(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a new edition of The Land of the Banished” which was previously published in the Portable Library of Korean Fiction. A review of that version can be found here. It was also published as the title story of the excellent collection Land Of Exile)
What makes Jo Jung-rae’s (if you can read Korean, his web-page is here) The Land of the Banished a really great read for foreign audiences is that it’s unexpected.
Maybe it’s the Dickensian format that so many English readers have grown accustomed to that makes us assume the small abandoned child in the beginning of a story is going to be the focal point. Reading about that child’s growth and triumph is what we expect in a work of literature because it’s we’re used to. It inspiring and gives us hope.
Jo’s work doesn’t do that. He writes about a small abandoned boy and then leaves him abandoned. Instead, the story turns to the past, telling the tale of the father who very reluctantly leaves his child in an orphanage. From there the narrative reveals piece by piece how this old man’s life came to the point where he could no longer care for his own child.
The beauty of Jo’s writing style is that it’s tangible. His descriptions, his settings, his characters, all of it is real, he doesn’t resort to any abstract or vague ideas to tell his story. Instead his work reads rather like a modern fast paced action novel. Something is always happening, the character is never stagnant or just dwelling in his thoughts.
A good read with plenty of movement and even some gore. Just don’t harbour any great expectations that our hero will somehow overcome his misfortunes. Jo Jung-rae writes about a time in Korean history when hope was blocked by despair and the bright future still shrouded in the dark violent past and he does this with accuracy.