‘The Square’ by Choi In-hun (Review)

img_5560Sadly, I’ve fallen behind a little in my mission to read all the Dalkey Archive Library of Korean Literature titles, partly as the most recent ARCs I’ve received are ecopies (meaning I’m not quite as likely to pick one up on a whim…).  The most recent additions to the collection, out last month, bring the total to twenty-six titles, but while I’m far off completing the list, today does bring a milestone of sorts.  This review is my sixteenth in total and covers the last of the original fifteen books I was sent – let’s see how it measures up to the others 🙂

*****
Choi In-hun’s The Square (translated by Kim Seong-kon, review copy courtesy of the publisher) follows Lee Myong-jun, a released prisoner from the Korean War.  Having been set free during one of the interludes in the conflict, he’s on a boat headed for a neutral country, having decided to look for a new life away from the peninsula.  In between chats with one of the officers, and his attempts to keep his fellow refugees in order, he stands at the stern of the boat, looking out to sea and reflecting on his life.

First, we head back to Seoul, where the young philosophy student (the son of a Red agitator who has fled north) lives with a family friend.  After some trouble with the authorities, he decides to follow his father across the border, despite romantic attachments at home.  Disgusted by the lack of any real ideology in the south, he hopes to find his true calling in the north, but is disappointed there as well, meaning that when he’s offered the choice, he opts for a third way of living – if, that is, there’s anything worth living for.

The Square is set in and around the Korean War, yet there’s very little here about the actual conflict.  Instead, Choi’s novel is a more ideological, philosophical work, describing one man’s attempt to work out the best way to live his life.  At the centre of the novel is the Square, an imaginary forum where people meet, a theoretical equivalent of a public space, and the contrast Myong-jun draws with the Private Chamber, our mental refuge.  If we’re to engage in society, it’s necessary to venture into the Square, but Myong-jun’s attempts to participate in public life invariably end in disappointment and disillusionment.

Life in the South, while comfortable, makes Myong-jun uneasy, with a gradual realisation that the country is a cruel place with no morals.  This comes to a head after his ‘invitation’ to the police station, where he receives a painful, shocking beating.  On escaping his ordeal, he reflects:

The detective’s impudence, sending him off in this state, made him more furious than when he was being assaulted.  It revealed that it didn’t bother the police that a citizen came out of the station with a bloodstained shirt front.  It was the same as saying it was all right for the whole country to see him walking outside this way.  His body shivered, recollecting what the detective said: “I could easily kill a Red bastard like you and dump your body where nobody can find it.”
pp.53/4 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014)

Even if his father hadn’t crossed over, most readers would suspect that Myong-jun’s sympathies are with a less materialistic society anyway, so it comes as little surprise when he takes a boat to the North.

However, once he does take the leap of faith, he’s even more disappointed, realising too late that the grass is rarely greener on the other side (even if it’s a brighter hue of red…).  Criticised for reporting the truth in his newspaper writing, he discovers that the role of the foot soldier in the new republic is rather dull and proscribed:

What Myong-jun discovered in North Korea was an ash-gray republic.  It was not a republic that lived in the excitement of revolution, passionately burning blood-red like the Manchurian sunset.  What surprised him more was that the communists did not want excitement or passion.  The first time he had clearly felt the inner life of this society was when he was traveling around the major cities of North Korea on a lecture tour by order of the party just after he had gone north.  Schools, factories, citizens halls; the faces filling these places were, in a word, lifeless.  They simply sat with passive obedience.  There was no expression or emotion on their faces.  They were not the ardent faces of citizens living in a revolutionary republic. (p.93)

An overwhelming feeling of disappointment comes over him with the realisation that the people have no say in this revolution.  In fact, the expectation is that they act like sheep, mindlessly following orders from above – this Square, too, shows itself to be a mirage.

Choi’s novel is in many ways built upon parallels between the two Korean states, for example in the comparison of police beatings and denunciations.  However, this is most obvious in Myong-jun’s relationships on either side of the border.  In the South, the young Yun-ae teases him then pulls away; in the North, the dancer, Eun-hye, gives herself bodily to her lover, but is ready to sacrifice herself for her country.  The two women are sexually very different (even though their names – intentionally – sound very similar), but Myong-jun attempts to find a balance between his interior world and the public Square with both of them.  However, even if he finds temporary comfort in these little bubbles, in the long run his attempts to find somewhere between the Square and the Private Chamber are doomed to failure.

There’s a lot to like about The Square, with some nice writing in places, particularly the calm, languid style of the frame story on the boat.  It’s a story of disillusionment, an examination of two very different societies with both being found wanting, and a fairly daring piece of writing too.  This was one of the first major novels published after a political change in the South, meaning that Choi was able to express views which were impossible to voice earlier (and perhaps even later too…).

Yet there are certainly some issues with the novel, and one of these is the misogyny prevalent throughout.  The main female characters are objects rather than real personalities, and Myong-jun’s ‘theories’ on women are fairly disturbing:

Women’s love is more complex than men’s.  Women seem to be like a  species that is unable to grasp what love really is.  Listening to their chatter as he passed by, Myong-jun could detect the vanity of women.  They seem to fall in love just because other women do.  Was love just another accessory to these women? (p.36)

It can be difficult to sympathise with Myong-jun as he often comes across as a spoilt kid, possessive and jealous.  On top of this is the translation, which, while not bad as such, comes across as fairly stilted, particularly in the spoken sections.  I suspect that some of the text is overly literal – there’s a lot of room to move between English and Korean, and I’m not sure it’s been used here to great effect.

Nevertheless, The Square is an interesting novel, a reflection of the era, exposing black-and-white political thinking for the lie it is.  Choi is adept at pointing out the similarities in the two Koreas’ inability to realise their ideal state while showing the difficulty of keeping true to yourself when entering the Square.  This struggle to reconcile the two ways of thinking continues today, inside Korea and elsewhere, and like Myong-jun, the temptation to look for a third way is tempting – if only we knew where to look…

10 thoughts on “‘The Square’ by Choi In-hun (Review)

  1. Easily my least favourite of the Dalkey Archive series I have read.

    The writing, at least post translation, is pretty clunky.

    And the criticisms of both the materialistic South and dogmatically Communist north are completely undermined by the naïve, idealistic, misogynistic and pretentious way that Myeong-jun voices them. Indeed while the blurb claims that the novel is about how idealism can destroy the individual, it is the protagonist who comes across as over idealistic: his main laments of both the people of the South and North is actually that they aren’t zealous enough – in the purity of their beliefs for the North and in their nationalism in the South. His is the dangerous message, not theirs.

    Of course, this could work as a flawed-narrator novel, except from the accompanying commentary it seems the author has similar views.

    My review https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1488406963

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    1. Paul – Well, I’ve been fairly generous here as it is an interesting look behind the curtain of the north, and the boat scenes are pretty well done. As for the translation, well, I stand by what I say 😉 I suspect, though, that if you think this is the worst, you haven’t read ‘One Spoon on this Earth’!

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      1. “I suspect, though, that if you think this is the worst, you haven’t read ‘One Spoon on this Earth’!”

        Your review was enough to convince me not to bother although Jeju is my favourite place in Korea!

        I’ve read 14 of the first 20, mostly omitting the story collections, Son of Man being my favourite with honourable mentions for The House with a Sunken Courtyard and The Republic of Užupis.

        The ones I haven’t got to are One Spoon on This Earth, Stingray, My Son’s Girlfriend, Lonesome You, God Has No Grandchildren and Good Family, none of which tempted, although checking your reviews I ought to read Stingray.

        I need to crack on with the new ones that have come out as well.

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        1. Paul – I’m keen to try ‘Son of Man’ at some point, but it’s the recent addition from Ch’oe Yun that I’d really like to get to (plus the Jung Young Moon book that isn’t sure whether it’s a part of the series or not…).

          I rearead ‘Stingray’ last year, and it didn’t quite measure up to my initial thoughts, so I wouldn’t rush to that one. Even if you’re not one for short stories, I’d give ‘My Son’s Girlfriend’ a go – again, I reread it last year and probably enjoyed it more this time around. As for ‘Lonesome You’, it seems to be me against the world, as you can see from the disparate Goodreads ratings!

          By the way, as you’ll probably have already figured out, I rarely actually bother with Goodreads. I only got the account for an LTI competition, and I’ve decided just to put my Dalkey reviews there…

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          1. Son of Man does have a strong religious angle, so depends a little if that is of interest,

            Thanks for the recommendations – will check out My Son’s Girfriends.

            Sensible re Goodreads given you have the blog although always good to see you on the M&G discussion boards. Of course you could be cheeky and just post links to your website reviews.

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            1. Paul – Part of the reason I don’t cross-post to Goodreads is a feeling that then I’d be tempted to go back and start on the other eight-hundred odd reviews – which I certainly *don’t* want to do!

              I always mean to get more involved on the M&G group, but I never do, somehow. I’ll probably contribute more once the big translation awards get closer as I have little to say, otherwise…

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    1. Svetlana – No, and it’s not as if they send them to me willingly, I have to ask for them! I did want physical copies, but unfortunately they refuse point blank to offer anything but digital copies 😦 I may ask if I can have a look at the latest ones at some point, but to be honest, I have a lot of other (real) books I could be reading – which means that I’ll probably put these off for a good while…

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      1. Incredible really, given I understood Dalkey were subsidised to publish the books by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea and you must be one of the most prolific promoters of the books in review anywhere. Starting to see where Grumpy Tony was coming from on the other post!

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