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The Descendants of Cain (UNESCO Collection…

The Descendants of Cain (UNESCO Collection of Representative Works:…

by Sun-Won Hwang

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  1. 00
    Animal Farm by George Orwell (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Portrait of the mechanics and effect of Soviet-style communist takeover.

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It is a good book. That's the first thing you want to know when you glance at a review. Once you know that, however, you realize you need some more information. Every book has someone who says it's good, and every reader's taste is matched by another reader with an opposite taste. So you would want to know my criteria for thinking a book good or bad. The problem is, this book didn't meet my usual criteria. I tend to dislike realism in literature; I prefer that the author incorporate some pure invention, something fantastic or weird either in style or content. I like Murakami, Rusdhie, Bioy Casares, Flann O'Brien, etc. Hwang's book is not of that kind. Here is a straight-forward story of realistic people grappling with an actual historical reality. Nothing magical about this realism.

Maybe I tend not to read a lot of realistic fiction because so few authors do it well. If you aren't infusing the narrative with stylistic flourishes, experimenting with point-of-view or the order of exposition, or introducing supernatural elements to create a unique effect, you're left with just the stuff of everyday life: scenic description, events, human thoughts and emotions. The author is forced to create something compelling out of only these components. As I say, so few can do it well. It's hard to make a fictional character complex yet comprehensible, believable but not mundane, sympathetic yet flawed. I found myself fascinated by Hwang's characters and actually caring about their fates almost as though they were real. That is unusual for me.

If you choose to read this book, maybe think of it as ANIMAL FARM with people, though that's not quite it. Hwang depicts the encroaching influence of Korea's northern "liberators" with a complicated concern. Through the eyes of the central character--Pak Hun, an educated landowner--you are made to feel ambivalence toward the entire scenario. There's an injustice being perpetrated, but it's a new injustice displacing an old injustice. The passive Pak watches the events without much political resentment. He doesn't feel a sense of entitlement to the material things being taken away. If anything really seems to occupy him it's the personal element, the disruption of lifelong bonds of community in the face of political reorganization, disappointment when he is spied on by a former friend, the unwillingness of those around him (like the doctor) to be associated with him. People he thought he knew are not quite the same, and that just seems to make him sad. Indeed, Pak's main preoccupation is his relationship with Ojaknyo, a young woman in his employ, and while their relationship is fraught with issues of class, it is their personal feelings as human being's toward one another that concern them. Simple emotions of attraction, sense of duty and friendship eclipse the monumental goings-on around them. Even the cruel, stupid Tosop--rabid tool of the new order--is humanized through glimpses of who he was before his whole being was reduced to class identification. Ultimately, the novel doesn't lament the advent of communism in N. Korea because it dispossessed "innocent" landowners but rather the tragedy of any ideology that disallows the existence of individual feeling and agency for the sake of a mass-movement. The power of the novel is how important the human bonds of love, family, friendship and loyalty still appear to be (and actually are) even in the face of events of massive, national significance. The real story of living still occurs on the level of people, not states. In THE DESCENDANTS OF CAIN, the rise of communism matters only as it disrupts and destroys LIVES, not wealth, not power, not ideologies, not class.

Read this book for the experience of encountering characters that you haven't met before. ( )
  CGlanovsky | Nov 6, 2012 |
This was a very interesting book for me to read, both because of my lack of experience with Korean literature in general, as well as my lack of knowledge about this period in Korean history (the time immediately following the Communist revolution in North Korea). It was an extremely interesting novel, because it focuses on a very singular act - murder in a small town - but at the same time, it's completely without a protagonist. I don't mean this just in the "it features an ensemble cast" sort of way, but I literally mean that there is no one character that the novel focuses on as a main character. It's the complete opposite of everything I've ever been told about how a good novel should be written, or structured, and yet it works in terms of both entertainment and artistic expression. An eye-opening experience, to be sure. ( )
  orangemonkey | Sep 30, 2007 |
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