Over at the Korean Cultural Center I checked out a copy of Modern Korean Fiction An Anthology, Edited by Bruce Fulton and Youngmin Kwon. While I do have serious reservations about this anthology, I have to say that if you judge the anthology in a vacuum, it is certainly an adequate introduction to Korean modern literature. It represents a much larger problem in Korean Literature translation, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.
The anthology contains a sampling of stories that can roughly be divided into three categories: Works that have been anthologized to death and then again in their afterlife; new works of some interest, and; trifling works that are fun to read, but don’t step across the line from ordinary. In reverse order:
The “can’t miss” stories are Coarse Sand, Lizard, The Son, and A Lucky Day. A fistful of other stories are also quite good.
Perhaps most worthy of mention is The Son, by Kim Puk-yang, which interesting because of how bad it is. It is the typical Juche love story – boy meets State, boy falls in love with State, boy loses State, through steadfast self-criticism boy and State end up co-joined in eternal bliss. It is alarming how predictable and uninteresting it is, all the way up to and through it’s choreographed ending in which you can almost hear the Pyongyang Symphony playing some triumphant march written by Kim Jong-il.
On to the “interesting by way of being good” category:
Lizard, by Kim Young-ha is an impressionistic ghost story of a woman’s sexual coming of age. Lizard features a, well, lizard of course, as well as interstitial quotes from Jim Morrison and an ending that is ambiguous at best.
Coarse Sand, by Hwang Su-won, is a tragic and terrifying tale of a son’s love for his mother.
A Lucky Day, has a predictable ending, but entirely redeems it through Hyon Chin-gon’s sad portrayal of love and denial in marriage.
My Innocent Uncle, by Chae Man-shik has a foot in two categories. It is multiply translated, but it is also one of the few translated stories in which Korean humor clearly comes through as a Japanese sympathized satirizes his nationalist uncle, and in doing so actually satirizes himself.
Footprints in the Snow, by Yi Chong-jun is also known as Snowy Road (in a Hollym publication) and I have reviewed it separately here.
The Old Hatter, by the reliable Yi Munyol, is a touching tale of generational change featuring an artisan who the world has left behind.
Pak Wan-so’s Mother’s Hitching Post is in her line of touching family stories that use the family story to explore the costs of the Korean War. It is a bit too long for what it tries to do, and there are certainly better Pak stories out there.
O Chong-hui’s Wayfarer has been multiply published, but is also in the interesting camp with its story of a woman who has been banished by her friends and family. Her crime, perhaps of self-defense, is withheld until the stories’ conclusion and I’m guessing makes even more sense to a Korean reader than an English speaking one, as it seems to be commenting on Korean sexual mores of the time, which would be less murky to a Korean.
Potatoes, by Kim Tongin. There is not much to say about this except that it is perhaps the second most anthologized short story in Korean translated literature. It tells the story of a woman’s degradation and death.
The Shaman Painting, by Kim Tong-ni is an evocation of the power struggle between Christianity and Shamanism. I have discussed this briefly in one of my pieces on lack of agency in Korean literature.
Wings by Yi Sang is a retranslation that I have already reviewed here.
When the Buckwheat Blooms by Lee Hyo-seok, is perhaps the most anthologized of all translated Korean literature, and to my mind the most inexplicable. It has a plot twist that is clear from the second page and which is arrived at in plodding and circuitous fashion.
Seoul: 1964, Winter is another multiply translated work that probably doesn’t deserve it.
Crows by Yi Tae-jun, is the slight story of a love that remains unfulfilled when interrupted by death. It is somewhat similar to Kim Yong-ik’s Love in Winter.
The White Rabbit by Kim Yu-jong is one of the most trifling of the trifles, centering on two young lovers(?) and the gift of a rabbit.
The Ritual at the Well, by Choi Chong-hui attempts to intertwine a larger economic story, the abandonment of a village by its landowners, with the chaotic breakdown of an annual ceremony. I found it confusing and ultimately unrewarding.
Far From Home by Lee Hok-chul is a predictable tale of “sworn” friendship decaying due to chaotic social conditions.
Ballad, by Choi Il-lam is a mosaic of six shorter stories, and I was hard-pressed to see how they connected.
Another Man’s Room, by Choe In-ho is an enigmatic cyclic story of a man (apparently) returning home to find his wife unexpectedly away.
Cho Se-hui’s The Knifeblade is one of the short stories from his series combined into, The Dwarf. For this one, I’d skip the short story and just buy the bigger book.
This just seems like a lot of trifling and redundant stories compared to really stellar ones. And, to be honest, some of the redundant stories are also trifling ones, often as a result of their translation into English.