“Patterns of the Heart and Other Stories” by Choe Myong-ik

Patterns of the Heart and Other Stories, Myŏngik Ch'oe,  Janet Poole (trans) (Columbia University Press, April 2024) Patterns of the Heart and Other Stories, Myŏngik Ch'oe, Janet Poole (trans) (Columbia University Press, April 2024)

Janet Poole, a professor at the University of Toronto, in Patterns of the Heart and Other Stories has translated into English a collection of works by Choe Myong-ik, a writer whom she calls in her introductory essay an “exquisite architect of the short story form”. Following her essay, Poole presents nine stories, five from the colonial era (published from 1936 to 1941) and four in the postwar period (published from 1946 to 1952). Apart from “Walking in the Rain”, which she published in a bilingual edition in 2015, the stories in this book are available in English for the first time.

Choe Myong-ik, a Korean master of the short story and novella, worked throughout his life as an artist within political constraints. He rose to prominence in the Korean literary scene when Korea was under the rule of Imperial Japan. A northerner who stayed in Pyongyang after Liberation, Choe finished his career in the authoritarian Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). He spent his artist’s life, which he supposedly ended by suicide in 1967, writing under the watchful eyes of censors.[1]Chin Chong-sok, ed. Choe Myong-ik sosol sonjip (Collected Works of Choe Myong-ik). Seoul: Hyondae Munhak, 2009. While Chin adds in a chronology that it is “known” that Choe died in 1967 by suicide, Poole is unsure of the writer’s date of death and does not mention suicide.

Born in 1903 in South Pyongan Province, Choe attended the prestigious Pyongyang High School before going to Tokyo for further studies. Early encounters with Russian novelists, and Dostoevsky in particular, according to the ROK editor, led to his determination to become a writer. In 1936, he won acclaim with his short story “Walking in the Rain”. By 1941, Choe had become a prominent writer. Increasingly strict Japanese censorship in the Second World War probably accounts for his next story appearing in print only in 1947, after Japan had surrendered.

Poole has done commendable work in translating these stories.

Choe was a writer of his times. A progressive intellectual, he read widely in Western literature. In his stories of the colonial period appear references to Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Gide, Nietzsche and Zola. Reflecting his status as a writer in an era of capitalism and empire, Choe’s early stories featured frustrated intellectuals leading dissolute lives. The narrator of the title story, “Patterns of the Heart”, a school art teacher, described himself

 

winding my way through a dissipated life – drinking, playing around with women, and sleeping late.

 

The stories, particularly “Patterns of the Heart”, reflect the colonial era, when the Japanese Empire’s rail network ran from Japan, with a short ferry across the Sea of Japan, through Pusan, Seoul, and Pyongyang across the Yalu River into the Japanese puppet empire of Manchukuo. Kim Myong-il, the narrator, recounts his journey north by rail to the Manchurian city of Harbin, known for its

 

famous cabarets, restaurants, dance halls, and the so-called erotic grotesquerie that we associate with Harbin.

 

Kim drinks coffee and Johnnie Walker whiskey, sees kimono-clad European dancing girls in a shabby jazz cabaret, and hears his mistress’s first lover speak of his fall from Korean freedom fighter and intellectual to broken opium addict.

In the story “A Man of No Character”, Choe relates another story of a failed intellectual. Gazing at his collection of books,

 

He recalled a time, seemingly now long past, when he had harbored the ambition to place a stone of his own atop this tower of culture. That ambition had vanished like a shooting star, drawing a momentary line across the night sky with its dazzling light. Once the trace of gold across the night sky fades away, a black line takes its place, and when even that black line disappears, we cannot help but sigh.

 

Ambition gone, the narrator takes a mistress who repeatedly begs him to die with her. Choe’s portrait of a failed man, complete with talk of double suicide (shinju, in Japanese), a popular element in Japanese fiction, reminds me of Choe’s Japanese contemporary, the writer Dazai Osamu.

After the Second World War, Choe toed the line of the ruling Korea Workers’ Party. He abandoned tales of dissolute intellectuals for stories of land reform, uplifted peasants, and war heroes. In his first postwar work, “The Barley Hump” (1946), Choe writes well but according to the Party line. Communist propaganda becomes all too evident in his subsequent works. In the later stories, DPRK propaganda and caricature overshadow Choe’s art. Particularly striking are the strident passages added to the 1952 reprint of “The Engineer” (1951), a tale of the Korean War, additions that turn a lone hero into a Party superman.

With the Cold War’s end, Choe’s stories have returned to Korean bookstores.

Poole has done commendable work in translating these stories. As she notes in her opening essay, Choe’s writing is difficult. His stories include unclear language, as well as many northern expressions and variants, a challenge not only to her but to South Korean readers. The 2009 Seoul anthology has far more explanatory notes than does Poole’s book. Poole translates in a clear way, choosing to keep unfamiliar Korean and Japanese terms to a minimum. For example, Poole writes of a woman’s skirt and jacket rather than transliterate the Korean words chima and chogori. She also expands her translation when necessary. In one story, she expands the Korean term for a woman’s p’at’uron [patron] to “some man keeping her.” In the original Korean, the term is footnoted for the 2009 anthology’s readers.

In 1947, two anthologies of Choe’s stories were published in Korea: one in the American zone of occupation and the other in the Soviet one. In the Cold War, Choe later disappeared from sight in the south and, given his apparent fall from grace and suicide, in the north as well. With the Cold War’s end, Choe’s stories have returned to Korean bookstores. Now, thanks to Janet Poole’s translations, readers can encounter this master of the short story in English.


Stephen Mercado, a retired officer of the CIA’s Open Source Enterprise (previously known as the Foreign Broadcast Information Service), is a freelance translator and writer. He is the author of The Shadow Warriors of Nakano: A History of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Elite Intelligence School.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Chin Chong-sok, ed. Choe Myong-ik sosol sonjip (Collected Works of Choe Myong-ik). Seoul: Hyondae Munhak, 2009. While Chin adds in a chronology that it is “known” that Choe died in 1967 by suicide, Poole is unsure of the writer’s date of death and does not mention suicide.