Three Generations by Yom Sang-seop, just by its publishing history is a testament to the human spirit, and when you add what is actually written on the pages, its status as a literary masterpiece in Korean literature is sealed.
During the Japanese occupation, it was very hard to get anything published except in newspapers, partly because of the size of the market, the expense of a book, and because of the occupation. Three Generations was first published in Chosun Ilbo in 1931; Yom, like many other of his contemporaries started his writing career in print journalism, but was one of the few Korean writers to never write a word in Japanese or a pro-Japanese sentence. Surprisingly, the strongly anti-Japanese sentiment of Three Generations somehow managed to escape the attention of Japanese authorities. Three years after Korea’s independence from Japan, Three Generations was finally published in full form as a novel, however with some revisions to the second half of the book.
In many ways Three Generations is like a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky novel, slow most of the time, sluggish at a few points, full of descriptions about some of the seemingly smallest things, full of the little things that you need to understand/catch to understand what happened in the end, a timeless window to world that’s passed by, and something that makes you think about the past, the present, and the future.
Three Generations follows three generations of men from the Jo family during the time of Japanese occupation in Korea, the grandfather; Sang-hun, the father; and Deok-gi, the grandson. The book also shows how different socioeconomical classes reacted and acted towards the Japanese colonial rule through the lives and actions of Deok-gi and his friend Byeong-hwa.
The book touches on following a parent’s footsteps; Korean expectations for the younger generation; respecting the traditional while embracing the present/future (particularly with the holidays, funerals, marriages); morality; the difficulties Christians faced in Korea, some of their own doing and some not; the seemingly haphazard self-imposed social castes; and what would you do for a cause.
Looking at that world through the eyes of Byeong-hwa (and his comrades), I can easily see how communism seemed like a haven, a safe refuge from the Japanese, a way to return Korea to Korea, out from under the thumb of Japan. I wonder though, if the original organizers of the communist movements in Korea would do the same again if they knew that their country would be split in half practically immediately after the Japanese left and the half of the peninsula that is being governed by a communist government cannot feed its citizens? Apparently in the original version of the book, the second half dealt more with the communist movement, but the revision changed it to deal more with Deok-gi’s family misfortunes, supposedily as a reflection of his changed outlook after the liberation.
I’ve really only read historical books and textbooks about Korean history, for some reason it never dawned on me to search for Korean literature about these terribly fascinating times that have made Korea the Korea that it is today and by extension me. Maybe I can blame it on thinking that very few of them were reprinted in English, but regardless I’m trying to fix this glaring hole in my library right now.