Waxen Wings: The Acta Korean Anthology of Short Fiction from Korea, edited by Bruce Fulton, is a breakthrough in the translation and publishing of Korean short stories into English. It is the first collection of such stories that I have read in which it seemed that the criteria for choosing works included a simple analysis of whether or not the works would be enjoyable an comprehensible to Western readers who have little innate understanding of Korea or her culture. The beauty of choosing such stories is that they will draw readers in and, with sugar and not medicine, introduce them to Korean culture in general. In fact this volume is so easy to read that parsing it suggests that yet another step might be taken in translation, and that is to divide the “modern” era of Korean literature into thirds. This need is highlighted by the fact (and I NEVER thought I’d say this) that the book somewhat skips over the colonial and division periods, which I think is a good thing in total.
Waxen Wings covers the two canonical realms of Korean modern fiction although it only briefly explicitly introduces readers to the Japanese Colonial period (here defined as from 1910 to 1945) in two short stories. The first is In The Mountains, by Yi Hyo-seok the colonial importance of which is explained in a brief explanatory note which notes that the naturalist tone of the work was forced by Japanese; Yi originally wrote political works, but the Japanese colonialists suppressed the proletarian literature movement in Korea, forcing authors to less controversial subjects. In any case the story follows a man forced out of the city to the bliss he discovers in the countryside. The second work, and more traditional colonial work, is Constable Maeng by Ch’ae Man-sik. Man-sik was an author with wide skills, from the political yet funny My Innocent Uncle to the coming of age novel, Chinatown. In Constable Maeng Ch’ae, through the eyes of a constable, gives a snapshot of Korean history just after the Japanese colonization has ended. As serious work written in a light-hearted tone (just check out the constables’ definition of what it means to be a non-corrupt policeman!), it is marred only by a rather didactic final paragraph, the hammering of which destroys some of the light tone that has preceded it.
The collection changes gears here, with the allegorical Weaver Woman by O Chong-hui. Like Ch’ae, Oh has written a well-respected novel named Chinatown, though hers featured the coming of age of a female protagonist, and her short story The Bronze Mirror is included in a previous collection, The Land of Exile. Weaver Women is a meditation on barrenness in a neo-Confucian country, a meditation that is well-served by the stories’ fractured but calm structure. In many ways this is an ‘era-less’ piece as its lessons can be applied to any era of Korean history or society.
Next up, and stepping toward pundan munhak (separation literature of the civil war and post civil war era, is the redoubtable, and unfortunately recently deceased, Park Wan-suh and her We Sell Shame. Park was and is a Korean treasure, who has been extensively translated into English. From her recent “autobiographical novel Who Ate Up All the Shinga to a raft (relatively speaking) of translated short stories including In the Realm of the Buddha from the collection Red Room, Park never fails to deliver. In We Sell Shame Park combines the two themes of her authorial life, the cost of the Korean Civil War and separation with family relationships in the new economy, to which she adds a look at social life in general, and ends with a scathing attack on hagwons and cram schools, which is really a scathing attack on a society that has become obsessed with status. All this in a very few pages, three marriages, and a re-union of “friends.”
Kim Won-il’s Prison of the Heart is the longest work in the collection and directly focuses on post-war splits in Korea; it is also a complex story of semi-redemption. The narrator, a student rebel in 1960, returns to Korea as his brother, still a political rebel and under arrest because of it, begins to fail and die. Kim interlaces a variety of “then and now” scenes, which show how characters have developed and changed. There is a highly amusing scene in which the narrator and an old friend discuss the current (the story takes place in 1989) unrest and the friends bemoans that today’s protestors won’t wait until yesterday’s protesters are making over 10,000 per year. Using a series of flashbacks, Kim portrays the strength of his mother in the post-colonial and civil war periods – this is a strength that is sapped by the impending death of her political son. The story contrasts bible versus socialism, youth versus age, dreams versus reality. There are lots of big ideas in this story, but Kim manages to herd them all, by placing them firmly within the lives of his characters. At the end a reader can’t help but sympathize as the narrator relives his past, and in a small and personal way, returns to glories and brotherhood of his past.
In the last third of the book, Fulton moves to what might be called “modern modern” fiction. The final four stories would be right at home in any collection of modern fiction, even though the stories are quite different from each other.
Kim Young-ha’s The Pager is an amusing and sad story of a nondescript, nearly sad-sack man who, after his fiancée leaves him for a new man and education overseas, makes a bold, amusing and completely out of his normal comfort zone move on a woman he meets in the subway. This woman, he feels, is more his type. Over the next few days Kim follows the lives of both characters as the “will they meet? won’t they meet?” tension begins to build towards a climax. Kim ends with a neat reveal that quite surprised me, and then ties the story together with one last little flourish.
Corpses,by Pyeon Hye-yeong, is a combination whodunit/horror story that works its way right under the skin of a reader. An extremely uncertain narrator is repeatedly being called out of work to identify various body parts that might belong to his wife; a wife who drowned most mysteriously while on vacation with the narrator. As the story continues, reader and narrator seem pulled down by the same aquatic suction, and the end is appropriately water-logged and creepy.
The Glass Shield by Kim Chung-yeok is creepy in its own way. It begins as a lark – a tale of two inseparable friends who prank the art world and society. By complete accident the hapless two become famous performance artists. As the story concludes, however, it becomes something different; a meditation on friendship and separation. These two disparate sections are well melded together, and while the conclusion of the story may be a bit of a downer, it still rings with truth.
I’ve saved the title story for last review, because it is the most powerful story in the book (I think Professor Fulton agrees, as it is the title story). Waxen Wings by Ha Seong-nan is a powerful fable with obvious references to the fable of Icarus in its title. Waxen Wings can be read in many ways: it can be seen as a fable of over-reaching, like Icarus, its predecessor; it can be read to mean that you should be careful what you want, for achieving it might come in forms you don’t expect; it can be read to demonstrate that even the most noble goals can have unexpected and sometimes tragic outcomes; it can be read to mean that your goals should be reasonable, in fact; it can be read in all these ways and no doubt more. Told in short sentences and flashbacks, it begins with the present, “Your watch says 3:14,” and then quickly cuts back to childhood memory, “This is very dangerous. Who started this?” Waxen Wings follows a nameless narrator through her quest to defy gravity, ignoring the obvious signs of danger that she passes on the way.
The conclusion is unexpected and poignant and one of the beauties of this story is that no matter how you read its ‘moral,’ that reading will apply, nearly seamlessly, to Korean history. It is another of the beauties of this story that most of use will also recognize its moral (whichever one they take) somewhere in the lives. A revelation of a short story, Waxen Wings makes me hope that somewhere in this world a skilled translator is busy working away on Ha’s other stories.
A note about the introduction is also in order. In just over nine pages, Fulton manages to neatly outline the history of Korean modern literature in a way that should make it accessible to the new reader. The introduction is worth reading on its own merits. I should also note that the translators and translations are varied, but all quite good. As a final bonus, at the back of the book, Fulton includes and English bibliography of each included author.
The last point I would make is that reading this collection also made me very aware of how different the fiction is by era. This thought made me wonder if, by now, we are not trying to translate too many kinds of “modern” Korean fiction into one volume, and whether it might not be useful to separate “modern” Korean fiction into three segments. After all, with Waxen Wings, Land of Exile, and Modern Korean Fiction, we seem to have the overview covered.
This was a really fun book to read and there are very few volumes of translated Korean literature about which that can be said. Fulton should be praised for going outside of the canon for themes, even if he did rely upon familiar authors, at least in the first few stories. In addition, I think these are all NEW translations and so Fulton avoids the ongoing problem of re-presenting stories considered canonical within Korean culture. In the past, when asked what to recommend for beginners at Korean literature I have, with some reservations, recommended Land of Exile, or Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology, sometimes even suggesting a complete reading of the KLTI/Jimoondang Korean Library of Translated Literature.
All of these are noble collections and good works, but Waxen Wings immediately replaces them as the introduction to Korean translated literature.
Great job all around.