Friday, 11 October 2019

Book Review: The Curse of Kim's Daughters by Pak Kyongni

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/828519.The_Curse_of_Kim_s_DaughtersThere are people, even entire families, who get more than the usual share of misfortune in life. While some may simply call it bad luck, others will be convinced that in the world nothing ever happens without a reason because everything is interconnected. In fact, it can be very comforting to believe that God, the Universe, whatever is just and that sooner or later we all get what we deserve. First published in 1962, the historical novel The Curse of Kim's Daughters by Pak Kyongni (or Park Kyong-ni for the English edition that appeared in 2004) follows the karmic decline of a well-to-do family in a small Korean sea port during the first decades of the twentieth century. Their misfortune starts with a hot-tempered husband who drives his terrified wife into suicide, kills an innocent man and disappears, but it’s his son and his grand-daughters who eventually pay the price.

Pak Kyongni (박경리, also transliterated as Park Kyong-ni among others) was born Pak Geum-i (박금이) in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province, Japanese Korea, in December 1926. Having graduated from high school, she soon got married and had two children, but after only a few years she lost her husband in the Korean War and little later their son, too. Completely on her own to provide for herself, for her little daughter and for her mother, she turned to writing as a means to make a living. With the help of a writer colleague she brought out her first novel, 계산 (tr. Calculations), in 1955 and never stopped writing after. Some of the author’s notable novels of these early years are 불신시대 (1957; tr. Time of Distrust), 암흑시대 (1958; tr. Time of Darkness), The Curse of Kim's Daughters (김약국의딸들: 1962), and 시장과전장 (1965; tr. Market and Battlefield). In the late 1960s, she began writing her most famous novel, namely the epic saga Land (토지) published in 16 (sic!) volumes between 1969 and 1994. Pak Kyongni died in Seoul, South Korea, in May 2008.

In the fishing port of Tongyeong in the South of Korea people believe that The Curse of Kim's Daughters has its root in the tragic story of their father Songsu who lost both his parents soon after he was born in 1878. His father was a hot-tempered and violent man given to beating his wife. The night when his mother took arsenic to escape a more atrocious death, he was furious with jealousy of a young man who had come from her home village to visit his great love. They didn’t even talk, but his intrusion was enough for Songsu’s father to run after him and kill him in the forest. Seeing what he had done, he ran away never to be seen again. Thus, Songsu grew up in the care of his aunt and uncle, but as soon as he got married he moved into his parents’ house that had always attracted him although it was said to be haunted by ghosts. To everybody’s relief, he isn’t like his ferocious father and at first it seems as if he could enjoy the happy and peaceful life of a wealthy man. Fate soon begins to strike the family, though. First, his uncle dies and after much ado Songsu is assigned his position as pharmacist although he is only eighteen years old. Then his six-year-old son succumbs to smallpox and his old aunt, too, perishes. Things having calmed down at last, five daughters are born to him between 1906 and 1918 and he gives up the pharmacy to run a successful fishing business. As from 1930, however, Songsu’s luck is turning again and his third daughter brings shame on the entire family. Wild and passionate, the nineteen-year-old sneaks out at night to amuse herself with the son of her grandfather’s servant…

In line with its ill-boding title The Curse of Kim's Daughters tells the tragic story of a Korean family during the lifetime (and a little beyond) of its patriarch from the perspective of an unconcerned and omniscient third-person narrator. The plot’s chronology is mostly linear; its focus lies clearly on the women whose lives are determined by tradition to a large degree although a modern – Western – life-style is already taking root. To emphasise the provincial setting and the historical time frame covering a period that ends some twenty-five years before the author wrote her novel, she resorted to frequently mixing local dialect and obsolete words into modern standard Korean as say the translators of my German edition of the book. Since the latter denied the reader even the poorest imitation of this stylistic means, the novel’s tone seems strangely level and matter-of-fact even considering the proverbial Korean poise. It speaks for the power of the original Korean version, though, that all characters come alive nonetheless as driven just as much by impulses, emotions and beliefs (including superstition) as by the vicissitudes of human existence. Admittedly, it took me some time to get into the story, but then it flowed engagingly.

To read The Curse of Kim's Daughters by Pak Kyongni certainly wasn’t the most obvious choice, but it was definitely worth the effort that it took me to dig up a copy of its only German translation published to date. Overall, I enjoyed the Korean classic from the early 1960s very much and I particularly appreciated the opportunity to plunge into a Far-Eastern culture that – unlike the Chinese and Japanese ones thanks to a greater variety of translated writers – was almost completely unknown to me. Although the story covers more or less the same period of Korean history as The Living Reed by en-NOBEL-ed American author Pearl S. Buck (»»» read my review), it’s entirely different and necessarily more authentic, too, because a Korean writer wrote it for Korean readers. As an insider’s view of Korea as it was in the early twentieth century, I warmly recommend this historical novel.

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