This affecting novel--a portion of a 16-volume masterpiece--is a journey into the hearts and souls of villagers in turn-of-the-century Korea. “Land,” immensely popular in South Korea, has only recently been translated into English as part of a UNESCO collection of representative literary works from countries around the world. Park Kyong-ni’s novel is a revealing portrait of the Korean condition. Traditional beliefs and hereditary sorrows intermingle in an exquisitely executed tale of love and hate, duty, deception and forbearance.
The story begins in 1897, a turbulent time after the Sino-Japanese War, when victorious Japan is scheming to capture Korea in the waning days of the Yi Dynasty. Life is a struggle for farmers in a village on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula, a hotbed of social conservatism. Their lot is not much better than that of the oxen that help them till the land.
The villagers’ lives are intricately tied to the wealthy household of Choi Chisoo, an arrogant and bitter son of Lady Yoon. Despite the family’s wealth, the Choi household isn’t immune to trouble: Choi Chisoo has no male heir to carry on the family lineage, and he is impotent.
Like her son, Lady Yoon is also tortured. Underneath her stoic and immaculately groomed facade, she is haunted by the secret of an illegitimate son, Hwani. The boy was conceived when she was raped in a Buddhist monastery; she had gone there after her husband’s death to pray for his repose. Social mores prevent Lady Yoon from mentioning her torment to Chisoo, even though he has long suspected what happened.
The book’s names, titles and places may be hard to grasp for readers unfamiliar with Korean literature and history. But once you’ve met Park’s villagers, they remain with you, like the old woman peddler who tries to console love-sick Yongi, a man who is distraught upon learning that his love, Wolson, has left him without a word, her house padlocked and nailed shut:
“Love--it’s an awful thing,” the old woman tells him. “Life goes on, one way or another, until all that’s left in front of you is the graveyard--it’s only for a short time when you are young that these things seem to be a matter of life and death. You can’t tie your heart down with a string, can you? So forgetting is the cure . . . “
Like the 19th century Russian writers who gave us glimpses into the Russian character, Park explores the Korean soul. Central to “Land” is han, which has no English equivalent. Han, the Korean tenet of an eternal woe, unrequited love and unending hope, lives in all Park’s characters. Even Lady Yoon’s granddaughter, Sohi, a preschooler, is afflicted; her han is the absence of her mother, who leaves her and her father.
As the title suggests, the Korean attachment to the land is profound. It gives rural Koreans everything they need--straw for their thatched roofs, food on the table, clothes on their backs. It also gives them a final resting place, for in Korean villages, the dead lie underneath grass-covered mounds; their progeny work alongside them in the fields.
Although it is enthralling, “Land” moves slowly because of the sheer number of characters and the difficulty of translating Korean into English. To complicate matters, much of “Land” is written in the thick dialect of South Kyongsang Province, which requires a glossary even for Korean readers.
Despite these obstacles, there are memorable scenes. In one, an overjoyed Chisoo runs out to the village entrance to await his mother’s homecoming. Following behind her palanquin he calls out to her, but there is no answer from inside:
“When at last [the palanquin] was put down and she stepped out, he could not forget to this day how, at that moment, she had been like a figure carved out of lead. . . . As soon as she saw him, she stepped back a pace and stared as if looking for somewhere to hide.
“As he called her, her eyes became wild, as though they were sending forth sparks . . . . All was black before his eyes--the mother who had been away for so long, whom he had missed even in his dreams, whom he had expected to stroke him with a gentle hand on his shoulder and say, ‘How have you been all this time?’ Distraught with shame and guilt, Lady Yoon could not bring herself to embrace young Chisoo.”
For admirers of Korean literature, the publication of Park’s voluminous masterpiece in English is a welcome event. The West has ignored Korean writers for too long, much as it has the country itself, which has lived in the shadows of its powerful neighbors, China and Japan. With the appearance of “Land,” perhaps that will begin to change.