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I’m one volume in to T’oji, and nothing’s happened yet

Tackling the whole of T'oji requires a certain time commitment
Tackling the whole of T'oji requires a certain time commitment. Only the first part (presumably volumes 1-4 in the above set) has been translated into English. All of it has been translated into German

Park Kyung-ni’s epic novel (or should that be novels?), T’oji (Land), is a five-part juggernaut of a book, published as a serial over a period of 25 years. The long-running saga is said to be very close to the heart of many Koreans, and has been turned into a successful TV Drama by SBS. Part One has now been translated into English.

The excellent translation, by Agnita Tennant, was launched by Global Oriental at the Korean Cultural Centre earlier this year. Having visited the filming location for the TV drama in Hadong County last year, and with Dame Margaret Drabble’s endorsement ringing in my ears (“a major contribution to world literature”), I bought the three-volume set for the discounted price of £50, and thus gave up my rights to four inches of precious shelf space.

A soft-focus scene from the SBS TV drama based on T'oji
A soft-focus scene from the SBS TV drama based on T'oji, featuring Hadong County's 'Couple Pines'

I took the first volume on holiday with me recently and started reading. It’s a pleasant, insubstantial read, which is also an amiable way to while away 20 minutes on the tube if you haven’t got anything else to occupy you.

But I’ve now finished volume one, all 377 pages of it, and am wondering whether to proceed with the remaining 790 pages of volumes two and three. Yes, for someone with surplus time on their hands it’s as good a way as any to soak up plenty of that surplus. But for me, I find that there are never enough hours in the day, and I need to squeeze value out of every hour I spend, out of every book I read. Which means I want things to happen. I want to be challenged, informed or entertained. And really not enough of those boxes have been ticked by T’oji.

Global Oriental edition
Agnita Tennant's translation of part one of T'oji takes up four inches of shelf-space in Global Oriental's handsome edition

The cast of characters is large. Too large to get to know any of them really well. In fact, as you read you are forced to take notes so that you know who is whose father, lover or servant, and what it is that each character does for a living when they’re not talking. So far, there isn’t really a central character, no hero of the book, no-one whose hopes and fears you follow or identify with. Yes, there is a big local yangban who you might expect to be the focus of the narrative. But he’s a bit useless, and in fact the narrative spends much more time with the countless villagers than worrying about how his family fortunes are declining1.

Reading T’oji, in fact, is just like listening to BBC Radio 4’s long-running soap The Archers, “an everyday story of country folk” in which minor day-to-day events play out in an isolated rural county which the outside world never really impinges upon, and in which you spend as much time in the pub with the locals as you do with the bigshot farming family and the local lord of the manor. And Choi Ch’isu, T’oji’s yangban, is about as wet as the late Nigel Pargeter.

The image on the cover of the Global Oriental edition nicely captures the bucolic nature of the work
The image on the cover of the Global Oriental edition nicely captures the bucolic nature of the work

T’oji is set at an interesting time (1895-1945) and against a big historical backdrop. In Part One, the Japanese are encroaching on Korean sovereignty. The Russians are sniffing around. But down in Hadong County there’s some drinking to be done, some gossip to be had. The Donghak revolt has happened, and indeed almost wiped out one of the families in the decade before T’oji commences. But down in Hadong county, people are going to the market, worrying about the harvest, and tutting at one of the womenfolk who seems to be eyeing up someone else’s husband. Nothing has really happened in the 377 pages I’ve just doggedly ploughed through.

OK, that’s not entirely true. Here are some of the events which have spiced up the diet of gossip among the farmers working in the fields:

  • Someone has had their prize watermelon stolen
  • Someone else has had their beans stolen
  • The local yangban has bought a fancy foreign rifle and has taken up hunting

The biggest thing to have happened in the course of the 377 pages is that the slutty barmaid has been beaten up by her lover’s wife, and has now sadly been written out of the story: she’s now run off with an aged ginseng trader from Gangwon Province.

Shame. She was one of the more sympathetic characters.

Tourists take a long shot of the famous 'Couple Pines' in the Hadong County plain
Tourists take a long shot of the famous 'Couple Pines' in the Hadong County plain, from the garden of the House of Choi Champan in the SBS TV filming location

Oh yes, and the yangban’s wife has run off with one of the servants. Shocking indeed, but strictly speaking that event happened before the narrative of T’oji commences. We only find out about it half way through the first volume, as we eavesdrop on some old-timers gossiping. We knew something was amiss at the start of the book, but annoyingly we were kept guessing.

As for what might happen in the next volume, a couple of the villagers are hatching a hare-brained plot to get possession of the yangban’s estate, involving getting one of the maids pregnant. I can’t see how the yangban isn’t going to smell a rat, but then as I’ve said, he is rather useless.

Most of the time, the womenfolk are bitching about each other, the more upper-class men are talking about happenings in Seoul, and I honestly can’t remember what the lower-class men are doing when they’re not at the market or seeking out opportunities for gambling.

Tourists pose in front of the mill in the SBS T'oji TV set
Tourists pose in front of the mill in the SBS T'oji TV set

The danger with a narrative like T’oji is that your eyes start glazing over. You start to skim-read, as the villagers prattle endlessly to each other. You consequently are liable to miss the crucial bit of gossip which provides the back-story to the current wretched state of one of the key characters. So maybe more things have happened than I have spotted so far. And maybe the significance of some minor event that I have almost forgotten will become apparent a couple of volumes into the future. But I don’t think I’ll ever find out.

Margaret Drabble listed all sorts of influences on the novel such as Hardy, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. But I think Park was an Archers fan, and used the BBC’s ongoing soap for her model of a never-ending story which has nevertheless become something of a legend2. Like The Archers, T’oji doesn’t have a main storyline – at least, not yet. There are many sub-plots, but no overall direction. Rather like life itself. But I have my own world to live in, and can manage without having a parallel life with the inhabitants of Hadong County, Gyeongsangnam-do, more than a century ago.

What I really need is the plot without all the prattle: the edited highlights, the Reader’s Digest version. Or, like those TV drama fansites, I want someone to give a five-line summary of what happens in the next chapter / episode, to see whether it’s worth reading / watching. Has anyone done that (in English) for T’oji? Because really, I’m not sure I can be bothered with the remaining 790 pages of Part One.

  1. According to the latest text of the Wikipedia entry on Park Kyung-ni (accessed 24 November 2011) the “main heroes” are Seohui, who at the moment is merely the spoiled six-year-old daughter of the yangban, and Gil-sang, a character thus far so minor that I haven’t yet figured out where he fits in. []
  2. The Archers has been running non-stop since the beginning of 1951: so far over 16,000 episodes have been aired. Source: Wikipedia (accessed 24 November 2011). []

3 thoughts on “I’m one volume in to T’oji, and nothing’s happened yet

  1. LOL. I’m one of those rare Koreans who can shamelessly confess to not having read the book until the end. Although brilliant, it’s also quite tedious, even for a Korean who understands all the cultural references. Toji is the Korean equivalent of Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdus”, I’d say.
    Also, KBS broadcast the TV drama from 1987 to 1989, which was a huge huge hit, much more than the recent SBS version, so most Koreans feel like they’ve “read” the book already. Probably like a lot of Americans who’ve never read Alex Haley’s “Roots” but have seen the mini-series.

    1. I’ve yet to find anyone who claims to have actually read it – apart from Margaret Drabble. A Korean-born lecturer in Korean literature at a well-known western university gave me the excuse “it’s not my period”

  2. I’m not korean but I recently got interested in Korean culture (sucked in by the K-wave). I’m currently watching the sbs drama series which is not that bad at all – I like it actually. I was hoping if any of you now any web, where I can at least watch it or read the original version which is the novel. Thank you very much whether you can help me or not. ^_^

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