A man I’ve name-checked a few times over the past year or so during my education in Korean fiction is Charles Montgomery, Mr. KTLIT.com himself, but today’s mention is a little different. You see, over at his site, one of the featured posts is one in which he discusses his introduction to Korean writing, a first foray into K-Lit which turned out to be an unsuccessful one. The book in question turned out to be too culturally bound for a beginner, and he abandoned it for something a little more accessible – but that’s not the way we do things over here. Consider this another challenge accepted – let’s see if we can work out why Charles suffered so much in his first K-Lit adventure…
Yom Sang-seop’s Three Generations (translated by Yu Young-nan) is a lengthy novel, first published serially in 1931 during the Japanese colonial period. In this story of a wealthy Seoul family dealing with a changing society, we meet Jo Deok-gi, a student at Kyoto University back in town for the holidays. The young student is staying at his grandfather’s house, a bustling residence, as his father has become the black sheep of the family (both for his Christianity and his embarrassing affairs) – in fact, Deok-gi is to become head of the family after his grandfather’s death.
While back in Seoul, Deok-gi runs into some familiar faces. Kim Byeong-hwa, one of his old school friends, has seen his life turn out somewhat differently to that of Deok-gi. Having argued with his father, he’s broken off ties with his family and become an activist involved with various underground organisations. There’s also Gyeong-ae, a beautiful young woman who has a rather unexpected connection with Deok-gi’s family, one which the straight-forward student feels compelled to acknowledge. Deok-gi’s own family affairs are also complicated, and as friends and family begin to pressure him on all sides for support, the poor student feels the pressure – it’s all a bit much for a nice, respectful boy from Seoul…
Of course, I’ve had a fair grounding in K-Lit now (having read more than forty Korean books over the past year or so), but unlike Charles, I enjoyed Three Generations. The book is an excellent introduction to the literature of the time, much better than my own first steps last year, Yi Kwang-su’s The Soil. Yom’s novel is far more nuanced, less two-dimensional and didactical, with a whole host of interesting, well-drawn characters, lending the book an air akin to a Natsume Soseki novel in parts.
I’d be the first to admit that the reader may require a little background knowledge to enjoy it fully, though. The first problem area is that of family, even more important at the time than it is in Korea today. Deok-gi is unable to escape the figure of his father Sang-hun, a man conspicuous by his philandering and hypocrisy. Sang-hun has his regrets, especially regarding the child he had with Gyong-ae and the cowardly way he covered up the affair rather than starting a new life with her:
“If Sang-hun could do it all over, he would surely find a way to keep her instead of tossing her away so heartlessly. At the time, though, he hadn’t had the courage. He had trembled with fear that rumors might spread all over town – throughout the church at the very least – and since he didn’t know how to take responsibility for his actions, he just walked away.”
p.116 (Archipelago Books, 2005)
While it’s difficult to feel sympathy for him, his actions are partially explained by his position, hamstrung as he is by his reliance on his own father, still the head of the family (and the keeper of the purse-strings). Unable to make his own decisions, Sang-hun drifts along, his frustration exacerbating his flaws.
While the family issues are fairly clear, if a little frustrating for the modern (western) reader, the societal situation is a little more opaque. This was probably to help the novel avoid censorship, but it may make it difficult for some readers to understand exactly what (or who) Byeong-hwa and his friends are conspiring against. In fact, the Japanese are rarely mentioned in the book – the majority of the novel focuses on the squabbles between the Koreans themselves.
There’s little doubt, though, that Byeong-hwa is a dissident in training, waiting for his opportunity to strike at the oppressor. Despite his comfortable background, he’s already shown his willingness to swim against the tide in the way he’s broken with his family for religious reasons:
“It makes no sense to keep up this barrier between you and your father. Can’t you see it as an ethical matter between father and son, instead of an undermining of your beliefs?”
“Well, whatever you want to call it, when parents drive a child away because he doesn’t parrot their words and follow their faith, how else can he live his own life without being their possession or slave?” (p.51)
Having acquired a sense of class-consciousness, Byeong-hwa refuses to pretend to believe in his father’s religion, preferring to live in poverty while working towards his goals. There’s an interesting contrast here with Sang-hun’s position (and the older man’s acceptance of his father’s domination in exchange for financial support) – Byeong-hwa is a much more modern man…
…and Gyeong-ae, the other major character of the book, is a very modern woman. She probably wouldn’t stand out so much in a western novel, but here she’s luminescent. In a society where women are subservient and forced into fairly closely prescribed gender roles, she refuses to play the part she’s been given, flaunting her differences. She’s a single mother, often to be found in western clothes, aggressive and affectionate in equal measures, and the relationships she develops with Byeong-hwa and Deok-gi, while rather different in nature, are equally fascinating.
While he comes and goes, Deok-gi is at the heart of all that happens in Three Generations. A well-behaved young man, he’s torn between disgust at his father’s behaviour and the reverence he knows he should feel for his elders; his grandfather’s commands put him in a rather difficult position. In a letter to Byeong-hwa, he reveals his frustration with the older generations, unable to take it up with his relatives directly:
“But more than that, older people sowed the seed of tragedy by confining younger generations to their own warped experiences, thoughts and habits. And they got what they deserved because they made the mistake of turning a blind eye to young people’s plights and didn’t teach them how to think and behave when their dreams were shattered.” (p.214)
He’s a man who grows throughout the story, though, and by the end of the novel he’s ready to take the stage. It turns out that his grandfather’s decision is probably a very good one…
For its time, Three Generations is a fairly modern (Korean) novel with a lot more subtlety than some I’ve tried. Yom’s characterisation is effective, with the protagonists drawn in shades of grey, lively without becoming cartoons or stereotypes. This is even true for the almost Dickensian host of minor characters, a bunch of backstabbing money grabbers, jostling for position for the time after the eventual death of the head of the family. There’s a complicated web of priorities and loyalties amongst a stifling atmosphere of family ties and obligations – and a suspicion of foul play too. Even if some of the more subtle cultural by-play goes over your head, there’s plenty in the story to keep most readers interested.
When reminded of Three Generations on Twitter, Charles said “…reading that book is like swimming through a tank of molasses in a cassock”. I wouldn’t agree, and I think he might see it differently second time around too. Yom’s novel is an effective portrayal of Korean society at a fascinating time where both writer and country needed to tread a fine line between Korean sensibilities and Japan’s desire for complete control. Also, in a society that had been unchanged for centuries, the writer shows how modern life was slowly starting to take effect, weakening the grip of traditional norms. Much as I enjoyed it, though, there’s one thing I would agree with Charles on – it’s probably not the ideal entry point into K-Lit. Let’s see if we can agree that it’s one for the more experienced traveller and move on 😉