Korean American Books

Summaries and reviews of fiction and nonfiction books by Korean American authors,
books about Korean Americans and Korea, and Korean literature in English translation,
including some academic works and a sampling on the Korean War

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Peace Under Heaven by Ch'ae Man-Sik

Considered a Korean masterpiece by a renowned author, this translation of a 1936 serialized narrative appeared in 1993, and won a translation award. The story occurs within two days, and is a tragicomedy of greed, ambition, egoism and miserliness of the protagonist, Master Yun, and how his family circle augments and exacerbates those pitiable characteristics. Surrounded in his home by five widows, including the two "grass widows" of his sons, who have moved on to concubines and live elsewhere, plus servants and his own personal finance man, himself a servant, Master Yun epitomizes the bewilderment of a culture under Japanese occupation. He is lowerclass yet strives through his sons to achieve aristocracy, in a world in which class has been effectively outlawed. His appetites are huge, his purse strings tighter than shrunken sinew, his abuse of his family and the women he desires is biting. And yet he is a simple man, pitiably bound by his father's violent death by bandits, and by the limitations of his mind and his greed. The narrative is mostly expository, making it sometimes difficult to retain the stamp of each character, for there are several, all riotous and despicable, including a disabled grandson. It is a profoundly absurdist darkly satirical work, but its window into the hidden lives and culture of regular Koreans during the Japanese occupation is fascinating--provided one can read between the lines of the black humor.

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