There is an interesting admission in the Translator’s Preface to The Snowy Road — and Other Stories.The translator’s note, that “the stories have a similar and undeniably Eastern flavor with neither dramatic incident tor tantalizing episode.” (13) and then go on to characterize the “unique” nature of Korean literature as “a technique that might be compared to watching a gentle ripple on a pond.” (14)
The first two stories, unfortunately, live up to this lowered expectation. Balloon by Chun Yeang-hee seems to take place on Jeju, since it is an island that has two hours worth of train travel. But beyond that I’m not sure what I was expected, or even hoped to make of this story. Beyond its semi-amusing/semi-disgusting conceit of a child cleaning condoms to make balloons, the story seems completely random. There are symbolic water-birds, weepings, and mini-tombs, but any meaning is completely opaque.
Yoo Ik-suh’s Purchased Bridegroom is slightly better, a man is forced by his boss into marrying the boss’s crippled daughter for the promise of future riches. The crippled woman is healed through surgery and decides that her husband is no longer fit for her. He reacts oddly, leaving before the parents can pay him the cash settlement they clearly want, nearly need to pay him. At the conclusion, the narrator somewhat cryptically (at least to a Western reader) seems mainly upset that somehow shamed the parents and his ex-wife. Why this might be is unclear, and if it revolves around some aspect of Korean culture, the western reader will never know it.
Things begin to look up with Bum-shin Park’s Trap, a Poe-esque tale of evil monsters and possession. A mad dog, family trauma, and a crippled communist combine to make this story menacing on many levels, and at the end, even though the narrator leaves the town and home that haunt him, she cannot leave her memories behind.
Next is Echo, Echo by Jung Rae-cho, one of those stories that shows the underlying cultural difficulties in translation. This is a story rich with meaning if you can follow along with a) the history it is referring to and, b) the rich irony that is often in the book (to understand the ironies you certainly have to understand the history). I don’t intend to follow this up today, but will post a much larger post tomorrow. In any case, the book follows the tragically picaresque course of a families’ life in post-colonial Korea.
The last two stories in this collection are classics. Chung Joon-yee’s The Snowy Road is heartrending. The translation in this volume seems to be the same as the translation in the Hollym series, which has been reviewed on KTLIT in a longer form that makes additional comment here superfluous. Pak Wan-so’s Winter Outing is bit less meaty, but still amply rewarding – a sobering mixture of personal alienation and a horrific story of the impact of political bifurcation. An alienated wife travels to the country and meets a heartbreaking victim of internecine Korean brutality. At the end, maybe, both feel a little bit better.
If you find this book, it might be worth picking up. It is worth noting that its best two stories (The Snowy Road and Winter Outing) are available in better books elsewhere (The Hollym Snowy Road and in Land of Exile, respectively). I wouldn’t necessarily spend a lot of time tracking the collection down, but then again with Amazon you don’t have to and as a bonus you can get it on Kindle.^^