Sometimes You Have to Laugh: The Lighter Side of Korean Fiction

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Vol.12 Summer 2011
  • byCh'ae Man-Sik

Korean fiction has a reputation as being quite serious and there are also sometimes problems involved in translating humor. Consequently you might guess that there is no lightness in the Korean fiction that has been translated. The good news is that this is simply not true.

There is quite a bit of character-based humor in Korean literature. Often, that humor helps readers understand Korean cultural elements in the stories they read. There is a saying in English that, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” and it applies to these kinds of stories. Choe Chong-hui’s Chom-nye explores the difficulties of post-war peasants, and features a clever and rapacious shaman who uses the death of a bride to swindle the mourning family out of all the dead women’s goods and the families’ sole remaining chicken. There is also Chon Kwangyong’s brilliant Kapitan Ri, an excellent summary of the first 50 years of the 20th century in Korea, the main character of which is a highly amusing bad guy. When humor is fused into these meaningful stories, Korean literature becomes more easily accessible.

There are also some stories that are just plain funny. Three of these great stories are from the KLTI/Jimoondang Publishing series, “The Portable Library of Korean Fiction.”

The Camellias, by Kim Yujung, is a “first love” story in which a country bumpkin comes face to face with Jeomsun, a girl from a higher class who loves him. The tone is rough and humorous as Jeomsun is only capable of showing her interest through an aggression that she feels is justified by the boy’s inability to understand that they are actually in love. The young love is complicated by the fact that Jeomsun is the narrator’s social superior, and this causes the narrator to see Jeomsun’s peculiar mix of affection and aggression as a form of class warfare. Of course it is, as Jeomsun pulls stunts that would get a social equal smacked on the head, but Kim plays this for broad comedy and the unnamed narrator’s denseness justifies the lengths that Jeomsun feels she has to go to in order to demonstrate her love. In the end, after various amusing bumps and bruises, love is realized.

My Innocent Uncle by Ch’ae Man-Sik, satirizes idealistic Korean socialists as well as opportunistic Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese colonialists. This is a comic story, with a funny narrator, and it is translated in ways in which the fun comes through. When the befuddled collaborator insists on calling his uncle a “scotchalist” instead of socialist, a modern reader will easily be able to draw parallels to the political climate of today, with clever name-calling standing in the stead of actual argument. Also highly amusing is the narrator’s amazing ability to find that events support his own beliefs, regardless of the fact they often don’t.

Finally, Kim Young-ha’s classic short story “What Happened to the Guy Stuck in the Elevator?” is an absurdist look at a day in which everything that can go wrong does go wrong; people reveal themselves to be self-centered, and technology reveals itself to be untrustworthy. The single businessman who narrates, begins his day by breaking his razor after shaving only half of his face, and things just get worse from there. On his way out of the building he is forced to use the stairs because the elevator is stalled. On the 5th floor he finds the reason: a man is stuck in the elevator door. The rest of the story focuses on the narrator’s continually unraveling day and futile attempts to notify someone about the guy stuck in the elevator. There is an amusing part in which the businessman gives an ‘important’ presentation to his colleagues: an argument for increasing toilet paper efficiency. Predictably, the presentation does not go as he expects. When the narrator finally does reach 119 (emergency) to report the man in the elevator, he is doubted, and when he returns to his apartment, where the hot water has been turned off, he is still in a state of uncertainty about—well— basically everything. Kim carries this off with deadpan humor and situational and verbal irony that masterfully survives translation, and there is at least one Korean pun left in the translation that will surprise and amuse readers who know some Korean.

What does it all mean? For me it’s meant an effort to get information about Korean literature out through the KTLIT Wikipedia Project, a project that is slowly filling the Wikipedia with information on Korean authors and fiction. But for you it means a rollicking good time reading Korean fiction!



1. My Innocent Uncle
Ch’ae Man-Sik
Jimoondang Pub., 2003
2. The Camellias
Kim Yujung
Jimoondang Pub., 2002
3. Photo Shop Murder
Kim Young-ha
Jimoondang Pub., 2003