Monday 10 February 2014

'The Soil' by Yi Kwang-su (Review)

New literary projects are always fun, and I think I may have just found another one.  I recently received several books from Dalkey Archive which form part of their ambitious Library of Korean Literature project.  Ten of the books are already out, and the overall plan is to release twenty five(!) in the space of a year.

Dalkey are doing this in partnership with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, an organisation which appears to be impressively aggressive in promoting K-Lit (see, for example, the recently promoted free translations of twentieth-century short stories).

K-Lit is a fairly new area for me, so you might expect the journey to start off slowly - perhaps with a short-story collection, or maybe a modern novella...

Really?  You should know me better than that by now ;)

Yi Kwang-su is one of the big names in early twentieth-century Korean literature, and The Soil (translated by Hwang Sun-ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges) is a big book.  The novel, a story of life in the country and city in pre-WW2 Korea, runs to just over 500 pages and was serialised in a Korean newspaper in 1932/3.  This edition keeps to the structure of the serialisation, with each of the 272 sections, divided into four parts, taking up less than two pages.

The story follows Heo Sung, a student from the country, who is in Seoul hoping to become a lawyer.  After an enjoyable summer at home, he makes plans to return to his village after graduating, hoping to make a difference to the poor farmers - and marry the charming Yu Sun.  However, life has different plans for him.  After the death of the son and heir of Sung's patron in Seoul, the young lawyer is chosen as a suitable groom for the daughter, Yun Jeong-seong, ending up with a beautiful wife, a lucrative profession and a lot of money.

A happy ending?  Not exactly.  Sung is unsettled in his new life, and his marriage is not as happy as he might have hoped.  His wife is a vain, shallow creation of the big city, and she soon grows to despair of her hard-working, honest husband.  After one argument too many, Sung decides that enough is enough and heads back home to Salyeoul.  It's time to put his idealistic plans into action...

The Soil is a big book, one with an array of interesting characters and several ambitious ideas.  At its centre is an honest man in a moribund, corrupt society, a dreamer who wants to make his homeland a better place.  After his initial slip, Sung works hard to improve life for his home village, using his money to improve farming methods and help free the locals from the shackles of perpetual debt.  He dreams of a bucolic Korean utopia, hoping to raise living standards for all.

It's not going to be easy though when even those he wants to help are suspicious of his motives.  The farmers find it hard to understand why someone would choose to leave the city behind (and the administrators are rather suspicious of his motives, suspecting anti-government behaviour...).  Sung's pro-Korean fervour is also anachronistic as this is the height of the Japanese colonial era; the educated elite look down on the masses and hunt elsewhere for inspiration.  With ignorant locals, poverty everywhere and totally outdated beliefs in areas such as traditional medicine, it's hardly unsurprising.

The writer's views on the possible effects of foreign influence are shown in two of Sung's rivals in love.  Kim Gap-jin, another suitor hoping for Jeong-seong's hand, is a rich Japanese toadie and an arrogant womaniser, a man who looks east to Tokyo for excellence in all matters:
"There's also a Department of Korean Literature at your university, isn't there?" said Sung, who had not yet given up on leading Gap-jin in a certain direction.

"Yes.  There's the department of Korean Literature.  I really don't know what students learn there.  I think literature is useless anyway.  And to study Korean literature?  Even worse.  I don't understand the motives of anybody admitted to a prestigious university who studies Korean literature."
p.48 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
This is typical of his attitude towards his mother country; he loathes the Korean language (and its primitive Hangul 'scribbles'), preferring to use Japanese whenever possible.

The second of Sung's rivals, Dr. Lee Geon-yeong, takes his inspiration from another source.  At the start of the novel, he has just returned from ten years in America, having completed his PhD.  However, beneath his smooth exterior and his claims to bring back new ideas, he is shown to be an inveterate skirt- and money-chaser, a heartless user.  Like Gap-jin, he treats women terribly, behaving contrary to the dictates of traditional Korean customs.

While the womanisers have their moments, for me the most interesting aspects of the novel are those examining the Japanese colonial administration.  Sung and Gap-jin are typical of the new governing class under the Japanese, sailing off to Tokyo to take law exams before returning to govern the country in the name of the invaders.  It's fascinating when read against what was being published in Japan at the time - a sort of colonial shadow side of J-Lit (a good example of this is the plan the waster Kobayashi has in Natsume Soseki's Light and Dark to make his fortune in Korea...).

The colonial side reminds me a lot of what was happening in Ireland and England in the 19th century, where the elite Irish youth were incorporated into the system to become administrators of the Empire (Trollope's Phineas Finn is a book which comes to mind immediately).  In fact, once you start thinking about connections with Victorian literature, it's easy to find more.  The exploitation of workers brings Gaskell's North and South to mind while the tough life of the poor farm workers is fairly Hardyesque:
"Of this grain planted and harvested by the people, half would go to the storehouses of the landlord.  The other half would pass through storehouses of several debtors for transport by car and ship providing dealers their profits before ending up as food or alcohol in the mouths of people who had never worked in fields or seen their reflection in the water.  But those who had worked so hard in the fields, using their bodies as fertilizer, would remain forever poor, forever servants in debt, and forever hungry." (pp.92/3)
You might even say that these were hard times... ;)

The Soil is an excellent story with lots to recommend it, but it is a product of a different time and place, so a modern reader might struggle at times.  It can be rather didactic and overplain, and it is frequently extremely melodramatic - the bad are cartoonishly bad, the good are far too good.  Sung, a man who is apparently able to withstand anything, eventually wins over everyone in his presence, including characters we thought too far gone to bring back.  At times, it seems a bit a little too much of a stretch...

While the writing is not always as perfect as you might wish, this is a book I enjoyed immensely.  It's a novel which will be perfect for readers with an interest in Asia, post-colonial history or the fraught relationship between Korea and Japan - and it was the ideal start to my Korean literary journey.  Let's see where the next leg takes me ;)