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

Friday, December 5, 2008

Three Generations by Yom Sang-seop, transl. by Yu Young-nan

A Korean literary classic, this novel was originally serialized in the CHOSUN ILBO beginning in 1931 and was translated in 2005. An epic tale of a family during the Japanese occupation, the story follows the Jo grandfather, father and son in the waning days of the grandfather's life, detailing the complex inner workings of those three relationships and the many intertwined relationships that they pursue, in the context of life during the occupation. It presents a rare view into the daily stresses and disenfranchisement of the characters who are torn between the ancient age and the modern world. Money, unspoken feelings and thoughts, class issues, subterfuge, desire, disappointment and hopelessness are predominant themes. The wealthy Grandfather Jo has basically purchased an ancestral background of a lineage somewhat more elevated than his genealogy would attest. Consumed by his status and wealth, he lives with both his wife of many years and a recent concubine, an opportunist woman from Suwon of lesser class who has ties with several unsavory hangers-on and sycophants who have gained favor with Grandfather. Father Jo (Sang-hun) lives separately with his own wife, and also has a daughter that he refuses to recognize by a former mistress, Gyeong-ae, a young modern woman who has become a bar hostess in order to support her daughter and mother. Grandfather Jo despises this son, Sang-hun, because he professes to be a Christian and refuses to follow the ancestral rites that Grandfather believes will honor his glory (and his class and wealth) after death. Sang-hun proves to be a hypocritical Christian, and in the impossible and humiliating position of being loathed by his own father, while his son is favored, descends into tawdriness with another young concubine, gambling and drinking. The son, Deok-gi, becomes involved with two old childhood friends, Byeong-hwa, a Marxist youth, and Gyeong-ae, with whom he lost touch after his father began having an affair with her. Ideological battles play hand-in-hand with class and wealth issues, all leading to events that bring all the major players to the attention of the police, culminating in torture, beatings and jail.

The writing deftly captures the complexity of Korean culture and thought in a difficult period of transition. Shifting points of view reveal deeply buried passions that occasionally erupt with embarrassing or shameful results. Much misunderstanding and incorrect assuming leads to situational antics that hearken soap opera drama. Detailed description of poverty and wealth, and frequent directions given from one Seoul neighborhood to another, lend a journalistic quality to the setting that is unparalleled in contemporary Korean fiction which tries to recapture that lost era. It is a vivid snapshot of one winter in a family's life, that changes each character, while around them the world is changing and will ultimately change in ways they could never have anticipated. Our modern insight into history makes this a fascinating read: and Yom compels the story forward while revealing complicated interwoven relationships and an intricate plot.

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