Three Generations

Yom Sang-seop

translated from the Korean by Yu Young-nan
Archipelago Books 2005 [1931]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Set in Korea under Japanese colonial rule, Three Generations centres on Deok-gi, a scion of the bourgeois Jo family. Its central strand traces the conflicts within different generations of the family as it confronts social, religious and cultural changes.

Deok-gi himself is studying in Japan and is modern in outlook, reading Marx and Lenin and sympathetic to his radical friends. His father Sang-hun is a Christian convert, but not averse to secret drinking sessions playing mahjong with his friends. And grandfather is a Confucianist who pores over genealogy books and is obsessed with trying to buy the family a "yangban" lineage. He is determined to disinherit his son in favour of his grandson, but his young second wife ("the Suwon woman") has her own ambitions and has suborned some of the servants. When he dies, conflicts over the inheritance come to a head.

Some years ago Sang-hun had an affair, and a daughter, with Gyeong-ae, a pupil from his school and a friend of Deok-gi's. And Deok-gi has a poor friend Byeong-hwa, who lodges with a family kept by their working daughter, Pil-sun. These two provide the link to the other major strand of Three Generations, which involves communist agitators, police brutality, the seedy world of bars and brothels and adulterous liaisons, and grinding poverty. It is not about class conflict as such, but maintains, through the oddly earnest radicalism of some of its characters, an awareness of class status and class relations. What will Deok-gi do about his attraction to Pil-sun?

Three Generations has some quite feisty female characters. Gyeong-ae and Pil-sun are positively presented, but even the more negative characters (the Suwon woman and the madame Maedang) are quite assertive. In contrast, Deok-gi's wife and mother (Sang-hun's wife) are not only passive but remain strangely nameless throughout.

Originally serialised in the newspaper Chosun Ilbo in 1931, Three Generations is made up of short chapters, of around a dozen pages, with their own titles. This makes for easy reading, but the serialisation may also be responsible for a certain slackness in the plotting, which lacks a centre or a convincing conclusion. The appeal is more in the setting, the characters, and the resolution of individual subplots — it's a good read, especially for anyone interested in Korea.

March 2012

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%T Three Generations
%A Yom Sang-seop
%M Korean
%F Young-nan, Yu
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2005 [1931]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 097785762X
%P 476pp