Review of Cho Seon-jak’s “The Preview and Other Stories”

Cho Sun Jak’s The Preview and Other Stories is a collection of pundan munhak (separation literature) that overcomes its uniformly depressing subjects through Cho’s human writing style; sometimes humorous, often bawdy, always presenting a personal story, usually a family story told from the perspective of a young boy (For more information on Cho Sun Jak, as he is called on this book, please check out the Cho Seon-jak Wikipedia page, which was put up by our very own Wikipedia Project).

These stories are set in and after the Korean War. Included is Cho’s The Tomb of The Patriots, which won Generation’s top writing prize in 1971 and was also adapted as a TV drama by MBC television in Korea. That famous story ends with a john and his hooker contemplating marriage while returning from a ceremony marking the mass-murder that claimed their parents. And that’s the cheeriest story in the collection. So, of course, it is not allowed to stand. The follow-up story to this, Young-ja’s Heyday, shows the john shacking up with another prostitute, a one-armed former crush who had spurned him when she had two arms. She eventually burns to death in a fire.

Cho writes quite detailed and complicated stories. One of the most complicated is the title story, Preview, which features a boy, his brother, half-sister, friend-enemy, insane father, and the people’s revolution. The boy and his brother and half-sister are returning to their bombed out home, where they left their homicidal father locked in the bathroom. They run into the narrator’s boyhood “friend” Jong-bok, sexually precocious and criminal, who shows them how to survive in the burnt out town. There is bizarre sexuality in the story, the narrator is clearly attracted to his half-sister and there is a scene of multiple mutual masturbation, the first I’ve ever seen in translated Korean literature. The story ends with the father’s execution and the narrator sobbing about how absurd everything is.

Other stories of particular note include the tragic story of two brothers, Rats are Delicious, which hinges on a tragic plot twist similar to that Kim Yong-ik used in his Mother’s Birthday. High Tension Wires is an amusing and depressing tale of a harried husband who buys a house under high-tension wires and ends up cheated by his real estate agent. The other stories are also good, featuring trapped children, prostitutes with hearts of gold, and a generally corrupt society. In The Wall, another young boy faces the dissolution of his family and the quite literal separation of his neighborhood from the rest of the city he lives in. An Exemplary Tale is, of course(!) a story about prostitution and deceit. The Art Competition follows a beaten-down art teacher attempting to deal with corruption at all levels of Korean society. What Eun-ha Said is the story of an unlucky prostitute who unsuccessfully attempts to change her luck by changing her name. Looking For Father ends the collection with the depressing story of a young boy and his family trying unsuccessfully to find the body of their paterfamilias, killed in a massacre that makes identification of bodies problematic.

Despite the generally dolorous tone of Cho’s work, the stories are engaging and you find yourself rooting for his doomed characters even as their lives implode. As an introduction to pundan munhak, this collection has the advantage of its compelling family stories, and it, along with the work of Park Wan-so, is a great place to begin to build your understanding of Korean literature, modern history, and modern culture.