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Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Frustration and anger produce great Korean fiction

A READY-MADE LIFE: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction, selected and translated by Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998, 191 pp., $38 (cloth), $15.95 (paper).

"What's driving me to drink isn't anger and isn't the dandies. It's this society -- our Korean society -- that drives me to drink."

Life in Korea during its colonization by Japan from 1910 to 1945 was influenced by the twin forces of oppression and enlightenment. The 16 stories in this collection are useful as a record of this period and as an introduction to the cream of modern Korean writers. For all but two of the stories, this is their first translation into English.

Many young Koreans traveled to Japan during the colonization period in order to pursue higher education. This increased their exposure not only to the world outside Korea, but also to forms of literature unavailable in Korea. Accordingly, many of the writers in this collection were influenced by the Western literature that was made accessible to them in Japanese translation.

Although the styles of writing and story-telling owe some debt to Western literature, their subject matter is distinctly Korean. Collectively, they are a testament to many of the social dilemmas and frustrations experienced by Koreans at the time.

There were substantial restrictions on life choices, not just because of the limitations brought about by colonization, but because of too little or, conversely, too much, education. Korean society was also highly structured, and those who did not conform to the system were quickly exiled. Relations between men and women were clearly unequal, partly as a result of differences in education, but also as a result of the different expectations and standards set for each sex by society.

Life, it is clear, was a struggle, and whether that daily struggle was carried out in the country or the city, many of the characters in these stories share a common sense of despondency and disillusionment with the society in which they live.

In the title story, "A Ready-Made Life," Ch'ae Man-shik tells a classic tale of how education can backfire, leading to a society in which there are many educated but dissatisfied and/or unemployed individuals. Sent out into the workforce armed with the high expectations brought about by education but few technical skills, many young Koreans in this period were unable to find satisfactory employment on farms or in the cities.

In the opening scene, the principal character ("P") is looking for a job and being given yet another rejection. This time, he openly questions the standard advice of the time -- that he would be better off helping build a strong Korea by laboring on the farms.

The author makes several explicit comments in the narrative that reflect his own deep sense of dissatisfaction with such advice. He refers to the push "to educate" in Korea and the homily that "teaching your child one book is better than leaving him a fortune." The enthusiastic reception such ideas got at the time led to the establishment of many public schools under the auspices of the Cultural Policy of Japanese Gov. Gen. Sato.

The author speaks of the success of this policy in providing education for the masses, but also its clear failure in social terms. "The workers and the farmers drew the short end of the stick. To them, the nation's development and its cultural advances added to their burden rather than lightening it. . . . And the intellectuals? Among this group were people with no technical know-how, who had a college diploma and some commonplace knowledge, people who couldn't find jobs." There was a saturation of educated, disgruntled people -- "ready-made human commodities turned shop-worn."

In the case of "P," his disillusionment with this own predicament leads him to steer his own son away from a similar fate, preventing the boy from receiving a formal education and forcing him to pursue skilled work.

A similar sense of disillusionment is experienced by the principal male character of "A Society That Drives You to Drink" by Hyon Chin-gon. In this story we get a vivid sense of the distance between the educated and uneducated and the traumas inflicted upon those given a taste of freedom and opportunity in Japan, who then return to the restrictions and limitations of their lives in Korea.

This story also illustrates the troubled relations between young Korean men and their wives, in particular, those relationships in which the man has gone to Japan for education, leaving his wife behind to wait patiently for his return. Upon his return to Korea, the main character in this story experiences grave depression and turns to alcohol in despair. "The fellow who has his wits about him," he says, "throws up blood and dies."

The complete lack of understanding expressed by his wife is apparently inevitable, and the emotional bridge between them is tragically impassable. The reader is left to wonder which is more to blame: husband, wife or the social forces underpinning their relationship.

The unhappy state of male/female relations is further explored by Kim Yu-jong in "Wife." This is a disturbing tale of domestic violence -- a no-holds-barred monologue of a husband's insults hurled at his wife. After all, the husband says, "What's a wife for if you can't cuss her up and down and use her for a punching bag now and then?"

Aside from providing a provocative account of a husband's justifications for cruel treatment of his spouse, the story makes all too clear the difficulties and struggles of farm life, so that you are alternately repulsed by and sympathetic toward this heinous, misogynistic individual. For the reader to feel such a tinge of sympathy is testament to the author's skill in characterization.

Although not all of these stories will appeal to every reader, their value lies to some degree in their diversity both in style and subject. Together, they provide an excellent introduction to a body of work previously inaccessible to English readers and to an extraordinary period of change and upheaval in Korean history.

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