- Lost Souls: Stories
Though canonical author Hwang Sunwŏn (1915-2000) wrote fiction of varying length during his literary career, he is often described as a master of the short [End Page 136] story form in Korean. Lost Souls provides—in remarkably readable translation—stories from three of eight short story collections penned by Hwang during his lifetime, and in doing so allows the English-language reader to trace aspects of Hwang's style and thematics as they develop over time and across major events in modern Korean history. The volume consists of a helpful afterword written by the translators and twenty-four short stories originally published in three collections: thirteen stories from Nŭp (The Pond, 1940); seven from Mongnŏmi maŭl ŭi kae (The Dog of Crossover Village, 1948); and four from Irŏbŏrin saram tŭl (Lost Souls, 1958).
Hwang composed the first collection during the late 1930s, and the stories reflect both the modernity and coloniality of their context, often set in the city and tracing the movements of anemic protagonists struggling halfheartedly against the ennui that compels their increasingly dissolute lifestyles (as with the title story, "The Players," "Passing Rain," "Autumn with Piano," or "Mantis"). Though some stories deal with life in the countryside, Hwang tends to defamiliarize the rural context by setting up "modern" or urban characters against a now alien environment, particularly the tubercular protagonist of "The Scarecrow" and the first-person narrator of "Custom."
Written in the immediate post-liberation period, stories in The Dog of Crossover Village offer critical but not unsympathetic perspectives on the conflicts and contradictions facing a liberated but poverty-stricken people. "Booze" recounts the changing of the guard from Japanese to Korean management at a distillery, while "The Toad" emphasizes the plight of refugees returning to their homeland after 1945 and the economic disparity between rich and poor during this tumultuous period. The narrator of "To Smoke a Cigarette" mulls over the plight of those who had returned from Japan after the colonial period "to what they considered their homeland" only to find that they couldn't make a living—a recurring theme in Hwang's writing in this collection—while "Bulls" is told from the perspective of a young man who is an accidental witness to a village's violent uprising resulting from the vast disparity in wealth and lifestyle between rich and poor in the countryside.
Stories drawn from the 1958 collection, Lost Souls, are diverse in theme. "Voices" deals with the trials of a Korean War veteran who has recently returned to his rural village from the front, while "Pibari" reads almost as a travelogue of a journey to Cheju Island. "Lost Souls" follows Sŏgi, a young scholar studying for the civil service examination in the countryside, and his lover Suni as they defy their filial obligations and depart their home village on a lifelong journey of hardship and labor.
While their writing spans the colonial, "liberation space," and wartime periods, these stories are not simplistically reflective of their contexts of production—Hwang repeatedly challenges privileged ideals or tropes and defamiliarizes otherwise comfortable contexts. The cosmopolitan logic of the city is interrupted by a perverse struggle between human and beast ("Mantis"); the idealization of [End Page 137] the countryside revealed as a fantasy in "Autumn with Piano" is further undermined by the four-page-long picture of utter destitution in "Broken Reed." Other familiar figures and tropes—the tragic romanticism of the frail intellectual, the ennui of the city dweller, the heroism of the returning veteran, ideals of patriotism, nation, and homeland, the robust farmer, the virtuous wife, the student abroad—are steadily dismantled in Hwang's brilliant and unflinching prose.
These stories thus regularly cross geographic and psychological as well as physical and temporal borders, borders patrolled by soldiers, police, and landlords but also maintained by social norms. Or perhaps it would be better to say that these stories compel their characters to cross borders and then clinically observe...