This was going to be a simple review, after all, I’d reviewed this story once before, in a different edition. But now, reading it years later and with far more experience in grappling with Korean literature in translation, it may seem like a far different creature for me. So, although this has been reviewed on KTLIT before (and by Dongmi Hwang) in a different edition, I am writing this review without recourse to the previous one
The Land of the Banished (유형의 땅), by Jo Jung-Rae (조정래), may be one of the most depressing books in Korean modern literature, and to say that is to say quite a great deal. It is also one of the best and most touching as its depressing quality comes from a very real history, a story told in a most human and comprehensible way, and a main character who is as believable as he is tragic.. While much of Korean separation literature is depressing in a wind-up to way, that is to say that society spins the toys and they work their way to predictable ends, in Land of the Banished society is surely winding the toys up, but the toys all have their own wills, desires, and flaws, and it is precisely when all these influences come into confluence that humans do their worst work. The Land of the Banished is also a kind of philosophical existential crisis contained in a crisis of existence. Finally, in Man-Seok, Jo Jung-rae has crafted that rarest of things, a Korean tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense.
So, for ease of readership, I will take these things in order: The book as a literary work; the question of meaning, and; Man-Seok, unlikely tragic hero.
The story is of Man-Seok, a poor man at the end of his life, and a variety of flashbacks that lead us to how he arrived at the state he is in. Jo begins with a feint. We first see Man-Seok as supplicant, an old man leaving his young son at an orphanage, as Man-Seok can no longer support the boy. Man-Seok, however, is a prideful supplicant, who, despite penury, leaves money with the orphanage, as well as a pair of underpants for his son. Even in his reduced position, we see Man-Seok as proud, his final bequest to his son a crumpled piece of paper with the family name on it. As Man-Seok leads us backwardly (and often semi-randomly, occasionally a reader has to be alert to unannounced shifts in era) through his life, we discover a man who was both deeply flawed and deeply abused.
Then, Man-Seok heads off alone, and in flashbacks we hear his entire story, a story of political intrigue and inter-personal disasters.
There is an interesting tension in the book between the viewpoint that Man-Seok should have accepted his role in society, and the fact that Man-Seok is in some ways a hero. Man-Seok is extremely anti-Confucian, and not only does this bring him into conflict, early in life, with the rich Chong family, but also with his father’s notion of how life should be lead. Man-Seok is not, however, one to be lead, and so he chooses his own path, though often through catastrophic over-reaction.
An interesting book to read alongside this one might be Hwang Sun-won’s Descendants of Cain, in which the protagonist, until the end, is almost comically the other way – entirely living within the expected strictures of society, even as that society collapses and turns on him.
Into this larger fabric, Jo also interlaces a tragic personal drama – Man-Seok is simply not capable of accurately judging what is going on around him, and consequently whatever can go wrong does go wrong. Man-Seok has really only one ally, Mr. Hwang, and when Man-Seok learns that Mr. Hwang is dead (in one of the only deaths in the book that isn’t horrifically violent), the story, though not over, is told.
Finally, Man-Seok is a brutal Aristotelian hero, and no lie. In my PhD class this semester I had a brilliant literature student who always poked and prodded at my assertions, one of which was that Korean literature does not have any heroes in the Western sense. This student did an 80% job of persuading me that the narrator of Yi Sang’s Wings was such a hero, but couldn’t quite bring it home to me (there will be a post about this coming soon). But, as I reread the Land of the Banished it occurred to me, that as explosive (his fatal flaw) as Man-Seok is, he is also a true hero, momentarily victorious, and fighting the powers that be. That this fight destroys him does not diminish his heroism, nor minimize his horrific nature. Man-Seok’s reign as ‘winner lasts only two months, the time between North Koreans gaining control of his town, and his brutal murder of his cheating wife and People’s Commander. But in that time he is a most Macbethian hero, attempting to consolidate his power in a river of blood.
By creating this kind of character, both righteous and evil, Jo is asking questions that are not typically found in translated Korean literature (Hwang Sok-yong’s The Guest does work along this ambivalent line).
When, years later, Man-Seok surreptitiously returns to his town, his friend Hwant notes, “Compared to a thing like me, you’ve been a courageous man. You’ve been a real man.” (p 113). That this comes from the only other courageous character in the story speaks volumes.
There is much more in this story that a short review cannot touch on and that it is included along with the other 14 classic short stories in this first collection is just another reason to run out and purchase it.
The only problem of any kind that I could find in this work, is some early trouble with translation and simple editing, bizarrely errors that seem to have been introduced by the translator and editor as they moved this work from the Jimoondang translation it is copied from. There are several errors that should not slipped by the most cursory editor, but as the work went on, either these errors went away, or the story became so compelling that I overlooked them.
Paperback: 203 Pages
Publisher: ASIA Publishers (2012)
NOTE ABOUT THE COLLECTION
There are actually three collections here, “Bi-lingual Edition Modern Korean Literature Volume One”, Volume Two, and Volume Three has just been published. The collections are of 15 small volumes each, and each collection is broken into topics with the first collections comprising Division, Industrialization, and Women; the second comprising Liberty, Love, and North/South, and; the third collection comprising Seoul, Tradition, and Avant Garde
In addition, each story comes with a kind of critical summary, several bits of critical analysis, and a biography of the author. When these pieces are put together, it makes the stories much easier to read, as the necessary cultural and historical background is neatly presented to the reader.