Bang Min-Ho: Which of your works do you think most represents you as a writer? Or, is there a particular work you value most?
Choi In-hun: Let me see . . . If I had to pick just one I would have to say it was Hwadu, and if it can be more than one, then Hwadu and The Square are the two works I would like to be read by as many people as possible.
Bang: The novel Hwadu left a lasting impression on me. Why did you use the word hwadu for the title?
Choi: In the late 1980s, I wrote a piece titled “Civilized Consciousness for Becoming a Primitive,” which was published in a magazine. I was thinking then about everything I had done up until that time. Following normal common sense it should have had a title like “Recollections of a Primitive Trying to Become a Civilized Man,” but I turned this on its head. With “Civilized Consciousness for Becoming a Primitive,” I was thinking about what my roots are, as one example of a modern person. I was searching for myself, and it felt as though I had found my very own solution to self-identity by going back through the ages, past the era of the classics, and finding myself in the primitive. This became the starting point for the novel Hwadu. You could say that with this questioning I sought to depart from the perspective of a civilized man and go back to the world of origins.
Hwadu is a term from Zen Buddhism. I was attracted to this method of questioning, whereby Zen monks contemplate how to bring about public peace and stability as part of their own path to enlightenment. So I tried asking a question according to the methods of the instructors of Zen as practiced in the three countries of East Asia. This is not the way of thinking of the intellectual giants of Greek culture, who are said to be the ancestors of Western thought, nor the kind of thinking which looks to an all-powerful being who governs the universe, as began in the Hebrew tradition. I was looking for my own way of questioning and contemplation as a writer from the East. I was thinking about how to title the book on the grounds of this kind of contemplation and I suggested hwadu to my editor, who thought it was a great idea.
Bang: The main protagonist in Hwadu seems to be your own alter ego, and the story follows him as he takes a fundamental question and wanders the world with it, searching for the answer. There seems to be some similarity here with the story of Ulysses’ wanderings. Considering your own life as well, you were born in Hoeryong and grew up in Wonsan, both of which are now part of North Korea, and then during the Korean War sought refuge in the South, in the port city of Busan. The story of how you spent time living in the US writing plays in the 1970s, and then following the collapse of the Soviet Union traveled to Russia, with the question of what kind of social system is desirable, is also woven into Hwadu.
Choi: Yes. Wherever possible I try to stay aware of major writers and works in world literary history and also things like intellectual traditions. Included in my work are my thoughts on James Joyce and Franz Kafka. Recently I’ve been reevaluating the novels of André Gide. In particular one novel titled La Porte Étroite (Strait Is the Gate). When I was younger I merely thought of it as a well-written love story. But now I want to give La Porte Étroite much higher acclaim. At the end of wandering as an East Asian with a hwadu, when I read that novel again it took on a whole new significance. If someone mentions French literature, it’s easy to imagine things like love stories, sex, and Freud, but looking at this book you can see, it is not only about things like that. La Porte Étroite is the story of Alissa, a faithful Christian brought up, not in the aristocracy or the household of an intellectual, but in an ordinary French family. It is told in the form of her diary, which she wrote while living out her days in a nunnery, having conceded the man she loved with all her heart to her younger sister. It is well composed, and the main protagonist, Alissa’s philosophy for life felt—how can I put it—somehow Korean or East Asian. I want to value this kind of longing much more highly than the eros or agape that Western philosophers spoke of.
Bang: How do you consider your own literature?
Choi: That is a very difficult question. Well . . . as a writer, as an intellectual, having now lived through eighty years or so, I think the thing that has had the greatest influence on me is the spirit of nationalism. If you were to ask, “What kind of person do you want to be?” or “What kind of works do you want to write?” the writers who appeared in the modern era of Korean literature would mostly have said something like, “I want to be of useful service to our people.” You could call it love for the motherland or the mother tongue. In my youth I couldn’t understand why Korean writers, Korean poets such as Kim Tong-ni or Baek Seok were placed so highly and enjoyed such strong aesthetic influence. But when I read their works a little later on, I came to understand how they had so impressed the young new intellectuals of Korea who had received a modern education, and why they garnered such a large following. In a broad sense it was because of nationalism.