Guest Review: Viet Dinh

3generations.jpgThree Generations
Yom Sang-seop
Archipelago Books
476pp.

When people speak of “East Asian literature,” it’s not surprising that the conversation is limited to Japanese and Chinese writers. Almost none of Korea’s writers (with the exception of Yi Munyol) have been translated or widely distributed within the United States. But one hopes that Yom Sang-seop’s Three Generations (Archipelago Books, 2005) will bring Korean literature to a wider, English speaking audience.

Originally published as a serial in the early 1930s and as a book in 1948, Three Generations chronicles the life of Deok-gi, the youngest adult of the wealthy Jo clan. Beloved by his grandfather, the formidable patriarch of the clan, and estranged from Sang-hun, his father, college-aged Deok-gi navigates the strictures of the Korean social system, aided by his socialist friend, Byeong-hwa, the other focal point of the novel.

Immediately, Yom gets up the family conflicts: the grandfather dislikes Sang-hun for becoming a Christian minister, while Deok-gi finds his father hypocritical for fathering a child with a young girl, then abandoning them. But the inter-generational squabbling is not the whole of the novel; indeed, though the recipient of the grandfather’s inheritance drives the first half of the novel, the suspense picks up considerably in the second half when Byeong-hwa’s socialist activities cause trouble.


Yom’s sympathies lie squarely with the socialists. From the outset, the novel presents a convincing tension between those with wealth and those without. Not surprisingly, the characters lower on the socio-economic scale are Marxists, while the characters even lower than that are given very little voice. At one point, Deok-gi remarks that his two servants were “no different from some liberated black slaves in America.” By the novel’s end, the corrupting nature of wealth and property is not lost on Deok-gi, who comes to a socialist epiphany: “Someone who was poor, whose lot in life was hard labor, shouldn’t he at least receive an appropriate compensation for his pains?”

More tellingly, Byeong-hwa, the unrepentant socialist, is nothing less than honorable. Though threatened with imprisonment and torture, Byeong-hwa embodies brave and ideal characteristics: selflessness in the face of hunger, utter devotion to “the cause,” an unwavering willingness to help others–a stark contrast to Sang-hun’s nominal Christianity.

It’s tempting to interpret the author’s view of Korean Christians through Sang-hun–conniving, hypocritical, greedy–but despite the antagonism towards the father’s character, Yom’s understanding of the Korean Christians is more nuanced. At first, Sang-hun appears torn between his religion and his desire to honor his own father, motivations complicated by lingering feelings for his mistress. It comes as a disappointment, then, when, Sang-hun later abandons his moral complexity to move in with a concubine and set up a bawdy house. But, despite the glaringly obvious character flaws that Yom projects onto his most prominent Christian character, Yom acknowledges that, for better or worse, Christianity would be an integral part of Korean culture, as much as the Japanese influence had been in the past, and as much as the Socialist influence would be in the future.

While the males in the story get the main narrative attention, the conflicts and intrigues of the female characters within the household, particularly the grandfather

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