Into the Dark Unknown

  • onJuly 17, 2017
  • Vol.36 Summer 2017
  • byChoi In-hun

A novelist, poet, playwright, and theorist, Choi In-hun is one of the most acclaimed, versatile writers and intellectuals of twentieth century Korea. Born in 1936, Choi grew up in Hoeryong (present-day North Korea), migrated to the South at the beginning of the Korean War, and studied law at Seoul National University before entering the literary scene in 1959 with his short story “A Detailed Record of Grey Club.” The period from the mid-1950s to mid-1970s in Korea—shaped by the clash of Western modernity and Korean tradition, the heavy burden of the colonial era, the disaster of war, the division along borders and ideologies, deformed democracy, revolution, and autocracy—is reflected in Choi In-hun’s complex, elusive literary works, and his eclectic approach to writing.

Today Choi may be best known for his novels, which comprise his highly regarded The Square, an intense story of an intellectual so devastated by the realities on both sides of the demarcation line that he plunges into death, or A Grey Man, a “novel of ideas” about a northern refugee wrestling with love, time, and democratic revolution. The character reappears in the sequel Journey to the West, where he engages in surreal personified discourses with figures from Korean history. However, especially in his early creative phase, Choi In-hun also produced manifold novellas and short stories, such as Reflections on a Mask, a novella interspersed with hypnotic interludes about the digestion of wartime experience and an attempted reintegration into society, as well as parodies of pre-modern Chinese and Korean fiction: the unsettling novella The Cloud Dream of the Nine, a fevered dream-like transformation of the seventeenth century masterwork by Kim Man-jung; The Jehol Diary, a parody of Park Jiwon’s famous travelogue; New Tales of the Golden Turtle, a reconfiguration of the early Joseon dynasty collection of “strange tales” by Kim Si-seup; or adaptations of pre-modern folk-literature such as The Story of Chunhyang. Moreover, Choi In-hun’s rich oeuvre includes exceptional plays, characterized by a balance of poetry and prose, including Once upon a Long Time Ago and Hans and Gretel. He also wrote about literature and philosophy, such as Literature and Ideology.

Many of Choi In-hun’s figures are disillusioned struggling intellectuals and artists with identities shaped by their ties to both Koreas, who are caught in the maelstroms of the post-colonial, Korean War, and postwar eras, striving to cope as individuals in dislocated environments. Such a figure, for instance, is A, the protagonist from Choi’s version of New Tales of the Golden Turtle. After having defected to North Korea during the war, A is trained as a spy to be sent on a mission to postwar South Korea. Secretly regretting his prior decision to go north, he plans to surrender to ROK officials, but as he crosses the border and silently crawls southward, he is shot by thieves, hiding in the night, who take his belongings and throw his body into the Imjin River. Amid the dark waves, A’s soul emerges from the bullet hole in the corpse’s skull and, squatting atop the lifeless, stripped body, floats downstream. “But tell me, what did I do wrong?” cries the agonized soul, furiously pondering over a life of senseless despair and division as it is carried along by the waters of the river that separates the two Koreas out into a dark unknown. The literature of Choi In-hun—profound, surprising, puzzling, haunting, and deeply rooted in the formation of modern day Korea—mirrors herein.


Dennis Wuerthner
Research Associate in Korean Studies
Ruhr-University Bochum