As contemporary Korean literature receives increasing acclaim in English-language circles—Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize—it is perhaps inevitable that efforts are being made to introduce older Korean classics to the English language mainstream. One of of these is Sweet Potato, a newly-translated volume of short stories by Kim Tongin (or Kim Dong-in) written mostly in the Japanese colonial period between the Wars.
“Kim Tongin’s literary achievements had important literary historical significance, leading to the establishment of modern Korean fiction and its rapid popularization,” writes Youngmin Kwon in the introduction. Kim’s place in Korean literary history is perhaps a matter for scholars; not being one, I can only come to this collection more or less as a general reader would.
The collection, thankfully, contains stories with are both noteworthy on their merits and which also illuminate what must be for most readers a largely unknown period of East Asian history. Kim is noted for his “realist/naturalist” style, writes Kwon—compared to, one presumes, whatever it was that went before. Certainly, the stories concern themselves with ordinary people and many are very gritty. The title story tells of a woman who falls into prostitution through the deprivations of poverty.
Pongnyo was poor but raised in a household that upheld principles…. The year she turned fourteen, she was married off to a man in her neighbourhood for eighty won… He was an incredibly lazy man.
After a stint laboring, she “became one of those women who did not work but collected a higher wage.” The story is grim, unleavened by any hope at all.
Even more grim is “Flogging”, which tells of prison under Japanese occupation (Kim had himself been jailed). This story is not so much about the deprivations of prison life, described in excruciating detail:
We’re crowded to the point of choking on our own tongues. The hot sun that seems to be caught on the edge of the eaves sends down its endless heat. Who knew that the body had so much water? Sweat has been pouring out of me nonstop since morning. After sitting still for a long time due to exhaustion, I finally gather the strength to slowly stand up, leaning against the cell wall. This is hell. The people sit jampacked alongside one another with their heads tilted back and mouths open like corpses. No one thinks to wipe away their sweat and drool. They just sit in mute silence. Their rounded backs hunched, lifeless hands folded on top of their knees, faces swollen blue, lips slack, dull eyes, dishevelled hair and beards – everything about them suggest death.
but rather about what this level of inhumanity can drive people do to their fellows in an attempt to find any way of alleviating the terrible discomfort. There is much of Dostoevsky in these stories; in the latter, perhaps shades of of Solzhenitsyn.
It is hardly surprising that after the better part of a century, some of the stories seem a bit dated. Several make use of the technique of a story told to the narrator by someone else, something which now sees a rather clunky device. Others seem to dwell on points of philosophy rather than plot. The lead story, “The Life in One’s Hands” exhibits both. A man who thought his friend has died in hospital is given a series of “thought pieces” to read; he escaped death by misdiagnosis. The piece ends with the narrator musing:
I looked down at the town from our home, perched on hill. A mass of people wandered about like flecks of dust, expressing their joy for life. Ah, but who will assure them of their lives? A doctor’s diagnosis could kill them in a year or even a month.
Other stories, however, are gems—without being unrelentingly grim. One of the best is “A Letter and a Photograph”, an ironic tale about a married woman having an affair. She misleads her lover into thinking she has an handsome elegant husband with faked photograph—getting him to spruce up his appearance. When she tires of him, she gets him to see her real, unglamorous husband by leaving a letter lying about. She tells him:
‘Goodness. Men are so slow…Men can be manipulated any which way with a single photo and letter…’
Translation is crucial in a collection of this kind, for the translated version is all the non-Korean speaker has to go on. So whether Grace Jung’s translation matches the Korean, I cannot say, but in style, it seems (some expletives apart) consistent with the period in which the pieces were written. There are a few footnotes, which are distracting in fiction, but these have thankfully been kept to a minimum. Only one story, curiously, has phrases which seems out of synch: “Like Father Like Son” contains some apparent linguistic anachronisms like “M’s friends regarded his bachelorhood with pity and wished for him to tie the knot already” and “He was more about checking off boxes.”
This new collection is undoubtedly an significant addition to the corpus of work of Korean literature in English; perhaps more important, however, is that it is not impossible to envisage one or more of the stories showing up in the reading lists of “World Literature” courses in Asian international schools.