Sampling Asian Short Stories


THE SHOWA ANTHOLOGY: MODERN JAPANESE SHORT STORIES 1929-1984 Edited by Van C. Gessel, and Tomone Matsumoto,

Tokyo: Kodansha International, 452 pp., $14.95 paper


by Hwang Sun-won, Edited by Martin Holman, London: Readers International,

190 pp., $17.95 cloth; $9.95 paper


by Yun Heung-gil, Edited by Martin Holman, London: Readers International

250 pp., $17.95 cloth; $9.95 paper

HISTORY has lent a certain irony to the name that Japan's Emperor Hirohito chose in 1926 to characterize the aspirations of what would be a 62-year reign: Showa means enlightenment and peace. Enlightenment there was, as the polished, intensely sophisticated stories in The Showa Anthology amply demonstrate. Peace proved more elusive, at least for the first third of the reign.

Japan had already managed to occupy Korea by 1910, sparking Korean nationalist and communist movements that eventually clashed in the Korean War four decades later. Japanese imperialism coincided with a period of continued opening to a West that often rejected Japan's overtures, helping drive it into a militaristic posture that soon passed from being defensive into being offensive.

Yet, the Japanese literature represented in the Showa anthology (first published in hardcover four years ago), tells, as art should, a story somewhat different from history's. Against a background of 1930s Japanese nationalism and an opposing (soon trounced) proletarian literature movement, an early generation of Showa writers maintained a commitment to artistic individualism.

The 26 writers whose works have been selected for this anthology are drawn from the pre- and postwar generations, from the established and the experimental. Six of the 26 are women.

Some of the stories are rooted in traditional Japanese genres; some reflect Western influences; many achieve a skillful blending of both. There is no doubt these stories will have greater resonance for readers already acquainted with Japanese writing. But even those with no previous knowledge of Japan's literary traditions will find much to entice and delight them in this strong collection.

The stories range from the delicate eroticism of Hori's ``Les Joues en Feu'' (1932) to the whimsical absurdity of Mishima's ``Eggs'' (1953), in which five boisterous college students are arrested and put on trial by outraged eggs who say they are tired of being broken up for omelettes. The graceful naturalism of Ibuse's ``Kuchisuke's Valley'' (1929) forms a sharp contrast with Kawabata's ``One Arm'' (1963), which begins ```I can let you have one of my arms for the night,' said the girl. She took off her right arm at the shoulder and, with her left hand, laid it on my knee.''

If any single strand runs through these very different stories, it is attention to the subjective world of emotion and perception. Echoes of the outer world are audible. External events may even be the pebbles that generate the ripples that are these stories, but the sounds and patterns that predominate are internal, passionate, and lyrical, even when animated by the spirit of comedy.

Two collections published by Readers International introduce two South Korean writers still little known in the West. Seventy-four-year-old Hwang Sun-Won, considered a master of the Korean short story, was born just five years after Japan occupied his country, with plans to assimilate the subject Koreans. Hwang attended a Japanese university where he received a degree in English in 1939. By 1942, the Japanese had outlawed publication in Korean. But the defeat of Japan did not bring peace to Korea. Hwang and his family fled south from the communists in 1946, settling at last in Seoul.

As the editor, Martin Holman, notes in his introduction to The Book of Masks, Hwang has never affiliated himself with the political or literary movements of his times. The stories in this collection, written between 1965 and 1975, reflect his concern for the private and the personal. Even one (``For Dear Life'') that opens with a student wounded during the protests that brought down the Rhee government in 1960, moves swiftly from the public arena of political confrontation to the interpersonal realm, where the student seeks out the unknown woman who unexpectedly saved his life.

The six stories in The House of Twilight are the most realistic in style and the most overtly political in subject matter. Yun Heung-gil, a leading writer of the younger generation, witnessed the turmoil of the Korean War as an eight-year-old boy. ``The Rainy Spell,'' the novella that opens this collection, is one of several stories in which Yun presents the action from the viewpoint of a child. Living in a home with his parents and both their extended families, the young narrator of this novella is confused by the fact that his paternal and maternal uncles are fighting on opposite sides in the Korean War. Yet, what is perhaps more remarkable is the extent to which he and his family are able to cope with conflict and the constant threat of betrayal.

Another story, ``A Winter Commuter,'' portrays the curious mixture of shame and pride felt by a young woman living in a slum - and, stranger still, a young man's mixed reaction to the young woman.

But Yun, like Hwang - and like the more sophisticated Showa writers - is concerned above all with the fate of the individual soul within the social and political contexts.

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