In UK literature, authors such as Joanna Trollope are said to be writers of the “AGA Saga.” Named for the AGA brand stove, the AGA saga typically concerns the domestic difficulties of a comfortable family in a middle-class or upper-middle class household. Until its conclusion, another example would seem to be Yom Sang-seop’s Three Generations, which follows the changes in a wealthy Korean family under Japanese occupation.
Three Generations covers an exceptionally eventful few months. Most of the novel concerns the Jo family, prosperous but troubled rice magnates. They are a big clan, with interlocking generational ties, multiple wives and concubines, and a lively staff of servants. Each member of the household has a life outside the immediate household, making the Jos less the main characters than a lens through which readers enjoy the full range of 1930’s Korea.
In this world, social standing matters more than appearance and conduct. Clothing is a vital indicator, as is mode of speech. If readers have difficulty engaging this book, it will likely stem from two factors: the foreign names and the foreign culture. Were this a movie, Hollywood would remake it with Martin and Sue instead of Deok-gi & Deok-hui, and while we filthy capitalists can relate to the role money plays in relationships, for example the uneasiness and loaded banter of a friendship between a child of privilege and a broke dreamer, the importance of Korean class construction, interwoven with specific notions of honor, or “face,” takes getting used to.
Can you reach outside your own experience? If you do, you will be rewarded by a lusty soap-opera rife with drinking, brawling, infidelity, and wrangling over a rich man’s will, despicable, familiar humanity that transcends any cultural divide. You will find yourself riveted, gasping at the plot twists and explaining urgently to your loved one the conspiracy this or that servant has entered into with a third wife to usurp an absent grandson’s share of inheritance. While valuable to its originating nation as a document of the political and social times, the real meat of this novel is the timeless conflict and confluence among strong personalities born into differing social strata. When rendered with understanding and humor, as this is, it makes for a ripping read.
One of the many compelling non-Jos, Byeong-hwa, begins the book as a lovable good-for-nothing but develops in complex ways; we experience his transition from adolescent idealism into compromised adulthood. Sang-hun, a pious whoremonger and self-righteous drunkard, a hypocrite of the first order, begins as a sympathetic buffoon, but loses our sympathy as his vices transform him into a sinister foil for the virtuous Deok-gi.
Yu Young-nan’s translation is clean and helpful, cluing us into nuances such as the particular grammar with which one individual addresses another and its implications. If Yu’s work lapses occasionally into literalism — “There is saying: once burned, doubly reticent” — it can be fairly said that Yom Sang-seop has written an unusually literal novel. When a character observes that God is “a witness equal to a million mortals,” it has the ring of an actual equation, etched in a ledger somewhere.
Let the reader of Three Generations never forget, however, the realities of life under a foreign power’s military occupation. No one is ever more than a breath from Long Kesh or Abu Ghraib. Part of this book’s historical weight is the casual, horrifying abuse of Koreans by the occupying Japanese. Korean men and women are routinely taken into police custody on pretense, then raped and otherwise brutalized for days, sometimes never released. Readers unmindful of this history will be shaken and badly upset by chapters late in the book. Three Generations ends in an orgy of totalitarian cruelty, a sort of Diabolus ex machina that imposes itself unexpectedly, derailing the pending narrative conclusion and leaving many important characters invisible, prisoners without names in cells without numbers.