The twenty stories have been carefully chosen and are meant to give English speakers a taste of early modern Korean literature. While the majority are in the range of twenty to thirty pages, they range from a couple of fairly brief stories to one hundred-page novella. There's also a variety of writers, with thirteen different authors represented (from memory, only two female writers, though), and the stories mainly span the last couple of decades of the colonial period, a couple coming shortly after.
Some of the better stories in the collection come from writers I was already familiar with. The two by Yi Sang ('Child's Bone' and 'Dying Words'), while not quite as good as his famous story 'Wings', are recognisably by the same writer. The same could be said for Yi Kwang-su's 'Gasil', an entertaining (if didactic) folk tale. Another well-known name is Ch'ae Man-sik, and his two contributions, 'Transgressor of the Nation' and 'Frozen Fish', are among the longer and more impressive stories.
However, there were also several good stories by writers I hadn't previously encountered. Examples include Kim Yu-jeong's humorous story 'The Golden Bean Patch' and Kim Sa-ryang's excellent piece 'Into the Light', a story originally written in Japanese, which looks at Korean-Japanese relations in Tokyo. I also enjoyed the two stories by Kim Nam-cheon, 'After Beating Your Wife...' and 'Management', both of which were slightly more complex than some of the earlier tales in the collection.
As the collection covers a relatively short period of history, it's unsurprising that there are several recurring themes. Many of the earlier stories examine the harsh life of the poor, particularly farmers, during the Japanese colonial period, with tales of hunger and drought aplenty. Women also feature heavily, but not always in a good way. Some feature mainly to be beaten or abandoned by their husbands, but others tire of a life of poverty and end up running off with richer men. As I said, there's a heavy bias towards male writers here...
Another common subject is the political side of the occupation. There are some stories where writers and intellectuals must weigh up the consequences of remaining true to their beliefs under the colonial system, and few pieces are completely free of the shadow of the Japanese presence. Even those from after liberation look back at the occupation, examining the consciences of people who didn't protest as much as they might have.
While not all of the stories are wonderful (and a few of the translations are a little stilted), this is an excellent (free!) collection of stories - so why haven't I reviewed it properly? Well, dear reader, the truth is that I already have, in great detail, on my Youtube channel! Over the past couple of months, I've recorded fifteen short videos covering all the stories and compiled them on this playlist, so if you're interested in my thoughts, just click on the link, and away you go :)
Before I leave you to check it out, though, I'll just show you where you can access the stories (which is far more important!). For Apple devices, go here; for the Google Play app, go here. And if, like me, you need the PDFs, just click on this link. There you go - lots of free stories at your fingertips :)
That's all for now, but it's far from the end of my Korean reading - or even my Youtube activities. You see, in addition to the twenty stories discussed today, LTI Korea has also provided fifteen more modern stories for everyone to try. It looks like my Youtube Channel may have a new playlist in the not-too-distant future...