Sadly, 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…