The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories by Bruce Fulton (ed) - review by Bryan Karetnyk

Bryan Karetnyk

Seoul Stirring

The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories


Penguin Classics 496pp £30

In his penetrating and deeply personal introduction to the much-anticipated Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories, the Korean-born literary critic Kwon Youngmin recounts a formative episode from his youth. While a graduate student in Seoul in the 1970s, he witnessed a striking exchange. A visiting professor from Japan, he writes, ‘asked our professors how many authors of fiction we had in Korea and how many fictional works had been published since the turn of the century’. So faltering was their answer that the young Kwon had to ‘sneak out of the room in shame, [his] face burning’.

The exchange was not only indicative, but symbolic. Sosŏl, or ‘fiction’ in the Western mould, arrived in Korea at the start of the 20th century, along with Japanese colonial rule, and the story of its development is one inextricably linked to political events. Indeed, it is extraordinary to think that by the time this Japanese professor asked his patronising question, only a single generation of modern Korean writers had received formal education in their own language (as Kwon points out, education during the colonial period was mandatorily delivered in Japanese, while those lucky enough to receive a literary education prior to that were instructed in hanmun, or classical Chinese).

Fifty years on, and the situation is rather different. Now that Korea’s cultural powerhouse is the driving force behind so many global trends, hasn’t the time come, Kwon suggests, to ‘share with readers a collection of stories that affirms Korea’s rightful place in world literature’? The aim is admirable. And although Korean literature has achieved enviable prominence and recognition over the past decade, thanks in large part to the work of translators such as Deborah Smith and Anton Hur, the Korean short story has, with a few notable exceptions (most recently, Bora Chung’s collection Cursed Bunny), tended to escape widespread popular notice. Yet as this anthology’s editor, Bruce Fulton, notes, since its introduction to Korea over a century ago, the short story has come to occupy ‘elite status’ among prose fiction, and is the primary vehicle by which many of Korea’s most prestigious literary awards are won today.

Fulton, himself an experienced translator and compiler of such collections, understands what makes a good anthology. He knows that the best of them offer a sense of narrative, even if loose or disjointed, and bring a degree of coherence to a vastly disparate whole. Such is the case here. Collaborating with eleven other translators, he has selected twenty-six stories by as many authors, each of which has passed the litmus test of time and connoisseurship: he and his fellow translators have asked themselves which works, over the course of their careers, lingered longest and moved them most. The result is an ever-surprising and stylistically diverse anthology that will surely stand as the touchstone collection of Korean literature for decades to come.

Divided into thematic sections with titles such as ‘Tradition’, ‘Women and Men’, ‘Peace and War’, ‘Hell Chosŏn’ and ‘Into the New World’, a style of arrangement that has been borrowed from Jay Rubin’s successful collection The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories (2018), the volume presents a remarkably well-balanced offering of short fiction spanning almost eighty years, from 1934 to 2013. It includes works by writers from across the length and breadth of the Korean peninsula, and if the gender split is not quite fifty-fifty, this is because women writers have only latterly come to predominate in fiction.

Although many of the authors in the anthology are household names in Korea, few, I suspect, will be familiar to non-specialist Western readers, perhaps with the exceptions of Hwang Sŏgyŏng (Hwang Sok-yong) and Shin Kyŏngsuk (Shin Kyung-sook), whose novels have achieved considerable international success. The stories here trace the changing fortunes of Korea, from a kingdom to a Japanese colony, from a country at war with itself to a land divided and, in the case of South Korea, from a military dictatorship to a democracy riven with hyper-consumerist excesses. Stand-out works include Pak Wansŏ’s subtle and devastating ‘Winter Outing’ (1975), which lifts the veil on enduring traumas of the Korean War; a lavish excerpt from North Korean author Hong Sŏkchung’s historical novel Hwang Chini (2002), which, unlike so much socialist realism, seeks to recapture the richness of Korean language and culture across the ages; and Ch’oe Such’ŏl’s ‘River Dark’ (2001), which looks ominously ahead to impending ecological catastrophe.

If Korea’s experience of 20th-century modernity was marked by stark discontinuities, there are, nevertheless, arresting commonalities among the themes which authors from all periods in this volume address. Most typically, perhaps, the stories are permeated with an anxiety over tradition in a variety of guises. We witness this cutting across history and politics and coalescing, for example, around familial obligation, as in Kim T’aeyong’s pungent, poignant ‘Pig on Grass’ (2006), in which readers are brought vividly inside the mind of an elderly widowed man suffering from dementia, whose son is about to leave him and go abroad. Likewise, jeopardised tradition often mixes with youthful melancholy and quiet devastation, as in Pak T’aewŏn’s ‘A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist’ (1934), a modernist masterpiece of dislocation and alienation in 1930s Seoul, which places the struggling writer-flâneur in the midst of a much-altered colonial metropolis. There are echoes, in turn, of this powerful anti-colonialist experimentalism in Yi Sang’s superb ‘Wings’ (1936), in which a downtrodden intellectual attempts to transcend the confines of his oppressive surroundings by taking to the air, both literally and metaphorically, and in Han Yuju’s deliciously ambiguous ‘Black-and-White Photographer’ (2007), which presents an account of a kidnapping that actively resists monological reading.

The abiding impression of Korean writing as showcased in The Penguin Book of Korean Short Stories is of a literature bound to the events of a tumultuous century, one that holds up to the light all the tragedies, great and small, of its upheavals.

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