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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Reading Taebaek Sanmaek; the characters

Here's my entry from February 1 about starting to read the novel Taebaek Sanmaek by Jo Jung-rae. Now I'm midway through the 6th volume; lately my reading has been quite slow as I haven't had the book with me during the 1 hour and 20 minutes of daily commuting.

Is the book as good as it has been influential what comes to thinking about the post-liberation Korea, the character (and legitimacy!) of the early Republic of Korea and of the ideological struggles before and during the Korean War? I get the impression that in the 1980s when the work was written, good were more easily just good and bad were more easily bad. And this goes to Jo Jung-rae's descriptions of the main characters. (There is a telling comment on the acting by Kim Kap-su in the movie based on the novel when making the character of the opportunistic gangster-like rightist Yôm Sang-gu, the younger brother of the Communist insurgency leader Yôm Sang-jin; "his acting made Yôm Sang-gu a character that could not only be hated.")

Jo's Taebaek Sanmaek cannot be but compared to the three-volume Finnish novel Here Beneath the North Star by Väinö Linna depicting a tenant farmer family on the period of some 70 years from 1880s, and especially the 2nd volume from 1960, which was pathbreaking in its depiction of the motives and feelings of the defeated red side (many of them tenants motivated by the land question like their Korean counterparts in the late 1940s) in the Finnish civil war of 1918. Perhaps it's unfair to try to compare novels read in a native and a foreign language, but Linna's characters mainly come out as less one-sided.

Perhaps it's for both the time of writing (1990s) and the era it describes (1960s and 1970s) that the characters in Jo Jung-rae's later 10-volume work Han'gan feel much more balanced.

Oh, the small piece in Jo's novel which prompted me to write this entry. The writer was describing the conditions of the novel locality through the reminiscens of a (sympathetic) army officer who had been posted to the rebellious are but arrested and taken away by trumped-up charges of Communist sympathies stemming from (bad) landowners who saw him not siding with them enough. So the people in the area (around Beolgyo) were described as having received a lot of "new influences", as clothing was mainly Western, and the landowners (chiju 地主; for the readers of Taebaek Sanmaek this will hardly remain a neutral term) were not relying just on their landed property like some yangban of old but operated businesses as well. Most of the landowners, hailing from families of yangban origin, did not even try to keep up the appearance of the old aristocracy but had the air of a modern-day businessmen. In the novel, the landowners of this type were the "bad ones" who didn't recognize the grievances of the sharecropper tenants. The landowners who were still behaving with the dignity of a true yangban happened to be the good ones, who even carried out a land reform voluntarily on their property.

We'll see what happens when the North Korean and American soldiers enter the picture when the Korean War breaks out later in the 6th volume...

But not to be misunderstood, the novel makes great reading, even with all the Jeolla (Chôlla) dialect. (Kotaji, don't hesitate!)

Update, October 3, 2006.

Please see Robert Koehler's photos and a report of a visit to Beolgyo in September-October 2006.

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Comments to note "Reading Taebaek Sanmaek; the characters" (Comments to posts older than 14 days are moderated)

<Blogger Owen> said on 25.5.05 : 

Thanks for the encouragement :)

<Blogger ChunHo> said on 27.6.05 : 

I read the novel in the eighties about 20 years ago. As such I don't remember all the details of the stories. But I clearly remember I was feeling that they were right on target.

As a cultural and social product, the novel found audience in vast majority of the people lived at the time of crisis (resurgence of violent military dictatorship and almost complete annihilation of democratic movement). For the most part, it was time when things were clear (prevailing view was that you can tell good from bad). People did not have patience for shaded characters.

I suspect that the situation was similar when Japanese colonialists retreated and US military forces occupied Korea in the forties. This must have gotten worse when US-backed South established its government and abandoned the idea of unified Korea. Divided Korea was (and still is) extremely traumatic experience to the majority of Koreans.

Perhaps it is not the greatest novel. It is entirely possible that it might fade away into historical oblivion. In the future when things are much more complicated as economic, cultural and societal conditions change, obscure novels that nobody paid any attention in their time might have their days and Taebaek Sanmaek might be regarded lacking (I admit that if I read it again now, I might feel it lacking -- I don't know).

But I still think that the stories were great. They moved me. They made me view and think about world differently. And I still think it was breakthrough in post-war Korean literary history since prior to it, the stories of "red side" had never been told from their point of view.

But more importantly, the fact that the characters in the novel are rather flat might have something to do with what happened after the defeat of "red side." I don't have any knowledge of history of Finnish reds. As such, I cannot make any comparisons between Korean and Finnish characters in popular psyche of both localities. During and after the defeat of North and subsequent complete uprooting of armed resistance of red partisans in South, Korea experienced massacres and random killings in unprecedented scale (about 4 million Koreans were killed -- 300 thousand of them were killed before the war). It has been said that almost all "reds" (including their family members) have been killed -- no mercy. I can imagine that it can be very hard to have complex characters in the face of this kind of unprecedented intolerance. I cannot imagine characters reflecting on the things happened in the past in the face of such an onerous oncoming fate.

Of course, one can argue that even with all the difficulties imagining complex characters, flat ones are not interesting. But in my opinion, in post-war Korean literary history, seemingly complex characters so far have been proven to be fake for the most part (I can be easily wrong on this as I left Korea more than 10 years ago -- in fact I heard Hwang Seok-Young's post-prison novels are quite good).


<Anonymous Anonymous> said on 29.7.08 : 

Is anyone aware if there is an English Translation of this book?

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