Review of Sunset: A Ch’ae Manshik Reader, edited and translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 210 pages
In his novel An Artist of the Floating World, the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro explores the moral conflicts of a painter who places his talents in service of the Japanese imperial effort. After the end of the war in 1945, Masuji Ono looks back on the terrible compromises he made, as an artist and as a person, with a mixture of regret and self-justification. The people he denounced as part of his collaboration are now back in favor, and now in the post-war period it is Ono’s turn to be denounced.
Chae Manshik is a Korean writer whose career, like Masuji Ono’s fictional one, straddles the World War II period. Chae came of age during the era of Japanese colonialism in Korea, but he also published stories after 1945. He’s not well known to readers outside of Korea and Korean studies (and he shouldn’t be confused with independence fighter Cho Mansik). But a new collection of his writings – Sunset: A Ch’ae Manshik Reader – now offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of an artist of Korea’s floating world, a world turned upside down by the cataclysms of the mid-20th century.
Chae is known for his satirical short stories, particularly his “A Ready Made Life” from 1932. Perhaps because this story is prominently featured in a story collection from the University of Hawaii Press – A Ready-Made Life: Early Masters of Modern Korean Fiction (1998) – it’s not included in Sunset, which is a pity. Chae’s other well-known story, “My Innocent Uncle,” which was the first Korean work in the Norton Anthology of World Literature, is also missing.
The problem with these omissions is that these two stories offer Chae’s critique of Japanese colonial policies in Korea. “My Innocent Uncle,” in particular, portrays a collaborationist who, in the first-person narration, challenges his wastrel uncle in a way that only showcases the narrator’s own moral turpitude.
It was still possible in the 1930s to publish such stories in occupied Korea. But in the lead-up to the outbreak of war with the West, Japan began to suppress more assiduously any sign of Korean restiveness. The colonial authorities arrested Chae in 1938 for his participation in a pro-independence reading club. He was released only after he promised to be a good colonial subject. From then until the war’s end, he at least outwardly complied with the restrictions the authorities placed on publication.
In the stories in Sunset from that period, Chae writes nothing that overtly praises Japanese rule (his essay from 1942 that reportedly celebrated Japan’s rule in Manchuria would have been an interesting, if controversial, inclusion). But in a literary roundtable from 1941 reproduced in the book, Chae gamely tries to square artistic imperatives with the “national policy” that the Japanese imposed on Korea. He’s clearly ambivalent, as he expresses his distaste for the “so-called national-policy fiction,” which is “embarrassing,” he says, “even for propaganda.” At the same time, Chae was no dissident much less a liberation fighter in this period.
After the war, Chae published works that explored the anguish of those who worked with the Japanese authorities. His semi-autobiographical novella “A Sinner against the People” — also not included in Sunset — was the closest to a mea culpa that he wrote. But he didn’t spare his characters in the short fiction he wrote after 1945. In the title story “Sunset,” a teacher “who felt compelled to teach the young people of Choson that the Japanese takeover of our land was the right thing to do,” reflects with disgust on his kneejerk accommodation to power. “I was a mediocre guy, going through the motions,” he confesses. He is not different in the end from his cousin, who worked his way up from a policeman in the colonial service to a bribe-taking chief of department. Their fates, however, are different. The lowly teacher survives the post-1945 upheaval; his cousin is beaten to death.
Chae’s disgust with political opportunism found a different target after 1945: those who curried favor with the new American occupation authority. His 1946 story, “Mister Pang,” chronicles how a struggling cobbler becomes a wealthy and corrupt powerbroker by attaching himself as a translator to a second lieutenant in the U.S. forces. Pang is doing so well that he can afford a Japanese servant, no less. And he relishes lording it over someone from his ancestral village who had profited handsomely under the Japanese but must now come begging for a favor from the once lowly shoemaker. The story masterfully captures the vagaries of fortune as well as the corruptions of power and money.
Though it collects a number of his shorter and frankly less interesting pieces and leaves out the stories that more sharply delineate his relationship to the authorities in the colonial period, Sunset is a valuable introduction to the work of an important Korean writer. It includes two plays – a one-act satire of Christianity and a three-act morality tale – as well as some interesting experiments with form like the one-sided dialogue of “Juvesenility.” Taken together, Sunset illuminates a turbulent and often overcast period in Korean history through the sensibility of a conflicted and yet acutely observant writer.
Korean Quarterly, Summer 2018