KOREA FOCUS
‘The Land’ and Park Kyung-ni’s Literature of Life
Kang Jin-ho

Literary Critic & Professor of Korean Literature
Sungshin Women’s University



A Star Born from the Earth
 
For human beings the land embraces the trees, birds, streams, and even the rocks, nurtures them and gathers from them every last drop of life until it is extinguished. As the land never raises its voice to assert its existence, human beings take it for granted, enjoying all that it has to give such as the scenery and the air, until that one dramatic moment when they suddenly realize what a magnificent thing it is.
 
With the death of one writer in May, it seems many people have belatedly realized the importance of her presence, which had been as large and steadfast as the mountains. A stream of mourners has been swarming her home (“that old house” where, with only her desk, manuscript paper, and a pen, she lived, thinking of the grand scribe Sima Qian) and her home town. She touched the people’s lives, both by being the kind of person she was, taking care of her vegetable garden and picking red peppers, and with the lines that she wrote: “The tough years of life are gone/ Oh what a comfort it is to be old / How light I feel as all that is left is to throw away and go.”
 
The magnitude of loss and grief that people feel today speaks for the colossal literary stature of Park Kyung-ni. Despite all the efforts made to appoint her as a member of the National Academy of Arts, Park always refused. It is hard to find another writer who has been so steadfast, living purely as a writer and nothing else. In a world where people covet prizes and honor, she was certainly exceptional to the point of wonder. Thus her work does not return to the dead earth but has been transformed into a star.
 
Narrative of Experience and Witness
 
“The Land” (Toji) is an epic novel that was for 26 years in the making, time enough for a child to grow to adulthood, and has achieved a special place in the history of Korean literature. And as everyone knows, the author’s own life was an epic story as well.
 
Park Kyung-ni was born on (lunar calendar) October 28, 1926 in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, and as the author later revealed in her autobiography, it was an “unlucky” event. (Park recalled that according to the divination theory of the four pillars, she was born in the early evening in the year of the tiger. The early evening is a time when the tiger is hungry and goes in search of food, which means that as a woman she was destined to live a very tough life.) Her father soon afterwards left his wife and newborn daughter. Park grew up “with feelings of pity and disdain for my mother and hate for my father, brewing loneliness from those two extremes of emotion.”
 
She married the year following her graduation from Jinju Girls’ High School in 1945, but she was destined to face a terrible loss with the death of her husband during the Korean War and of her son right after the war. For a person with an “unlucky” birth and an unfortunate fate branded with her grievous experiences of war, becoming a writer was inevitable. The pain of life made her cling to literature.
 
Park’s early novels were naturally infused with her tough life experiences. The heroine in many of her works is a widow who lost her husband in the Korean War. In “The Age of Distrust” (Bulsin sidae), Jin-yeong’s husband dies violently in battle on the night the South Koreans reclaim Seoul and her son dies at the age of nine through the negligence of a doctor. Later Jin-yeong continues to have hallucinations of her son so she goes to church to try to escape the images, but she is disillusioned by the inhumanity of Christian believers. When she goes to the hospital she faces the effrontery of doctors, and when she goes to the temple with her mother she is disgusted with the monks’ requests for material goods. She realizes, “In this world or that, money is what you need.”
 
Through a series of such experiences, Jin-yeong loses faith in human beings and is caught up in skepticism and distrust of the world. She enshrines a memorial tablet at the temple in an attempt to console her son’s soul but she takes it back from the monk as if to snatch it away. After burning it she murmurs to herself, “All I have left is scathing memories. Memories which died so savagely…” Psychologically the character is wrapped up in the absurdity of reality, but the following monologue succeeds in infusing new meaning into the novel: “That’s right. I still have my life, this life that I can struggle with.”  
 
The life force that enables the heroine to take the death of her child as a rite to overcome the scars of war, the transformation of consciousness that empowers awareness of reality and resistance against the absurdity and depravity of the world, forms a blueprint hinting at the later evolution of Park’s work as a representation of her philosophy of life. Later, “The Age of Distrust” was credited for being one of the post-war novels that presented a new portrait of human beings.
 
“The Age of Distrust” and Park’s other early works such as “Yeong-ju and the Cat” (Yeong-ju wa goyangi) from 1957 and “The Age of Darkness” (Amheuk sidae) from 1958, are mostly autobiographical stories based on the author’s own experiences. The dark fate which made Park lose her beloved husband and son in the war unconsciously tuned the author’s creative activity and was the formative influence in most of her early writing. Park was mostly known as the author of autobiographical novels, but those early works give a glimpse of her view of literature, where the “work of writing novels” and “the business of living” are one and the same.
 
If we limit our discussion to this period it can be said that Park’s work was a “struggle not to lose self” in the midst of poverty and hunger; it was not an alternative means to explore the truth about life and the world and sublimate it aesthetically. Although her early works practically served as journals or essays reporting and providing witness on the reality of the post-war situation, they failed to transcend the boundaries of the subjective to enter the realm of social discourse.
  
It was in the mid-period of her career that this subjectivity began to disappear and her work matured a step further. In “Drifting Island” (Pyoryudo), another story of the harsh life of a war widow, the heroine, Kang Hyeon-hui, is a vastly different character at the end of the novel compared to the beginning. Of course, the fact that she is a war widow living with her mother and young daughter, and that her yearning for romantic love is the core element of the story, makes this novel an extension of her early works. But Hyeon-hui changes; she overcomes her self-isolation and begins to look at the world in a rational way, and at the same time instead of looking for “romantic love” she chooses “realistic love.” It is this transformation that clearly distinguishes “Drifting Island” from Park’s early works.
 
“War, death, starvation, love — this history that most people have to live through I have also experienced as much as anyone else. I have committed murder and also been called a convict, which means I must have reached the end of a dead-end street. But as long as I have my life I will not live a lie. I will not despair and as long as I am conscious of life, no matter what hardships I face, they cannot stop my spirit from growing. There is no doubt I have shed a layer since coming here. I have thrown off a layer of pride, disregard and worthless wisdom. Human tragedy is no longer a world of mystery inside my head, nor can it set my nerves tingling. All the unhappy human beings are under my skin and in my heart like comfortable friends.”
— From “Drifting Island”
 
In contrast to her earlier works where the heroines were unable to conquer their self-centered view and distrust of the world, the heroine in “Drifting Island” comes to terms with the world in her own way and internalizes others and what they think of her according to her own standards. That is, unlike the early heroines who did not consider others or the world and had absolute belief in their own thoughts, the heroine of this novel turns objective and accepts others, thereby emerging as a social entity. Hyeon-hui thus comes to attach greater value to her life and, overcoming her conceptions and illusions, perceives the world in a rational way and seeks realistic love. “I have to adapt myself to reality. I have to change myself in order to hold on to my life.” This ending scene can therefore be read as the heroine’s determination to stop being a lonely “drifting island.”
 
Another characteristic of this novel is the sudden death of Hyeon-hui’s daughter Hun-ah, her sole hope and reason for living. After her release from prison, when she hears that her child was killed in a traffic accident she falls into a state of hopelessness, a point that once again reveals the hardness of the author and an incident that can be understood as a rite of passage the heroine must go through to make a definite break from her old life. If we remember that nearly all the characters in Park’s early short stories sustained life solely on the hopes pinned on their children, the author’s intention in driving the child to death and cutting off that lifeline is to make a definite break from the heroine’s former life of emotion and illusion.
 
However, if we look at it this way, then the author’s statement that “The Age of Darkness” was written to “express a grieved and troubled state of mind” no longer holds meaning. The author changed from someone who writes as a means of struggling against the world to someone who regards writing as a form of public discourse that embraces and understands the dreams and sadness of the people of the world. In “Market and Battlefield” (Sijang-gwa jeonjang) she confronted the issues of society and history head-on and revealed an evolved state of mind that preceded her change in perception.

Beyond Ideology to the Narrative of Life

“Market and Battlefield” was Park’s major work from the 1960s, the product of an author who had been unable to break free from personal narrative turning her interest to social reality.
 
The things that Park wanted to show us through Ji-yeong, who formed one of the major plots of the story, are war and the everyday lives of ordinary people and, beyond that, family and the value of life. On one hand it can be said that the story that unfolded around Ji-yeong was about any ordinary family living through the war. Before marriage, Ji-yeong considered breaking off her engagement because she thought her husband-to-be, Ha Gi-seok, looked down on her. She was a fastidious person and was repulsed when she caught him buying three books but only paying for two. She was disgusted when she saw him casually stealing potatoes on the street. On the other hand her husband had a “modest vanity” that made him want to turn his wife, who only went as far as high school, into a college graduate, and drove him to treat her like a paper doll.
 
Unable to stand this kind of vanity, Ji-yeong without a second thought accepted a job in Yeonan, Hwanghae Province, near the 38th parallel. But her war experiences altered her fastidious manner, which was expressed as her dramatic understanding and acceptance of her husband’s worldly and petit-bourgeois nature. By going to Yeonan she wanted to put some distance between herself and her husband and family but the move actually helped her to realize their importance. Thanks to this awakening, Ji-yeong changed from a fastidious character into an aggressive wife and mother. She transformed herself from a sensitive girl to a member of the petty bourgeois who knew how to put her family and the security of everyday life first. Therefore, in the novel the “battlefield” was no longer subjective and the scene of short-term experience but a social environment that intervenes in and acts on life.
 
For Ji-yeong war comes as violence that destroys everyday peace and life. Ideologies such as communism or liberalism are no more than empty, paradoxical slogans, not fundamental elements that tie down the lives of human beings. During the war the ordinary people did not support any one side because they had no clear reasons to do so. In a situation where it was unclear which way the wind was blowing, being too quick to move to any one side could lead to instant death, so the people straddled the fence bent on “seriousness of survival” or “shrewdness in search of reality.”
 
In spite of this, the author wanted to raise awareness that the war was wholly destroying the lives of the people. Ji-yeong’s husband was treated as a criminal for filling out a form to join the communist party, which was considered a crime to land him in jail, while her mother went to the riverside to search for food and was tragically caught in merciless gunfire from southern soldiers and killed. Moreover, the simple-minded people became so cunning and cruel over time that looting and stealing became trivial matters, and under the cover of confusion they did not hesitate even to murder. This war that had nothing to do with the people paradoxically devastated their lives, and it was this that Park described in such realistic narrative.
 
The author only shows us what is happening; she never comments or explains. By now Park has gained the confidence to be objective about social reality and look at war from a realistic and larger perspective. Therefore, she has come to perceive war not as something fateful but as the social and historical product from blind worship of dogmatic ideology and extreme confrontation. This perception made “Market and Battlefield” one of the most outstanding works that made an issue of ideology in the Korean War.  
 
With this perception Park continues to explore a philosophy of life, which had started with her very first work of fiction. Her philosophy becomes cemented through the woman Lee Ga-hwa, who is presented like an illustration. Though Ga-hwa knows nothing about ideology, out of her love for Ha Gi-hun alone, she sides with the communist guerillas and is not swayed one way or the other by his inhuman acts. Though she is a human being living in the middle of a battlefield, in reality the battlefield has little effect on her; she gives everything she has to love and lives in the “battlefield” as if it were a “market.” The author showed great fondness for this character because she sought in Ga-hwa’s self-sacrificing and candid love the possibility of human salvation. To do this, she set the heartless world of Gi-hun against the world of Ga-hwa, supplementing any lack in the former through the latter.
 
“The Land,” which Park began to write in 1969, is an epic novel that epitomized her work, the perfected form of her literature and love for life. In her lifetime, Park said, “I was simply the tool for ‘The Land.’” The novel is her tour de force, produced while she battled cancer, a work of massive scale that took 26 years to write on 30,000 sheets of manuscript paper.   
 
A total of five parts, “The Land” covers the modern history of Korea, from 1897 after the Donghak Peasant Revolution, the Gabo Reform and the Eulmi uprising of soldiers against the Japanese and the killing of Empress Myeongseong, to the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule in 1945. In terms of space, it ranges all over the country and beyond, from a rural village called Pyeongsa-ri in Hadong, South Gyeongsang Province, to Mount Jiri, Seoul, Busan and Jinju, as well as Manchuria, Russia and Japan. As to one of the greatest achievements of this novel, literary critic Kwon Yeong-min said: “By designing the history of a family to correspond with changes in an historical period, the author has succeeded in creating characters typical of the people who lived through the end of the Joseon Dynasty and the turbulence of modernization of Korean society.”  
 
Part I describes historical developments of a chaotic period through the lives of farmers in a typical feudal village called Pyeongsa-ri as they experience Japanese invasion of the country, collapse of royal authority, the fall of the yangban ruling class and rise of pro-Japanese elements, cruel exploitation of farmers, and the dispersion of farmers all over the country. The story deals with the vicissitudes of human life, from the tragic history of the landowning Choe family, the death of Choe Chi-su, raging disease and the death of Lady Yun, the plot of Jo Jun-gu to get his hands on the Choe family fortune, Yun-bo’s joining of the militia to fight the Japanese, and the move of the heroine Seo-hi and her neighbors to Gando in Manchuria.
 
Originally, Park intended to end the story with the first episode (She had cancer surgery after starting the book.) but continued to Part V. She said, “I wasn’t writing the book, the book was driving me.” Evidently she was fated to write. A grand saga subtly interweaving the life and fate of individuals with the tide of history, “The Land” is infused with the undercurrents that shaped the author’s spirit. Along with the death of her husband, Park’s own battle with cancer, and her family history marked by a series of trials as they fought against the injustices of the age, the novel is molded by the author’s spiritual odyssey as she “evolves from fate to the beauty of han (pathos), from civilization to culture, from grand history to the small lives of the grassroots, to arrive at a theory of life that embraces everything.”
 
The lingering rancor of the grassroots and the countless people who appear in the novel is embraced and finds peace in the maternal “land.” In conclusion, “The Land” should be seen not so much the result of literary theory or even talent as of Park’s philosophy of life and the importance she placed on spirituality.  
 
Mother God as Vital as Air and Water   
 
“I wrote because I was sad and suffering and, rather than becoming a good writer, I wanted to be a happy human being,” Park once said. As this indicates, the pain of life drove Park to write. The overexposure of the author’s own experiences in her early works invites an emotional response as a vivid portrayal and expose of war, but as the author was not able to escape from a heightened self-consciousness, the emotional impact was inevitably weakened. However, because such works served as realistic witness to the miserable state of affairs after the war, including her own life, Park was recognized as a leading post-war author.
 
The greatness of Park’s work is that it transcended the limits of age and society to achieve narrative brilliance. In a situation of utter confusion where everything had been laid to waste by war and social stability had disappeared, Park focused on “life,” her consistent theme afterwards while keeping some distance with the reality of the times. The focus of “Drifting Island” and “Market and Battlefield” was on war and ideology as the destroyers of life. When she had overcome subjective self-consciousness and turned her eyes to the real world outside, Park began to see war as violence that destroys everyday peace and life, and communism as blind belief that is without love for human beings. Her sharp insight into ideology could be matched by no other writer in her time. Park thus created a vast panorama of the lives and existence of ordinary people.
 
Park once said, “The power that drives me to write is none other than my compassion for life.” In this context, the main characters of “The Land” are the countless ordinary people living in Pyeongsa-ri and Gando. Through these people the author has captured the essence of the land where the cycle of life continues. Park Kyung-ni’s place in the history of Korean literature today is surely as big as the existence of the grassroots, who are like air and water.
[Literature and Thought (Munhak Sasang), June 2008]