Choi In-hoon, THE SQUARE
1960. Translation from Korean by Kevin O’Rourke
The plot of this novel is comprised of events in the life of Lee Myong-jun from his childhood and adolescence mostly spent in the house of one of his father’s friends due to the fact that his father, Lee Yong Do, a communist, had moved to North Korea, and her mother had died immediately afterwards. After his arrest and exposure to violence by the South Korean police, he decides to go North where he lives with his father’s and his father’s North Korean new wife. He returns to South Korea as a member of the North Korean army in 1950. Finally, as POW, he chooses to settle in a country other than North and South Korea, namely (probably) India. Two main love stories are interwoven in this plot - one with South Korean Yoon’hae (who marries his friend Tae-sik), and one with North Korean Un-hye (who dies in a bomb attack during the war).
The story is told as a flow of free indirect speech, and partly also stream of consciousness, mostly in the third person singular, occasionally shifting to the first person, and it consists of a patchwork of memories, told in chronological sequence but recollected as the protagonists crosses the sea on a ship interacting with the Captain of the vessel and some of his fellow compatriots being transported abroad.
It is a rather complex narrative that recalls western modernist works such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and some of Joyce’s own writing.
The title of the novel derives from an idea expressed in the first page: “the square”, understood as “a place where we meet destiny”. This concept is repeated and elaborated in various sections of the narrative.
The flow of events is fluid as “the river of life” in which Myong-jun fails to “grasp some complete wholeness in the stream of time” (p. 18). Water is the unconscious in Jung’s terms, and therefore relevant to the recollection of the past. And the water of the sailing crossing leads from the past of Korea to the future of the next location where the protagonist is going to live. As a transitional allegory, the ship on the sea is the tool of revising his own life, that does not appear to be seen by Myong-jun as desperate until the second last page, where he commits suicide, by diving into water (as it is suggested without an explicit statement – his body is simply not found on board anymore).
There are several quotations from the Scriptures (see in particular pp. 14, 20, 25, 63, 115-116). Lack of trust in God, however is stated, and Myong-jun defines himself as a “man of no religion”, coming in fact to compare Christians and Bolsheviks as on a par (p. 133).
It is, partly, a philosophical novel, and the importance of philosophy is often reiterated in the story.
On a political plan, Myong-jun is obviously disappointed with the way current affairs are conducted both in the North and the South of Korea. South Korea is defined as a society characterized by “masked desire for power” (p. 88), where "private desires were taboo” (p. 95). South Korea “was a square of non-existent people” where “there was freedom to become corrupt and freedom to be idle” (p. 134). North Korea upsets Myong-jun more for its “ordinariness” (p. 86) and conformism than due to Communism as such. North Korea’s is defined as rather the “imitation of a revolution” than a real revolution, and Myong-jun learns how to behave according to the rules of that society to the point of becoming an official tempted to damage his best South Korean friends, even though after being violent to them he lets them escape, with the thought of having failed even to be totally evil. “In his store of emotions in South Korea he had never discovered anything except disdain. In North Korea all he got was disillusion” (p. 122).
An individualist, deluded sentimentally and disillusioned socially and politically, maybe Myong-jun is an allegory of total discomfort with environment and fellow human beings.