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Land, by Park Kyong-ni (trans. Agnita Tennant). London: Kegan Paul International, 1996. 617 pp. (ISBN 0-7103-0508-7)

Reviewed by Chun Kyung-Ja
Harvard University

Park Kyong-ni [Pak Kyôngni] is among Korea's finest living writers and her epic novel Land (T'oji) is widely esteemed by her compatriots as a monument of contemporary Korean literature. Thanks to its inclusion in the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works, the opening section of Park's magnum opus is now accessible to readers in the English-speaking world. The immense scale of Land -- sixteen volumes in Korean totalling almost 7,000 pages which were published in serial form over the span of a quarter century (1969 to 1994) -- has intimidated many translators. Ms. Agnita Tennant's new English rendition comprises the first fifty-three chapters of the novel, slightly more than one-tenth of the whole. The translator has performed a valuable service in opening up to the world at least this segment of Park's novel. Fortunately, the beginning section can stand alone as a self-contained narrative and its scope is sufficient to afford an ample taste of the powerful imagination and distinctive style that have made Park Kyong-ni one of Korea's best loved literary artists.

Land is set in the countryside of Kyôngsang Province in the southeastern region of the Korean peninsula. The novel opens in 1897, a turbulent time when the Korean people were struggling against ever deepening threats of Japanese aggression, troubled by grave internal clashes between traditionalists, who sought to preserve the ancient culture of a basically agrarian society, and modernizers, who foresaw Korea's imminent ruin unless it developed the industrial power requisite for self-defense in an ever more ruthless world. The translated portion of Land spans about ten years, ending before the 1910 annexation of Korea by Japan, but the bulk of the original novel actually takes place during the dark decades of Japanese colonial rule, closing with the victory of the allies in World War II and the Liberation of Korea.

Park Kyong-ni's genius is evident in her use of "Land" as a title and master metonym of this sweeping, panoramic creation. From ancient times in Korea, as in all agrarian civilizations, land was the foundation of everyday existence: land sustained life itself and agricultural production demanded a community of organized labor; the most basic values of a Confucian, family-centered social and political structure were expressed in ownership and inheritance of land; and as the outside world increasingly impinged on the Hermit Kingdom, control of the land forming the ancient birthright of Koreans became inseparable from their collective identity as a nation. As an open-ended symbol capturing the tragedies endured as well as the triumphs achieved by the Korean people, "land" has an almost inexhaustible richness.

Land is a national epic of Korea, though in a different sense than Tolstoy's great historical novel, War and Peace, is an epic of the Russian nation. Both novels are highly realistic and panoramic in scope, and both register the cataclysmic impact of trying times on people of high and low position in the social hierarchy, but Land contains no famous historical figures comparable to Tolstoy's General Kutuzov. The heroes in Land -- and they are compelling -- are entirely fictional. Moreover, against the grain of the usual accounts of historians, the most fully developed characters in Land include women as well as peasants and servants. To do justice to the complexity of actual life, Park Kyong-ni weaves into her chronicle not only the fate of an aristocratic clan of rich landlords, the Chois, but also the story of the entire community, high status and low, living on the Choi estate.

The genre of the epic often calls to mind the grandiose stuff of living legends, great heroes engaged in warfare. Land is an epic of anonymous nobility which cuts across class lines: the traditional value accorded in Korea to family lineage and to advanced learning by design is rendered dubious in a story that scrutinizes character and human values in the broadest possible range of situations. Park Kyong-ni describes the full play of life on the Choi estate using a blend of incisive character sketches and pungent, dialect-laced dialogue. The resonance her dialogue bears for Korean readers is largely untranslatable into English, but this style of writing is Park's forte as a realist and enhances her appeal.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz coined a term, "thick description", for a style of narrative that enriches superficial descriptions of conduct with an authentically complex underpinning of judgments, hopes and fears. In Land, the author does not so much tell as show the action: she depicts a sprawling cast of hundreds of characters whose function in the novel is less to advance a linear plot than to supply a deeper understanding of the universe of human relations within which the tale unfolds. In a more conventional type of novel such episodes might be regarded as irritating digressions, but in Landthese sketches strike readers not as abortive subplots but as parts of a larger whole, illustrations of other sides of a seamless web linking a living community to the land they share.

Why has Land been so consistently popular, selling more than one million copies since the first installment appeared in 1969? The main reasons are artistic and moral. Beyond her great talent as a creative writer, Park Kyong-ni in Land unobtrusively espouses her own vision of natural justice and of the dignity of the humble. In a rapidly industrializing society like Korea, values are in flux. Status categories traditionally anchored in family ancestry clash with emerging indices of status based on wealth or expertise. This work provides a projection, a quite realistic expression, of the sorts of value conflicts underlying ongoing conversations about what it means to be a Korean in a rapidly internationalizing world. Thanks to her talent, Park Kyong-ni manages to address a spectrum of today's timely issues, not least that of the public status of women in a society which long limited female voices to the private sphere.

The Korean critic Zeong Hyon-Kee aptly has written that Land "portrays the beauty of those who never lose their dignity, who never bend in the face of punishment, and the ugliness of those who gloat at their own superiority, who make the mistake of believing in the corrupt power protecting them." The future agony of Japanese colonialism is but a dire premonition in the first part of Land, but at the turn of the century one of the chronic clashes of modern Korean history -- patriotism versus collaboration -- already had raised its head. The opening of the saga deals with the aftermath of the recently suppressed Tonghak Rebellion, an uprising intended to expel the Japanese after the Sino-Japanese War, and describes the "Righteous Armies" of Korean rebels who gave their lives to resist foreign conquest. For foreign readers, Land thus furnishes an illuminating glimpse of a Korea in 1897 torn between past and future, a country facing catastrophe, yet whose population possessed an inner strength and nobility.

The translation of Land is by and large reliable as regards literal faithfulness to the original, and some of the dialogue is skillfully rendered. A few aspects of the translation could have been better handled, though most readers unfamiliar with Korea will barely notice such shortcomings. The McCune-Reischauer system should have been used for transliteration of proper names and place names. A number of expressions were translated in disregard of established conventions, generating unnecessary confusion for readers who go on to explore Korean history. Often, idiomatic Korean forms of address that have no simple English equivalents are simply retained (in italics) with no explanation at all. A glossary or footnotes would have permitted readers to decipher these otherwise mystifying usages. Still, the translator is to be commended for much hard work invested in a worthwhile endeavor. It is to be hoped that publication of this portion of Land is only the beginning, and that more of Park Kyong-ni's panoramic novel will be translated in days to come.
Chun, Kyung-Ja 1998
Review of Pak Kyong-ni, Land (trans. Agnita Tennant) (1996)
Korean Studies Review 1998, no. 3
Electronic file: http://koreanstudies.com/ks/ksr/ksr98-03.htm

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