Book Reviews

Reviews of Korean titles published overseas

Book Review English(English)

[ENGLISH] “Happiness Is Overrated”

by Matthew Salesses , on September 16, 2022

  • English(English)

While Pak Kyongni is well known in Korea, especially for her masterpiece, Toji, a sixteen-volume epic written over twenty-five years, she doesn’t enjoy nearly the same familiarity in the West. The Age of Doubt is a new translation that aims to change this. It offers English readers a collection of seven works of fiction from various stages in Pak’s career, each by a different translator.

Among other reasons, Pak is famous for her claim that she would never have become a writer had she been happy, and unhappiness is the default state in this collection. Pak herself suffered the loss of her husband and son in the same year shortly after the Korean War. Like all authors, she makes her personal story a part of her work. Two successive entries (“The Age of Darkness” and the title story, “The Age of Doubt”) both include the untimely death of a son, and in both, the protagonists’ resentment is their way of reasserting agency over a world that offers very little agency at all.

In other words, the “ghost” haunting The Age of Doubt (as every story is said to be a ghost story) is not so much sadness, or even grief, but the promise of a self-determined life. 

In Pak’s stories, Korea—war-torn, colonized, poor—is a nation always at the brink of some great change that never comes, and her characters suffer the consequences. One woman’s sister embraces Communism and runs off to North Korea at the end of the war, leaving behind the man they were both in love with. Another woman follows every rule of propriety only to be mistaken for a friend having an affair with a married man. In the opening story, “Calculations,” a woman determined not to be beholden to anyone rushes to buy a train ticket for a boy who did her a favor and ends up losing the vast sum she borrowed for her mother’s hospital bills. The son who dies in “The Age of Darkness” could have easily been saved by modern medicine, except that the hospital is corrupt and requires patients to provide the blood for their own transfusions.

Pak’s genius is that the very things that offer her characters control over their lives—politics, love, medicine, reputation—are the very things that control them. It’s a bleak world in that it reflects a bleak reality. Not that the characters are in any way resigned to their fates. For Pak, resignation is not an option for survival.

If there’s a fault to be found in the book, it’s not in the larger picture. These are deeply felt stories by a writer who understands her characters and their circumstances only too well. The clarity of the overall depiction made me suspect that the slight unevenness on the sentence-level is the result of uneven translations. Some of these stories read much more smoothly than others. Still, the power of Pak’s vision always carries through the prose.

Matthew Salesses

Author, Craftin the Real World (Catapult, 2021)

The Sense of Wonder (Little, Brown and Company, 2023)

Keyword : The Age of Doubt,Pak Kyongni,KOREAN LITERATURE NOW,KLN

Book's Info
  • The Age of Doubt
  • Author : PAK Kyongni
  • Co-Author :
  • Translator : Sophie Bowman,Anton Hur,Slin Jung,You Jeong Kim,Paige Aniyah Morris,Mattho Mandersloot,Emily Yae Won,Dasom Yang
  • Publisher : Honford Star
  • Published Year : 2022
  • Country : UNITED KINGDOM
  • Original Title : 불신시대
  • Original Language : Korean(한국어)
  • ISBN : 9781739822521
Author's Info
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Original Work's info
  • 불신시대
  • Author : Pak Kyongni
  • Co-Author :
  • Publisher : 문학과지성사
  • Published Year : 0
  • Country : 국가 > SOUTH KOREA
  • Original Language : Korean(한국어)
  • ISBN : 9788932038452

Translated Books1

E-Books & Audiobooks 1