Existentialist Dreams of the Way We Were: Sweet Potato by Kim Tongin

  • onMarch 22, 2018
  • Vol.39 Spring 2018
  • byJamie James
Sweet Potato (Collected Short Storie)
Tr. Grace Jung

Modern Korean literature may be said to have begun ninety-nine years ago with the publication of Creation (Changjo), the first literary magazine in the Korean language. The journal was launched in Japan by Kim Tongin, a precocious young writer from Pyeongyang. His name is familiar to contemporary readers (albeit in an alternative spelling) as the eponym of the prestigious Dong-in Literary Award, posthumously established in his honor in 1955 and given to the best short work of Korean fiction published each year. Now, a new collection of Kim’s short stories translated by Grace Jung provides a compelling glimpse into the birth of a new national literature through a body of exquisitely wrought, profoundly philosophical fiction.

One early story, “Boat Song: A Brother’s Lament,” published in 1921 when its author was just twenty years old, is a classic example of Kim’s work: an Asian blend of naturalism and narrative experimentation. The story opens on a laughably banal note, which almost dares the reader to put the book down: “Fine weather we’re having.” Yet it quickly segues into an idiosyncratic description of the weather, which makes it clear that Kim firmly controls his story with a fine irony: “It’s the kind of sky that seems to want to come down and hold us by the wrists with its lumpy pink clouds. It’s a sky of love.”

Kim uses the framing device of a story within a story, a staple of early twentieth-century modernism. On this fine spring day of lumpy pink clouds, the narrator, wandering in a park in Pyeongyang, hears the plaintive strains of Joseon court music. Intoxicated by the song’s beauty, the narrator finds the singer, a man whose lined face reveals his “past sorrows and sincere character.” When the narrator learns that the singer has not been to his hometown in twenty years and asks him why, the singer replies, “Does everything go as one pleases?” He concludes with a sigh, “Fate is much stronger.” The singer then proceeds to tell him the story of his life, a naturalist narrative in the tradition of Zola and Gorky, about the tragic conflict between two brothers.

The title story, “Sweet Potato,” is a classic iteration of the “fallen woman” narrative. Pongnyo gives up her miserable job as a moth larvae collector to become a prostitute, until a rich farmer blackmails her into becoming his mistress after she steals a few yams. When the farmer takes a wife, Pongnyo disrupts the wedding, and the farmer kills her in a violent struggle. Adhering to the grim naturalist paradigm, he suffers no punishment.

The most interesting works in the new collection are those influenced by European existentialism, which occupy a slippery terrain between Tolstoyesque verisimilitude and Kafkaesque fantasy. In “The Old Taet’angji Lady,” the author proclaims the random meaninglessness of human life, and then casually transfers it to his own work: “The so-called ‘fiction’ I’ve been writing for ten or twenty years all share more or less the same voice and same noise except that the characters have different names, and to this, I laugh with satisfaction.” It would be interesting to know if Borges knew Kim’s stories, which strongly anticipates the Argentine master’s philosophical ficciones.

Kim’s life spans the period of the Japanese occupation of Korea almost precisely. His death, in 1951, came early in the Korean War, before the peninsula’s division was firmly established. As a result, his warm, affectionate portrait of life in Pyeongyang “produces a deep longing for these settings, while current events remind us of the national divide,” as Grace Jung writes in the preface. The exquisite lyricism of Kim’s account of Pyeongyang in “Barely Opened Its Eyes” provokes an intense pang of nostalgia even in a foreign reader.

Grace Jung’s polished English renderings of the stories make good reading, marred only by two minor, yet common, translators’ bad habits. She sometimes transliterates Korean words and defines them in a footnote. What is gained by using tanso in the text, with a note that says simply, “bamboo flute”? And in an apparent effort to strike an idiomatic note, Jung occasionally employs slangy synonyms that only approximately convey the meaning, such as a reference to the “perks” of a well-sited cathedral. Short for “perquisites,” the word describes the privileges of a job or position, not the desirable qualities of an inanimate object.

Nonetheless, this definitive collection of Kim’s brilliant, highly original short stories is an admirable introduction to contemporary Korean literature at its inception. 


by Jamie James

Author, The Glamour of Strangeness:
Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic