‘The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories’, edited by Bruce Fulton (Review)

Back in 2019, Penguin Classics brought out a collection of Japanese fiction edited by Jay Rubin, The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, which introduces readers to a number of masters of short fiction.  Having enjoyed that book, I was very happy to hear that Penguin were following up with a Korean version, and even happier to receive a copy in the post.  For those who have immersed themselves in K-Pop and the country’s drama series, but have yet to dip a toe into Korean literature, this might be the perfect way to begin your reading adventure.  Interested?  Then step this way, and let’s work through eighty years of Korean fiction, through a number of intriguing perspectives.

Translator Bruce Fulton also saw the Japanese fiction anthology, and in his editorial note he explains how it inspired him to approach the publisher with a plan for a Korean version.  The fruit of all that is The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories, a collection of twenty-five tales taking us from life under the Japanese colonial rulers in the 1930s to more modern fare, with the last piece written less than a decade ago.  In addition to editing the book, Fulton (often in tandem with his wife, Ju-Chan Fulton) had a hand in most of the translations (see below for the full list of translators), and the result is an excellent collection introducing a new audience to some of the most famous writers in Korean literature.

Before looking at the stories in more detail, I have a couple of warnings for potential readers.  Those who have experience in the field may well have tried several of the stories before as there’s some overlap with other anthologies, in particular with the Columbia University Press release, Modern Korean Fiction (I’d read about half of the included pieces before in various places).  In addition, while Kwon Youngmin’s introduction has interesting information about the writers, he does tend to reveal far too much about the content of the stories, so I’d wait until after finishing each piece before seeing what he has to say.

As was the case in the Japanese version, the book takes a thematic rather than a sequential approach, grouping the stories into five categories, with stories new and old bumping shoulders.  For example, the ‘Hell Chosŏn’ section, collecting stories touching on the gruelling, sapping nature of Korean society, has both P’yŏn Hyeyŏng’s (Pyun Hye-young’s) ‘The First Anniversary’, a modern tale of a delivery man in a construction-site-ridden suburban wasteland, and Yi Sang’s classic story ‘Wings’, a bizarre piece narrated by a man kept hidden in a dark room by his prostitute wife during the colonial era.  A lot changed in Korea in the seventy years between the two stories, but the plight of the average person certainly didn’t get any easier.

As you’d expect from a collection like this one, there’s an attempt to introduce the reader to as many prominent authors as possible, and while there are only eight female writers among the twenty-five, those include some familiar names.  Pak Wansŏ (Park Wan-suh), O Chŏnghŭi and Ch’oe Yun are all represented here, with Ch’oe’s excellent ‘The Last of Hanak’o’, an atmospheric piece reflecting on the effect a young woman has on a group of typically selfish Korean businessmen, one of the most enjoyable pieces in the ‘Women and Men’ section.  More familiar to western readers will be Kyung-Sook Shin, and ‘House on the Prairie’ was one of my favourites here, an eerie ghost story set in the middle of nowhere, masterfully constructed and executed in a matter of pages.

There are plenty of big names on the male side, too.  The ‘Peace and War’ section has contributions from two staples of these collections, Cho Chŏngnae and Hwang Sunwŏn (thankfully represented here with ‘Time For You and Me’, and not the ubiquitous ‘Sonagi’‘Rain Shower’), with both of their stories touching on the hardships and brutality of the Korean-War era.  One writer I’m always glad to hear from is Jung Young Moon, and ‘Home on the Range’ sees his usual blend of surreal slackerism as he describes his time ‘helping’ a friend on a remote farm:

I did though, volunteer in a few different ways for my friend.  As long as it wasn’t physically demanding.  I didn’t do what I wasn’t cut out for.  What I mainly did was watch the herd in the way I thought they wanted to be watched, and to listen to their bleating in the way I thought they wished to be heard.  And I didn’t let them stray beyond the fence – but I didn’t consider that task absolutely necessary because they had never done that before.  But I performed that task anyway.  If something wasn’t absolutely necessary I tended not to do it, but who wants to get hung up on tendencies?
‘Home on the Range’, pp. 368/9 (Penguin Classics, 2023)

Ah, JYM, never change.

Of course, part of the joy of this kind of book is making new discoveries, and even for me, there were a few hitherto unknown gems to be found.  A couple of nice stories in the ‘Tradition’ section are Kim Taeyong’s ‘Pig on Grass’, an enjoyable trip down memory lane for an old couple (and their pig…) until a late twist, as well as Chu Yosŏp’s ‘Mama and the Boarder’.  This 1935 story is seen through the eyes of a young girl, and focuses on an ill-fated relationship between her widowed mother and the man who rents a room in their home.  Alas, it’s not one the era condones – one husband is all you got in the Korean society of the time…

Perhaps my favourite discovery (and not coincidentally, the longest story in the collection) was Pak T’aewŏn’s ‘A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist’.  Written in 1934, it shows a writer as he roams the streets of Seoul, looking for something to do and someone to while away the hours with:

Sipping his coffee, he counts all the types of happiness a little money can buy.  Even with eight wŏn, forty chŏn, he would be able to acquire, for a time, some small happiness, or even more.  Kubo doesn’t want to mock himself for that thought.  Doesn’t a heart that can be consoled for a while with a little money deserve sympathy, love even?
‘A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist’, p.106

The story consists of a number of scenes, reminiscent of Ulysses in its itinerant nature (with that book even namechecked on one occasion), and beautifully brings across the melancholy and Weltschmerz of the colonial-era intellectual.  It even has original sketches from Yi Sang himself – what’s not to like?

There’s far too much in The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories to cover in detail here, but I’d just like to make passing mentions of a few excellent (more recent) stories to finish off.  There’s much to like about Han Yujoo’s ‘Black-and-White Photographer’ and Kim Aeran’s ‘The Future of Silence’ (also covered here), and I was highly entertained by Kim Chunghyŏk’s ‘The Glass Shield’, a riotous romp in which two inseparable losers accidentally become an internet sensation, and job interview experts.  Whether you’re an old hand or completely new to Korean literature, you’ll find a lot to admire in this collection, and if you enjoy this and are looking for more…

…well, let’s just say I’ve got you covered.  You’re welcome 😉

Translators featured in The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories:
Bruce Fulton, Ju-Chan Fulton, Kim Chong-un, Ross King, Suh Ji-moon, Sunyoung Park, Jefferson J.A. Gatrall, Kevin O’Rourke, Na-Young Bae, Marshall R. Pihl, Cindy Chen and Janet Hong


2 thoughts on “‘The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories’, edited by Bruce Fulton (Review)

Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.