The Descendants of Cain is one of the great stories of the society-shredding arrival of communism to North Korea and it is strongly informed by author Hwang Sun-won’s personal experiences at that time and in that situation. Hwang was a landlord’s son during the time of post-war social turmoil and his family was forced to flee North Korea in response to it.
On a practical note, compared to Hwang’s other works it is also fairly brief, although that comes at the cost of the epic scale of some of his other works. Still, it’s length alone suggests it as a good option for a reader looking to investigate Hwang’s novels.
At it’s simplest level the story is of 2.5 families; the blended near-family of Pak Hun and Ojaknyeo, his chaste live-in caregiver/near wife; Ojaknyeo and her previous husband, and; Ojaknyeo’s nuclear family, headed by her father Toseop, who is at odds with the rest of his family because of the pro-land-reform stance he takes.
That last relationship points a reader towards the greater political schism in the book, that is the schism between those who are nostalgic for an older way of life and those, the land-reformers, who want to topple the apple-cart. Descendants of Cain takes a slightly pro-nostalgic stance as it shows how land reformers agilely took advantage of historical Korean social divisions to turn renters against tenants. The tensions are not underplayed, and when a pro-land-reform farmer dies with a sickle in his chest, a reader understands how real the stakes are.
Some Korean stories (I think here of Between Heaven and Earth by Yun Daenyoung or Human Decency by Gong Ji-young) present characters as they “are” without any psychological depth even while making rather large claims (primarily in interior monologue or by description) for the importance of the characters and their actions. They are, essentially, cut outs for political positions or have certain characteristics that forward the plot. Hwang, on the other hand, gives his characters complexity. The best example in this book is probably Toseop, the bad guy, who with a kind of avarice and brutality, sides with the revolutionaries. And yet, his reasons are presented as sensible to him given the world he lives in, the experiences he has had, and what he sees in the future (In some ways he reminds me of the butcher in Evening Glow by Kim Won-il). Add those reasons to his flawed personal character and you have a great evil character in the novel. Even characters who conceivably could have been presented as clichés a presented with their own assumptions clear and their actions always make sense according to their assumptions. When, for example, a strident and dog-fur coated revolutionary argues with other characters, you get to see why he thinks the way he does and where it leads him; not to good places.^^
This brief outline suggests that Descendants of Cain, as all of Hwang’s work, contains a broad range of strong dualities, and it is in the interaction of these multiple dualities that Hwang does his authorly work (The Moving Castle is particularly notable for this relationship of dualities).
The story begins with Pak Hun stumbling away from the news that he has lost his job teaching and towards his house and his housemate (but not lover) Ojaknyeo. Hun and Ojaknyeo live together chastely, but each also has a substantial “previous” life, including a husband in the case of Ojaknyeo. Ojaknyeo’s father is Toseop, who is going over the land-reformers. When Ojaknyeo’s husband returns a personal level of conflict is added to the political one.
Hun is a kind of relative of the yangban (perhaps a kind of Korean Hamlet?) – he thinks things through to the point of indecision, attempts to live in a refined manner, and lives with a substantial dose of han (Sample dialogue, oft repeated, “it’s because of the times”). Ojaknyeo, on the other hand, has a forceful personality married to a proper Confucian decorum. When these two characters interact, a western reader might well become frustrated that their personalities keep them from seeing the obvious; that they are in love and should be together. This kind of thing though, social status keeping people apart, is common to Korean literature and doesn’t necessarily have to do with the relationship between sexes. In Lee Hyo-sok’s When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom a father and son are also kept separated by social constraints, although sex roles often do have a role as in a story even as innocent as Hwang Sun-won’s short story, Sonagi, or Kim Yu-jeong’s Camellias.
Hwang spins these relationships, then watches them interact in ways sometimes funny and sometimes brutal. Hwang can also be quite perceptive and funny, as when he has a neighborhood woman become quite indignant when she is caught stealing from an ill Ojaknyeo, or when the previously snobby and money-grubbing doctor Kim ostentatiously gives speeches about the need for free goods and services.
Hwang’s writing (and the translation) are good, with his symbolism shining through (examples: The cry of the lover’s cuckoo bring Hun and Ojaknyeo to a closer understanding of their feelings, or an extended metaphor of rotting, falling fruit eventually replacing dying trees). He handles people deftly; there is a classic presentation of a bickering old couple tearing at each other on the surface but inseparable at a more basic level.
The Romanization in this book is difficult, but a reader who battles through it will come to the conclusion of the book feeling it was all worth it. That conclusion is ambivalently optimistic, which is the most optimism that Hwang gives to most of his stories, and while the tale does not properly ‘end’ it does tie all its knots together in a neat and pleasing bow.
----------------------- purely subjective things
HOW MANY BUCKWHEAT BLOSSOMS? Not many, most of the culture is clear although occasionally a phrase will be dropped in that Western readers may not fully understand such as in the case of the revolutionary who is routinely described as wearing a dog fur coat, a clear sign of barbarism in Korea, or in the initial thick-headed diffidence with which Hun and Ojaknyeo first address each other.
ILLUSTRATING A POINT. The cover is not really indicative of the content of the book and while the layout is nice and the font appropriate, the picture is indistinct to the point of meaninglesness.
 The Descendants of Cain, and: The Rainy Spell and Other Korean Stories (review by Bruce Fulton) http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/manoa/summary/v011/11.2fulton.html