Stake I, is a book of this nature. In fact, Mother’s Stake 1 is at least three different novellas, all sharing the same binding.
First, Mother’s Stake I can be read enjoyably as the story of a mother-daughter relationship, and how it changes as circumstances change. The mother is industrious, hypocritical, obsessed by appearance, and extravagantly judgmental, aimed almost entirely at the success of the family, and in the end successful. The girl is sometimes rebellious, keeps secret, loves her mother, and spends much of the novella in a state of bemusement. We’ve all read this kind of story and we are all happy when the family succeeds, and sad when it suffers.
Second, Mother’s Stake I can be seen as an economic/historical travelogue across recent Korean history, particularly in that it is just the first of a trilogy of works that comprise a single story (about which, more later). In this sense we see the historically inevitable trek from the village to the city, from agriculture to production, from barter to cash, and from peasant to “New Woman (the “modern ideal” of an educated and well-dressed woman, an idea imported from colonial Japan). And of course, along the way, the family is multiply divided (a concept that, for obvious reasons, is important to Korean literature)
As if that isn’t enough, in the character of the mother particularly, we can see the double, maybe triple-psychology of the mother, whose multiple nature at times borders on the schizophrenic. She looks down on those she can, and licks the boots of those who she thinks are superior. She routinely lies herself, but considers lies immoral. All of her thought, actions, and morality are plastic when presented with threats, except for the one over-riding belief that she has – the family MUST succeed. This concept, like that of division, is also a national one being played out in a local setting. Korea is, after all, the country that says “When whales fight (China and Japan), shrimp (Koreans) are crushed.”
This makes Mother’s Stake I an interesting book to read, because as you go through the relatively simple and entertaining plot, you can glimpse as deeply as you care into the abysses beneath.
The last thing a potential reader needs to thing about this book is that Mother’s Stake I is this first section of a longer work which includes Mother’s Stake II, which is available as a free PDF online at the Korea Journal and is included in MODERN KOREAN FICTION: AN ANTHOLOGY published by Columbia University Press in 2005 where it is titled “Mother’s Hitching Post”), and the so far untranslated Mother’ Stake III, it much the sketchbook (if it is fair to say that) for Pak’s last translated work, Who Ate Up All the Shinga, which re-traced the themes and many of the specific stories found here. It is interesting to note that Mother’s Stake I seems much more light-hearted than Shinga and far less interested in how this part of Pak’s life influenced, or created, her as an author. Perhaps this is merely the difference of an author beginning her career (though Pak started writing at the relatively late age of 40) I don’t think most readers will be concerned there are duplications across these works, since the differences are noticeable and Shinga is complete, while Mother’s Stake, which can be read as complete, is actually a fragment of a larger work, and one that was later reprised.
The story is almost cute as the daughter starts in a nostalgic and romantic state from which the mother rips her, untimely. The mother, who has been up in Seoul, swoops down and pulls the daughter up to Seoul. The mother does this on a wave of superiority which slowly washes away as the she and her daughter approach Seoul and have to settle outside the walls of Seoul. Some of the writing here is really nice, and the text flows easily along. Once Seoul is reached, the contradictions appear as the mother is both obsequious and arrogant, referring to those she feels to be her social inferiors as “good for nothings” and “lowest of the low.”
Still, by dint of hard work, the mother wins a house (albeit outside the walls of Seoul) and is able to begin to see the fruits of her plan to ‘upgrade’ her family by getting to Seoul. Even the war can’t completely derail the plan, as the daughter obliquely note that the brother made some money during the “social confusion” of the post war world. But the stake remains, and the Pak’s are still attached to. At the same time the walls of division remain, and the Pak’s are still reminded of them. In a lovely, short, ending Pak delicately lodges the thought that these stakes and these divisions will be with us all our lives.
Translator Yu Yung-nan (also notable as being the mother of translator Chi-Young Kim), does a good job throughout, and everyone should be able to read this.
Paperback: 204 pages
Publisher: ASIA Publishers (2012)
NOTE ABOUT THE COLLECTION
There are actually three collections here, “Bi-lingual Edition Modern Korean Literature Volume One”, Volume Two, and Volume Three has just been published. The collections are of 15 small volumes each, and each collection is broken into topics with the first collections comprising Division, Industrialization, and Women; the second comprising Liberty, Love, and North/South, and; the third collection comprising Seoul, Tradition, and Avant Garde
In addition, each story comes with a kind of critical summary, several bits of critical analysis, and a biography of the author. When these pieces are put together, it makes the stories much easier to read, as the necessary cultural and historical background is neatly presented to the reader.
NOTE: This review originally incorrectly said that Mother’s Stake II had not been translated into English. That error has been corrected. Thanks to translator Suzanne Crowder Han for the correction!