Park Kyung Ni: South Korean novelist

Park Kyung-Ni (photo: Oh Jong-chan / Chosun Ilbo)Author whose epic novel, Toji, is regarded as one of the greatest contributions to Korean literature

Park Kyung Ni was one of the leading South Korean novelists of her generation. In her own country and abroad, she was best known for the epic Toji (The Land), widely regarded as the greatest achievement of modern Korean literature.

Born in the city of Tongyeong in South Gyeongsang province at the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula, Park graduated from Jinju Girls High School in 1946. During the Korean War, which broke out in 1950, she suffered a personal tragedy; her husband Kim Haeng Do, whom she had married shortly after leaving school, went missing in action. This sorrow, and the larger traumas of the war became the subject of much of Park’s early fiction, the author herself observing that she would not have written novels if she had been happy.

Her first published stories appeared in the magazine Contemporary Literature in 1956, and during the late Fifties she wrote a sequence of novels concentrating on the melancholy experiences of female protagonists who, like their creator, had been widowed by war. Among these were The Age of Distrust (1957), The Road Without a Guidepost (1958) and Drifting Island (1959). A later treatment of the Korean War was The Marketplace and the Battlefield (1964), concentrating on the relationship between a politically uncommitted student and his ideologically engaged teacher.

Among other important works from the early years of Park’s career were Saint and Witch (1960), a romantic melodrama, and The Daughters of Pharmacist Kim (1962), a tragic account of the lives of a pharmacist’s four daughters, said to have marked a change in subject matter and style for its author. Both these books were later adapted into notable films.

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Park’s acknowledged masterpiece, The Land, was serialised in Contemporary Literature for a quarter of a century between 1969 and 1994. Chronicling the lives of five generations of a rural landowning family in Park’s native province, this epic used their personalities and experiences as a microcosm of the history of the nation from the end of the 19th century, through decades of Japanese colonial rule, to the division of the Korean peninsula in 1945. The finished work stretched to 16 volumes comprising a total of five episodes; to date, only the first two episodes have been translated into English. The book quickly achieved fame in South Korea, and a film adaptation of the early chapters was released in 1974; three television serials, a cartoon and an opera have also been based on the story.

In 1996 Park established the Toji Culture Foundation in order to encourage creativity and literary achievement among a younger generation of South Koreans. She served as chairman of its board of trustees, and later opened the Toji Cultural Centre on the site of her own home in the city of Wonju, east of Seoul.

Parkwon various prizes and honours, including the Inchon Award and, in 1992, the Bogwan Order of Cultural Merit, the third-highest cultural honour in South Korea; the highest honour, the Geumgwan Order, was conferred posthumously. In her later years, Park also became known for her concern with environmental issues.

When cancer was diagnosed in 2007 she refused treatment. A late poem, The Old House, expressed her equanimity in the face of death: “I am content with my old days; I have no desire / The burden I carry will be left when I say goodbye.”

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Park’s marriage produced two children. Her son died in infancy, but she is survived by her daughter Kim Young Ju, head of the Toji Cultural Centre, and her son-in-law, the distinguished poet Kim Ji Ha.

Park Kyung Ni, author, was born on October 28, 1926. She died on May 5, 2008, aged 81

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article4091217.ece

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