Book Reviews

A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction. Selected and Translated by Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton. 191 pages. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.


A Ready-Made Life is a collection of sixteen Korean short stories written during the years of Japanese occupation. As the translators tell us in the preface, Korean fiction of the pre-1945 period has been ill served in translation. This collection, the majority of whose stories are quite short and reflect a variety of themes, styles and outlook, is admirably suited to compensate for the deficiency. Making brevity a basis for selection was a wise move on the part of translators, as longer stories of the period tend to lack the terse coherence and neat effectiveness of the shorter stories like the ones included in this collection. The translators also inform us that they did not aim at a definitive canonical collection but chose the stories on the basis of their appeal to them. The result, however, is a fairly representative selection, as most of the stories are masterpieces in one way or another, and admirably capture the conditions of life and psychology of the people trapped under colonial rule by a foreign power.

The society that forms the background of these stories was historically a society in violent transition, yet each segment of it portrayed in the stories seems static, even stagnant. And the mores, codes of behavior and habits of mind mirrored in the stories seem so remote from those of contemporary Korea that today's younger generation of Koreans could well experience difficulties transposing themselves into the situations the characters in the stories are in. The difficulties must be much greater for foreign readers. But sensitive and imaginative readers will be able to make the leap, as the stories masterfully recreate the oppression and frustration the characters suffer and chafe against.


The first story, "A Society That Drives You to Drink" by Hyo※n Chin-g o※n presents a young intellectual who finishes his study only to find his education useless and himself in demand nowhere. His uneducated young wife who cannot understand the cause of her husband's frustration and can only be puzzled by his unhappiness is just as pathetic and hopeless as the young man. Uninitiated readers might be as puzzled by the whole situation as the young wife; it was the forces beyond any individual's control that drove masses of people to desperation and drink.

In "The Female Barber" Na To-hyang dissects, with surgical precision, the pitfalls of human vanity. A young man in the direst of straits gives away his whole small fortune as a tip to a sexy young female barber, in a move to impress her. Reading this story, one cannot but regret the death of Na at age 25 and many other geniuses of early modern Korean fiction. Their peculiar brand of subtlety, charm, and deft strokes remain unmatched by the more ambitious later generation of writers. And this translation admirably captures the verve and the wryness of Na's voice.

Three writers who defected to the North shortly after liberation from Japanese rule and national division and whose works consequently were banned in the South until the end of the 1980s are represented here. Yi Ki-y o※ng's "A Tale of Rats," a fable intended to be a lesson on the vices of capitalism, falls flat because the story lacks the humor and cuteness of fables. Most readers today would be unable to find much amusement in the idiot in Yi T'ae-jun's "An Idiot's Delight." Older generation of Koreans were no doubt pleased by the thought that there still remains such simple-minded, uncalculating innocence amidst all the sickeningly smart people. But charming simpletons have become extinct, and Forrest Gump is only a fabrication. The title character of Pak T'ae-wo※n's "The Barbershop Boy" is a prototype of the resourceful Korean. Working as an errand boy in a barbershop just for board and lodging, the boy knows where to look for for a little bit of fun, pocket money, and opportunity. The character is meant to be an engaging personality, just as Yi T'ae-jun's idiot is, and there is something appealing about such types for whom life does not seem a burden and a conundrum.

"The Rotary Press"by Yo※m Sang-so※p, in contrast, is not intended to be in the least amusing or reassuring. It is a vivid depiction of a tension-charged newspaper office teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. The anger and frustration of the staff who have foregone salary for four months and are now faced with the collapse of their operation are painfully palpable. The story is a powerful reminder that all through the colonial years jobs and livelihoods were extremely precarious for Koreans and eking out a living was a circus act.

"A Ready-made Life,"the title story, again deals with an educated man's plight in the colonial society. Ch'ae Man-shik is perhaps the greatest master of satire in Korean fiction. Those of his stories in which the main character is clearly the butt of his satire, like "Peace Under Heaven," work superbly. On the other hand, those stories depicting protagonists as his alter egos, such as this one and "My Idiot Uncle'" are somewhat problematic, because the author is not as rigorous with them as the readers feel he should have been. The protagonists are not without a modicum of self-irony but are imperfectly aware of the contradictions in themselves. P, the intellectual in this story, cannot get a job because there are so few jobs open to intellectuals at the time. His fury and his contempt of the philistines are understandable, but many of his own actions are unenlightened, reckless, even monstrously selfish. So, readers are left oddly discontented with the story and the author.

As so many of the stories feature indigent and frustrated characters, "The Photograph and the Letter" stand out as an amoral romance intrigue of the bourgeoisie. The sexual freedom enjoyed by the Kim Dong-in female and her adroit machinations present a glaring contrast to the self-abnegating "good" woman in the next story. Though the characters are far from praiseworthy, the story has that sense of freedom from petty conventions that constitute the problematic appeal of Kim dong-in's works.

"Mama and the Boarder" is one of the saddest fairytales ever written. This story of an incipient romance brought to a close by the desolate lovers' supreme effort of will is told with the utmost delicacy and even with humor. The codes of sexual conduct that govern the two central figures would seem medieval to most readers, Korean as well as Western. The young mother and the boarder fall in love with each other simply from living in proximity, even before seeing each other. The little child narrator serves as the mother's proxy: the mother grooms her carefully, and the boarder tries to detect the mother's features on the child's face. The thought of a twenty-three year old woman giving up her whole future and entombing herself in lonely widowhood for the sake of her six-year-old daughter, so that the girl's future won't be jeopardized as an unchaste woman's daughter, is so cruel that modern readers would hardly be able to reconcile themselves to it. But Chu Yo-han tells the story with minimum commentary, thereby maximizing the pathos.

Kim Dong-ni's "A Descendant of the Hwarang" contains a prototype familiar to the older generation of Koreans: the descendant of yangban, the former nobility, who has come down in the world but tries hard to maintain his dignity in spite of suffering daily humiliations. The aging protagonist, destitute and without any assets or skill, is finally reduced to selling "elixirs"on street-corners, but refuses to marry an affluent young widow because he cannot desecrate his yangban lineage by marrying a widow. The character is often pathetic, sometimes repulsive, but endearing in an odd way to Koreans who know the type and their quandaries.

No other Korean writers could ever match Kim Yu-jo※ng's knowledge of Korean rustics. The lot of Korean peasants was so harsh as to be tragic, but more often than not Kim Yu-jo※ng turned their stories into comedies by emphasizing their energy and lust for life. The couple in "Wife" is energetic and feisty in spite of the harshest circumstances. They fight each other like cats and dogs but also vigorously struggle against whatever lies in their way, without giving in to self-pity. The author's humor and verve enable us to admire the courage and resilience of the couple, vulgar and unscrupulous as they are.


"When the Buckwheat Blooms " is perhaps the best-known and best-loved short story for all Koreans, especially those middle-aged and older. Yi Hyo-so※k was not a writer whose primary sympathy was with the rustics, but in this story he worked wonders with his somewhat romanticized simple folk and the pastoral background. The story of a man who had no luck with women all his life finding in later life a son born of the one meaningful encounter he had in his life would be gratifying to any reader, and Koreans seem to find it especially heartwarming. Even the son who turns out to be a right-minded, able-bodied and affectionate youth doesn't seem too good to be true.

"Mystery Woman" by Yi Kwang-su shows what the author could do when he was not didactic and did not write under moral compulsion. This teasing and suggestive story makes one regret that Yi Kwang-su did not write more stories of this kind.

The story by a woman writer represented in this collection is Ch'oe Cho※ng-hu※i "The Haunted House." This justly celebrated short story classic recounts with heartbreaking poignancy the anxieties of a young female head of a household who has to hide from her family her own disease and the fact that their house, which they felt so fortunate in being able to rent, is haunted. Her nightmare is vividly recreated without exaggeration.

"Illusion" by Yi Sang is weird, absurd, and abnormal, as his story tends to be. It has inverted sex roles, blurring of the boundary between life and death, and the suggestion of a haunted existence. Koreans find Yi Sang haunting and enigmatic even to this day.

"Mule" is one of Hwang Sun-wo※n's minor masterpieces. It is a tragic story told with a comic touch. Each of the two men agrees on a deal believing he's getting the better end but each is dealt a harsh joke at the hands of Fate. Hwang Sun-wo※n, as usual, exposes human weaknesses and delusions with precision but with tender pity as well.

With Korean authors, it is often hard to tell where they are being artless and where they are exercising their craftsmanship. Often, the seeming artlessness is part of the author's sophisticated craftsmanship. The artless narration of "An Idiot's Delight" exactly suits the subject matter; the rawness of "The Rotary Press "is part of its forcefulness. "The Lady Barber" and "Mama and the Boarder," on the other hand, are very artful in very different ways. The former is full of wry, subtle, tongue-in-cheek strokes, while the latter is done in delicate and painfully minute touches.

The translation is remarkably accurate and reads very smoothly for the most part. The breezy, slangy rendering of "The Lady Barber" "Wife," and "The Barbershop Boy" are something of a feat. "The Mule" and "A Descendant of the Hwarang," two stories that demand a high level of skillful translation, are effectively executed.

In any translation there are bound to be jarring literal translations and misrenderings arising from imperfect understanding of the meaning of the original. Such literal renderings as "People who had been sitting next to the stove like sticky rice cake" and "You sound like a bunch of herons screeching for food" impede the flow of the story by calling attention to the analogy. "Rebelling against the knowledge that the man in the photograph is Hye-gyo※ng'shusband . . . "doesn't sound quite logical in English. "K uses these words the way that Chinese general Chao Zilong squandered his flimsy lances in battle" does not make sense, as the legendary Chinese general's favorite weapon was his sword, and lances in general are not flimsy, and are rarely, if ever, squandered in battles. It should have been emended into something like "Freely, the way Chao Zilong brandished his old sword."

Some of the obvious Americanisms and colloquial expressions verging on the slangy side are jarring, at least to this reviewer. "Whenever yours truly has something to do," "Church that day was a big flop,"and "Piece of cake" coming from an idiot when asked what he wanted to do in life, and a number of others don't seem quite appropriate to the speakers. But overall, the translation is highly competent and makes for lively reading. This book admirably fills a felt need for a good collection of the short fiction of the colonial period, and will no doubt help Korean literature assume its long overdue place in world literature.


Suh Ji-moon

Korea University