Writers with shared DNAWe must remind ourselves of the simple yet easy-to-overlook fact that what safeguarded the existence and continuity of the nation, people, community and culture in the vicissitudes of a long history - especially as we passed through the turbulent century of imperialism and totalitarianism - was the power of mothers and, by extension, the power of women.
A few days ago in Wonju, Gangwon, acclaimed modern Russian novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya received the Pak Kyong-ni International Literary Award, and I could not help escape the thought that the power of women has been the core energy for sustaining the societies in Korea and Russia - admittedly more powerful than the might of any heroes.
It goes without saying that Pak Kyong-ni masterfully chronicled in her saga “Toji” (“Land”) the checkered lives and deaths of ordinary people during a turbulent part of history as Koreans had to live through the Japanese colonization and rapid modernization. The Pak Kyong-ni Prize is a literary award in honor of her, and Ulitskaya became the first foreign winner of the prize.
Upon receiving the prize, Ulitskaya said that she and Pak had “genetic ties” as their works were primarily focused on the same themes, such as family, human dignity, honor and loyalty. As the review committee of the prize succinctly pointed out, the women in Ulitskaya’s novels are very much Mother Earth figures who embrace, accept, forgive and heal everything, bringing back the aesthetics of salvation polished by such Russian literary masters as Tolstoy. And the same spirit goes through the entire literary world of Pak, which revolves around the motherly love of the earth.
Though she has won many prestigious literary honors, Ulitskaya said the Pak Kyong-ni Prize and the Budapest Grand Prize for Literature she received in 2009 were most meaningful to her. She said she could not forget the Budapest Prize because of the unimaginable pains Hungary had to suffer from the Soviet invasion in 1956, and the Pak Kyong-ni Prize is particularly significant because she felt that the cultural barrier between the East and the West that goes back thousands of years has finally fallen.
Having studied biology and worked at a genetics research institute for a long time, she started her literary career when she was over 50. Thanks to that unique experience, she is devoutly interested in all lives and has a profound cultural and anthropological insight into the very nature of humans living in different cultures. Among all living creatures, only humans retain the intelligence and conscience to evaluate themselves and the memories to trace back their pasts - and probably that’s why their history carries significance. She emphasizes that mankind, above all, has the unparalleled ingenuity to create all forms of culture, so preservation and development of their cultures are directly related to the meaning of life.
Meanwhile, both Pak and Ulitskaya thoroughly recognize the limits of humanity and the fateful challenges and sufferings of life. Although man always pursues universal values, he also has to live a life that brings him into conflict with universal problems that cannot be solved.
The fact is that human life exists as the specific experiences of individuals rather than an abstract set of universal principles. After all, none of us can avoid suffering and pain completely, so we must live with tolerance, understanding, patience and the support of others. The literary worlds of Pak and Ulitskaya vividly illustrate that such wisdom about life comes from efforts toward tolerance and unity by ordinary people and small heroes rather than political powers or the wealthy.
This year, the 20-volume epic saga “Land” has been restored to its original form after 10 years of editing. Pak’s masterpiece projects her deep religious contemplation of the fateful existence of humans who can never be completely free from affliction and suffering. In the prologue of its 2002 edition, we can see a glimpse of what she defines as salvation.
“We may be a group of countless people on a journey of adversity, but marching toward utopia by constantly pursuing and dreaming is the hope of our lives,” she declares. “And that’s the truth.”
The essence of Pak’s literature is a peek into the possibility of salvation from the simple and warm humanity of ordinary people in Pyeongsa-ri, South Gyeongsang, while they desperately lead lives full of daily pains and sufferings.
Ulitskaya compares modern civilization to a quilt. Over thousands of years, a culture is made through a continuous process of accumulation and preservation. As a result, nothing is lost or disappears forever. Plants take in everything they need for their survival from the earth and air. And after they die, they become a fertilizer for the next generation. Ulitskaya seems to be convinced that we can find the norms for a civil society within the global village from the fundamentals of the plants that surround us on this planet. That coincides with the image of women depicted by Pak and Ulitskaya in their fine books: the mothers who will defend their family and neighbors no matter when and no matter what.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
* The author is a former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hong-koo