‘Sweet Potato’ by Kim Tongin (Review)

While I can’t meet every review request, I’m always happy to hear from new publishers, and that’s particularly true when Korean fiction is on offer.  This was the case recently when Honford Star, a new UK-based press, reached out with their first book, a collection of stories by a classic Korean author.  They have several more works from East Asia out next year, and after reading this one, I’m looking forward to checking out their next releases – the more Korean literature out in English, the better 🙂

Sweet Potato (translated by Grace Jung) is a selection of stories from the career of colonial-era writer Kim Tongin (occasionally transliterated as Kim Dongin), bringing a total of fourteen pieces into English.  There’s a short translator’s note in addition to a nice introduction by Youngmin Kwon, a well-known academic and translator, and the beautiful cover picture, commissioned from Korean illustrator Choi Jee-ook, rounds off an attractive physical product.  Covering twenty-five years of the writer’s career, the stories address a wide range of themes and vary considerably in length and style.

Kwon’s introduction stresses Kim’s influence on Korean fiction, with the writer bringing the idea of ‘miniatures’ focusing on one or two characters (often women) into the literary culture.  A good example of this is ‘Barely Opened His Eyes’, a long piece following Kum-p’ae, a Gisaeng (Korean Geisha).  The story finds her at the height of her beauty, but well aware of the ephemeral nature of her glory:

Even when she entertained and enjoyed her time with men, deep inside of her hid a particularly deep sigh – one couldn’t tell when this would burst.
There’s no way of knowing when it began, but a certain dilemma began to grow and permeate inside her head.

Is it true to live a bold but short life or a narrow and long life?
‘Barely Opened His Eyes’, p.71 (Honford Star, 2017)

These gloomy thoughts, hidden behind a beautiful and playful facade, are forebodings of the tragedy that will inevitably befall her before the end of the story.

Two later stories handle similar themes, but with very different women.  While the protagonist of ‘The Old Taet’angji Lady’ also trades bodily pleasure for money, her looks mean she’s far more unsuccessful, and when she takes a risk in an attempt to make some money, her life is ruined.  In ‘Mother Bear’, however, a plain woman with a heart of gold and strength enough for ten men does everything right, yet is still let down by the man she marries, left almost destitute as a result of his idleness and gambling habits.

Another of Kim’s favourite techniques is the frame narrative, and the first piece, ‘The Life in One’s Hands’, is a perfect example.  A man tells a tale about his dying friend and is surprised half-way through to learn he didn’t die after all.  On their next encounter, the friend (a writer) hands over a diary revealing some of his thoughts during the lengthy hospital stay:

I’m dying.  Why?  I want to live so why should I die? Who the hell is killing me?!  I said I want to live, so who the hell’s trying to kill me?!  Everyone dies.  But I just want to live.  My upbeat personality, strength, stamina – why should I die before I get to spread this all over the world?!  I won’t die.  What the hell is the chief talking about?!
Suddenly sadness, anger – a strange feeling – pressed against my brain.

‘Dying!’ I screamed.  I shut my eyes in exhaustion.
‘The Life in One’s Hands’, pp.17/18

It’s a slightly sombre piece describing a frightening brush with death, but Kim isn’t always as dark.  ‘Like Father, Like Son’, another story told by a minor character, is a clever short piece in which a doctor describes how an inveterate skirt chaser finally settles down – and is punished for his wanton ways in a most unexpected fashion.

The majority of Kim’s career was spent writing under Japanese rule, and there are several stories here describing the era.  In ‘Flogging’ (a story based on the writer’s own experiences), a man describes life in prison, painting a picture of dozens of men cramped in a hot, unsanitary cell, listening to the sound of one of their number being flogged in the courtyard.  ‘Red Mountain’ is a short piece featuring Koreans forced to live in Manchuria (and their desperate life there) while ‘The Traitor’, an interesting story written after the departure of the Japanese in 1945, looks at a man who sells out his country with the best intentions – only realising his folly when the war ends.  For those in the know, it’s a thinly veiled jab at another Korean writer, Yi Kwangsu, who behaved exactly like this…

Some of the best stories in the collection deal with a less Korea-specific theme, though, that of the tortured artist.  ‘The Mad Painter’, for example, introduces us to an artist who finally finds his muse, only for his happiness to end tragically.  An even better example is to be found in ‘Fire Sonata’, another lengthy frame narrative, in which a famous musician tells of a young genius and the horrifying truth behind his inspiration:

“…if it means the creation of one of his great works, they are ultimately not that difficult to sacrifice.  A gift that comes once in a thousand – no, once in ten thousand years…  To say that a few useless crimes are worth smothering his talent – wouldn’t that be the ultimate crime?  That’s what we artists believe, at least.”
‘Fire Sonata’, p.125

As you may have guessed, the genius in question gets his inspiration from the darker side of life.  It all starts with a fire he sets accidentally and ends in a far darker place, forcing us to wonder if the price art demands can sometimes be too high.

Given Kim’s reputation, it’s no surprise that some of these stories have appeared elsewhere. ‘Flogging’ and ‘The Mad Painter’ (in different translations) are part of the free LTI Korea e-library, and the title story, in Kevin O’Rourke’s translation, appears in the Modern Korean Fiction collection.  ‘Sweet Potato’ features yet another of Kim’s fallen women, one who embraces her fate and is destroyed by her decision to place money above morals, once again watched over by an indifferent lazy husband (there are a *lot* of those in Korean literature…).

Translating from Korean to English gives you a fair amount of flexibility, and it was interesting to compare the two versions.  In terms of the prose, I found O’Rourke’s effort smoother than Jung’s (perhaps deliberately) stilted version, although I actually preferred the more natural dialogue in Jung’s text, but there were also a few factual differences.  The disparity in the main character’s age can be explained by the differing Korean and Western systems used, yet a couple of other differences (‘4o won’ or ‘400 won’, ‘the next day’ against ‘two days later’) were more puzzling.  Sadly, I don’t have the original text to check, so if anyone can help out there…

Even the different titles are fascinating.  O’Rourke decided on ‘Potatoes’, the literal translation of 감자 (kamja), but Jung has opted for ‘Sweet Potato’ (literally 고구마 – koguma), meaning not only is there a difference between plural and singular, but also regarding what the woman was actually digging out of the ground.  In a Facebook discussion, I did hear that this may be because in Kim’s home region (around Pyongyang) 감자 was used to mean 고구마, but my Korean isn’t quite (!) good enough to be able to verify that; please let me know if you can shed further light on the subject 🙂

Overall, Sweet Potato is an excellent collection, with no weak pieces and several excellent stories.  Combining humour, pathos, frame narratives and a host of chatty narrators, it’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed.  Before I wrap the post up, I’d just like to touch on one last story, finishing on a more personal note for the writer.  ‘Notes on Darkness and Loss’ describes the long, drawn-out death of the writer’s mother and is a realist autobiographical piece (with definite hints of the Japanese I-Novel).  The writer is torn between caring for his mother and agonising over the money problems plaguing his family back in Seoul.  It’s another time and a very different place, but this is a dilemma anyone can relate to.  The story is representative of Kim’s excellent writing and just one more reason why Sweet Potato is a book you’ll enjoy even if you’re new to Korean fiction.

4 thoughts on “‘Sweet Potato’ by Kim Tongin (Review)

    1. Dorte – Thanks 🙂 I had a quick look, and with my limited Korean, it looked like the two discrepancies I pointed out were evenly split at one each! Of course, my Korean is very basic, so I cannot guarantee that…


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