(A star rating is not appropriate for this novel.) Described as a "masterpiece of Korean fiction of the twentieth century" and as "one of the outstanding literary achievements during Korea's colonial era," Three Generations, written in 1931, has recently been translated into English for the first time. Published in Seoul as a newspaper serial from January through August of that year, author Yom Sang-seop appeals to his Korean audience with his vibrant characters and his depiction of real life, especially as lived by traditional, middle-class Koreans. For western readers, Three Generations is a bit daunting, at first, and readers are urged to read the Afterword before starting the novel. The novel's unexplained references to the Japanese in Seoul at the beginning of the story, the fact that Deok-gi, the main character, has been studying at Kyoto Prep School and at a Tokyo college, the tensions between some young Koreans and Japanese at a bar, references to "the Third Empire," and the mysterious political activities of characters referred to as "young Marxists" become more understandable when seen in the context which the Afterword provides.
The novel traces three generations of one family--the Jo family--consisting of a grandfather who is the family patriarch, his middle-aged son Sang-hun (and his wife), and Sang-hun's 23-year-old son Deok-gi (and his wife and baby), the character around whom most of the action revolves. The family lives in Seoul in a large traditional house with inner and outer quarters, separate living areas for the several families, and spaces for the family's servants. The grandfather, who governs the family purse strings, has recently married a manipulative, much younger woman by whom he has a child, and the new wife expects to inherit a major share of his fortune. Sang-hun, the patriarch's son, is a gambler and ne'er-do-well, and has had a lover by whom he has a young child whom he does not see or adequately support. He needs money to pay off debts. The fact that his son Deok-gi, the patriarch's grandson, is widely regarded as the likely heir to most of the grandfather's money adds to the intrafamily hostilities.
As Deok-gi travels around the city, his relationships with many other characters show how traditional society is being challenged. Resentments against the Japanese, the embracing of Marxism by college age students, infiltration of the country by communists from Russia, and turmoil in neighboring China create serious challenges to existing society. A strong police force with no scruples about the indiscriminate use of torture, even on women, acts quickly at even the slightest hint of provocation.
The author tends to keep his separate plots running on separate tracks, not integrating them as fully as modern novels do, but he manages to make the novel interesting and relatively fast-moving. The intricate manipulations within the Jo family keep the complicated lives of its members challenging and absorbing. Though the Afterword points out that author Yom Sang-seop was famous in his era for using the often crude vernacular of his characters, some western readers may find the use of contemporary, twenty-first century slang quite jarring. Calling a character from 1931 a "wisea$$," or a "piece of work," and referring to actions such as "talking sh_t," "wising up," and even "chipping in," feel out-of-place in a work which is otherwise presented in formal language. Mary Whipple