Romance and Rebellion: The Nokjidae (2 volumes) by Park Kyung-Ri

  • onOctober 23, 2014
  • Vol.15 Spring 2012
  • byKim Dongshik
The Nokjidae (2 volumes)

Park Kyung-Ri is best known as the author of The LandThe Land, widely considered an epic masterpiece spanning the entire history of modern Korea, took the author 25 years to complete—from 1969 to 1994. Upon Park’s death in 2008, many Koreans reread all 21 volumes of The Land as a tribute to the author.

Park’s novel The Nokjidae has recently been published in book form for the first time. The Nokjidae was serialized in a newspaper from 1964 to 1965. Until now, it was but a line in the writer’s bibliography; readers could learn of its existence but had no access to the text. Now, in print again after 47 years, it offers a glimpse into Park Kyung-ri’s early work.

The Nokjidae captures the romance and rebellion of Korean youth in the mid-1960s. The people of this generation were born under Japanese colonial rule, children when Korea gained its independence, teenagers when the Korean War broke out, and young adults in the aftermath of the war.

The protagonist of the novel is Inae, an aspiring poet in her 20s. She was orphaned during the war and is now living with her uncle’s family. She drops out of college and travels to an island where she meets Jeong-hyun and falls in love. The course of love does not run smoothly for Inae, however, since there is another woman in Jeong-hyun’s life who dominates him completely. Inae returns to Seoul and starts working at Nokjidae, a musical salon.

Nokjidae is a place for writers, thinkers, and artists. Seeking temporary relief in their art, these members of the post-war generation are also searching for new possibilities in the relationships they cultivate there. Their inspiration comes from the countercultural movements of the western world of the 1950s to 1960s, namely the Beat Generation, Angry Young Men, and “flower power.” They are up-to-date with the latest cultural movements despite the poverty they face in a post-war society. Just as the Beat Generation strived to maintain integrity in the face of oppressive societal norms, the youth of The Nokjidae rebel against existing social order, customs, and institutions and yearn to build lives of their own.

Nokjidae is a place where existing norms are temporarily suspended, where the self is exalted through art, and the desire to lead a life of integrity is nurtured. Inae’s attitude to life as such can be summed up: “I am the master of my life, and my life is based on love.” When Jeong-hyun dies with the woman who controlled his life, Inae heads to the island where they first met. She refuses to follow the path expected of her, from student to wife to mother, and instead chooses to protect her integrity and the love that meant everything to her. To Inae, the island represents her own private Nokjidae and tragic utopia.

The Nokjidae is a novel of manners about the tortured youth of the 1960s. Their desires, so piercing in their purity, shine brilliantly through their voices. They are the ones who made history, who are now remembered in literature. 

Author's Profile

Park Kyung-Ri was born in Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do Province in 1926 and died in Wonju, Gangwon-do Province in 2008. Park studied at Jinju Girls’ High School and went on to teach at many different schools. She was at Yeonan Girls’ Middle School in Hwanghae-do Province when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Her husband died in the war.

After the war, she devoted her life to her writing. She made her debut by publishing a short story in Hyundae Munhak at the recommendation of Kim Tong-ni, a prominent Korean writer.

Park Kyung-Ri’s representative work, Land, is an in-depth portrayal of the relationship between the fates of people from various classes and times as Korea went from a feudal monarchy to a Japanese colony. Land became part of the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works. Her novel has thus been critically acclaimed both in Korea and abroad.

The novel starts out in a small village called Pyeongsa-ri, then spans all over the Korean peninsula, and reaches out to Northern China and Japan, boasting a vast expanse. Land is a social drama and a family tragedy encompassing a series of events that involves several hundreds of characters.

Park also taught at Yonsei University as a visiting professor and an endowed chair. Her work contained criticism on the paradoxes and incongruities of society, but largely embodied the ideals of coexistence between living things, great mercy and compassion from Buddhism, freedom of existence, and equality. It shared philosophical grounds with her son-in-law Kim Ji-ha’s “Thoughts about Life,” which advocates for the importance of life and living things. A memorial park was built in her honor in Wonju where she lived for over 20 years, and there is a literary museum devoted to her in Tongyeong, the place she was born and is buried.