The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 7 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul
Cho Chong-rae’s The Land of the Banished is one of the best of the “political betrayal themed Korean novels. At work we are attempting to taxonomize translated Korea literature by theme, and one of the recurrent themes we see is that of people and families torn apart as alternating waves of leadership followed political and military victories by the North of South.
Cho’s tale, however, is particularly compelling because he ties it to the sad story of Mahn-seok, a man who was probably never good, but was given extraordinary chances at evil and failure in the aftermath of the war.
Cho begins his tale with some clever bits of mis-direction. Mahn-seock is a destroyed old man begging an orphanage to take his young son. Mahn-seok is nearly prostrate with grief and guilt as he offers the orphanage his last money, and hands them his son’s pitiful personal belongings. The scene is a tender one, and it is followed immediately by a partial explanation of how Mahn-seok and his son have come to this unfortunate place: They have been betrayed by Mahn-seok’s second wife. Mahn-seok is portrayed as a bit ingenuous in this passage; he had lept into the marriage perhaps knowing better. In a bit of funny writing Cho describes Mahn-seok’s state when he met his second wife:
As soon as the woman took to wagging her tail like that, he should have mercilessly cut it off. But like a cat exposed to the odor of fish, he was intoxicated.
There is a lot going on in that passage – you have to love the cat/fish metaphor that nicely suggests the attraction was strongly sexual, and the “mercilessly cut it off” is a brutal foreshadowing of what we shall shortly learn about Mahn-seok.
Mahn-seok’s willingness to be lead does not lessen the betrayal he feels. After getting married he had put down roots (the reason for his previous rootlessness will shortly be revealed.) and tried to live the life of an upright man. This betrayal, Mahn-seok’s pitiful contrition, and his sons wails at the thought of separation, all combine powerfully.
This framing technique is repeated again at the book’s conclusion, which returns to Mahn-seok in his aged and weakened state. By framing the central story in this way, Cho builds substantial compassion in the reader for Mahn-seok, a compassion the reader will find need to draw upon as Mahn-seok’s back story is revealed.
A second way in which Cho builds compassion for Mahn-seok, and one of the reasons his book is such a skilled example of the genre, is to give Mahn-seok intensely personal and interpretable reasons for his hatred, anger, and the actions of his younger life. Mahn-seok is revealed to be a bit more than your average cad, as a very specific personal history and social history, combine to make him a very bitter and angry man. This differentiates Cho’s work from other similar pieces, in which the waves of politics are presented as nearly external to the characters.. the machinations of chess pieces sweeping across a board. It is evidence of Cho’s skill as an author that he achieves all of this in a relatively scant 86 pages.
After the first 23 pages of scaffolding has established the picture of Mahn-seok as a pathetic old victim, the next 8 pages neatly desecrate that picture by introducing the ‘real’ plot of the story, the social turmoil of the war and its aftermath. In a series of quick and violent scenes, all of which flow organically out of Mahn-seok’s personal experience allied to the dictates of shifting political power, Cho reveals the heart of darkness at the center of his story.
For the remainder of the story (which I largely elide here), Cho interweaves Mahn-seok’s political and personal history, his life with his second wife, his desire to return ‘home’ and his friendship with Hwang, an old man in his home village. When, returned home surreptitiously, Mahn-seok talks to Hwang, Hwang reflects on Mahn-seok’s history saying, “I may know know much, but it seems to me the times are to blame.” This is a partial benediction, but one that Mahn-seok, an active moral character to the end, seems unwilling to accept.
The Land of the Banished concludes neatly, though ironically. Mahn-seok makes one more trip to his home village, where he is believed to be already dead. The Choe family, Mahn-seok’s mortal enemies and social superiors, have been returned to power in the village, and the bones of Mahn-seok’s allies lie unmemorialized in pits. Mahn-seok staggers out into the night, and dies alone, after discovering that Hwang, also, has died.
Cho leaves open the question of what, if anything, was accomplished through the political upheavals of the time. Further, his careful deliniation of Mahn-seok as flawed, but at the core profoundly moral in many ways, and the reasoned judgment of Hwang (who acts something like a Greek-chorus) combine in an unsettling way. One concludes the book aware that one has just read the story of a monster, but it is impossible to entirely blame Mahn-seok for what he became. Mahn-seok, in the final analysis, is merely weak, and Cho makes us feel this weakness and traces its horrific, pathetic, and most likely useless results.