[KS] KSR 2008-03: _Three Generations_, by Yom Sang-seop ( Yôm Sang-sôp ), and _Trees on a Slope_, by Hwang Sun-wôn

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Tue Aug 26 22:21:34 EDT 2008

_Three Generations_, by Yom Sang-seop (Yôm Sang-sôp). Translated by 
Yu Young-nan. Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books. 2005. 476 pages. ISBN 
0-9749680-0-5. US $30.

_Trees on a Slope_, by Hwang Sun-wôn. Translated by Bruce and Ju-chan 
Fulton. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. 197 pages. ISBN 
0-8248-2767-8 (hardcover), 0-8248-2887-9 (pbk).

Reviewed by Brother Anthony/An Sonjae
Sogang University
ansonjae at sogang.ac.kr

The two novels being reviewed here probably have little in common 
beyond the fact that both are works of Korean literature, and both 
translations were published in 2005. However, something might be 
gained by viewing them together. The first, Three Generations, is a 
work that was first published in 1931, being serialized from January 
through September in the Chosôn Ilbo daily newspaper. The work, like 
many other lengthy novels serialized during the Japanese period, was 
not published in book form until after 1945. Three Generations was 
finally published as a book in November 1948, and the Afterword notes 
that the author "revised the second half of the book, making the 
ending more optimistic" (474).

The novel tells the story of a few months in the life (and for the 
grandfather that includes death) of three generations of the Jo 
family, but focuses mainly on Deok-gi, the grandson. Deok-gi, a 
member of a new, pragmatic generation holds a philosophy of life 
vastly different from the pre-modern outlook of his grandfather, or 
his father, Jo Sang-hun, who once aspired to become a modern 
intellectual but lives now in utter dissipation. The underground 
activities of the socialists Jang-hun and Byeong-hwa in external 
society propel the narrative action forward, as well as the amorous 
pursuits of the main characters.

The book's brief (4-page) Afterword by Kim Chie-sou situates the 
novel in the literary and social context of its time: "In 1924, with 
the formation of the Korean Artist Proletarian Federation (KAPF), 
proletarian literature became the mainstay of Korean literature. Yom 
challenged this faction. In a critical article entitled 'Refuting Bak 
Yeong-hui's View in Discussing Newly Emerging Literature,' he 
supported the national literature movement, with its basic thrust of 
'digging out what is Korean,' which was in opposition to the 
proletarian literary movement, whose focus was the liberation of the 
oppressed. While his commitment to this liberation was unwavering, 
Yom insisted that the quest for Korean-ness should come first" (475). 
Prior to this, the commentator has stressed that the novel's central 
figures are representatives of the "Jungin" class, to which the 
author himself belonged, "which played a pioneering role in the 
history of Korea's enlightenment (late 19th century)." What is most 
obvious throughout the novel is that the three generations of men in 
question enjoy almost unlimited access to inherited, accumulated 
wealth and have as yet none of the worries of those obliged to scrape 
a living as best they can.

The main thrust of the novel, then, is dominated by considerations of 
class and social morality, indeed of ideology. There is always a 
danger when fiction is asked to serve to illustrate social theory. In 
the present case, the risk is clear that the symbolic, social value 
attached to each of the main male characters is going to dictate 
their reactions to situations, at the expense of more subtle, 
individual psychology. In particular, the identification of the 
author with the hesitations and scruples of Deok-gi, the most modern 
and most anxious of the three, might be felt to push him to adopt 
attitudes that are not clearly motivated at the psychological level.

Female characters appear on almost every page and they play a central 
role at every moment of the story. As the story develops, it becomes 
clear that in this society, despite the changes it is undergoing, the 
women always pay the price for the men's feckless irresponsibility. 
The novel's main sensibility (as opposed to its main ideological 
thrust) is for the suffering and the strength of the women who are 
obliged to find real solutions to the real problems that arise in 
daily life, while the men remain helpless or indifferent. If anyone 
has to read this work, it will be for its portrayals of resolute 
women, not for its self-centered, dogmatic, and infuriating men.

Just thinking of the work involved in translating such a long work 
(some 470 pages) leaves one with a headache, and full of admiration 
for the way in which Yu Young-nan has managed to produce a text where 
the reader never feels that the translator is not in perfect control 
of the English style. One of the people providing quotations for the 
back cover says that the book is "mellifluously translated" and that 
seems an apt word. Other scholars have, I know, detected a few places 
where the Korean is not "exactly" rendered, but mostly the cases they 
quote show only a nit-picking determination to find fault at all 
costs. This reviewer would say that the translator has been extremely 
faithful to the original while striving to use English terms and 
idioms that sound natural to a non-Korean reader. The smoothness of 
the English does, certainly, suggest a very sensible preference for 
readability over precise verbal correspondence.

The translator does not provide any glossary of unfamiliar cultural 
terms or customs. She makes Yom's story available in English exactly 
as it was published in Korean, without explanatory apparatus or 
commentary. The work is offered, then, above all as a document from 
the past, as an example of early Korean fiction. The Afterword tells 
us "it was only in the 1960s, however, that critics began to consider 
Three Generations a masterpiece of Korean fiction in the 20th 
centuryŠ.Their consensus is that through this work, Yom instills 
pride into the generation of citizens who did not receive a Japanese 
colonial education" (476). Now, that is a very strange reason for 
calling a novel a "masterpiece," one having a lot to do with 
nationalist, anti-Japanese ideology, perhaps, but meaning nothing to 
non-Korean readers, for whom "masterpiece" implies high literary 
quality: a really well-constructed, well-told, thought-provoking 

For this reviewer, what is most striking about this work is the way 
in which he found himself wanting to stop reading and shut the book 
after only a few pages. In the end, total boredom won. I think I have 
never tried to read so utterly tedious, uninteresting a work of 
fiction. The "action" develops at a snail's pace. There is no 
suspense and no refinement of psychological perception. The male 
characters remain undeveloped, being mainly seen in stereotyped terms 
of their social positions and options. There are no vivid 
descriptions of places, the urban setting being assumed to be 
familiar to readers. The problems facing Korea as it moved into the 
modern era were certainly a source of intense conflicts, and those 
conflicts are the material of the story told here. But they fail to 
come alive in an interesting manner.

The essential difficulty is that Yom does not write narrative in such 
a way as to carry a reader's interest. It is hard to explain the need 
for so much of what is written, while dialogues, too, are mostly 
desultory exchanges without any clear direction or conclusion. Surely 
people did not talk to one another like this? The narrative employs 
what can best be called a "flip-flop, zig-zag" manner of writing. 
Each statement is qualified by at least one "but" or its equivalent. 
The narratives are never simple when they can turn three times around 
the bush before getting anywhere. The novel cannot, I think, be read 
with aesthetic or literary pleasure, nor can it provoke admiration 
for the quality of the fiction being written in Korea at that time. 
It is striking that the Afterword says nothing about what works 
served as models for Yom, or about the origins of the stylistic 
features just mentioned. What was the influence of Japanese writing, 
one wonders. There is mention of the Japanese novel The Makioka 
Sisters by Tanizaki, but no developed exploration of the similarities.

Hwang Sun-wôn's Trees on a Slope is a very different work in terms of 
length (190 pages) and readability. Published in 1960, it, too, is 
constructed around a group of three men, the friends Hyôn-t'ae, 
Yun-gu and Tong-ho. They are, of course, caught up in the processes 
of Korean history and social evolution as those in Three Generations 
were. The novel is divided into two parts of equal length. The first 
part takes place during the later stages of the Korean War and during 
the months following the armistice, the second part begins in 1957. 
During the first part, the three are comrades in the same army unit 
on the battlefront, then waiting to be discharged. Tong-ho kills 
himself just before the first part ends, after shooting a prostitute 
together with her client.

In the second part, the two survivors are back in civilian life, and 
Yun-gu is building up a successful chicken farm, thanks to help from 
Hyôn-t'ae, whose father is wealthy. Tong-ho has been replaced by 
Sôk-ki, a former boxer who was obliged to stop boxing by an eye 
injury. Like Hyôn-t'ae, Sôk-ki is a drunkard. A number of women come 
into the story, including Sugi, Tong-ho's former girlfriend, and 
Kye-hyang, an orphan bar-girl. Hyôn-t'ae is about to leave for 
studies in the US when he casually gives Kye-hyang his knife and 
allows her to kill herself when she tells him she wants to die. He is 
imprisoned for having virtually caused her death. The story ends with 
Yun-gu refusing to help Sugi, who is pregnant after being raped by 
Hyôn-t'ae. Earlier in the second part of the story, Yun-gu's 
girlfriend Mi-ran dies after an abortion he arranged for her.

>From time to time in both parts the main characters meet An and 
>Sônu. An is a devout Christian, acting as "his brother's keeper" in 
>an attempt to keep Sônu from destroying himself. An explains that 
>Sônu, who once killed a man, is obsessed by guilt. In the first 
>part, when both are soldiers, this leads to violent drinking and 
>strange behavior. In the second part, when Hyôn-t'ae meets An by 
>chance, he learns that Sônu had accepted An's help, started to go 
>with him to church but then began to act strangely and had been 
>hospitalized. He goes with An to the hospital where they find that 
>Sônu, who seemed to be improving, has gone completely crazy. 
>Hyôn-t'ae seems to be aware of a parallel between Sônu and himself, 
>for near the start of the novel he killed a helpless woman, whom 
>they found in an otherwise deserted village, in order to prevent her 
>telling the enemy about their presence.

The novel, then, inevitably, is full of violence, whether that of the 
war or that of brutalized postwar society, where Sôk-ki loses the use 
of one hand after being beaten and stabbed by drunken gangsters. It 
stresses the powerlessness of people to overcome the consequences of 
this self-perpetuating, destructive violence. The Christian An might 
be thought to represent the author, since Hwang was himself a 
Christian. An is ultimately powerless, his faith and practice unable 
to prevent Sônu from sliding into madness, where he takes himself for 
a second Jeremiah, ranting in solitude. This book, too, has a short, 
5-page Afterword in which the translators survey briefly the novel's 
place in Hwang's work and try to identify its main themes. They 
suggest that duality and ambivalence are the two words best suited to 
characterize the way in which the novel approaches the harsh reality 
it describes.

Since this review is already overdue, I cannot now take time to 
compare the translation with the original, and see no need to do so. 
As is usual with the translation work of the Fultons, readability is 
clearly the overriding option. Korean literalists will undoubtedly be 
troubled by the use of expressions such as "cut the crap", "shut the 
fuck up," "that's a pretty far stretch," or "what if we call it 
quits?" But if we are to translate the colloquial speech of Korean 
soldiers, or ex-soldiers, how else is it to be done? While reading, 
there is never a feeling of incongruity.

In their Afterword, the translators stress one interesting fact: 
after the end of the war, Korean writers by and large did not take 
the events of the war as a subject for fiction. Above all we do not, 
they say, find accounts of outstanding heroism. Certainly, although 
this novel includes scenes of battle, it too is mainly concerned with 
other events and incidents. In particular, we need to remember that 
Hwang did not see military action, he had no firsthand experience of 
battle. His knowledge comes from what others told him. Could he have 
written this book if he had been a soldier?

It might also be said that this novel has another, very different, 
unifying theme, with the troubled sexual relationships of almost all 
the men and women calling attention to the more troubled (and 
troubling) regions of the human psyche. In the first part, Sugi is 
only present as a secret memory for Tong-ho. The first evocation of 
what she means to him comes when the other two go off to spend time 
with prostitutes and we learn that Tong-ho never goes with them. He 
recalls the last night before he left for the army, two years 
previously, which they had spent together in a hotel by Haeundae 
Beach-at Sugi's suggestion, it is stressed. His memory focuses on the 
delicate fuzz he noticed on her face. Almost immediately after, on 
another such occasion, he recalls that night in much greater detail, 
making it very clear that they had held back from direct sexual 
contact, with only very limited kissing and touching: "by controlling 
his desire, he was able to preserve Sugi's dream" (35). In this much 
longer evocation, it is plain that both are inclined to yield, but 
"in the end, he thought only of how precious everything about Sugi 
was, and that she would forever be his" (37) Another, contrary memory 
strikes him at this point, of something Hyôn-t'ae said, "that you 
could never make a woman yours till you had conquered her." His inner 
response is: "But one thing you'll never know, my friend, is the 
purity and the beauty of having the feel of Sugi on my lips, face, 
and hands." Both he and Sugi seem to be radical Platonic idealists, 
unwilling to come to terms with their physicality.

That moment of memory is interrupted by the first, lengthy encounter 
with Sônu. An evening of drinking with bar girls that culminates with 
"And then she took him" (60). His friends are jubilant, while he 
cannot stop retching. "He told himself that part of his body was 
soiled." The following day, "remorse gnawed at his heart" (61), but 
he then tries to persuade himself that his love for Sugi is "as pure 
as ever" (62). Returning to the bar a few days later, he demands to 
meet the same girl, Ok-ju, and learns that she is with the local head 
of the Youth Corps and he has to wait.

After this, his memories of Sugi become complex, he burns her 
previous letters, refuses to read a newly arrived one. He starts to 
ask Ok-ju personal questions, "I wanted to know a little more about 
you" (71). The next time he visits her, he pays for a whole night and 
tries to repeat the restricted lovemaking of his last night with 
Sugi, with no great success. Ok-ju understands: "You're looking for 
the one you love in me. Well, it's not going to work" (79). Then she 
tells her secret, of having been married and pregnant, but the news 
of her husband's death in action kills the baby and all she has is 
the scar of the operation. All her memories have lost their power: 
"There's nothing as heartless as the flesh. Sometime it scares me" 
(81). And she draws him to her more gently than before. He finds a 
"peaceful emptiness" in which he feels neither guilty nor apologetic 
toward Sugi. Yet one month later, after hearing her come to sexual 
climax with someone else, he kills her in a burst of rage, then kills 

The novel is in fact constructed as a diptych, the second part 
bringing Sugi into the action as, after several years of silence, she 
tries to learn why Tong-ho killed himself. Neither of his friends 
will tell her. She finally ends up, for no very clear reason, in a 
hotel room outside of Inch'ôn with a drunken Hyôn-t'ae. He tells her: 
"I see now he could never escape that worthless dreamworld of 
yours-it stifled him till the end and now he's dead" (146). And he 
rapes her. She meets him once more, and simply says: "The lot of 
youŠTong-ho, yourself, you're beyond salvation" (164). The novel ends 
with her leaving Yun-gu after he refuses to allow her to stay at his 
farm until her child is born.

More than any other element, it is this complex story of paradise 
lost that structures the novel. If the innocence of the night at 
Haeundae figures the dream represented by prewar Korea in memory, the 
rape in the hotel in Songdo (Inch'ôn) reveals present-day realities. 
For Tong-ho, the failure to keep the impossible demand of sexual 
purity represents a primal fall, where Ok-ju is a kind of Eve. The 
descent into depravity, all values lost, that follows that fall he 
blames on her, and at the same time he sees in her promiscuity a 
reflection of his own betrayal of Sugi's idealistic trust. Yet it is 
true that Sugi also bears responsibility for what happened; her 
sentimental idealism placed a responsibility on Tong-ho that he 
should not have been asked to shoulder.

So Hwang's novel provokes reflection in ways that Yom's fails to do, 
touching as it does on archetypal themes of sin and fall, guilt and 
damnation, body and soul. It offers little in the way of redemption, 
unless it can be found in the rather uncertain resolution of Sugi to 
bear the child. That seems at least closer to redemption than raising 
chickens, which is the only goal Yun-gu has left to live for.

Is this a novel worth reading? Surely. Does it have limitations? 
Certainly. Perhaps, in the end, the greatest limitation Hwang was 
faced with was the insoluble problem facing a novelist's would-be 
omniscient narrator who is obliged to give an account of people who 
are profoundly unable to give a coherent account of themselves, who 
do not know who they are, what they feel, or what they want. All of 
the characters in the novel are, in the end, victims of their lack of 
self-awareness. Not knowing what it is they desire, they cannot set 
themselves any goal, make any clear choices. Their actions then 
become incoherent, fragmented. In the war, one goal was clear: 
survival. In peacetime, too, the end of the novel seems to say, that 
emerges finally as the only goal, though it might mean a life spent 
staring at the behinds of chickens, trying to determine their sex, 
unwilling to hear the voice that says: "You're beyond salvation."

Brother Anthony/An Sonjae, 2008
Review of  _Three Generations_, by Yom Sang-seop (Yôm Sang-sôp), tr. 
by Yu Young-nan, and _Trees on a Slope_, by Hwang Sun-wôn, tr. by 
Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton
_Korean Studies Review_ 2008, no. 3
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr08-03.htm
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