Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review by Deborah Smith of Yi Kwang-su's Novel The Soil

Deborah Smith

Yesterday, I provided an excerpt from a review by Tony Malone of Yi Kwang-su's novel The Soil, which Sun-Ae and I translated, and I today wish to excerpt Deborah Smith's review of the same book in "The Uses of Uncertainty: Dalkey Archive's 'Library of Korea' Series" (The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 34, Winter, December 2, 2013):
Ask any Korean or Korean literature student who wrote the first Korean novel, and the answer will almost certainly be Yi Kwang-su, whose career spanned the turn of the 20th century and witnessed the introduction of European literature into Korea, often via translations into Japanese, the language of Korea's colonizers at the time. The literary soil into which these new influences were being planted consisted of a rich Confucian heritage of lengthy poems and prose romances written in classical Chinese. Yi Kwang-su, among others, found in the novels of Zola and the stories of Maupassant an exciting new palette of potential techniques for creating an entirely new kind of literature, one more suited to the specific social, cultural, and political circumstances which Korea found itself in (the wrench of industrializing modernity was felt as even more of a brutal upheaval given that it was being implemented by a colonial power who also sought to suppress Korean cultural identity). However, in early novels like The Soil (serialized in the Donga Ilbo from 1932-33) we can also find intriguing traces of the earlier tradition. There's a confusingly large array of bit-part characters, and major characters who are (initially, at least) not so much fully rounded personalities as names appended to a list of characteristics, often corresponding to established types familiar to anyone versed in the Chinese classics.
This is an interesting bit of information about the novel. I'm pleased to hear that these Chinese influences survived the translation process in recognizable form, particularly since Sun-Ae and I were entirely ignorant of them. Here, Smith gives an example:
Yi Kwang-su was certainly influenced by the big, realist novels of 19th-century Europe, but rather than writing one himself he essentially reinvented the form for a specific time and place. Take dialogue, for example: an important component of the realist novel but much less central to the Chinese romance, where it is also far less naturalistic. We see it often in The Soil, particularly over meals, where it's lively and colloquial, yet Yi also makes use of it now and then to have characters offload unreasonably lengthy, uninterrupted chunks of suspiciously well-formed views, lecturing at, rather than talking to, each other.
I didn't realize that this Chinese influence was the reason that the protagonist so often spoke in speeches, as did other characters as well. That's all I want to excerpt, but there's lots more, and it's quite detailed and informative, for those interested in learning what the novel actually means . . . though there will be a few plot spoilers.

And again, for those interested in my own literary style, there's this novella . . .

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