The Descendants of Cain is one of the great stories of the coming of communism
to North Korea and it is strongly informed by author Hwang Sun-won’s personal
experiences at that time and in that situation. Hwang was a landlord’s son during
the time of post-war social turmoil (a similar story is Kim Won-il’s Evening
Glow) and his family was forced to flee North Korea in response to it.1
On a practical note, compared to Hwang’s other works it is also fairly brief,
although that comes at the cost of the epic scale of some of his other works.
At it’s simplest level the story is of 2.5 families; the blended near-family of Pak
Hun and Ojaknyeo, his chaste live-in caregiver/near wife; Ojaknyeo and her
previous husband, and; Ojaknyeo’s nuclear family, headed by her father Toseop,
who is at odds with the rest of his family because of the pro-land-reform stance
he takes.
That last relationship points a reader towards the greater political schism in the
book, that is the schism between those who are nostalgic for an older way of life
and those, the land-reformers, who want to topple the apple-cart. Descendants
of Cain takes a slightly pro-nostalgic stance as it shows how land reformers
agilely took advantage of historical Korean social divisions to turn renters
against tenants. The tensions are not underplayed, and when a pro-land-reform
farmer dies with a sickle in his chest, a reader understands how real the stakes
Some Korean stories (I think here of “Between Heaven and Earth” by Yun
Daenyoung or “Human Decency” by Gong Ji-young) present characters as they
“are” without any psychological depth even while making rather large claims
(primarily in interior monologue) for the importance of the characters and their
actions. They are, essentially, cut outs for political positions or have certain
characteristics that forward the plot. Hwang, on the other hand, gives his
characters complexity. The best example in this book is probably Tosop, the bad
guy, who with a kind of avarice and brutality, sides with the revolutionaries. And
yet, his reasons are presented as quite sensible given the world he lives in, the
experiences he has had, and what he sees in the future (In some ways he reminds
me of the butcher in Evening Glow by Kim Won-il Add those reasons to his flawed
personal character and you have a great foil in the novel. Even characters who
conceivably could have been presented as clichés a presented with their own
assumptions clear and their actions always make sense according to their
assumptions. When a dog-fur coated revolutionary argues with other characters,
you get to see why he thinks the way he does and where it leads him.
This brief outline suggests that Descendants of Cain, as all of Hwang’s work,
contains a broad range of strong dualities, and it is in the interaction of these
multiple dualities that Hwang does his authorly work (The Moving Castle is
particularly notable for this relationship of dualities).
The Descendants of Cain, and: The Rainy Spell and Other Korean Stories
(review by Bruce Fulton)
The story begins with Pak Hun stumbling away from the news that he has lost
his job teaching and towards his house and his housemate (but not lover)
Ojaknyeo. Pak and Ojaknyeo live together chastely, but each also has a
substantial “previous” life, including a husband in the case of Ojaknyeo.
Ojaknyeo’s father is Toseop, who is going over the land-reformers. When
Ojaknyeo’s husband returns a personal level of conflict is added to the political
Pak is a kind of relative of the yangban (perhaps a kind of Korean Hamlet?) – he
thinks things through to the point of indecision, attempts to live in a refined
manner, and lives with a substantial dose of han (Sample dialogue, oft repeated,
“it’s because of the times”). Ojaknyeo, on the other hand, has a forceful
personality married to a proper Confucian decorum. When these two characters
interact, a western reader might well become frustrated that their personalities
keep them from seeing the obvious; that they are in love and should be together.
This kind of thing though, social status keeping people apart, is common to
Korean literature and doesn’t necessarily have to do with the relationship
between sexes. In When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom in a father and son are also
kept separated by social constraints, although sex roles often do have a role as in
a story even as innocent as Hwang Sun-won’s short story, Sonagi, or Kim Yujeong’s Camellias.
Hwang spins these relationships, then watches them interact in ways sometimes
funny and sometimes brutal. Hwang can also be quite perceptive and funny, as
when he has a neighborhood woman become quite indignant when she is caught
stealing from an ill Ojaknyeo, or when the previously snobby and moneygrubbing doctor Kim ostentatiously gives speeches about the need for free goods
and services.
Hwang’s writing (and the translation) are good, with his symbolism shining
through (examples: The cry of the lover’s cuckoo bring Hun and Ojanknyeo to a
closer understanding of their feelings, or an extended metaphor of rotting, falling
fruit eventually replacing dying trees). He handles people deftly; there is a
classic presentation of a bickering old couple tearing at each other on the surface
but inseparable at a more basic level.
The Romanization in this book is difficult, but a reader who battles through it
will come to the conclusion of the book feeling it was all worth it. That
conclusion is ambivalently optimistic, which is the most optimism that Hwang
gives to most of his stories, and while the tale does not properly ‘end’ it does tie
all its knots together in a neat and pleasing bow.
How Many Buckwheat Blossoms: Not many, most of the culture is clear although
occasionally a phrase will be dropped in that Western readers may not fully
understand such as in the case of the revolutionary who is routinely described as
wearing a dog fur coat, a clear sign of barbarism in Korea, or in the initial thickheaded diffidence with which Hun and Ojaknyeo first address each other.
Illustrating a point. The cover is not really indicative of the content of the book
and while the layout is nice and the font appropriate, the picture is indistinct to
the point of meaninglesness.
Storyentalized? Not at all.^^