Thursday 26 June 2014

'Modern Korean Fiction', ed. Bruce Fulton and Youngmin Kwon (Review)

Whenever I've taken my first, tentative steps into a new literary culture, I've simply gone straight for a few seminal texts, hoping to get a taste for the style from some good examples.  However, once I have more of a feel of what's going on, I always like to try a short-story collection, as it can give you a small taste of more writers (and can often show you where the next port of call should be).

Having said all that, and with 2014 being my year of Korean literature, it was inevitable that I'd get around to a K-Lit anthology sooner or later - and today's book is a great way to broaden your knowledge of what - and who - is out there :)

Modern Korean Fiction (edited by Bruce Fulton and Youngmin Kim, published by Columbia University Press, review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Footprint Books) was released back in 2005, but it still seems to be a good place to start if you're looking for Korean short stories.  It contains twenty-two pieces, arranged chronologically from the colonial period to the late nineties, and it's great value for money too, running to a good 380 pages.

As you'd expect, there's a fair sprinkling of big-name authors around.  Writers included whose work I've already tried include Kim Young-ha, Yi Mun-yol and Cho Se-hui (in fact, the stories included by those last two writers have already been read and reviewed on the blog!).  However, there are several other well-known authors who were new to me, as well as a whole host of brand-new names to discover.

One of the best stories in the collection was an absolute classic, namely Yi Sang's 'Wings' (translated by Walter K. Lew and Youngju Ryu).  It's a long, rambling monologue told by an unusual man, a kept writer whose wife sleeps with other men on the other side of a thin partition wall.  The narrator is a half-crazed innocent, who doesn't really understand what is happening - although he tries his best to work it out:
"Was there nothing else that motivated the movement of money from the guests to my wife and from my wife to me - besides "pleasure"?  I resumed my research from inside my bedding.  If it is pleasure, then what sort of pleasure?  I continued to probe.  But there was no way to answer these questions by means of under-cover investigations.  Pleasure, pleasure... To my own surprise, it was the only topic in which I felt any interest."
'Wings', p.73 (Columbia University Press, 2005)
'Wings' is a great story and beautifully written.  It comes as no surprise to find that Yi Sang lends his name to one of Korea's most prestigious literary awards.

There are several other well-known writers among the contributors.  Ch'ae Man-shik's 'My Innocent Uncle' (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is a satirical monologue about a 'lazy' uncle, a good-for-nothing who spends his time reading and thinking 'scotchalist' (socialist) thoughts.  It's a piece with a great voice, and the story develops nicely, with the reader's sympathies slowly changing the further the tale progresses.  Another interesting one is Choe In-ho's 'Another Man's Room' (tr. Kevin O'Rourke), a strange, confusing story of a man whose return home finds an empty apartment.  The thing is that we're not really sure if he's there either...

One thing I noticed in the excellent introduction is that the editors hoped that this collection would be more balanced in terms of gender than some others.  Personally, I wouldn't call four out of twenty two balanced, but there are some good stories among those four.  Park Wan-suh's 'Mother's Hitching Post' (tr. Kim Miza and  Suzanne Crowder Han) isn't one of them, though.  It's a rambling, loose tale about a rather unlikeable woman, which takes forever to get to the point.  Park may well be a revered figure in Korea, but based on this (and my previous experience), she's just not my cup of tea ;)

The other stories by female writers, however, were much more to my taste.  Ch'oe Chong-hui's 'The Ritual at the Well' (tr. Genell Y. Poitras) is a moving story where a woman goes to help with an annual ritual.  Unfortunately, things don't go to plan, and while we witness the ceremony, we find out about the problems the villagers face:
"For these young people, not even the simplest ceremony was in the realm of possibility.  Marrying off daughters would be reasonable, since that would reduce the numbers in a family.  In the case of sons, however, with food already scarce, there was fear about adding one more to the household.  This, then, was the reason, and this alone, why so many of the young folk were unmarried."
'The Ritual at the Well' (p.127)
This rural tale is nicely balanced by Ch'oe Yun's 'The Gray Snowman', a story set in the capital.  It depicts a few months in the life of a young woman in the 1980s, caught up in the underground protests against the harsh rule of the government.  It's one of the better stories here, and the subject matter definitely has shades of Shin Kyung-sook's recent novel (in English), I'll Be Right There.

The last of the female-written stories is definitely up there as best in show.  O Chong-hui's 'Wayfarer' (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) focuses on a woman just released from some kind of hospital.  Over the course of the story, we slowly learn why she was there as well as finding out about her life since being discharged.  The writing is excellent, and the story is a detailed, psychological insight into both the protagonist's issues and the social constraints which are used to tie her down.

There's a lot to like from men and women alike, then, but I do have one last treat for you - a story from the North...  Yes, Kim Puk-hyang's 'The Son' (tr. Marshall R. Pihl) is an officially sanctioned story in the DPRK - and it shows.  It's the story of a man who discovers that his perfect son isn't quite as perfect as he'd thought.  So, is the problem drugs?  Violence?  No - non-conformism...

For a western reader, the propaganda is suffocating, but this is the kind of story they like up Pyongyang way.  It's full of cliches of hard-working comrades, and wherever the father can show he is a model citizen, he does his best to oblige.  The final scene, with the boy and his teacher proudly cresting a hill is especially heroic - and ludicrous at the same time ;)

As always with short-story collections, there's a lot more to enjoy here than I was able to cover in the post.  It's an enjoyable collection with several really good stories, and (thankfully) most of the translations are good too.  The next step, of course, is to hunt down some longer pieces from some of the better writers here - time to hit the online bookshops/ library databases :)

Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in good Australian bookshops :)