>I’ve been curious about Korean literature since I moved here, but until now, I haven’t met anyone that I could get into an in-depth discussion with about it. Exploring at the bookstores, I’ve discovered a few short novels and books of short stories that have been both enjoyable and moving, but nothing that seemed to have great scope.
For a while, this made sense. South Korea seems like the least likely place to breed novelists, because the pace of life is frenetic. Bali-bali (hurry! hurry!) seems to be their theme song, and not only are Koreans going as fast as they can, they pride themselves on how many activities they can cram into a single 24-hour period. Anyway, not a reflective sort of environment. I reasoned that any literary attempts would have to be short.
Still, I thought there had to be some literature, because their recent history has been so dramatic and often sad. Where was Korea’s War and Peace? For the billionth time, I cursed at my lack of proximity to a decent university library here in Korea…or at least one where the damn Dewey Decimal System didn’t stop at 799! Those books were somewhere, hiding! Enough with the trips to temples, mask festivals and kimchi museums…show me the literature!
Finally, I found my answer in The Korea Herald, when I read about a novelist that died just this past May. Park Kyung-Ni (pictured above) wrote the classic Korean novel, the one that kids have to read at least excerpts of in school: Toji. Did I want reflective? Did I want epic? Toji (which is Korean for “The Land”) took 25 years for Park to write, and no wonder — it’s thousands of pages long, spanning 16 volumes. The time and setting is late 19th century Korea and early 20th century, covering the Japanese occupation (1910-1945) and the division of the Korean peninsula in the early 1950s. It’s been made into a movie, a miniseries and an opera.
As luck would have it, I’ve been doing teacher training for Korean English teachers these past 2 weeks. Many of them have literature backgrounds, and their level of fluency is quite high, so I was able to ask them about Toji. They gave me a brief synopsis of one of the plot lines, and one teacher said that she thought that Park had been on the Nobel Prize for Literature shortlist one year. I expressed interest in reading it, and asked if it had been translated into English. They knew that it had been translated into German, but weren’t sure about English. They warned me more than once about the length.
The teachers also knew quite a bit about Park Kyung-Ni’s life, (1926-2008) which was an unhappy one. She was the oldest daughter in a middle-class family, and her father ran out on her mother when she was a baby. During the Korean war, she lost her husband and three-year old son. She was left with her mother and daughter (I think the daughter was handicapped, but this might be my misinterpretation, because somehow Pearl Buck got into the conversation) to take care of. Park once remarked in an interview that if she’d had a happy life, she would never have thought of becoming a novelist.
When the session let out for the day, I hopped on the computer and headed for Amazon. Yes! Toji has been published in English! No! There was only one copy of volume 1 (a hefty 500+ pages), priced at $110.00! Further research revealed that only volumes 1 and 2 are available in English. A website in the UK set the price at 65 pounds. Each. Aigo-oo!
It’s a good thing that I enjoy a challenge, especially one that involves hunting down objects of my bookwormy desire. My next step will be to contact the Korea Herald reporter who wrote about Park Kyung-Ni; she published her email address at the end of the piece. She is Korean, but maybe she can point me in the right direction for affordable English copies.