A Ready Made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction, selected and translated by Kim Chongun and Bruce Fulton (and as usual a brilliant translation!) is a collection of stories written during the Korean colonial period (1910-45). With a very few exceptions it is a great collection, and would be a good starting point for a reader interested in early modern Korean fiction or Korean history of the colonial period.
The collection begins with the story for which it is named, A Society that Drives you to Drink, by Hyeon Chin-Gon. It’s a sad little story, telling the tale of a married couple for whom things just didn’t work out. The husband went away to Tokyo to get an education, which was something both men and women aspired to (for the female version of this story, one needs look no further than Kyeonghui (1918) by the tragic Na Hye-seok which is available in the collection Questioning Minds). He returns to Korea and the factional splits in Korean intellectual circles and the general lack of opportunity prevent him from doing anything with his education. In despair he turns to the bottle, making neither him nor his wife happy.
The Lady Barber, by Na To-Hyang, is an amusing trifle of a story. A student pawns his nightclothes for a little bit of money, and spends the story deciding how to spend it. He decides to spend less than half of it on a hair-cut, but when he is confronted by a lady-barber his plans change in a way this is predictable, amusing, then sad.
A Tale of Rats by Yi Ki-Kyeong is another amusing story, this time a parable of Korean society as told by Thunder Giant, the father in a family of rats who live in the landlord’s house. Thunder Giant neatly and quite sarcastically (not on purpose) lays bare the economic lines drawn in Korean society and the lack of humanity underlying human relations. There are several funny scenes, including the rats papering their nest with paper money, and Yi manages to tie the story together with an ironic and largely happy ending.
The Rotary Press by Yom Sang-Seop (More well know for the voluminous Three Generations), is a small slice of life showing the stresses of life in economic uncertainty. A small newspaper press awaits a lifeline loan, and while waiting, the stresses and similarities between employees play out in mini-psychodramas.
An Idiot’s Delight by Yi T’aejun, is one of that genre of Korean stories you can either stand or not stand – the casual without an apparent meaning or end – Fulton calls it a “character sketch”. These casual stories straightforwardly relate some kinds of interactions between people and then without drawing a conclusion or ending, just stop. In this case the interactions are, at least, mostly amusing between a newcomer to a small village and the village idiot.
A Ready Made Life is by the brilliant Ch’ae Man-Sik (also well known for My Innocent Uncle, Peace Under Heaven, and the epically amusing Constable Maeng) Ch’ae is a satirist of the first order, though this story is along grumpier lines than Ch’ae’s classic satires. It is similar to A Society That Drives A Man to Drink, in that it tells the story of a character who can’t find a position suitable to his talents. A Ready Made Life also contains a really nice one-page summary of the social realities of the time, and how colonialization turned them inside out, and how intellectuals and peasants bore the brunt of the changes. It’s worth reading just for that. In any case, the narrator’s life is soon complicated, and given meaning, by a change in his family, and the ending is bittersweet.
Translation Note: The Taewongun was regent from 1864 to 1873, who reformed and modernized the Korean gov’t and opposed deals with Japan or the west. Viewed as a troublemaker he was kidnapped for three years during which most of his reforms were rolled back.
Kim Tong-in, who writes The Photograph and the Letter, was one of those intellectuals who was sent to Japan for an education, and this story is a beautiful small story of a love-affair between a man and a woman in which the woman masterfully manipulates the man. As professor Fulton notes, this story is sui generis
Mama and the Boarder, by Chu Yo-Seop features one of those preternaturally precocious narrators that can be annoying as nails on a chalkboard. Ok-hui is a six year old living with her widowed mother and uncle. And she can be cloying, moving from precocity to stupidity with amazing alacrity – at one point being taught how to play the organ at school and remembering “seeing something that looked just like our kindergarten organ sitting at the far end of our room.” The story is also a bit of a drag, featuring a love affair that for social reasons must be broken up, and unless a reader is quite interested in that sort of thing, this is a story that he/she might skip.
A Descendant of the Hwarang, by Kim Tong-ni, is a subtle and clever story about an old man who takes airs that he does not deserve. Hwang is an old gentleman who fancies himself a Yangban, and in fact, deep in the story announces that he has descended from the Hwarang (A group of warriors that later devolved into “perfume boys.” Amusingly, Wikipedia informs us that the word can also mean a male prostitute). Despite an odd history, Hwarang have been mythologized into noble importance and claiming them as ancestors is to claim one of the noblest lineages. And yet, Hwang is a constantly unhealthy lecher, perhaps a collaborator, and completely trapped by the obsolete code of the Yangban. Hwang will not marry a wealthy widow, but he will sell snake-oil (almost literally). A funny story to read, and watch the subtle and not-so-sublte cues that Kim uses to reveal the ‘real’ Hwang.
Wife by Kim Yu-jeong (who also wrote Camellias, among other works), like Photograph and Letter, looks at the battle between the sexes from a rather unusual perspective. Narrated by a woodcutter with an ugly wife, it manages to combine wife-beating, adultery, and stupidity into a kind of love story. The narrator’s voice is quite unique, and even as he comes off as a bit of a brute, and his wife a bit of a vain (despite her looks) idiot, the story is perversely amusing, nothing quite so amusing as the narrator’s final recognition of where the value in their marriage comes from.
When the Buckwheat Blooms, by Yi Hyo-seok, makes yet another appearance in an anthology (it must be the most translated work of Korean fiction), and it continues to be slow, obvious, and without conclusion – somewhere between the casual/character sketch mentioned above and an unfinished meditation on the cycles of time. If you haven’t read it elsewhere, take a gander. If, like me, you’ve seen it dozens of times, skip it.^^
Mystery Woman by Yi Kwangsu (the extremely famous author of the “first modern novel,” patriot, collaborator, and more) is another casual/character sketch that seems to be more of a writing exercise than a story.
The Haunted House by Ch’oe Cheong-hui is of the same nature. It’s a traditional (in the western sense) horror story, with all of the elements put nicely together and then just allowed to trickle to nothing in a way that might have seemed evocative in the original Korean, but just seems incomplete in translation. There are four-eyed old hags, threatening night-time shadows, and a bug-eyed, lip-twitching gourd mask, but it all adds up to nothing.
The Barbershop Bo by Pak Tae-won is another story of the plotless kind, but it works because it is actually a story /description of a neighborhood. Chae-bong is the shampoo boy at the barbershop and when he is not shampooing he sits at the window apparently looking out aimlessly. But as the story enters his mind, we discover that he is actually a quite perceptive viewer of the neighborhood and perhaps an equally good judge of who people are and what they do. This story, despite its plotlessness, is quite charming.
Yi Sang, perhaps most famous for his work Wings, is well known to all fans of Korean literature. Here his contribution is a short story, Phantom Illusion. Phantom Illusion is a schizophrenic tale about a three way love affair which included a character named Yi Sang.^^ A small story, but interesting in its way.
Hwang Sun-won, who I have called the “Dickens of Korea,” rounds out the collection with The Mule. This is a great, funny story of a kind of long con. As usual, Hwang imbues each of his characters with individual personalities and as the story unfolds you can see the clever con-man and his wife set the stage, watch the ‘wise’ village elder use scraps of previous conversations to try to impress the next person he speaks to, and watch the mark haplessly fall for the con. Everyone is an idiot in their own right, but Hwang doesn’t stop just there, as he has one last clever, but depressing, point to pass on.
This is a must-buy collection if you’re interested in Korean Modern Lit. Even the stories that don’t quite hit the mark, indicate something about Korean culture and literature in their processes..