Review: “The Good People” by Oh Yong-su

Good People CoverThe Good People: Korean Stories, is by Oh Yong-su. This book has some overlap with Loess Valley, but this is unlikely to be a problem for most readers as Good People does not seem to exist online, and Loess Valley is available for the bargain price of $297.00 used!

So, as I work through this excellent book of naturalistic stories, I will also link the stories in it, if and when they exist online or in other books.

Nami and the Taffyman is a sad story about requited love that is not fulfilled. Told with lovely little details, a maid named Nami accidentally meets a traveling taffyman and through two semi-chance occurrences, one including the children she cares for and the other a buzzing bee, they fall in love. In 1949, however, when the story was published, despite the colonial-era literary mandate for modernism and “free love” (not in the western sense), the average Korean was still an a very Confucian environment, and the story ends on a note of semi-understood pathos.

An online version of Nami and Taffyman can be found at the Korea Journal, here: http://www.ekoreajournal.net/issue/view_pop.htm?Idx=737 and in several collections of Korean short storied including Loess Valley, but these collections seem to be out of print.

Korean colleagues tell me that The Woman from Hwasan may be Oh’s most famous story for Korean readers. A brief story, it is a reasonably good representation of the kind of gap that Korea’s lightning-quick economic development could open between mother and son, with an old village-dwelling mother making an unexpected visit to her son and his family. There is also a typo in the page header which calls the work The Woman from Hwsan.^^

Uncle (called Uncle Soldier in other translations) is another short, sad story, of a young boy, Hyong,  who comes to idolize a soldier who guards what used to be the boy’s school. The soldier and the boy come to be friends, but when the soldier is called away to active duty the friendship is threatened. The soldier continues, however, to write Hyong, in hopes that they will one day reunite.

This story is available in Loess Valley and online here: http://www.ekoreajournal.net/issue/view_pop.htm?Idx=391

The Seaside Village is an interesting story with a convoluted plot and what can only be described (in a modern voice) as horrific sexual politics. A war-widow falls in love with a new man, who really kind of sexually attacks her into it. When the new relationship begins to follow the path of the old (her new husband is drafted) she returns to her hometown and its welcoming community.

This story is also in Loess Valley and Modern Korean Short Stories and Plays – Seoul: Korean Centre, International P.E.N., 1970,or can be found online: http://www.ekoreajournal.net/issue/view_pop.htm?Idx=275

The Seaside was also made into a movie, which can be watched in 20 segments, with English subtitles, on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lH1ylEyKWyw

A Death At The Mill is a tragi-comic story of a boy who grows up with out love, and so transfers that love to money, and becomes a money-lending miser. There are at least two comic set-pieces in this sad story, and at the end the reader will likely agree with its sentiment that life is to be enjoyed while it can be lived. This story does not seem to be available anywhere else, which is a pity as it is one of Oh’s finest.

Spring’s Awakening is a short and clever double-entendre of a title, for a short and amusing story (and again, Oh fills his pages with clever vignettes) of a young maid, her charge, and her new love. Oh does a really great job of capturing two different ages, the fickleness  and inattention of childhood, and the blossoming of love in spring.

Migratory Birds is charming, optimistic and depressing all in one packet. A shoeshine boy from Busan re-unites with his teacher in Seoul. Kuchil, the shoeshine boy, is a classic Korean character; he works extremely hard at his plan for success and occasionally even achieves a bit of it. Twined in with that story is the fact that he is repeatedly forced to be on the move, and the stories’ metaphor, of non-seasonal migration applies to Kuchil and all the Korean refugees. This story, and Uncle are the only two vaguely political stories in the book, a topic to which we will shortly return.

This story can be found online: http://www.ekoreajournal.net/issue/view_pop.htm?Idx=904

The Girl from an Island is the story of Wollye, a one-time haenyo  who now works as a maid in a family that eventually moves to Seoul. When she sees, in a dream, a vision of her lost lover, she returns to her island. This is a lovely story full of affection of all sorts, and the concluding paragraph, a dream of a second sort, is a gem.

Which brings me to mention the excellent translation here – everything in this slight volume is extremely literary; it reads as though it were originally written in English by a highly skilled writer. Marshall R. Pihl was one of the first reliable translators of Korean fiction, and this may be some of his best work, perhaps because the stories are relatively short, full of lively vignettes, well-drawn characters and clever symbols.

The Girl From an Island can be found online at: http://www.ekoreajournal.net/issue/view_pop.htm?Idx=1159

Back to the stories, we come to Wine.  And, perhaps because I am missing my good drinking buddy back home, this line pops out at me to represent the quality of the translation:

Although there are those who enjoy fine wine with their meals, the real lover of good drink will argue that one doesn’t know the soul of wine until he shares it with a close friend over bubbling bowls of pot stew in a roadside stall on a sleet-cut winter’s night.

This is confessional, intimate and nearly poetic, with the second half of the sentence boiling over with alliteratives and the whole thing generally in single syllables with the occasional double-syllable and even then normally compound words. It nicely captures the romanticism of drinking with friends and the simple focus that the narrator will soon reveal.

After this introduction, the story proper begins, with a clever but hung-over salaryman, Kim,  getting a reprieve from office-work in the form of a visit to a client. Once that business is concluded,  Kim’s real work begins, using flattery to cadge free drinks from a hideous bar owner. Oh does a nice job in this story by keeping it light, just outlining the nature of the problem.

Afterglow is the final story, apparently written just before the quite ill Oh died. It begins with an aged and very ill narrator and is a ghostly shade of an actual story; a meditation on losses of the past and the losses yet to come. It’s a nice coda to Oh’s career, if that’s what it was.

Interestingly, The Columbia Companion to modern East Asian (p. 693) literature notes that:

O’s critical reputation has not flourished in recent years. Like Hwang Sunwon, he has sometimes been labeled an outdated, escapist writer who lacks ‘historical consciousness.

As mentioned above, Oh is rarely overtly political or economic (poverty, of course laces through his stories, but only The Woman from Hwasan attempts to draw any large conclusion from this), but to me this is not anodyne, rather it is a nice contrast to the bulk of Korean fiction from this time. And the stories, of striving people doing the best they can, relying on each other in one way or another?  Well, that represents another side of Korea; the Korea that pulled through a civil war; the Korea that, at great cost, performed the miracle on the Han, and; the Korea that melted down its gold jewelry en masse to escape the IMF crisis of the last century. Little theory, cant, or met issues of the real world invades these stories, but life, in all its manifestations, pervades them.

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purely subjective things

HOW MANY BUCKWHEAT BLOSSOMS?  None – this is comprehensible to any reader, and while Korean culture permeates it at no point does this interfere with understanding.

 

YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN WARNING! May be a bit saccharine or sentimental for super-tough-guys (but they don’t read anyway^^)

ILLUSTRATING A POINT: The cover, which looks like a jumble of wrecked fishing boats, and is in a palette that covers the entire spectrum from burnt sienna to burnt wood, really doesn’t suit the work inside. On the positive side, but also largely out of the context of the stories, there are 10 illustrations in this book that are rather nice.

 

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  1. Pingback: Oh Young-su ("Good People") goes up on the Wikipedia

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