Review: My Innocent Uncle by Ch’ae Man-shik

Ch'ae Man-shik (채만식)

Ch'ae Man-shik (채만식)

My Innocent Uncle is a Jimoondang/KLTI volume that contains the title story, the Korean classic A Ready Made Life and  Once Upon a Paddy. All of these works are by Ch’ae Man-shik who noted translator Brother Anthony has described as “perhaps the greatest master of satire in Korean fiction.

My Innocent Uncle is one of the funniest translated stories I have  read. The story is told by, “I” a perfectly un-self-aware narrator frothing and fuming (and continually misunderstanding) his “scotchalist” uncle. I is an unrepentant fan of Japanese colonialism and can’t understand his uncle’s resistance. I is self-admittedly undereducated and politically naïve at best, and the passages in which he engages with his uncle are classic examples of the ignorant butting heads with themselves. Reading this story I was inexorably reminded of some of the stupider citizens of my own nation tossing the appellation/epithet ‘socialist’ at politicians with whom they don’t agree.  The story is short, and at the end, as the narrator wishes his socialist uncle would die (again, there seem to be some parallels with current politics) the reader can only chuckle at his foolishness.

The story is funny enough on its own merits, but it is also an extended metaphor of Japanese colonialism, with the happily retarded and collaborationist narrator’s dumbfoundedness at his uncle (a symbol of the attenuated Korean culture) and his refusal just to go away. Broken, ill, and with no reason (from the narrator’s point of view) to go on, the uncle, and thus Korea, just endures.(NOTE: A different version of this story can be downloaded from the Korea Journal, here)

A Ready-Made Life features Mr. P., a narrator who is certainly mis-used by his society; he is over-educated, underemployed, and overly bitter, but also a narrator who seems deeply unaware, unwise, self-centered, and an absurd daydreamer who seems at least in part responsible for his own plight. That plight is that he is part of the intellegentsia and in an annoying section of straightforward explication the story explains that there is no place for such a character in the “new” Korea. It is  likely that the “new” Korea here is intended to be a result of Japanese “modernization” of Korea and thus the narrator’s plight is related to colonialism, but that point is largely lost in translation

There are two subplots in which P comes off as a prig and a prick respectively, and these characterizations of him substantially lessen any sympathy that a reader might have for him. Again, it is likely that these plots would be more accessible to a Korean, for instance, the subplot in which P denies his son education has been analzyed:

A closer look reveals Ch’aes keen awareness of the oppressiveness of Japanese imperialism. Although Ch’ae doesnt prominently emphasize the Japanese responsibility in Ps displaced life, Western modernization and liberalism in colonized Korea came along with  the process of Japanese colonization, frustrating Koreans competence and planting defeatism by means of the policies of assimilation. Following this  line of thought, preventing his son from getting education in a colonized  country can be read as a passive way to fight against the Japanese imperial projects of civilization and modernization. Nonetheless, Ps son as well as P is incarcerated victims of colonization.

But that’s hard sledding for a casual western reader and thus the story is as well.

The final story is Once Upon a Paddy, a relatively one-note story which makes the point that, while there were many evil things to the Japanese colonization of Korea, the position of the peasant was not materially, worse, in fact might have been better. It ends with a nasty twist, suggesting that the ‘new’ Joseon might be just as bad for peasants as the old one had been.

This is a great trio of stories to read with a deep understanding of the colonial period. My Innocent Uncle, however, is funny enough on its own merits that it can be read for the clash of political beliefs and intelligence levels.

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