Book review published in Acta Koreana Volume 9 Number 2 (July 2006. Keimyung University, Daegu, Korea) Pages 202 - 211

Hahn, Moo-Sook. And So Flows History. Translated by Young-Key Kim-Renaud. Hawai’i Studies on Korea. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, and Center for Korean Studies, University of Hawai’i. 2005. xv 282 pages.

Hahn Moo-Sook (Han Mu-Suk) was born in 1918. In 1942, she won first prize in a contest sponsored by a leading monthly magazine, Sinsedae, for a novel titled A Woman with a Lantern. At that time, publication in Korean was virtually impossible, and this earliest work was written in Japanese. With Korea’s Liberation in 1945, she was free to write in Korean and in 1948 she received first prize for the novel Yoksanŭn hŭrŭnda (And So Flows History), in a competition sponsored by the Kukche sinmun. She received the Asia Foundation’s Freedom Literature Award in 1957 and the Republic of Korea National Literature Award (Grand Prix) for her novel, Mannam (Encounter) in 1986. She died in 1993. A number of her works have been translated and published in a variety of languages, the main English title being Encounter (University of California Press, 1992).

The publication at the University of Hawai’i of this translation of Hahn’s first major work is to be warmly welcomed. In the last few years, it has become possible to read translations into English of a variety of works of earlier Korean fiction in such publications as Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology, A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Korean Fiction, or The Rainy Spell and Other Korean Stories, as well as individual works written during the Japanese colonial period such as Yi Kwang-su’s Mujŏng, or Yŏm Sang-sŏp’s Three Generations. But until now, it seems that virtually nothing written in this period by a woman has appeared.
What makes And So Flows History particularly interesting is the fact that it was written at a moment when Korea was at last free of the Japanese yoke, but not yet subject to the horror of the Korean War and its aftermath. This means that the years directly following the 1945 Liberation play a major role in providing a positive sense of closure to the book’s narrative, that begins in the later 19th century, before the Japanese arrived on the scene. At the same time, there is a touching sense of innocence, a kind of naiveté, throughout the book. For although the author is prepared to depict many forms of undeserved suffering in the course of her tale, often inflicted on innocent individuals by the compromises and corrupt choices others have made in order to survive and prosper amidst the ups and downs of Korean history, she shows no awareness at all of the deep ideological divisions that were already in 1948 building up toward open conflict. This is mentioned in the critical Introduction and we will return to this topic later.

In a moving epilogue, the author records how similar her life had very recently been to that recorded in her novel; after Liberation, her husband and his very traditional-minded family, including his invalid mother, had had to cross the 38th parallel on foot and move into a small house in Seoul. Then her husband’s family made him resign from his job rather than accept a promotion that would have obliged him to move to Daegu, so they were forced into an even smaller house, where she wrote her novel by night, with no table, resting the paper against the wall. Her epilogue stresses that since her marriage in 1940, she had virtually never seen a newspaper, left the house, or read a book.

Like so many of the characters in the novel, her life up to this point had been determined by forces beyond her control, as members of the older generation insisted on continuing to live according to rules of conduct and propriety inherited from an earlier age, which resulted in an inability to adjust readily to the new society that had come into being around them. It is therefore entirely comprehensible that the book’s main tension should be that between tradition and modernity, it main conflicts being between individuals who, on account of personality and education, make very divergent options in the face of the social and cultural changes that the flow of history brings, and often fail to adapt.

The book is extremely attractively presented, very well designed and printed. It is entirely appropriate that the paintings adorning the cover are works by the author herself. The volume opens with three pages of photos of the author; they are followed by the translator’s own preface, and a 7-page introduction by Professor JaHyun Kim Haboush. A 2-page list of the principal characters and a set of three family trees serves to warn the reader that this novel, like other Korean novels of this kind that cover a number of generations, is going to be a challenge to memory and that they may have considerable difficulty recalling who is related to who and how. The novel is divided into two books, each of eleven chapters. It ends with a translation of the epilogue the author composed for the 1992 edition, just before her death, six pages of glossary offering brief explanations of cultural and historical terms and of the historical figures named in the text, and biographies of the author and translator.

Everyone involved in translating Korean literature into English or in teaching Korean studies in English will probably know without needing to be told that the translator is the author’s daughter. For many years now, Professor Kim-Renaud has made every effort to gain international recognition for her mother’s work, a recognition that she by and large seems to have failed to gain from academic critical circles in Korea during her lifetime. Of course, at the time she was writing, and at least until very recently, many Korean (male) critics were dismissive of “womens’ writing” in general, refusing to set it alongside the “serious literature” written by men. Few women were even mentioned by name in histories of Korean literature.

It is surely this ongoing struggle, this campaign against a perceived injustice, that underlies the slightly controversial claim on the back cover that “Hahn Moo-Sook is one of Korea’s most celebrated writers of modern realist literature.” Such a claim is certainly more modest than that made in a similar position in the 1992 edition of Encounter and quoted by many online bookstores: “Hahn Moo-Sook, one of Asia's most honored writers . . .” Would, for sure, that she were, or were becoming so, with the untiring efforts of such a devoted daughter. In her Preface, Professor Kim-Renaud writes: “My desire to render Hahn Moo-Sook’s first major novel into English had many sources. Being Hahn Moo-Sook’s daughter is certainly one of them, but not in the sense of fulfilling a filial duty. And So Flows History is one of my favorite Korean novels—a product of the author’s intense personal experience, which she narrated directly to me as I was growing up” (xi). As she goes on to say, “her powerful imagination created the novel but it was conceived during her shocking experience of the clash between two close but differently evolved branches of Korean high society.”

A major issue, it seems, in the critical debate about Hahn’s writing as a whole has been the question of its strictly literary quality. No one could question her intense humanity, the fruit precisely of a noble soul bearing up through sufferings and trials that for others would have been intolerable. This is nowhere more evident than in her "Urisai modŭn kŏsi” (Everything Between Us, 1971), written after the accidental death of her third child and a period of grave illness. But at least where And So Flows History is concerned, students of literature might want to ask if the life-experience has been sufficiently distilled by the creative imagination into something significantly other, which would make the result a work of literature, and not simply a fictionalized “slice of life.” The translator, at least, has no doubt of the answer: “Rich in its vivid description of settings, whether real or fictional, the novel is written in a prose style for which Hahn is often admired. Nevertheless, it is depth of characterization and complexity of plot that make this novel so compelling” (xii).

Professor Kim Haboush is more nuanced in her Introduction. Her text is mainly composed of a summary of the novel’s plot, with occasional lucid comments of a more general kind. First, she remarks, “And So Flows History is the first novel that defines, both in the duration of what it covers and the issues it addresses, the trajectory of recent Korean history” (1) After her summary is complete, she writes: “In form this book can best be described as a novel of ideas in which characters are drawn to represent certain qualities and each behaves in accord with this quality. Hence the complexity should not be sought in character, which is symbolic, but rather in the entirety of the novel in which each person and event is assigned a role in an intricate and tightly constructed mosaic. . . . Hahn regarded her work as having been influenced by Thomas Mann, whose Magic Mountain, for instance, is peopled with archetypes” (7). She is, perhaps, searching for a kind way of saying that for much of the time the novel’s characters are rather stiff, simplified stereotypes of the different virtues and vices manifested by differing people at various moments of Korean history. The good are terribly good, the bad are pretty bad, and everyone has a hard time anyway, but psychological subtlety is not an obvious feature of the book. In particular, the American missionaries (and their wives) are depicted in a dewy-eyed, obsequious manner that this reader found especially disagreeable.

Perhaps the most interesting point made in the Introduction is the comparison it suggests might be made between this novel and Hyop’ung by Yŏm Sang-sŏp, which was serialized in the Chayu sinmun from January 1 until November 3, 1948, making it virtually contemporaneous with Hahn’s novel (which ended up being serialized in the T’aeyang sinmun after the Kukche sinmun was closed down “for political reasons” shortly after announcing that Hahn Moo-Sook’s work had been selected for its literary award). Unfortunately, Professor Kim Haboush does very little to develop the contrast, noting simply that And So Flows History “remains totally silent on the question of ideology. As far as (it) is concerned, Korea is the West-centered capitalist liberal democracy and its heroes are those who embrace Christianity. This exclusively South Korea-centered vision stands in contrast to Hyop’ung which, despite Yŏm’s partiality to South Korean political ideology, treats the ideological schism that envelops ordinary lives. One may attribute this silence to Hahn’s isolation from the literary or intellectual community to which she repeatedly refers or to her bourgeois background and leaning. Whatever the case, it is interesting to note that the ideological struggle of the time escaped the attention of a person of such intelligence and keen observation . . . What we see in And So Flows History is a diachronic reconstruction of recent Korean history rather than a synchronic contemplation of the postcolonial period.” (6)

I wonder whether it is really possible to pass so lightly over Hahn’s failure to be present to the realities of her age. As Professor Kim Haboush says, it is “interesting” that she could be so unaware; the problem is that we, today, who read her work, cannot be unaware. The Introduction might have gone on to point out that is was perhaps precisely this readiness of the old aristocratic class to stay indoors, be old-fashioned and ask no questions, that enabled the dreadful dictatorship of Syngman Rhee to take root in cahoots with the Americans and with many Koreans who had grown wealthy collaborating with the Japanese. How ironic that, while the novel expresses intensely the tortures and agony many patriotic Koreans underwent in the Japanese period, it was written only a few months after the equally terrible massacres on Cheju Island, and at a time when the “Northwest Youth Corps” and other such fascist groups were freely terrorizing the populations of the southern areas, all done with the knowledge and encouragement of the powers-that-be in Seoul and Washington. It is not only that Hahn had apparently no inkling that Korea after Liberation was being polarized in a way that would soon lead to open warfare (something of course that we cannot blame her for; we ourselves know it too well by hindsight), but her own class’s social, ethical and even esthetic preferences expressed in the work were elements that Syngman Rhee and his supporters built on. And So Flows History suggests by its very title an attitude toward history that is essentially passive, fatalistic; people are not seen as the shapers of their history, but as its lucky or unlucky subjects, victims or survivors.

The Introduction also fails to address the question of the literary origins and backgrounds of Hahn’s work, and it also slides over the question of its influence on those who wrote later. It claims, “And So Flows History is the first novel that defines, both in the duration of what it covers and the issues it addresses, the trajectory of recent Korean history” (1) but it fails to explain how it can described as being the “first” to do that when so many Korean writers had been doing that for almost 2 decades. Surely, Yŏm Sangsŏp, Ch’ae Mansik, and Kim Namch’ŏn had all already written family sagas in which the fate of a single clan in the course of one or several generations parallels the fate of the Korean people as a whole?

In particular, Professor Kim Haboush does not mention the obvious parallels that can be drawn between Hahn’s novel and Yŏm’s Samdae (Three Generations), which has recently been made available in a truly masterly English translation. That work had been originally serialized in the Chosŏn Ilbo in 1931, but it was only finally published in book form, in a revised version, in the same year as Hahn wrote her novel, 1948. Of it, surely, it can be said that it “defines, both in the duration of what it covers and the issues it addresses, the trajectory of recent Korean history.” By a strange coincidence, even the family name, Cho, of the clan that plays the central role is the same in both works. In her Epilogue, the author relates that the editor of the T’aeyang sinmun “suggested that I change the title of my novel, originally titled “Three Generations,” to the current one. The reason was that Mr. Yŏm Sangsŏp had already written a novel under this title. I was a hopeless newcomer who had never heard of such names as Mr. Yŏm or Mr. Kim Tongni, let alone their works.” (273)

Readers might expect more information on the literary context in which Hahn’s first novel took shape and by comparison with which it should be evaluated. In the Epilogue she mentions only those two writers that she says she had never heard of. But we would have to ask if she means to say that she had absolutely no relationship with or awareness of the entire Korean literary tradition prior to her, that can be summarized by a selection of names: Pak T’aewŏn, Ch’ae Mansik, Yu Chin-o, Yi Kwangsu, Kim Tong-in, Shim Hun, Kim Namch’ŏn. Presumably, then, she had never read works by Yi Sang, Yi T’aejun and Yi Hyosŏk? Most important of all, is it true that she knew nothing of the women writers who in those dreadful years had already offered compelling portraits of women suffering under colonial rule, Kang Kyŏng-ae, Paek Sin-ae, Kim Malbong, Pak Hwasŏng?

If really she had no knowledge of this tradition, it would have been helpful to have been offered some suggestions as to what in fact did serve as models of literary technique to Hahn Moo-Sook in her earliest years of writing. The mention of Thomas Mann in the Introduction may be misleading, since there is no indication as to when she first read his work. Surely it must have been later? Since her earliest writing was in Japanese, it could be thought that her models and inspiration should rather be sought in the Japanese writers of the period?

At least, this confession of apparently total ignorance of the fiction that had been written in Korean before her might help us to understand why she writes as she does. It can even rather increase our admiration for her achievement in producing such an ambitious work entirely from within herself, without models or guides, as virtually her first work. Moreover, amazingly, she says that she wrote without revision or correction, from beginning to end, not making a final fair copy, in order to complete the work in time for the competition’s deadline. Of course, since the translation has been made from the most recent of a whole series of editions, we may safely assume that a process of revision intervened later. It would have been interesting to know how thoroughgoing that was.

At the same time, what we have just seen might explain why the novel does not, despite the translator’s very great love for it, strike this reader by its intense characterization or skillfully organized plot, let alone by its vivid descriptions of places or dramatic passages of dialogue. The narratorial technique is far too laconic, in part because of the speed at which the story is told. For example, the first chapter is just twelve pages long; in that space Puyong thinks of her boyfriend, hacks at a tug-of-war rope with a knife in the night, watches the New Year Full Moon games the next day, gets raped by the master of the house that evening, hears how the rope snapped and her boy friend was badly beaten; she avoids meeting him for shame; five months pass, her mother discovers that she is pregnant and on learning who the father is tells her to keep it secret. Finally she suddenly comes face to face with her former love and is unable to explain things to him. At such a speed, there is little time for details!

Hahn adopts a systematic strategy of ending a chapter on a punchy line or little vignette full of intense emotion, then beginning the next chapter somewhere completely different, with a different set of characters. This can be very disconcerting and the fragmentation that results is unhelpful. One of the worst cases comes at the end of Chapter 6 in Book 1, where Sŏkku whose leg has been wounded, has been abandoned by his cousins out in the countryside in winter. “The excruciating ache woke him up from time to time, but his eyelids grew heavy, bringing him uncontrollable sleep. It was the harbinger of frozen death. Somewhere far away a wolf cried.” (92) By all the conventions of literature, that should be the end of him, especially with the wolf crying (though they usually howl). Then on the next page, the new chapter begins “The day Puyong died . . .” demanding a complete change of focus and an effort to recall who Puyong is. Then four pages later a new paragraph begins “Sŏkku lazily walked in and said . . .” and we are only told in the following paragraph, in a brief flashback, that he had been rescued by passers-by and had come back home a month later.

This technique of inserted flashbacks at times proves very disconcerting. Chapter 2 of Book 2 opens with people gathering one evening in the garden of a church around the dreadfully idealized figure of the pastor, Song Ch’aggyu, to welcome back a student from Japan and say farewell to a girl who is leaving to study in the United States. Here the narrative becomes quite incoherent, and suddenly, leaving the meeting that has hardly begun, begins to tell Dr. Song’s life story from birth. At breakneck speed over the next few pages he is born, married, has a child, then disgusted by his ugly, ignorant wife he escapes to P’yongyang, where he collapses from hunger, is rescued by a missionary who takes him to America then drops dead, which obliges him to fend for himself; he becomes a peddler, then a university student, where again he is rescued from starvation by a kind of miracle; fifteen years later he returns to Korea, having graduated in philosophy and theology, and goes back to his ugly, ignorant but faithful wife and son, establishes a church in Seoul . . . and suddenly we return to the meeting, where people are talking about his adventures.

By contrast, the first chapter of Book 2 had been really effective, perhaps the most compelling piece of narrative in the whole novel, because it simply relates a nightmare train journey from Pusan to Seoul, that takes some twenty-four hours, the train so utterly packed that no one can move and even the toilets are jammed full of passengers, so that every bladder is more than bursting. Yet even here, we have two flashbacks, one telling the life-story of a poor girl traveling with her baby, the other longer one the story of Chaegyŏng whose journey to Seoul we are following. The author clearly had difficulties in telling a story clearly and simply with proper rhythms and focus.

Finally, we need to turn our attention to the translation as such. The translator’s Preface exposes her fundamental options regarding the way she deals with some of the immense challenges such a work presents. Place names, she explains, are sometimes translated into English when they sound particularly romantic or pastoral, but not otherwise. That is wise. She indicates the immense problem of names and titles when translating novels set in the past; it is not certain that her choice of “Lady” for so many women characters was helpful, but it is probably impossible to find a fully satisfying solution. She says nothing of the equally immense problem of translating the names of cultural items such as food; perhaps “sausage soup” was not the best way of dealing with sundaeguk, that could just as well stay as it is, with a glossary entry. One major challenge in translating an older work is always going to be the writer’s use of conventional, proverbial expressions to evoke sympathetic responses in readers. Here the translation is not always successful. “A mansion as big as a whale’s back’ (46) is not particularly problematic, “a dirty mattress the size of a bran cake” (111) is more distracting; mention of “foreigners who treated his fatherland like a day-old puppy in front of tigers” (71) might leave the reader bemused, and “the cold (. . .) was as cutting as a double-bladed hack hammer” (44) is frankly amusing.

In the end, it is pointless to dispute the wisdom of the translator’s choices. We all know what challenges the translation of a work such as this presents, where not only the cultural context but also the terminology and grammatical forms used in conversation are impossible to render convincingly in English. There would certainly be no point in searching for “mistranslations” for it is clear that the translator has been immensely scrupulous with regard to her mother’s text, worrying for years in some cases about the precise meaning of a word or a phrase. This translation has been a decades-long act of devotion, as she says, not only to her mother’s memory but to a work that she esteems above almost any other.

Her Preface gives generous credit to a whole series of friends and colleagues who have been of assistance to her. It is at this point that a scrupulous reviewer has to dare remark that, alas, despite all the help that has been received, some more help would have been immensely beneficial where the English style is concerned. I very much regret that I cannot say that I enjoyed reading this book, because the English is so often so poor. Where other reviewers of books list errors in Romanization, let me list just a few examples of phrases, chosen more or less at random, where the English seems to me to be unnecessarily poor or incomprehensible, with suggestions for possible minimal revision). (numbers refer to pages)

17 laughter . . . had died out (= died down)

41 Their force was such that they overpowered (=spread across) the three southern provinces like an unrolling mat. (mats are not usually overpowering!)
42 Emblazoned (= Glaring?) faces stood out from among fierce weapons

45  Tonghak! The very word made the spine clatter (=shudder).
53 When autumn would arrive (= arrived), the Yangju market would become even more brisk. (English grammar!)
56 "Be quiet. Retreat yourself. (=Get out of here.)"   . . .  The sun set as it does easily in the autumn, (a meaningless phrase, surely?) and the evening breeze chilled the scruff of one's (=everyone's) neck. The song (= cawing) of the passing crows could be heard
57 Among the people for whom eating and clothing (=dressing up) is all there is in life
65 it would be boring not to have spunky Kŭmnyŏn anymore who only gave him lightning and batons. (What are these mysterious gifts?)
66  The back hill was burning (= ablaze) with flowers
68 the year Ŭsla (=Ŭlsa, the only misprint I have noted in the whole book) two young men were treading up the lawned hill (= walking up the grassy slope)
69 Two rows (=streams) of tears trickled down
77 Formidable was the plight of the country. (= The country was in a fearful plight)
91 they raised their bodies lightly (= they got up quietly) . . . the pendulous (= threatening?) sky cleared up
99 arouse patriotism by illuminating (=explaining the course of) history.
188 A green Cadillac, among other (+vehicles of varying) colors and shapes, was dashing down Sunset Boulevard in the city of Los Angeles located on the West Coast of the United States. (surely there is no need to locate LA?)

216 She crumbled down. (She fainted.)

224 She was feeling sort of (= rather) distant from her brother.

240 direly wishing (= dearly wishing)

These are clear errors which someone should have corrected, but behind them lurks page after page full of phrases that, while probably translating very exactly what the Korean says, fail to communicate appropriate feelings in English. Each reader will find different examples: “Kyujik grabbed his overwhelmed chest, which was on the verge of explosion, and went into the men’s quarters.” (78) “The thick fragrance of the flowers permeated the silence as if to consume it.” (210) But the most serious problems are found in the dialogues; “wooden” seems too gentle a word, “leaden” might better suit an exchange such as the following (144):

“Please do not be too modest. The person who woke up after fainting at the grave is not the same person you used to be. You have received a new life.”
“You are most kind to say so. Thank you.”
“It’s true, though. What do you think? How about following in the steps of Mr. Kyujik?”
“Someone like me?”
“Please be confident.”
“Thank you. I feel presumptuous and do not know what to say. But should there be a place to dedicate my meager life, I would only consider it an honor.”

This will have to suffice to characterize one of the main problems in the book’s style, something beyond mere translation. The book is full of this kind of ultra-high-minded language, both in stilted conversations and in many intervening narratorial comments. In contrast, there are quite a number of cases when the use of very colloquial American-style exclamations such as “Oh, my God! Damn it! Son of a bitch! Okay.” feels badly out of place, as does a sentence like “She quickly set out to make a bundle and went all out for him.” (112)

Still, these critical comments, necessary in a review, should not be seen as detracting from the great value of this book as a precious testimony to the way a courageous young woman in newly independent Korea attempted, almost without models, to present through a fictional narrative a positive, inspiring vision of the often tragic history of the past 60 years. Her fundamental view of that history is certainly not informed by ideology, and that can be seen as a weakness, but she has a strong sense of humanity’s ethical dilemmas, and of the moral confusions that result when circumstances inspire people to make choices that are less than noble. The most dynamic moments in the novel are those where individuals suddenly find within themselves the strength to overcome their own inclinations and forget themselves, as they generously, selflessly turn toward others in greater need. That, always, is the most beautiful thing we could hope to find, anywhere.