Engaging trials of a Joseon-era family

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Engaging trials of a Joseon-era family

If, as Tolstoy said, unhappy families are distinctive in their unhappiness, let us count the multiple miseries of the dysfunctional Jos.
The old man is an autocrat who demands deference, then hurls insults at his near and dear and banishes them. Then he demands that they return and render more deference. They do, because he is rich. Meanwhile, his young second wife intrigues against other members of the family.
The old man’s son, Sang-hun, is a hypocritical Christian who drinks, gambles, chases women, begets a bastard and tries to cheat his own son out of the family inheritance.
That son, Doek-gi . . . well, he’s not so bad ― yet. But his friends include a Marxist schoolmate and his father’s former mistress. Not good company to be keeping in a Seoul under Japanese rule.
The novel is “Three Generations,” a Korean classic by Yom Sang-seop. It was published in serial form in the Chosun Ilbo in 1931, and is newly available in an English translation by Yu Young-nan.
“Three Generations” indeed. The old man, a product of the Joseon era, is trying to buy his way into the vanished Korean yangban aristocracy by dangling his money in front of a down-at-the-heels but noble branch of the Jo clan.
Sang-hun, the middle Jo, “like so many young men of his generation, struggling to cast off the burdens of a feudal society, . . . had stepped forward as a young patriot.” He is a bridge between feudal and modern times, always a difficult role. If only, his son thinks, Sang-hun had been able to make “the ideological transition to a new era.”
Such a theme in a 1931 novel raises doubts about the vigilance of Japanese censorship. But perhaps it is we, 74 years later, who read seditious ideas into a story that is mainly concerned with its characters’ engaging daily dilemmas.
Stylistically, “Three Generations” is praised by Korean critics for its reproduction of the vivid speech patterns of Seoul’s middle class, but occasionally poses problems. We have “streets as twisted as an animal’s innards” and a “yard no bigger than a cat’s forehead,” but also jarring modern Americanisms such as “Yeah, right!” “No way!” and “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Such quibbles aside, “Three Generations” has enough vivid incidents and appalling behavior to keep readers turning pages toward a denouement, rewritten in the 1950s, that is surprisingly optimistic.

“Three Generations”
Published by Seoul Selection in January 2005, “Three Generations” documents a dysfunctional
family’s daily struggles.
550 pages. 30,000 won.

by Hal Piper
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