- El hombre gris (A Grey Man)
Tr. Gu Sok Chong 2016300pp.
Inevitably, a majority of Western readers who are not specialists in Asian culture are usually in for a surprise upon reading a novelist such as Choi In-hun, whose knowledge of both worlds, the Euro-centered and the Far East, is truly impressive, if not unique. It would certainly be quite rare to find a Western equivalent among fictional narrators of whom the same can be said. To any reader of the Spanish translation from the Korean of the 1963 novel that appeared in English as A Grey Man, namely, El hombre gris, published by Verbum as part of a major series of Korean literature in Spain, my opening statement must certainly sound like a truism. Still, it seems to me the most expedient way to pose an equally inevitable issue when dealing with Choi In-hun in general, and certainly with this novel in particular. What is at stake, however, is how Choi’s vast knowledge is transformed into novelistic dialogue and conversation alternating with narrative passages.
Put another way, Choi’s text is ultimately the result of a collaboration between the narrator and the intellectual that reside in the person of its author. As in other novels, Choi has developed a tight symbiosis between the protagonist and his native land, similar then to his own experience that drove his family to flee from North to South Korea at the outbreak of the Korean War when he had barely entered adolescence. Both the author and his characters experienced political disillusionments in both Koreas. They are as split as the country itself. That every Korean, and not just the protagonist Doko Jun, carries within themselves a personal 38th parallel, also becomes quickly clear on reading the book. It is in view of this historical reality that one can begin to understand and appreciate the blending of narrative and disquisition in El hombre gris, for, far from digressing, the discussions always wind up complementing the narrative, its characters, dilemmas, and search for solutions.
First, however, let us clear any doubt about Choi’s narrative powers, and the beauty of his poetical descriptions of nature, which is at times intensified by deep lyrical emotion. The sadness and violence of the devastation of war is particularly unforgettable in a passage where Doko Jun returns to his school, destroyed in a bombing attack. An especially intriguing passage has a Korean sailor on a training mission in the port of Yokohama relate an impulse to bomb the Japanese city with a first sexual experience.