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A Compelling Tale of Post-World War II North Korea
The Descendants of Cain
By Hwang Sun-won
Translated by Suh Ji-moon and Julie Pickering
M.E. Sharpe/UNESCO Publishing, Armonk, N.Y.; 1997
An East Gate Book
Review by Jerry Winzig
Hwang Sun-won's semi-autobiographical novel, The Descendants of Cain, is a fascinating and intriguing story set in North Korea a year or so after the end of World War II. Hwang weaves together several powerful themes in this spare (181 page) but immensely readable account of life in one village near Pyongyang. Central to the story are the complex dynamics between Pak Hun, the landlord's son, Ojaknyo, the daughter of the overseer of the estate, and Ojaknyo's nasty husband, Ch'oe. Also important are Tosop, Ojaknyo tyrannical and abusive father, and Samduk, her mysterious and elusive brother. By the end of the story, however you will know many of the people in the village by name, and will have vivid impressions of them.
Just as important to the story are the dynamics of North Korea around 1946. The communists are extending their influence and seizing control of people's lives. The young man in the dog-fur coat and the man in the helmet from the provincial peasant committee headquarters -- who remain nameless in the story -- are the disturbing embodiment of the pernicious power of the communist party as they coldly tear apart the social fabric of the country.
However, The Descendants of Cain is no ideological polemic. Instead, Hwang presents a clear view of human nature, with its faults and its heroism. Hun, for example, is a frustrating character, often impossibly passive in the face of encroaching evil. As things are collapsing all around him, his landlord position allows him to get drunk frequently, and he is sometimes astonishingly oblivious of and even callous toward Ojaknyo. At the same time, we discover Hun has had a long-standing fascination with Ojaknyo's "glowing eyes" and Ojaknyo herself emerges as an amazingly courageous and loyal woman.
Hwang paints a picture for us of the effects of the landlord-peasant relationship that existed in Korea then, and shows us its negative effects on both landlord and peasant. Once again, however, his tale is no diatribe against landlords. There are good and evil men among both peasants and landlords, and we learn them by name.
The novel also shows us how remarkably easy it is to rip a society apart. With well-placed words and calculated deeds, the communists set neighbor against neighbor and peasant against landlord. To make sure there are no laggards who might hesitate about attacking their benevolent landlord, they are devious enough to pair up peasants from different villages, so at least some of the attackers do not even know their victims. And they are careful to plant provocateurs in the crowds in the village to urge the people to abandon their inhibitions against violence.
This is a story you will not want to set down until you've read the last page. Even though one story line is known in advance -- we know the communists took total control of North Korea -- the other story line -- between Hun and Ojaknyo -- is not. You will find yourself hoping that Hun will break out of his lethargy and seeming indifference in order to find the courage to act. And Tosop, well, you will care about his fate as well.
You will also be served well by the fine translation work of Suh Si-moon and Julie Pickering. The language of the novel rings true and, 48 years after it was first published, is as compelling as it was in 1954.
Copyright © 1999-2004 Winzig Consulting Services.