Two Travelers is a collection of nine short works (including three from Ha Kun-chan) , many of which cannot be found in any other collection. Two Travelers is volume 7 of the 10 book Modern Korean Short Stories Collection, which is no longer in print and thus can only be found online, although often inexpensively. The stories are from the immediate post-Korean-war period and focus on the impacts of that war, including stories that take place during the war, and in countryside villages and cities. It is a broad collection, for the time, and despite its somber era, manages to be entertaining and even, in stretches, amusing.
Half-Holiday by So Ki-won is one of those stories that achieves amusement, even though it really isn’t a story about much. It features three friends, whose lives are intertwined in complicated ways, but the heart of it is a pair of stories that two of the friends related to each other, including a really funny story of a paranoid North Korean spy and his introduction to South Korea. The overall story kind of peters out, but it is well worth it for the story it contains of the paranoid spy.
The Spring Song, by Han Kun-chan is also an amusement, opening with old man Son-dal stripping bark in the hills. Son-dal is the village ‘singer’ and his story frames a love-triangle and wedding in the town in which he lives. The love story is both traditional and kind of sad, but Han Kun-chan lards the story with amusing little scenes, including the village-wide illness caused by an enormous wedding pig-out and a final scene in which Son-dal manages to find a song in an annoying physical ailment.
While Half-Holiday considers alienation between friends and The Spring Song tells a tale of economics, class, and love, they are both clever and amusing, which fooled me, at least, into believing that would be the tone of the book.
The next story, however, Ill-Fated Father and Son, again by Ha Kun-chan, changes that quickly. This is the tragic story of a family that has two generations of men shattered by two different wars. The White Paper Beard, once more by Ha Kun-chan, has a very similar theme and plot and the stories are obviously intended to complement each other’s descriptions of woe and damage. This particular trifecta of depression is concluded with The Color of Mugwort
by Choe Il-nam, which describes the very, well, ‘fatal’ existence of a mother and daughter.
The Hunchback of Seoul by Kwon Tae-ung allows for a more provisional vision that happiness is possible, as a hunchback and dwarf enjoys, due to a clever ruse, his first love. First loves, of course, are a roll of the dice, but the dwarf enjoys the roll (so to speak) and as the story trickles to an end, he is not necessarily happy, but neither is he destroyed, as the protagonists of the previous three stories have been.
Two Travelers, by O Yu-gwon is a kind of road-trip, in which two men meet and travel on the road. Of different ages (always problematic in Korea), the men bond over the fact that their sons are in the same division, and O does an awesome job of showing that burgeoning relationship as well as cleverly introducing a family backstory that never directly seen, concludes quite satisfactorily.
Debris, by Song Pyong-su is the story of a pilot who can’t escape his memories or, ultimately, his plane. Shot down behind enemy lines, he is a clever man using all his wits to stay free and alive, although the odds are long.
Eroica Symphony by Pak Yong-suk was the least interesting of the stories in this collection. The story is written in a rather dispassionate third-person with a narrator who often breaks the third-wall and comments directly on the actions of the plot – it’s the kind of trick that Nabokov pulled off so well in Pnin, but in Eroica Symphony it seems heavy-handed and obvious. This is an intentionally “modern” work, with a lot of didactic lecturing, a peculiar conceit at its heart, and no real plot to speak of.
Still, with that last rather flat and obvious work excepted, Two Travelers is a good collection of post-war stories that manages to cover a lot of thematic and stylistic ground. If you can pick it up online, it’s certainly worth a look.