Review: On the Eve of the Uprising and Other Stories from Colonial Korea

On the Eve of the Revolution and Other Stories from Colonial Korea collects six stories from the colonial era (1910-45, when Korea was under the Japanese boot) and the immediate post-liberation era. It begins with a great introduction by the editor, which helps build context for the book as a whole, and each story is introduced by a brief biography of the author.

One thing that is certainly interesting about this book is that three of its authors Park Tae-won, Kim Namcheon and Yi Tae-jun actually returned to the North during the liberation era.

It’s difficult to remember now, with South Korea so very successful and North Korea so very, well, not quite as successful, but at the time of national division, North Korea was seen as a very real option in comparison to South Korea. The North was seen as more idealistic and more peasant-based. One thing these moves to the North meant, of course, were that these works weren’t published until the late 1980s, when the democratization movement made it possible for politically suspect authors to be published.

As the book (and a bit of research elsewhere reveals) this return to the north turned out variously for the authors. Pak Tae-wan seems to have done the best, living until the age of 76 although he did suffer a period in which he was officially purged, he was later reinstated. Kim Namcheon didn’t have it as well. Although he was an ardent socialist he did not survive very long in the North, dying in 1953 believed to be the victim of a political purge. Yi Taejun, no one really knows about, he just kind of disappears in 1956, and the assumption is the he too was the victim of a purge[1]

The first story is Yom SangSop’s On the Eve of the Uprising. Yom is the same guy who wrote the epically long Three Generations. This story was strongly influenced by Japanese writing style (first person, confessional) of the time. The narrator is a rather selfish man named Inwha, a Korean studying in Japan. He has adopted a philosophy of self-reliance that is actually more like a philosophy of use everyone around you. At the same time he suffers from constant racial discrimination, both in Japan and at home. When he hears that his wife is dying (he was married quite young and she got ill during childbirth, which occurred while he is in Japan. Inwha is also a bit of a misogynist, and women might not enjoy reading his treatment of them, particularly his dying wife.

It’s kind of funny to read, since the balance of power in Korea at that time was quite different – the narrator goes on at great lengths about how if you want to understand Korea, you have to understand Busan. Today, of course, you’d say that about Seoul, although Busan is extremely pretty.

Escape, by Ch’oe  Seohae is a much briefer piece, an epistolary story set in the Korean diaspora in Mongolia. Its writer/narrator is Pak, who is responding to a letter his friend Kim, still in Korea, has sent him. Kim accuses Pak of deserting his family, including a wife, aging mother, and young child. Pak moves to Mongolia believing it is a land of opportunity, but when he gets there he finds it just as economically bleak and economically divided as Korea. Pak then joins a band of Korean guerillas and fights. The story ends with Pak declaring his grief at losing his family, but re-declaring his intent to fight on for equality.

Samnyong the Mute is by Na Tohyang, who died tragically early at the age of 24 of tuberculosis – just about the same age and from the same disease that Yi Sang (you will later note this is a case of subtle foreshadowing!)  died of. When you read these author biographies, you often get a peek into the very difficult times Korea went through in the 20th century.

Samnyong is a mute servant, mistreated by the son of his master, but deeply intellectually entrenched in the class structure of the time, so not inclined make a point of his lowly status. But as he slowly falls in love with the mistreated wife of his master’s son, and gets thrashed for it.  In the end he makes a pyrrhic attack on the household and the ending is, well, unusual and I’ll let readers discover why that is. It’s a kind of pastoral semi-tragedy.

A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist, by Pak Tae-won is much more modern. As the title suggests it is one day of Kubo’s life, recorded by order of events, and told in a very modern stream of consciousness way interspersed with similarly stream of consciousness forays into memory. As an added bonus, this story is also illustrated, and by another very famous Korean writer – none other than Yi Sang, the famous author of Nalgae, or Wings. The two, apparently, were best friends.  Kubo takes us on a tour of Seoul, traveling to Gwangwhamun, bars, teahouses, a train station, even past a row of prostitutes. There are little black and white drawings by Yi, that capture the vignettes Kubo tells. Kubo’s day ends on a little note of random happiness, and this is a fun story to read, and told in a very comprehensible way.

The last two stories were of the least interest to me, and I suspect to any casual reader, being philosophical and dryly historical in order.

Barley, by Kim Nam’chon, begins with Mugyong, a landlord, bidding goodbye to some tenants. As she prepares for a lecturer to move in she spends some time considering her won love history, and this leads us into a story that attempts to discuss issues of philosophy, primarily Western versus Eastern versions. There are some interesting discussions, but this is definitely one of the more dated pieces in the collection, when it spends a lot of time arguing that westerners who visit Korea see it’s “westerness” as inferior copies of the west  – an argument that should have largely been buried by the miracle on the Han.

It is interesting that the only person who has fixed a philosophy and has anything resembling a happy ending is Shiyoung (Mugyong’s ex boyfriend), who changes from being a kind of leftist to embracing Japanese Pan-asianism intellectually, and a daughter of the Japanese power structure physically.

The last story is Before and After Liberation by Yi Taejun. It begins just at the end of the war as Korean are still being conscripted into the Japanese army, but the likelihood of Japanese collapse seems likely. The narrator, Hyon, is being hassled to change his name to a Japanese one. Hyon moves to the countryside, but cannot escape the issues of the larger society and realizes his writing has just been a “pastime” The Japanese continue to pressure him to do various unpatriotic things and as it all comes to a head, the Japanese surrender.

Here the story gets a little confusing, as Yi starts attempting to describe all the writer’s groups and counter-groups that formed just after colonialism ended, and all the political winds blowing in Seoul. It really turns into a history lesson here, and not so much of a story. Basically, by the end of the story everything has kind of collapsed and all people share are two things, first, a desire that the country NOT be divided, and second, a suspicion about the motives of their countrymen.

There is one more interesting thing I discovered on, and that is the amazing range of prices you can pay for this book

The cheapest copy of On the Eve of the Uprising is $38.87, there are three for sale at around that price. Then it jumps up to $114.73 and keeps going up all the way to..

Wait for it….

$453,03 and then $1,189.52
(Note, the prices have moved down a bit, with the most expensive current offer being for $417.02)