Book review: Yi Kwang-su — The Soil

by Philip Gowman on 26 March, 2018 updated 14 April, 2018

in Book Reviews | Colonial period | Korean literature in translation

The Soil

Yi Kwang-su: The Soil
The SoilTranslated by Hwang Sun-ae and Horace Jeffrey Hodges
Dalkey Archive, 2013, 512pp
Originally published as 흙, 1932-3
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Yi Kwang-su’s The Soil, at over 500 pages long, is not a book that immediately entices you to read it. But with a screening of Kim Ki-young’s adaptation of the novel coming up shortly at the KCC, the incentive was there to pick it up out of the reading pile where it had languished since its 2013 release as part of the first 10 Dalkey Archive translations.

And actually, it’s a very easy read. First serialised in a Korean newspaper in 1932-3, the narrative is deftly paced, designed to get a general reader hooked, with a large cast of characters from the city and country, glamorous lifestyles, beautiful women, love affairs, heroes, villains … and a message. The story revolves around Heo Sung, an impoverished but educated country boy who wins good fortune in Seoul, becoming a successful lawyer and marrying into money. But Heo has a more serious mission in life: to improve the lot of the impoverished and indebted farmers of his home town.

One can imagine, after each installment was published in the newspaper, the dramas dipected in the latest episode provided the stimulus for many conversations much as TV dramas might today; and indeed one of the scenes in the book depicts a group of city women gathering together to chat about the latest lightweight stories published in the paper.

The Soil is a book full of moral choices: should one stay loyal to the good-hearted country girl that you always assumed you’d marry, or jump at the chance of wedding a rich and beautiful city girl? How can one best serve one’s country: by pursuing a career as a successful lawyer, an opportunity open to so few, defending where possible those who are unjustly oppressed, or – without any particular training – seek to better the lot of the rural peasant who make up 80% of the population?

Heo’s choices bring him tension and conflict: committed to helping his home village, he nevertheless chooses the refined city girl as his life partner; gaining success in helping his villagers by collectivising their labours, thus driving down their borrowing costs, he thereby deprives the local landowners of their traditional source of profits – exploiting the landless workers by lending at exorbitant rates. It seems that rural development in the colonial period is a zero sum game.

The novel is full of interesting characters to entertain you while the author is presenting you with his manifesto: the rather exotic spinster Dr Hyeon, the gisaeng turned kindergarten teacher San-wol, various selfish rakes who pursue the daughters of rich households; exploitative landlords and idle professionals on the one hand contrast with selfless and principled people whose only interest is the betterment of Korea – both its rural poor and educated urban youth. Of course, among the patriotic visionaries is Heo Sung, who rather like the hero of Mujeong seems to attract a range of female admirers (platonic and otherwise), leading for opportunities for motives to be misinterpreted. And much of the drama in the book comes from sexual improprieties, both real and maliciously fabricated.

Two contrasting editions of The Soil in Korean

Two contrasting editions of The Soil in Korean

There are moments of (probably unintended) humour: one particular rake spends a few chapters pondering whether he should mend his ways and wondering how he could become a more useful citizen. After much mulling, he suddenly asks himself: “Should I become a Marxist?” and then “Should I become a Christian?”. Having considered these and other improving life choices he reaches for a cigarette and resumes his degenerate lifestyle.

The grand theme of the book is a criticism of the metropolitan elite who pursue their selfish pleasures and careers without a thought for the country folk who grow the rice that they eat (without having enough to eat for themselves). It is a plea for a fairer treatment of the countryside, who represent the “real” Korea. Unlike the short stories of Hwang Sun-won, or the “local colors” paintings of 1930s artists such as Kim Ki-chang and Lee In-sung, Yi’s countryside is not an exotic, romantic place to be. It is a place where people have to work to survive, where that work is hard, where people live in debt without adequate food or healthcare, and where the local landowners and ruling Japanese seek to keep the peasants in place. It is certainly not a place to bring your city-loving, delicate young wife and expect her to want to settle down.

Rather like in Mujeong, the end comes quickly, as if Yi had been told that his contract with the newspaper was not going to be renewed. And many will be less than satisfied at the way everything turns out rosy in the end – with even the nastiest of characters turning over a new leaf. In a revealing afterword, Yi himself lays out his vague intentions to pick up the story again in a few years’ time.

So, having now finished the book, I’m sorry I left it on the shelf so long. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read, with plenty of insights about life and society in colonial Korea, and plenty of moral lessons too. I just wonder how Kim Ki-young is going to deal with it…

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