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Acta Koreana is published semi-annually on June 15 and December 15 by Academia Koreana, Keimyung University.
Title Selected Korean Contes
Volume Vol. 18 No. 2
Pages pp. 649~673 (all 24 pages)
Publication Date DECEMBER, 2015
Keyword .
Abstract Unlike the French conte, which is often a tale of extraordinary and imaginary events, the Korean conte (pronounced in Korean as a two-syllable word, k’ongt’ŭ) often focuses on everyday life, in which sense it might be considered the fictional counterpart of the personal (as opposed to critical) and often anecdotal essays known as sup’il. Averaging half a dozen pages or less, these works are sometimes referred to as tchalbŭn sosŏl, a term also used for the very short works of short fiction (usually a thousand words or less) known in the West as flash fiction. All of which serves as a reminder that in Chosŏn times and earlier there was no length-based generic distinction among fictional narratives.
In terms of status, contes are a notch below the short story: they’re rarely published serially, whereas works of short fiction usually appear first in a literary journal and then are collected with other of the author’s stories in a single volume. And they’ve not been honored with the various annual literary awards, which in the case of fiction go routinely to an individual short story or, rarely, a novella or story collection.
Why have some of the most distinctive stylists among modern Korean fiction writers developed a propensity for these short pieces? One can’t help but conjecture that in the elite realm of literary (as opposed to popular) fiction in Korea, the conte offers a creative outlet unfettered by the demands of requests (ch’ŏngt’ak) for traditional short fiction, publication deadlines, and literary prize competition. Perhaps the conte is to modern fiction writers what the vernacular forms of sijo and kasa were to Chosŏn literati, who otherwise were subject to the expectation that they demonstrate to their peers mastery of writing in classical Chinese.
Among the writers featured here, Ch’ae Mansik (1902–50), author of “Angel for a Day,” is the most versatile in his command of prose forms ranging from fiction (novels, novellas, short stories, contes) to children’s stories to travel writing to drama. A visual writer adept at description of place, time, and character, Ch’ae is arguably the modern Korean writer whose fictional works in their totality most closely approximate the performances of the great p’ansori works such as The Song of Ch’unhyang and The Song of Sim Ch’ŏng. “Angel for a Day” (Sŏllyang hagosiptŏn nal) was published posthumously in the June 18 and June 25, 1960, editions of the Nagŏp sinmun and was reprinted in volume 8 of the 1989 edition of his collected works published by Ch’angjak kwa pip’yŏng sa.
Cho Sehŭi (b. 1942), author of “A Father Who Died in Felicity Precinct” (Haengboktong esŏ toragan abŏji), is known throughout his homeland by the linked-story novel Nanjangi ka ssoaollin chagŭn kong (1978, literally “A small ball launched by a dwarf”; trans. 2006 The Dwarf). Five years later Cho issued Sigan yŏhaeng (Time travel), consisting of the novella so named as well as some two dozen short pieces, including the story translated here. In both the novella and the shorter pieces Cho continues to explore the irregularities of the program of export-led industrialization that made possible the “miracle on the Han.” As in the novella Sigan yŏhaeng, “A Father Who Died in Felicity Precinct” links life in South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s with life in Chosŏn times, but in ironic ways. The family history so important in a society originally centered in a few select lineages here reminds us that the Dwarf is descended from a family of hereditary slaves. The other link is money, in the form of the brass coins discovered by the Dwarf—a representation of an activity, commerce, traditionally disdained in Chosŏn but now the basis of the capitalist economy built in the ROK.
For O Chŏnghŭi (b. 1947), stories such as “The Woman in #506” (506-ho yŏja) offered the possibility of reaching a wider audience. In spite of the lofty critical reputation she had enjoyed since the 1970s, O’s fiction, which investigates the disintegration of the traditional extended family in the wake of modernization, industrialization, and the shift in population from the countryside to the city, proved intimidating to the literature power structure as well as to general readers. O was subjected to the criticism sometimes applied to writers of “pure literature” (sunsu munhak) that their works are short on “historical consciousness” (yŏksa ŭisik). O responded with a number of short stories that echo premodern history, and, in the 1990s, with the shorter pieces collected in Kkottabal lo on sonnim (1990, The bouquet-bearing guest) and Sulkkun ŭi anae (1993, The drunkard’s wife). These two volumes were distilled into a collection of twenty-five stories, advertised as “fables” (uhwa), Twaeji kkum (2008, A dream of good fortune). “The Woman in #506” is included in that volume.
Though lesser known as a writer of literary fiction than the other writers featured here, Ch’oe Sŏnggak (b. 1955), author of “Autumn Bicycle” (Kaŭl chajŏngŏ), is one of the most prominent Korean writers of eco-literature (recognition that has also accrued to Cho Sehŭi in recent years). Ch’oe is also a relentlessly intertextual writer. “Autumn Bicycle” was published in a 1996 volume titled T’aeksi tŭraibŏ (Taxi driver), which also includes stories titled “Sunan sidae” (An age of suffering), a parody of Ha Kŭnch’an’s classic postwar story “Sunan idae” (trans. 1981 “The Suffering of Two Generations”) and “Sulkkun” (trans. 1993 “The Boozer”), the title of the 1970 story that brought fame to Ch’oe Inho.
Ch’oe Such’ŏl (b. 1958), author of “Who Is It?” (Nuguseyo), is an image-driven (as opposed to issue-driven) writer who also takes an intertextual approach to writing. Like the other writers in this feature he employs a sense of humor to good effect in his shorter pieces, several of which, like the one here, employ an alter ego named Ch’oe Kwanjo (perhaps echoing the Sino-Korean word kwanjo, meaning “meditation”?). “Who Is It?” appears in Modŭn sinp’odo mit’e nŭn yŏu ka itta (Beneath the sour-grape vine there’s a fox, 2001).
Cancer deprived the Korean literary world of one of its most promising writers, Kim Sojin (1963–1997), author of “Dear Wife of Mine” (Anae yŏ, anae yŏ). In his short career Kim published ten volumes of fiction and was hailed as the avatar of a “new realism.” “Dear Wife of Mine” is included in Param punŭn tchogŭro kara (Go where the wind takes you, 2002).
Shin Kyŏngsuk (b. 1963), author of “The Hare and the Tortoise” (Tokki wa kŏbukki) is one of the most visible Korean writers in the English-speaking world, thanks to the publication in 2011 by Random House, the American commercial publishing giant, of Please Look After Mom, the English translation of her 2008 novel Ŏmma rŭl put’ak hae. Lesser known is the high-quality work she has done in the conte genre. The wry humor in her bravado approach to a classic folktale, seen in “The Hare and the Tortoise,” stands in sharp relief to the muted, nostalgic atmosphere of many of her representative works of literary fiction. “The Hare and the Tortoise” appears in J-iyagi (Stories of J, 2002).
In the new millennium, at a time when journalists and bloggers are announcing “the death of Korean literature” and sales of print editions of literary fiction seem to be dwindling by the year (anecdotal evidence indicates that as much as sixty percent of the books of fiction published in the ROK in a given year are translations—the comparable figure in the U.S. is three percent), it may be that works of shorter fiction, such as contes, with their familiar subject matter, lighthearted approach, and manageable length, will become even more popular in a society that is increasingly turning to the Internet and genre literature for its reading pleasure.
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