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A Review of Three Generations from Ha-yun Jung in BookForum


The three-generation saga is a Korean narrative tradition that dates back to the nation’s very first story, that of the country’s mythical founder, Dangun. And for some five thousand years, countless grandfather-father-son generations have kept this epic tradition alive, each representing the obstacles, failures, and triumphs of their times. Yom Sang-Seop’s novel Three Generations, written in Korean in 1931 and now available in English, is a modern take on the ancient form. It is set in the bustling yet mundane Seoul of the ’30s, when Korea had submitted to more than twenty years of Japanese colonial rule. In the book’s opening, Yom introduces fundamental generational schisms along with growing social divisions. As Deok-gi prepares to return to school in Tokyo (his procrastination in departing will take up a third of the plot), his grandfather, the Confucian patriarch of the affluent Jo family, levels a petty judgment against Deok-gi’s friend. “His hair is a mess,” he declares of the penniless Marxist. Yet the old man’s complaints cannot stem the flow of time, nor the changes that accompany it; the novel follows him beyond his deathbed to the tensions surrounding the inheritance, not only of his riches but of his lineage and beliefs. The old man’s estranged son, Sang-hun, is unsuitable for carrying on the legacy (in addition to being a liberal, womanizer, and skeptic, he’s a Christian who refuses ancestral worship); trapped in his own contradictions, Sang-hun is part of the generation caught between the traditional, premodern Korea and this modernized but colonialized country in which new hope must be made. The fortune – and the burden – falls to the grandson, and when the grandfather passes away on lunar New Year, Deok-gi is left with a cumbersome set of keys in his hands. Born in 1897, Yom was a prolific pioneer of Western-style realism in Korean literature, and of his many novels and stories, Three Generations is his most widely read work, vividly capturing the cultural, moral, and political complexities of the Japanese colonial period through the urban microcosms of bars, stores, noodle shops, streets crowded with trolleys and rickshaws, and centuries-old mansions. Much of his narrative voice, a delicate mix of social satire and psychological depth, relies on nuanced exchanges among Seoul’s social classes – factory girls, cosmopolitan independence fighters, money-blind concubines, suffering servants, suspicious wives, Tokyo-educated elites – presented in their distinctive dialects. For Korean readers, this is where the book’s true pleasure lies. Translating the book poses a tremendous challenge. Yu Young-nan has produced a fluid, faithful, and very readable version of the novel. But when it comes to dialogue – for instance, the flirtatious bickering between Deok-gi’s Marxist friend and his friend’s love interest, an enlightened bar girl – the texture feels a bit too bland and the tempo has been slowed. Nevertheless, the three-generation saga, ancient or modern, is a structure that promises continuity, as well as historical perspective. It comes as no surprise, then, that Three Generations, written as an examination of the author’s colonized and anxious homeland, continues to resonate some seventy years later.

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