While much of my recent Korean reading has focused on contemporary writers, I’m always keen to try more from the early days of modern Korean literature, and today’s choice highlights work from one of the big names from the (Japanese) colonial era. Ch’ae Manshik is a writer I’ve encountered several times before, mainly in scattered pieces such as ‘My Innocent Uncle’ (in the Modern Korean Fiction collection) and the longer works Frozen Fish and Transgressor of the Nation (available to read online at the LTI Korea library). However, today’s choice takes a more structured look at his work, providing an overview of a writer who doesn’t perhaps get the attention he deserves.
Sunset: A Ch’ae Manshik Reader (review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) is an effort by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton to bring Ch’ae’s work to a wider audience. It contains a selection of short (and longish) stories along with a couple of plays and a selection of non-fiction pieces, including transcripts of discussions on literature that the writer was a part of in the late 1930s. One of the main aims of the book is to show that there’s more to Ch’ae than his later works, showing the depth and range of his early stories. In addition, the Fultons hope to make readers reconsider a man slightly tainted by his continued publication during the Japanese occupation.
There are several of his early pieces, often dismissed as juvenilia, included here, some of which (such as ‘Egg on My Face’ and ‘A Writing Worm’s Life’) are mere sketches, but Ch’ae’s first story, ‘In Three Directions’ is a little meatier. A piece set on a train, looking at the interaction between the passengers, it introduces the pleasant, indecisive narrator who is to become one of Ch’ae’s stock techniques (perhaps a thinly disguised alter ego). The longest of these early stories is ‘Ungrateful Wretch’, an excellent portrait of the ups and downs of an opium addict and the trials he puts his long-suffering mother through, observed once again by a passive bystander.
Some of the later pieces show the gentle humour Ch’ae is known for. ‘Mister Pang’ is a clever story showing the upheaval caused by the liberation from the Japanese in 1945. An upper-class landowner is forced to beg to a man who was a boorish nobody before the Japanese left, having to suffer the indignity of being patronised by someone he wouldn’t have given the time of day to a year back. Meanwhile, ‘A Man Called Hungbo’ introduces us to a day in the life of a good-natured but unfortunate school caretaker, whose efforts to bring his daughter a treat are foiled at every turn by life’s quirks and his own generosity.
‘Juvesenility’, however, is a very different effort, showing Ch’ae’s versatility and range. It’s a conversation rather than a story, with the reader only privy to one side of the discussion. Here, a woman complains about her husband’s strange and unreasonable behaviour, pleading for help in making him snap out of his strange moods. There’s a resemblance to ‘My Innocent Uncle’ in the way we are drawn to the character being abused by the others, but it’s left to us to fill in the gaps in the story and work out why the speaker’s husband is holed up in his room (which might be hard for those with no knowledge of Korean society of the time…).
Some societal insights are offered in the non-fiction pieces in the collection. ‘Challenges Facing Today’s Writers’ is a fairly dull report of short answers by a group of writers to a range of questions, but a later event, ‘A Three-Way Conversation on Kungmin Literature’ is far more intriguing. The word kungmin can easily be translated as ‘national’, but what does national mean to Koreans living under Japanese hegemony (and well aware of sensitive ears in the background)?
YI T’AEJUN: We should study carefully the works coming out lately from writers in Japan. Because they are our seniors in terms of their theory and the acumen with which they create their works, and because they hold certain beliefs about kungmin literature, I think we need to learn how they put those beliefs into practice.
CH’AE MANSHIK: I’ve read widely, but believe me, I haven’t found anything I’d want to apprentice myself to. It looks to me as if those writers are still fogbound.
‘A Three-Way Conversation on Kungmin Literature’, p.167
(Columbia University Press, 2017)
That’s a brave statement to make in a colonial environment, one of several that suggest that Ch’ae wasn’t always as pro-Japanese as he’s often made out to be.
Two short examples of the writer’s plays are included, with the first, ‘Whatever Possessed Me?’, a funny one-act farce in which a woman recently converted to Christianity struggles with certain Biblical commands. Rich man? Camel? Needle? Luckily, her husband has a cunning plan:
MASTER: It might cost some money, see, but we’ll custom-order a humongous needle from an ironworks. Now listen carefully – it’ll be bigger around than a camel. And, bang! – when it’s time to go to heaven we’ll load it on a truck and take it along with us, see?
‘Whatever Possessed Me?’, p.111
However, a later three-act play, ‘Blind Man Shim’ (based on an old Korean folk tale) moves us from comedy to tragedy. An old blind man makes a rash decision in the hope of regaining his sight, and when the time for payment comes, his loving daughter makes a sacrifice to get him off the hook – one he knows nothing about until it’s too late…
Sunset is an enjoyable read, and with the exception of some of the non-fiction pieces, it’s not just for the K-Lit specialist. Ch’ae’s recognisable style pervades the selection, particularly with regard to gentle, mocking humour, self-deprecating narrators and idiomatic flowery language. There’s a marked decision to keep the translation firmly in the past, with consistent use of early twentieth-century US slang dating the stories. It works well on the whole, and it makes sense given the period Ch’ae was writing in, but I’m sure I’m not the only reader who might be stumped by the occasional expression.
A more puzzling decision, given that the rest of the book was organised chronologically, was putting the title story, one of the later pieces, at the start of the book (particularly when the last story, ‘Angel for a Day’, made for a fairly weak ending to the collection). ‘Sunset’ is perhaps my favourite piece from the whole collection and would have made a fitting finale. It’s a forty-page examination of the ups and downs of the upper-middle classes after liberation, focusing on two families: one indolent and bitter; the other hard-working and opportunistic. However, as the story progresses, we learn that matters are not quite that clear-cut, and not everyone is happy about the way the second family has made its fortunes:
“It’s one of our worst traits as a people – you find yourself a nice, safe place to watch what goes on, and when the smoke clears you come out and have yourself a feast. What a crooked mind-set – it’s how our country went to hell in the first place. And unless the people of Choson dump it, the country will go to hell again, even if it’s independent. Tell me, how can a people who have no spirit of self-sacrifice or nationalism expect to stay independent?”
With the Korean War still a couple of years away, ‘Sunset’ hints at the trauma to come, and Ch’ae’s passive narrator comes to represent the common folk whose lives are about to be devastated once more.
Sadly, Ch’ae himself died just a year or so after writing this story, and his legacy remains overshadowed by a sense of his lack of intellectual resistance during the colonial period. However, Sunset shows that there’s more to the writer than the apologetic novellas that appeared after 1945, and that he’s a writer well worth (re)discovering. Anyone wanting to know more about twentieth-century Korean literature, could certainly do worse than starting their journey here.