~BOOK ♩ 광장 ⚔ This Groundbreaking Classic Of Korean Modernism Tackles The Shattering Effect Of The Division Of Korea Taking Place Just Before The Korean War, It Follows Its Protagonist As He Travels To The North Hoping To Escape What He Sees As The Repressive Right Wing Regime In The Southonly To Find That A Different Sort Of Lie Reigns In The So Called Worker S Paradise Implying That Both Communism And Capitalism Are Pernicious Infections From Without, The Square Is A Dark And Complex Story Of The Ways Ideologies Can Destroy The Individual
There is a two thousand year old rumour that the Messiah has come There is a rumour that God is dead There is also a rumour than God has resurrected And there is a rumour that communism will save the world We live among such a plethora of rumours The layers of rumours are thick and heavy It would be sad if we lived by rumours only This novel is an account of a man who is discontent with rumour and sets out on a journey to find the truthAuthor s preface to the 1st edition by Choi In Hun has been translated as The Square by Kim Seong Kon Square in the sense of a public square, or plaza The novel was published in 1960 in the aftermath of the April student revolution that overthrew President Syngman Lee and lead to a short lived period of parliamentary democracy in South Korea The author took this opportunity to publish a book exploring the contrast of the South and North Korean societies and the flaws in each both authoritarian but one based on capitalism and the other communism Or as has it in the preface to the 1961 edition, the private chamber and the SquareThe Square serves as a private chamber from the masses And the private chamber serves as a Square for the individual If confined in either of them, humans cannot survive In the Square, the bloodshed of a riot would dampen the earth The confined cry of a madman would ring out from the private chamberThe novel is set either side of the Korean war The story begins near the end with the protagonist Lee Myong jun, having been released from a POW camp in the South, and now on a boat to a neutral country, having declined to be repatriated to the North We then cut back to his student days in South Korea to follow the train of events and, importantly, the thoughts oh, so many ponderous and naive thoughts that led him to this decision He flees the South largely due to political repression his father having earlier defected to the North, he is the subject of hostile police attention , although he also despairs of the shallow materialism of the leaders and the peopleWhen the men who went west to learn so called democracy came back, they got up and stood on the backs of the people They kicked the people in their stomach with their shiny, foreign shoes The young people were no use, either If they were not caught up in sex, jazz and the breasts of American actresses on movie posters, they were busy making friends with foreignersHe too flees to join his father in the North but laments the joylessness of the society thereIt was BECAUSE I wanted to live life as it should be lived that I came here When I was in the South, no matter where I looked, there was no space anywhere where I truly lived and felt it was worthwhile It was too foul and too gruesome a Square I am glad I, too, fled that land But what have we run toward This heavy air Where are the people whose faces overflow with joyful smiles for having set up their own governmentAn example that initially puzzles him is the lack of enthusiasm from peasant farmers in the North to the land reform that ostensibly benefits them, but soon realisesBuying and selling farmland was forbidden Farmland was national property They had just changed from tenants of a landlord to being tenants of the stateThe party imposed a yoke and a whip on the people as if they were cows plowing a field They were not farmers but domestic animalsAs a historical political novel this sounds quite promising and these brief passages in the middle of this nature are illuminating There is, for example, a neat line about the communism being liked the church without the reformationUnfortunately there had been no Martin Luther in StalinismBut, regrettably, the author chooses as his protagonist and mouthpiece , a pretentious, misogynistic, self obsessed and over idealistic student of philosophy Myong Jun himself laments, of books he read as a student, that hewas convinced that there must be some unspeakable truth hidden beneath the vague and meaningless messages But try as he might, he could not find what the latent truth wasThe reader of the novel experiences similar frustrations The prose comes across as unfortunately awkward, perhaps due to the translation, with clunky phrases likeI doubt whether or not he can float in the waterand odd similes and metaphors which perhaps work better in the original Indeed I struggled to get past the very first lineThe sea was breathing, tossing and turning its heavy blue scales that were much bluer than any pastel crayonand by the novel s end wished I hadn t Myung Jun s own thoughts are overwrought as in the following typical passage of tortuous metaphorsIn the river of life, he tried to make himself part of the river bed and move in it In the current of time, he tried to read the underlying meaning of life and fill in the emptiness But life continued to flow, uninterested He tried to grab sand, but it was also flowing with the river He made up his mind not to allow the enchantress called thinking back into his mind, once he comprehended the riddle of life Sitting before the vanity mirror of the mind, he still could not, however, perceive his own true image and thus could not do his makeup well eitherAfter one of his lengthy philosophical monologues leaves his girlfriend unmovedI suppose so, Yun Ae replied with genuine nonchalanceMyeong jun realiseshe wouldn t get to her with this kind of dialogue, no matter how hard to tried to convey his agony to Yun ae, it would still sound like a sentimental pop song to herThis is meant as a criticism of the simple and na ve Yun Ae,this woman whose upstairs had no occupants Please forgive her for her banal sinsBut the reader can only sympathise with her And this ultimately is the novel s biggest failing The validity of the criticisms of both the materialistic South and dogmatically Communist north is completely undermined by the na ve, idealistic 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 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.This could still works as a Catcher in the Rye type flawed character study albeit another novel I abhor but it is clear from his commentary that Choi In Hun himself shares the protagonist s concerns Indeed in the 1989 edition of the novel, and looking back on the four decades since he wrote the novel, the author lamentsAlthough Lee Myong Jun later realised that dreams could not easily come true, he would never have imagined that Korea would be under virtually the same circumstances forty years later 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 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 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 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 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 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 This review originally appeared at my site, Tony s Reading List. The November read for the World Literature group on Goodreads, this short novel written in 1960 was among the first modernist novels in Korean The translation is not perfectly idiomatic, but much better than many of the ones I have read lately This is the only book by Choi that I have found in English, but there are a couple in Spanish translation that I may read next month The novel begins with the protagonist, Lee Myong jun, on board a ship of former POWs from the Korean War, en route to resettlement in India We then follow his previous life through possibly distorted memories, first in South Korea, where he was persecuted because his father was a Communist who chose to live in the North, then as a defector himself in the North, where he becomes disillusioned with the Stalinist regime that he describes well as an imitation of a revolution I m always impressed by authors who realize the problem with these regimes is not that they are communist dictatorships but that they are bureaucratic parodies of communism, although oddly Choi or perhaps only Myong jon doesn t seem to realize that that was true of the original Stalinist regime as well He joins the military during the Korean War, is captured by the Americans, spends some time in a POW camp and at the end of the war chooses to go to a neutral country rather than either South or North Korea The central theme of the book is contrasting The Square always capitalized , the public, objective sphere of life, with the room or private chamber which represents the subjective private life of the individual, and arguing that The Square in both Koreas has been so corrupted that Koreans have retreated entirely into private life This is one of those sixties ideas on the borderline between phenomenology and Marxism my philosophy student subconscious kept suggesting vague and possiblly irrelevant memories of Habermas There is of course much about his loves and his mental life and growth I enjoyed the novel Unfortunately, as with so many novels that start out well, he can t seem to end it without introducing a rather mystical conclusion. Apparently this is considered a classic in Korean literature, and I am sure I don t appreciate it fully for the time and place in which it was written I know that it was written shortly after books like it were even allowed to be printed There is probably also quite a bit of symbolism that is over my head It covers a man moving from South Korea to North Korea and back South and then to a Neutral country , starting before the war and ending after it, although there is pretty much nothing about the war itself The juxtaposition between the two countries was probably one of the first that was ever made in literature I did, however, find the protagonist pretty annoying at times I guess it was due to principle, but he seemed rather spoiled, naive and too idealistic at times I m not sure if this was on purpose or not The ending was really beautiful in its own way. Myong jun, a university student in Seoul when the Korean War breaks out, is swept up in the fighting and ends up as a POW Presumably he was in the Communist army whether he joined it voluntarily or was kidnapped into it is unclear As the book begins he is aboard a ship that is taking him and other POWs who have declined to repatriate to South Korea to a neutral country He has been chosen as the liaison between the captain of the ship and the POWs, and interacts with both, but especially the captain, who likes to pass the time sipping tea and conversing with him Myong jun was studying philosophy at university before the war and is very much given to philosophizing, and the book is so given over to this philosophizing as to allow a reader to think, Ah, this is what a novel written by a philosopher is like In fact Choi studied law, but the two subjects are not that different The question Myong jun and behind him the author is grappling with is the relative strengths and weaknesses of the North Korean and South Korean polities For him them the key to the issue is how far citizens must embrace a shared, openly declared, view of their polity the town square of the title and how far they are permitted to have their own, private, views He sees advantages and disadvantages to both, and in the end can t decide between them It is worth pointing out that this is the author s first significant published work and that he was only 24 when he wrote it. Mankind cannot live in a closed room Mankind belongs in the Square This is a story about a man, Myong jun, who was released Korean prisoner of Korean war and was seeking his ideal of the Square Myong jun s philosophical questions and struggles to find an absolute truth was very interesting He was looking for a way to get out of his comfortable closed room South Korea to go to the Square North Korea Then from the Square to another closed room Eun hye He represent a human being who is seeking for a new place to be a new person, even though he she would eventually discover there is no perfect place His final decision was committed himself to an everlasting closed room. with a feeble heart withered like a pickled cabbage in a wrinkled raincoat.This was a hard slog to finish The frequent flashbacks and flashforwards, unusual imagery and farcical characters made this an awkward reading experience A disappointing first dip into Korean literature. Coming of Age in the Korean WarOn January 2, 1952, fifteen months before the signing of the Armistice Agreement that would end the combat phase of the Korean War, the United States delivered a proposal for the voluntary repatriation of prisoners to the negotiators at Panmunjom Communists opposed the proposal because it violated the 1949 Geneva Convention, a document signed by the United States, which called for the automatic repatriation of POWs The issue of repatriation is at the center of Choi In hun s novel The Square The action begins on a ship, the Tagore, which is carrying a group of North Korean POWs through the East China Sea These former soldiers have decided not to repatriate, but to go to India Because he speaks some English, Myong jun mediates between the soldiers and the captain Having spent several years in a POW camp at Geoje Island, the soldiers are getting restless and want to go ashore for some fresh air and female companionship when the ship docks in Hong Kong The captain can t allow this, and as tensions between the soldiers and Myong jun intensify, Myong jun reflects back on his life as a philosophy student in Seoul after liberation from Japan in 1945 and before the outbreak of war in 1950 Before the war, Myong jun was an angst ridden, sexually frustrated, and mildly misogynist philosophy student, in other words a typical philosophy student Myong jun wants to lead a meaningful life, but finds it is impossible in Seoul, where the empty pursuit of money, power, and sex rule everyday life As the recent nutgate drama involving Heather Cho, the deposed Queen of Korean Air reveals, Myong jun s critique of capitalist South Korea is just as relevant now as it was in 1960 When the men who went west to learn so called democracy came back, they got up and stood on the backs of the people They kicked the people in the stomach with their shiny, foreign shoes Like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac s On the Road, Myong jun exclaims that he wanted to LIVE Really live It was BECAUSE I wanted to live life as it should be lived like Kerouac, Choi is passionate about using ALL CAPS for emphasis But it is impossible for a philosopher poet like Myong jun to live deeply in South Korea, so he decides to go the North to find his father, a labor leader who defected after liberation from Japan Unfortunately, the road is blocked at the 38th Parallel, so he has to be smuggled across the border When Myong jun reaches North Korea, he doesn t find the lively worker s utopia that he imagined, but rather a Stalinist dystopia, a hollow mockery of communism There is no passion for revolution in North Korea, but rather mindless conformity, where those who peddle revolution rake in the money Myong jun s meditations on North Korea, like those on the South, are than a little relevant to the present Myong jun s repeated protests against conformity and phoniness in both South and North Korea resemble at times that icon of Cold War American rebelliousness, Holden Caufield Like Holden, Myong jun can come across as a bit overbearing and pretentious But it s important to keep in mind that like Catcher in the Rye or On the Road, The Square was a generation defining novel when it was published in 1960, shortly after the April Revolution in which students and labor groups overthrew the authoritarian president Syngman Rhee Choi s critique of a divided Korea was a revolutionary novel written in a revolutionary time.The narrative of The Square anxiously jumps back and forth in time and space, between the Tagore and Seoul and Pyongyang and Incheon and Geoje Island, thus mirroring a schizophrenic Korean identity, split at the 38th Parallel and torn by warring ideologies and armies Myong jun wants to escape this mess, so he plans to go to India and invent an ordinary life for himself when he is released from the POW camp He fantasizes about working as a hospital gate guard, a fire station watcher, or a theater ticket seller when he gets to Calcutta Before the war, Myong jun wanted to escape the square, a symbol of ideological confinement and routine But after the war and time spent in the POW camp, he wants to climb into the safety of a square of his own design in a new country where he can exist in anonymity The Square addresses an important though little known war within the Korean War involving the voluntary repatriation of POWs, a theme also addressed by Ha Jin s War Trash 2005 and Paul Yoon s Snow Hunters 2013 This subgenre of Korean War literature confronts a divided Korea, a republic that was bleeding, torn by tanks, cannons, and soldiers, as Myong jun describes it, as a necessary step toward overcoming division I don t want to give away the ending, so readers will have to read the novel to find out whether Myong jun realizes his diasporic dreams in India or not. with a feeble heart withered like a picked cabbage in a wrinkled raincoat.This was a hard slog to finish The frequent flashbacks and flashforwards, unusual imagery and farcical characters made this an awkward reading experience A disappointing first dip into Korean literature.