When people speak of “East Asian literature,” it’s not surprising that the conversation is limited to Japanese and Chinese writers. Almost none of Korea’s writers (with the exception of Yi Munyol) have been translated or widely distributed within the United States. But one hopes that Yom Sang-seop’sThree Generations (Archipelago Books, 2005) will bring Korean literature to a wider, English speaking audience.
Originally published as a serial in the early 1930s and as a book in 1948, Three Generationschronicles the life of Deok-gi, the youngest adult of the wealthy Jo clan. Beloved by his grandfather, the formidable patriarch of the clan, and estranged from Sang-hun, his father, college-aged Deok-gi navigates the strictures of the Korean social system, aided by his socialist friend, Byeong-hwa, the other focal point of the novel.
Immediately, Yom gets up the family conflicts: the grandfather dislikes Sang-hun for becoming a Christian minister, while Deok-gi finds his father hypocritical for fathering a child with a young girl, then abandoning them. But the inter-generational squabbling is not the whole of the novel; indeed, though the recipient of the grandfather’s inheritance drives the first half of the novel, the suspense picks up considerably in the second half when Byeong-hwa’s socialist activities cause trouble.
Yom’s sympathies lie squarely with the socialists. From the outset, the novel presents a convincing tension between those with wealth and those without. Not surprisingly, the characters lower on the socio-economic scale are Marxists, while the characters even lower than that are given very little voice. At one point, Deok-gi remarks that his two servants were “no different from some liberated black slaves in America.” By the novel’s end, the corrupting nature of wealth and property is not lost on Deok-gi, who comes to a socialist epiphany: “Someone who was poor, whose lot in life was hard labor, shouldn’t he at least receive an appropriate compensation for his pains?”
More tellingly, Byeong-hwa, the unrepentant socialist, is nothing less than honorable. Though threatened with imprisonment and torture, Byeong-hwa embodies brave and ideal characteristics: selflessness in the face of hunger, utter devotion to “the cause,” an unwavering willingness to help others—a stark contrast to Sang-hun’s nominal Christianity.
It’s tempting to interpret the author’s view of Korean Christians through Sang-hun–conniving, hypocritical, greedy–but despite the antagonism towards the father’s character, Yom’s understanding of the Korean Christians is more nuanced. At first, Sang-hun appears torn between his religion and his desire to honor his own father, motivations complicated by lingering feelings for his mistress. It comes as a disappointment, then, when, Sang-hun later abandons his moral complexity to move in with a concubine and set up a bawdy house. But, despite the glaringly obvious character flaws that Yom projects onto his most prominent Christian character, Yom acknowledges that, for better or worse, Christianity would be an integral part of Korean culture, as much as the Japanese influence had been in the past, and as much as the Socialist influence would be in the future.
While the males in the story get the main narrative attention, the conflicts and intrigues of the female characters within the household, particularly the grandfather›s young new wife and her stepdaughter-in-law, are just as fascinating, albeit less fleshed out. Interestingly enough, most of the older females are named and defined by their roles—“Deok-gi’s mother” or “the Suwon woman”—a telling illustration of the patriarchal culture on display. Indeed, from the males’ point-of-view, the females “behave like chickens after a fight,” especially after they’ve reached “a phase of life in which women tend to grow cranky anyway.” Gyeong-ae and Pil-sun, however, the two women with proper names who represent the new generation—both of them beautiful, forthright and, not coincidentally, the love interests of Byeong-hwa and Deok-gi—do not engage in the backstabbing and demure embarrassment that mark the other women in the novel.
The notion of a national hierarchy becomes a subtle but persistent undercurrent in the book. At the time Three Generations was written, the Japanese were still a colonial presence in Korea, and despite the antagonism, the Japanese are posited as superior: Deok-gi chooses to go to the more prestigious school in Kyoto, rather than a Korean one; other characters speak Japanese in order to impress.
Though the internalization of the colonial structure is present, it also appears externally. When Gyeong-ae and Sang-hun are taken into a police station after a bar fight, the Japanese policemen are outraged not at the fight, but at the fact that Gyeong-ae kissed a Korean, rather than the Japanese customers. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Japanese policemen treat their Korean captives harshly. And as much as the Japanese are revered and feared, the Chinese are reviled. The Chinese characters who speak in broken language, and insults frequently feature the Chinese as the butt of the joke.
Some of the repressive mores of the Korean culture itself are also highlighted. Characters jockey for honor in the eyes of the community and their families, even while their actions are at odds with their reputations. They live in fear of rumors and of what others think of them. This sense of propriety becomes a crushing force; that Yom Sang-seop manages to convey its importance is no mean feat. At first—especially to Westerners steeped in an individualist tradition—the character’s overwhelming need to appear honorable or respectable seems foreign, but the omniscient narrator’s ability to show one character’s fear of what›s happened to his reputation and another character’s malicious pleasure in seeing what’s happened deftly dramatizes the situation.
Yu Young-man’s translation juxtaposes English phraseology that’s sometimes at odds with curiously poetic Korean idioms: silent as someone “with a mouthful of stolen honey;” hungry as “ghosts who had starved for three lifetimes.” But the prose, for the most part, is clear and straightforward, echoing the linear plot and characters admirably. With its complex plot and huge cast of characters,Three Generations evokes not only Korean culture at a critical juncture in its history, but the strength and pleasures of its literature.
Viet Dinh graduated with his MFA from the University of Houston in 2003 and now lives in Denver. His stories can be found in the Threepenny Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, Fence, and the Michigan Quarterly Review, among others. He throws caution to the wind and oftentimes has to duck when it comes flying back at him.