Book Reviews


A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction. Selected and Translated by Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton University of Hawaii Press, 1998.


In modern Korean literary traditions, unlike in the Western practice, the genre of short story has long been privileged and recognized as the testing ground for the talent and potential of writers and as the key to entrance to the official literary world. The formal brevity, structural tightness, and stylistic compression inherently required of the genre have served its connoisseurs well in gauging writers' skills in control of thematic enunciation and craftsmanship. Therefore, it has usually been through the publication of one's first short story that Korean writers have made their debut and gained admission to the literary establishment. This convention is still strongly maintained in Korea today. It is true in fact that some of the best-known Korean authors of long novels are remembered and appreciated for their short stories.

The exploration of the short story genre was emphatically and tirelessly pursued during the early phase of the development of modern Korean fiction from the early 1920s. The short form of the genre allowed aspiring young writers to experiment with their craft and venture into different thematic areas without having to consider the onerous burden of full-length fiction. Especially, the peculiar situation of the literary circle journals and general-interest magazines of the time, the regular channel for writers' literary debut, whose limited pages, compounded by the financial difficulties they often faced, led to the avoidance of something voluminous for publication and ironically seemed to have encouraged the advancement of the short story genre. Another contributing factor could be found in the scarcity of trade publishers who would readily accept the monetary risks of publishing full-length novels by authors of unproven quality and accomplishment. Furthermore, the censorship and economic deprivation under Japanese colonial rule may have forced Korean writers to choose the more tenable short story form and again paradoxically promoted the growth and refinement of the genre as a desirable and ideal literary medium to cultivate.

Under these singular and often adverse circumstances, however, Korean writers produced some masterpieces in the short story genre during the colonial period, and part of this legacy is made available in English translation in A Ready-Made Life. The anthology contains sixteen short stories¦¡all by male authors except for one by the woman writer Choe Cheong-hui¦¡and covers works produced from 1921 to 1943. At the outset, the translators make it clear that they do not intend to make the collection a "definitive, canonical" piece. Rather, they based their selection on the "stories' appeal" to them and on a concern for brevity, unavailability in English, and variety in styles.

The result is still a felicitous anthology that represents the major works of masters in modern Korean literature, some of whom are also renowned for their long novels. Especially noteworthy is the inclusion of the works of three authors,Lee gi-yeong, Lee dae-jun, and Pak Dae-won, who left for North Korea after the 1945 liveration and whose works, therefore, were long banned in South Korea until the late 1980s. The inclusion of these neglected writers provides a model for compilers of future anthologies. The anthology, however, could have expanded its coverage by including more women writers to strike a better balance in gender, and at the same time, to demonstrate the integral contribution of women novelists to the making of modern Korean narrative traditions, as the translators ovserved themselves.

The "Introduction" presents a brief overview of the course of development of Korean literature under Japanese occupation such as the impact of censorship on Korean writers, and offers concise summaries of the themes and techniques of individual works included in the anthology. This section also informs the reader of the general tone and orientation of the stories, which reveal the dismal and fragmented nature of Koreans' reality during Japanese rule. And yet, Kim and Fulton suggest interesting possibilities for multi-level readings of these stories from critical perspectives such as Marxist and Freudian, or simply for pleasure, rather than taking them monolithically as disguised anticolonial subtexts. As such, the "Introduction" prepares the reader with proper information to contextualize the writers and their stories and offers different options for approaching them. One error in the name of a woman writer occurs in this section : Yi Wo^n-ju should have been written as Kim Won-ju.

Another helpful feature of the collection is the preface provided at the beginning of each story in which informative summaries of the writers' backgrounds, works, and careers are given. Moreover, it is convenient to have the details on hand such as the name of the journal in which the story was originally published along with the publication date. This is particularly relevant to readers who would like to know more about the identity of the source materials from which the stories were taken.

The stories are presented in the chronological order of publication of individual stories with one slight exception : Lee Gi-yeong's story, "A Tale of Rats" (1926) is placed ahead of Yo^m Sang-so^p's "The Rotary Press" (1925). This thoughtful arrangement provides readers with a historical sense of the development of the Korean short story genre and helps make them aware of the relative position and value of these stories in the chronicle of the short story genre. The majority of these stories are short except for Ch'ae Man-sik's story, "The Read Made Life," from which the title of the anthology comes, and make speedy reading.

The translations of the stories read extremely well, reflecting the virtuosity of the originals. The choice of bocabulary is precise and impeccable, and sentences flow smoothly without a hitch. Most impressive is the seeming ease and proficiency in preserving intact the colloquialism and dowm-to-earth flavor of some of the stories. One outstanding example is Kim Yu-jeong's "Wife." Without a thorough acquaintance with and expertise in American slang or popular jargon, such a rendering would have been impossible. In addition, considering that translating dialogues is one of the most difficult skills to master, the characters in A Ready-Made Life speak in the natural language befitting their social atatus, gender, and age. This is one of the delights of reading this anthology.

A welcome inclusion is the new translation of Chu Yo-so^p's "Mama and the Boarder," which is long overdue. This version captures the very essence of the wistful and poignant forbidden love story of a young widow narrated from her six-year-old daughter's point of view. The new translation of Yi Hyo-so^k's "When the Buckwheat Blooms" further enhances the idealized beauty of the countryside and its people, thanks to the translators' experiences and discriminating acumen in forging and chiseling phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. The following ending of the story is one such example : "As Ho^ ambled along, the tinkle of the donkeys' bells, more lucid now, carried over the dusky expanse. The moon had arched far across the heavens." Finally, Yi Kwang-su's "Mystery Woman" adds a new dimension to the anthology, since it brings to light the versatility of Yi, who is usually identified as a writer of lengthy novels, beginning with his first full-length, epoch-making fiction, Mujeong (1917)

A Ready-Made Life will eminently serve as a guide for Western readers to modern Korean literature produced under Japanese occupation, revealing the dwarfed, suffocating, and demeaning nature of the life of the colonized, while showing how most of the writers succeeded in transcending such shackles and created works of superb artistry, penetrating insight, and enduring message. This book is amply qualified to be used as a college textbook in courses such as Korean literature in translation and East Asian literature, and in other courses in the Korean humanities. The collaboration between Kim, who has been an early pioneer in translation in Korea, and Fulton, who has established a track record in the enterprise, has yielded a memorable, distinguished, and, most of all, enjoyable product in the increasingly demanding field of translation and raised its standard to a higher level. For this, A Ready-Made Life will remain a continuing source for challenge as well as admiration and appreciation.



Yung-Hee Kim

Associate Professor in Korean Literature

University of Hawaii at Manoa