Book Review

Robert J. Fouser's English translation of Kim Hunggyu's Understanding Korean Literature (Armonk : M. E. Sharpe, 1997)

This book provides a non-Korean student of Korean literature with a most welcome tool. Since the study limits itself mainly to the classification of Korean literary works without extending to other forms of literary understanding, it might be more aptly titled The Classification of Korean Literature. In thus limiting itself, the book gives newcomers to Korean literature just barely a taste of the rich and varied fare of the Korean literary tradition. It serves the very valuable purpose, however, of allowing those whose taste for works of Korean literature is already whetted to put these works in their proper literary context and gain an understanding of how "adaptation, change, reaction, and succession in the literature of each period in the history of Korean literature interrelate" (p. 199).
What first strikes the reader of Kim Hunggyu's work is the clear, yet flexible treatment of his material, a treatment that is concise and to the point, free from dogmatism, and open to the whole scope of what Korean literature can encompass - oral and written, Shamanist and Confucianist. Throughout, the author maintains a point of view that accords with that which he urges for those who would seek to understand the Korean literary currents of the twentieth century: "a multifaceted point of view that focuses on the change from traditional to modern literature by looking at continuity and discontinuity and appropriation and rejection in the relationship between the two" (p. 196). As a refrain throughout the book, the author underscores the continuities and discontinuities, distinctions and interactions in the flow of Korean literature.
The core of the book consists of the slightly more than one-hundred pages of Chapter Four, in which the author discusses what he identifies as the five major genres of Korean literature - lyric, narrative, dramatic, didactic, mixed - and their sub-genres. He fleshes out these core classifications with the essays which precede and follow this core discussion: the succinct treatment of the interaction between the oral and written strands of the Korean tradition in Chapter Two (pp. 7-21), the classification and discussion of various forms of Korean style and poetic meter in Chapter Three (pp. 22-50), the survey of Korean literary criticism in Chapter Five (p. 158-175), and the discussion of the transmission and diffusion of Korean literature in Chapter Six (pp. 176-192).
Far from a mere catalogue of literary classifications, the core discussion of Korean genres and sub-genres is enlivened by comments that invite the reader to pursue various fruitful trains of thought regarding the particular genre at hand. In the course of his discussion of shijo, for example, the author states that "symbols from nature, such as white beaches, red weeds, and swans, that appeared in shijo of the early Choson period gave way to more realistic symbols in the latter part of the period, reflecting an interest in focusing on real-life problems instead of on the contemplation of beauty" (p. 70). After listing various subcategories of humorous folk tales, he notes that "rather than poking fun at people through cold sarcasm, however, these folk tales create an atmosphere of humorous forgiveness" (p. 97). At their best, discussions of the various genres constitute brief, succinct essays that introduce the genre from several points of view and open up multiple avenues of research. The twelve-page discussion of Dramatic Genres, for example, covers the sub-genres of Mask Dance, Puppet Theater, Ch'angguk, Shinp'aguk, and Modern Drama (pp. 122-133). In four easily readable pages of compact information and terse observations, the essay on Mask Dance invites us to consider significant basic aspects of the history, typology, social context, structure, and language of this sub-genre and then gives an one-page selection adapted from the Pongsan mask dance by way of concrete example.
At times in the book, the reader would like clarification on specific points. One would like citations from several shijo to support the author's observation that "in coming to terms with the transience of life, composers of narrative shijo often reinterpreted the meaning of life pessimistically, seeing self-absorption in the pleasures of the flesh as the only way of escape" (p. 72). At the same time, one would like an explanation of how the poem by Yi Ok cited in the text "deviates from established forms" (p. 78), how the poem of Han Yongun "shows how Han used prose-style rhythm to give his poetry a great depth" (p. 85), how the lengthy selection of the narrative folk song "Song of a Newlywed" (Shijip Sari Norae) goes "beyond the traditional bounds of narration" (p. 107), and how the passage cited from Yi Kwangsu's novella Heartlessness shows a"deep insight into how people use the new culture to deceive one another" (p. 119).
The reader is grateful for the inclusion of selections from Korean literary works not elsewhere available in translation, for the titles of such works as the twelve p'ansori collected in the early-nineteenth-century Kwanyujae (p. 101), and for the care given to include the English translation and transcription of the numerous titles mentioned in the text along with the author and pertinent dates when known. Valuable, too, is the glossary of works cited with English transcription, hangul, hanmun, and English translation. If bibliographical data concerning the original works were included for those who wish to consult the Korean texts, the book would be an even more helpful tool.
The translator perhaps fails to capture the appeal of such modern poems as Kim Sowol's "Mountain Flowers" (p. 47), Ch'oe Namson's "On Flowers" (p. 83), and So Chongju's "Self-Portrait" (p. 87); but throughout the whole book, he has produced a remarkably clear, clean, concise, and readable English text. The print job, too, is careful and clean. The only misprint which stands out is the mistranscription of a hyphen for an accent mark at the top of the page 39.
In conclusion, I would like to suggest that the author and translator collaborate on an expanded version of or sequel to the present book, one that would fill out the present classifications and discussions with a brief appreciative evaluation of thirty or forty key works in the Korean corpus as they appear in the course of the study. The author heads in this direction when he discusses Yi Sang's work as "the most extreme example of the rejection of Korean tradition in the process of modernization" (p. 198).
More commonly, however, he classifies works without distinguishing between those that belong to the corpus simply because they have survived and those that deserve a place in the canon of the best that the corpus has to offer. The insightful literary judgments that the author intersperses throughout the book give every reason to believe that he has valuable insights that he does not convey about why certain works are key to the Korean literary canon and why they deserve a place in the treasury of world literature as well. Evaluative attention to key works in the tradition would insure that noteworthy authors are not overlooked, as is Chong Chi-yong in the present text, and flesh out in fuller form the literary understanding that the book aims to provide.

Daniel  A.  Kister
Sogang University