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Park Kyŏng-ni: 토지 (Land)

Park’s best-known novel is an ambitious saga of a Korean village at the end of the nineteenth century. It is by far her longest novel and took twenty-five years to write. It is considered one of the masterpieces of modern Korean literature. The background to the local events – which Park keeps reminding us of – is that Korea is in turmoil, with internal strife and coups and with increasing Japanese involvement in Korean affairs, at the expense of Chinese influence. Catholicism has arrived in Korea but has been brutally repressed (the father of Lady Woo, the matriarch of this story, is one victim). The French have tried, unsuccessfully, to punish the Koreans for this repression. The Donghak Revolution has just taken place and Lady Woo was also involved, to some degree, with it.

The novel tells the story of the inhabitants of the village and their various attempts at surviving in what are difficult times. We see all segments of society from Lady Woo and her son Chisoo, the local rich landowners, to their servants and the local peasants, some of whom have only recently been freed from serfdom. Park gives us various stories, some long and complicated, some less so. We follow their agricultural practices, their religious practices, their gossip and their sexual lives. There are a few main plot strands which run through the novel. The main one concerns the rich landowners. Early on, Kuchon, who seems to be a servant who has been surprisingly hired by Lady Woo just by turning up at her door, runs off with Chisoo’s wife. It is not known where they have gone or why. Kuchon seems to be a mysterious and somewhat solitary person and, initially that is all we know about him. (We know even less about Chisoo’s wife.) Gradually the story is pieced together. The younger brother of Ugwan, the monk at the local temple, had raped Lady Woo and the result was a son, called Hwani, also known as Kuchon. He had fought with the Donghak and now that their revolution is over had turned up, with Lady Woo still fond of him, giving him a job. Chisoo’s cousin, a Japanese-Korean interpreter, visits from Seoul and he persuades Chisoo that he needs exercise and suggests hunting. Chisoo eagerly takes up the suggestion, not least because Kuchon has been seen in the hills and it is Kuchon he wants to hunt. After a lot of persuasion he persuades Kang, a local hunter, to accompany him but, of course, though Kuchon is seen, things don’t quite turn out right.

Kang provides a link to another plot stream. Guinyo is Chisoo’s servant. She plots with Chilsung, a villager, and Pyongsan, a former aristocrat who has fallen on hard times, to get pregnant so that she can say it was Chisoo’s. Kang who is now around forty and, after a lifetime of hunting and living in the wild, is thinking of settling down, falls in love with Guinyo. His love is not reciprocated and when he asks for her as his reward for helping Chisoo, Chisoo concurs but Guinyo is not happy. A wicked plot is concocted, mainly by Guinyo, which goes very wrong and leads to a multiple tragedy.

Marital disharmony is also a key theme. Yongi, a handsome man, is married to Kangchong dek. He had been in love with Wolsun but she had left the village. When she returns and Lady Woo gives her money to open a wine shop, their relationship is resumed. This relationship continues throughout the book, to Kangchong’s disgust, which she does not hide. In the end she goes to Wolson’s wine shop and beats Wolsun up. Wolsun then leaves the village but this does not make for increased marital harmony in the Yongi-Kangchong household. Pyongsan, who is always regretting the fallen status of his family, which is not aided by his laziness and avarice, also mistreats his wife. Their son is the local petty criminal and is always up to no good though, at times, he is blamed for misdeeds he is not responsible for.

Park gives us a rich portrait against a troubled background of this village and is inhabitants, from high to low, as well as giving us a variety of plot strands which come together at the end, though not particularly happily. As both a glimpse of Korea during a troubled period of its history and how this affects the ordinary peasant as well as a vivid story this novel is well deserving of its reputation. Note that this review relates to the (very reduced) 1979 version. A complete version of Part 1 has now been published in English but it isn’t cheap and I have not read it.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Chisik Sanŏpsa
First English translation by Kegan Paul in 1996
Translated by Agnita Tennant