A quintessential Korean epic to rival the very best of Tolstoy


LAND, by Pak Kyung-ni, translated by Agnita Tennant. UK: Global Oriental, 2011, Three Volumes, 1,172 pp., $187 (hardcover)

Given its length — the 1,167 pages translated, in three volumes, into English, are only one section of a five-part, 6-million word epic — and given its scope, comparisons between Pak Kyung-ni’s “Land” and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” are inevitable. The titles, however, illuminate a key difference between the two sagas.

The nouns in Tolstoy’s title suggest, correctly, that the author is concerned with geopolitical wrangling of the sort that ends up in history books. “Land,” on the other hand, focuses, as its title indicates, on that fundamental thing the lust for which is the root cause of many wars, but to which peasants are more closely bound than generals. Pak’s characters, therefore, are not the actors of history one finds in the Russian master’s novels (though Tolstoy was well aware how insignificant individual actors are), but rather the acted upon. Her achievement in bringing the Korean peasantry and their world to life is breathtaking. “Land” is one of the great national epics, a major contribution to world literature.

To say that Pak’s characters are not, by and large, the actors of history but the acted upon is to describe their relationship to history; it is not to say that, even in their remote village, it was possible for them to live outside of the turmoil of their times. This section of “Land” takes place at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, a time when the country was under pressure to Westernize, and also when it was falling victim to Japanese imperialism, a sad development cemented into place with the 1910 annexation of Korea by Japan.

People, whether peasants or potentates, are political, and Pak makes this clear in the picture she paints of life in the village, both in the infighting — sometimes fatal — of the villagers, but also in the way that many of the events that take place in and around the village mirror what is happening in the distant capital, Seoul.

Just as, for example, the Korean monarchy no longer had the power to stand up to invaders such as the Japanese, so the family that owns the land on which most of the peasants labor is also in decline.

Ch’oe Ch’isu, current head of that family, is weak and nihilistic, but worst of all from the standpoint of the Confucianism that was still powerful in Korea, he is ridden with venereal disease and unlikely to produce an heir. Though the strength of his daughter, Sohui, is evident even when she is a child, the lack of a male heir means the end of the Ch’oe dynasty, and efforts to preserve patriarchal family lines are as central to “Land” as squabbling over inheritances is to the nineteenth-century European fiction that inspired Pak: Even the peasants are distraught when a male heir refuses to appear.

One speaks of history when discussing a novel as massive as “Land” because its scope is so much greater than the one, two, or three narrative arcs that define less ambitious works. The history that drives this novel, the history of a nation, is, however, rich in event.

Ch’oe Ch’isu’s wife, for example, runs off with a servant. Having obtained a rifle with the help of a Westernized relative, the cuckold goes, unsuccessfully, in pursuit. Later, a scheme is hatched by means of which a servant is to be made pregnant with a child that will appear to be the master’s. The plan ends in murder, suicide, and banishment.

These are just a couple of the stories Pak has woven into her tale, stories from which other stories grow, and so skillful is she in moving between these narrative strands and the countless other events that are taking place that it is difficult to believe that the novel was written serially over many years. The rhythm that binds the thousand-plus pages here translated seems more akin to life than to literature, and life this vividly captured is arresting.

Likewise, the characters — there are about 700 of them, 150 of whom are reckoned to be central — that populate Pak’s broad canvas are fleshed out enough to be fascinating. Some drop out of the tale for hundreds of pages, but so richly drawn are they that readers will remember and welcome them when they return.

To have “Land” in English is such a gift that it seems churlish to mention that the book is poorly edited (one can count on a typo every ten pages or so), and that translator Agnita Tennant’s English is not always as lucid as it should be. One hopes there will be subsequent editions, and that in them such small infelicities will be corrected. Keep these quibbles in perspective, though. They are fleas on an elephant’s back.