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A Ready-Made Life

A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction

Kim Chong-un
Bruce Fulton
Copyright Date: 1998
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  • Book Info
    A Ready-Made Life
    Book Description:

    A Ready Made Life is the first volume of early modern Korean fiction to appear in English in the U.S. Written between 1921 and 1943, the sixteen stories are an excellent introduction to the riches of modern Korean fiction. They reveal a variety of settings, voices, styles, and thematic concerns, and the best of them, masterpieces written mainly in the mid-1930s, display an impressive artistic maturity. Included among these authors are Hwang Sun-won, modern Korea's greatest short story writer; Kim Tong-in, regarded by many as the author who best captures the essence of the Korean identity; Ch'ae Man-shik, a master of irony; Yi Sang, a prominent modernist; Kim Yu-jong, whose stories are marked by a unique blend of earthy humor and compassion; Yi Kwang-su and Kim Tong-ni, modernizers of the language of twentieth-century Korean fiction; and Yi Ki-yúng, Yi T'ae-jun, and Pak T'ae-won, three writers who migrated to North Korea shortly after Liberation in 1945 and whose works were subsequently banned in South Korea until democratization in the late 1980s. One way of reading the stories, all of which were written during the Japanese occupation, is that beneath their often oppressive and gloomy surface lies an anticolonial subtext. They can also be read as a collective record of a people whose life choices were severely restricted, not just by colonization, but by education (either too little or too much, as the title story shows) and by a highly structured society that had little tolerance for those who overstepped its boundaries. Life was unremittingly onerous for many Koreans during this period, whatever their social background. In the stories, educated city folk fare little better than farmers and laborers. A Ready-Made Life will provide scholars and students with crucial access to the literature of Korea's colonial period. A generous opening essay discusses the collection in the context of modern Korean literary history, and short introductions precede each story. Here is a richly diverse testament to a modern literature that is poised to assume a long overdue place in world literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6408-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Translators’ Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
    KCU and BEF
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)
    Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton

    Few modern literatures have developed as rapidly as that of Korea. At the end of the nineteenth century many Korean writers still wrote in Chinese, the classical literary language, though the admirably precise native script,hangŭl, had existed since the mid-1400s. But by the 1920s Korean fiction writers had begun producing works inhangŭlthat, while bearing noticeable similarities in style to Western fiction, were unmistakably Korean in tone, theme, and outlook. And by the 1930s Korea had produced several masters of the short story form. How did this rapid development come about?

    The history of early modern Korean fiction,...

  5. A Society That Drives You to Drink
    (pp. 7-16)
    Hyŏn Chin-gŏn

    “Aya!”Scowling, she interrupted her solitary sewing with this weak outcry. The needle had stabbed beneath her left thumbnail. Her thumb trembled faintly and cherry-red blood appeared beneath the white nail. She quickly extracted the needle and pressed down on the wound with her other thumb. At the same time, she gingerly pushed the sewing down into her lap with her elbow. Then she let up on her thumb. The area showed no color; perhaps the bleeding had stopped. But then from beneath the pallid skin the crimson oozed forth once again in a flowery network and a drop of...

  6. The Lady Barber
    (pp. 17-22)
    Na To-hyang

    He took his cotton pajamas to the pawnshop and came away with a single fifty-sen silver piece. Recently minted, it had a hefty feel. As he clutched the serrated coin, he felt as if he were suddenly rid of the bothersome melancholy that had clung to his face like a tangled cobweb.

    He crossed Ochanomizu Bridge and passed the girls’ high school nearby, then turned down a side street bordering Juntendo Hospital and headed for Hongo. He looked into every single window he passed along the way, and there beneath the straw hat that had yellowed in the sun was...

  7. A Tale of Rats
    (pp. 23-31)
    Yi Ki-yŏng

    It’s along about midnight of a nippy early-winter evening. All is dead quiet; surely the humans are wandering in dreamland. Yes, indeed, this is the time when rats everywhere are masters of the world. In Yangji Village too the rats are stirring above the ceiling of Rich Man Kim’s house.

    Papa Rat calls his family to attention. “Want to run around a bit? Or maybe we ought to find some food—my stomach’s growling.”

    “Food! Let’s find some food!” say Mama Rat and the children.

    And off they go toward the kitchen.

    This family of rats lived for a time...

  8. The Rotary Press
    (pp. 32-45)
    Yŏm Sang-sŏp

    The clock ticking above A’s head chimed once, softly. The sound drew the gaze of the small clusters of figures slumped in their chairs in front of A. Those people knew without looking that it was nine-thirty. A was relieved that it wasn’t ten o’clock, but he was troubled by the prospect of having to wait another thirty minutes. He drew a cigarette from the pack on his desk and nervously struck a match, using more force than necessary. He inhaled and then watched listlessly as the cloud of smoke issuing from his mouth drifted up toward the light.


  9. An Idiot’s Delight
    (pp. 46-54)
    Yi T’ae-jun

    “Just like the countryside,” I said to myself as I pushed aside my newspaper and lay down in bed. It was several days after we’d arrived in Sŏngbuk-dong, on the outskirts of Seoul.

    It wasn’t my initial sight of the dark shapes outside our door, nor was it the chittering of the stream or the sighing of the wind in the pine trees that gave me this feeling, but rather the sight of that man Hwang Su-gŏn.

    With only a few words he had given himself away as a simpleton. More than the hills near our new home in Sŏngbuk-dong,...

  10. A Ready-Made Life
    (pp. 55-80)
    Ch’ae Man-shik

    President K of the newspaper stifles a yawn and buries himself deeper in his armchair. “Jobs are hard to come by around here,” he says halfheartedly. He extends his arms, looking as if he would like very much to stretch his entire body.

    This is K’s answer to P, who sits respectfully on the opposite side of the circular table. P, displaying an ingratiating smile and an expression that seems to say, “You are my senior, sir, and I esteem and venerate you to the extreme,” has mobilized all the rhetoric at his command and implored K at great length...

  11. The Photograph and the Letter
    (pp. 81-88)
    Kim Tong-in

    He saw her again that day. She was sitting the same way, in the same place, as if waiting for someone.

    A seaside resort—

    She had been there the day before, and the day before that, sitting in that familiar way. Her mind seemed to be elsewhere. She must have been in her mid-twenties, and to all appearances she seemed married. At a seaside resort, it’s only natural that people should enjoy themselves in the water. But not this woman. Every day she sat in the same place, looking out to sea.

    His curiosity aroused, young L often went out...

  12. Mama and the Boarder
    (pp. 89-106)
    Chu Yo-sŏp

    My name is Pak Ok-hŭi, and this year I’ll be six years old. There’s just two of us in my family—me and my mother, who’s the prettiest woman in the whole wide world. Woops—I almost left out my uncle.

    He’s in middle school, and what with him gallivanting about, he’s hardly ever around except for meals. A lot of the time we won’t see hide nor hair of him for days on end. So can you blame me if I forgot him for a second?

    My mother is so beautiful, there’s really no one else like her in...

  13. A Descendant of the Hwarang
    (pp. 107-120)
    Kim Tong-ni

    It was last autumn when I first met Hwang Chinsa. I had finished breakfast and was about to leave for a walk in the hills when my uncle called me from his room.

    “How would you like to tag along with me today?” he asked as he walked out onto the veranda.

    “Where to?”

    “To see a mystic—he came here all the way from Chiri Mountain. I hear it’s quite a sight watching him tell fortunes and read faces.”

    “I’d rather not, Uncle,” I said without mincing words. “But why don’t you go anyway?”

    “You’d rather not? How come?”...

  14. Wife
    (pp. 121-132)
    Kim Yu-jŏng

    My wife ain’t the type you look at and say, “Hey, she’s pretty!” That is, unless you’re plumb skirt crazy. I mean, I live with her, and I could look at her through the rosiest-colored glasses and she’s still not the least bit pretty. But you know, there’s more to a skirt than just a cute mug. Hell, I wouldn’t bitch if the woman would just turn out a string of boys as strong as oxes. To be honest, a dumb fuck like myself, I get old, no kids, what’s going to happen to me? I’ll starve, for god’s sake....

  15. When the Buckwheat Blooms
    (pp. 133-142)
    Yi Hyo-sŏk

    Every peddler who made the rounds of the countryside markets knew that business was never any good in the summer. And on this particular day, the marketplace in Pongp’yŏng was already deserted, though the sun was still high in the sky; its heat, seeping under the awnings of the peddlers’ stalls, was enough to sear your spine. Most of the villagers had gone home, and you couldn’t stay open forever just to do business with the farmhands who would have been happy to swap a bundle of firewood for a bottle of kerosene or some fish. The swarms of flies...

  16. Mystery Woman
    (pp. 143-148)
    Yi Kwang-su

    My grandfather was approaching eighty and my sister was only seven when I left home. After six months in Seoul I returned to visit them. The previous year, the Russo-Japanese War had erupted and the first battle had taken place near my hometown. Grandfather had been teaching me Mencius, and that summer I had asked him, “What’s the use of studying this if the government isn’t giving the state examination anymore?” With those words I had dismissed thoughts of Mencius and set out for Seoul. Grandfather’s aged concubine had been with him then, but while I was in Seoul, this...

  17. The Haunted House
    (pp. 149-160)
    Ch’oe Chŏng-hŭi

    The house was supposed to be haunted.

    But at the time I had no idea. Clad in my simple traditional jacket and sheltered by an umbrella, I clutched the hand of an elderly realtor as he strode along in front of me, crossed a creek that had swollen after an early-morning downpour, then looked around the outside of the house.

    The front gate was locked. But I learned to my delight that since the house was empty, we could move in as soon as we signed the papers. The realtor then disappeared around the hillside to fetch the owner, leaving...

  18. The Barbershop Boy
    (pp. 161-171)
    Pak T’ae-wŏn

    Min Chusa was not pleased with the face that greeted him in the mirror. The gray that was less noticeable when his hair was shaggy (the irony of this had not escaped him) seemed for some reason to stand out as the barber’s expert trimming proceeded in time with the snip-snip of the shears. This was no revelation, of course. In recent years Min had always felt this way in the barber’s chair, but still the grizzled hair reminded him of his years, however reluctant he might be to acknowledge them; and the inescapable realization of the great age difference...

  19. Phantom Illusion
    (pp. 172-178)
    Yi Sang

    In the beginning there was an idiot who couldn’t tell right from left,

    And now, a hundred generations later,

    Invalids cursed by heaven proliferate among his hapless descendants.

    “Whichever way you look at her, the little woman’s face seems a bit lopsided toward the left, you know?”

    That’s what Song said about a month after their marriage.

    She wasn’t a virgin, but she had a treasure even more precious—a set of Gorky’s complete works, which she had read through, every last volume. That’s what attracted Song, and I’m sure it’s his secret pride and joy.

    It was only natural...

  20. The Mule
    (pp. 179-191)
    Hwang Sun-wŏn

    Once again young Yu saw a fresh pile of trampled-down dung where the mule had been tied up next to his house the previous night. And once again he reminded himself it was high time he gave the owner a piece of his mind and stopped him from bringing the mule there. That way, if his family ended up buying it, the owner could probably be persuaded to part with it dirt cheap. On the spot, young Yu sought out the old gentleman who lived next door, on the other side of where the mule had been tied up. As...

  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 192-192)