Monday, March 24, 2014

Review by Tony Malone of Yi Kwang-su's Novel The Soil

Yi Kwang-su

The above-displayed image is a photo of Tony Malone's review copy of The Soil, the translation by Sun-Ae and me, which Malone reviews. I'll avoid plot spoilers -- you can read those on your own -- and just quote from what doesn't matter in Malone's review if you don't want to know any spoilers:
New literary projects are always fun, and I think I may have just found another one. I recently received several books from Dalkey Archive which form part of their ambitious Library of Korean Literature project. Ten of the books are already out, and the overall plan is to release twenty five(!) in the space of a year.

Dalkey are doing this in partnership with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, an organisation which appears to be impressively aggressive in promoting K-Lit (see, for example, the recently promoted free translations of twentieth-century short stories).

K-Lit is a fairly new area for me, so you might expect the journey to start off slowly -- perhaps with a short-story collection, or maybe a modern novella . . .

Really? You should know me better than that by now ;)

Yi Kwang-su is one of the big names in early twentieth-century Korean literature, and The Soil (translated by Hwang Sun-ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges) is a big book. The novel, a story of life in the country and city in pre-WW2 Korea, runs to just over 500 pages and was serialised in a Korean newspaper in 1932/3. This edition keeps to the structure of the serialisation, with each of the 272 sections, divided into four parts . . . . The Soil is an excellent story with lots to recommend it, but it is a product of a different time and place, so a modern reader might struggle at times. It can be rather didactic and overplain, and it is frequently extremely melodramatic -- the bad are cartoonishly bad, the good are far too good. Sung, a man who is apparently able to withstand anything, eventually wins over everyone in his presence, including characters we thought too far gone to bring back. At times, it seems a bit a little too much of a stretch . . .

While the writing is not always as perfect as you might wish, this is a book I enjoyed immensely. It's a novel which will be perfect for readers with an interest in Asia, post-colonial history or the fraught relationship between Korea and Japan -- and it was the ideal start to my Korean literary journey.
There's plenty more -- along with plot spoilers, as noted -- and here's a sample passage to give a sense of the Yi Kwang-su's literary style, in a far as that can be judged in translated form:
Of this grain planted and harvested by the people, half would go to the storehouses of the landlord. The other half would pass through storehouses of several debtors for transport by car and ship providing dealers their profits before ending up as food or alcohol in the mouths of people who had never worked in fields or seen their reflection in the water. But those who had worked so hard in the fields, using their bodies as fertilizer, would remain forever poor, forever servants in debt, and forever hungry. (pp.92/3)
Not a bad style. I therefore don't think that Malone meant the translators' literary style by his remark that "the writing is not always as perfect as you might wish"; rather, he was referring to Yi Kwang-su's tendency to be "didactic and overplain, and . . . frequently extremely melodramatic," literary flaws that he noted above.

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

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home