Book review: Hwang Sun-won – The Descendants of Cain

Descendents of CainHwang Sun-won: The Descendants of Cain
Translated by Suh Ji-moon and Julie Pickering
East Gate / UNESCO, 1997. Originally published 1954
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Novels set in post-liberation Korea, or during the Korean war, often make uncomfortable reading, particularly those set in the Soviet sphere of influence, and where the story is set in the countryside. The historical context of freeing Korea from the centuries old feudal-style land ownership system provides a rich backdrop for human drama, where villagers who have lived relatively harmoniously with each other for years find irreconcilable and deadly differences. Even within a family, one member might follow a course of action determined by feelings of loyalty and decency while another might follow a more politically expedient or self-interested route. Specifically, when the political tide is for the redistribution of land – inevitably meaning confiscation from the local yangban – is it necessary to trump up politically motivated charges against the landowner, or is confiscation enough? When confiscation is inevitable, should you manoeuvre to secure the richest pickings?

The title, The Descendants of Cain, is an appropriately emotive fratricidal reference to describe the destructive divisions of the post-liberation period. The story centres around a young intellectual landowner, Pak Hun, who is a naturally easy-going and pliant person. But even if he were more aggressive and forceful as a personality he would be unable to resist the human and historical forces which unite to drive him from the village. As the book commences, the poison is just spreading to the village: the landowner, who has volunteered to teach at the local school finds his lessons are suspended for being politically incorrect; a local activist – an unpleasant character – is murdered and Hun is suspected of complicity. Villager spies on villager; people jostle to be in the best position when the party organisation really gets a grip in the area. That Hun will ultimately be driven from his property is not in doubt. The tension resides in wondering whether he will escape with his life, and whether he will have the courage to express his feelings to the woman who has kept house for him for so long. This tension is maintained well, though readers not familiar with the trope of the emotionally restrained lover unable to give voice to his feelings, which occurs frequently in Korean melodrama, may find this aspect a touch infuriating.

Hwang Sun-won was born in 1915, and this novel in part reflects his own post-war experience in north Korea. It was first published (in Seoul) in 1954 and has remained popular ever since. The translators had the assistance of the author in certain aspects of the translation and the result is highly readable.

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