A Family and a Fortune: Three Generations by Yom Sang-seop

  • onMarch 22, 2018
  • Vol.39 Spring 2018
  • byChristine Jordis
Trois générations (Three Generations)
Tr. Kim Young Sook & Arnauld Le Brusq

Yeom Sang-seop is recognised in South Korea as one of the country’s greatest writers. Finally available in French, Three Generations, a novel initially published in serial form in 1931, will surely fascinate readers in France and establish this author’s reputation there. First, we should note the scale of this writer’s vision as he holds up a mirror to a society undergoing drastic change: that of Korea in the 1920s under Japanese rule. This ambition is served by a narrative that is so skillfully executed, so well-paced in its episodes and twists and turns, that the reader cannot fail to be gripped for all five hundred pages.

Three Generations is the story of a typical yet extraordinary family. Through the riveting adventures of Sang-hun, Deok-ki, and a host of other characters, we gain insight into the tidal waves of change sweeping through society. The head of the clan is an ancient and stubborn grandfather with outmoded ideas. His only concerns are ancestor worship and the key to his safe, a symbol of the family's recently acquired power. He despises his son Sang-hun, a recent convert to Christianity, for breaking with tradition, preferring his grandson Deok-ki, an honest man whom he intends to make his heir. Various plots revolve around the safe and the inheritance, while the old man’s health deteriorates along with the feudal age that, when he dies, “ends forever.” There are jealous wives and scheming mistresses. The “daughter of Sunwon,” the grandfather’s concubine, whose dark side is soon revealed, has teamed up with some penniless gangsters. She wants to see Sang-hun and then Deok-ki disinherited by slandering their wives. The wives, helpless victims, have only words and insults with which to defend themselves, and as a result, are doomed to endless frustration. Plenty of insults and home truths are traded in this novel; it is a feast of slander, betrayal, and hatred. As the saying goes, money is the sinews of war. Its power creates an insurmountable barrier, separating the rich from the poor, the weak from the powerful, and the bourgeois from the rebellious. Looking into the safe, now open and stuffed with envelopes, Deok-ki perceives “for the first time the terrifying cruelty of money.” Deok-ki is also still in contact with a friend from his student days, Byeong-hwa, a bitter, ironic dropout who has lost faith in the world, giving up on working for a living in order to defend the communist cause. Byeong-hwa lives in hiding to avoid persecution from the regime. But as the novel’s bloody ending makes clear, he cannot outrun this fate forever. Their friendship, punctuated by long letters of explanation and heated conversations, provides an insight into the class struggle of the time, while also addressing issues so fundamental that they remain relevant today.

Byeong-hwa finds his soulmate in Gyeong-ae, a beautiful woman who is the former mistress of Sang-hun. A daring rebel like him, she defies the laws that enslave the bourgeoisie and subjugate women. We see this extraordinary woman first as victim, and then as manipulator, confronting her mother and then her lover, plotting, suffering blows, achieving her revenge. Sang-hun, who once loved her and remains fascinated by her, suffers a gradual breakdown, eventually losing both his religion and the respect of his son. Sang-hun becomes a pathetic puppet in thrall to his worst instincts, drinking, and debauchery. The young policeman who arrests him gives him a lecture in front of a shamefaced Deok-ki: “Who are we to blame for Korea’s current situation other than people like you and your generation?” This intermediary generation, burdened by the now-outmoded values of their fathers, is unable to find its own path. For the next generation, meanwhile, there is a glimmer of hope.

The female sex here includes plenty of victims-the wives, generally-but also its fair share of schemers and witches. But the novel asks: Is it possible for women to escape the conditions imposed on them? Some admirable figures do emerge from this tight web of characters. One is Pil-sun, a poor, young, and pure-hearted woman, unsullied by bourgeois prejudices or feelings of superiority based on money or education. If Pil-sun has escaped the influence of her environment, if she has managed to hold on to her underlying nature, it is because she was born with a “noble spirit.” This explanation is enough to make one believe in the “supremacy of the mind.”

And perhaps that is the message of this rich novel: that believing in the power of the mind can free us from the tyranny of money. 


by Christine Jordis
Writer, Editor, Literary Critic