Choi In-hun’s Cervantine Korean Nivola: A Grey Man by Choi In-hun

  • onJuly 20, 2017
  • Vol.36 Summer 2017
  • byEugenio Suárez-Galbán
El hombre gris (A Grey Man)
Tr. Gu Sok Chong


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.

When the narrator gives way to the intellectual, extending his purview from the individual characters to general human issues, the outcome is the creation of a potentially collective protagonist. This is due to the symbiosis between the dialogues and conversations and the lives and difficulties of the participants that inevitably and ultimately coincide with those of the Korean population; though, obviously, the latter are, in general, less aware of the national situation. Yet, regardless of which character’s voice in the discussions is that of Choi himself—as seems clear in the case of Señor Hwang, so reminiscent of a Confucius-Plato authority in that brilliant eighth chapter of the novel—the voice is still that of a segment of the people.

Choi’s immense knowledge of world history has not passed unnoticed, but what is more pertinent is his equally immense capacity to link different fields and thus provide comparisons and contrasts between Korea and other nations. In El hombre gris, Choi touches upon varied issues, such as: why democracy in his native land has not followed the path of the Western world; the role of religion in establishing sociological, political and psychological contrasts among nations; and the use (but also misuse) and beauty of language, poetry, music, and philosophy, bearing in mind always, as one of the discussions reminds the reader, that the politics of a country are not an isolated phenomenon, but belong rather to international relations. Evidently, for Choi our era of globalization is not limited to the topical economic sphere.

As long as we are here dealing with the Spanish translation of a novel by a major international novelist, we might as well end with a comparison that brings Choi closer to certain Spanish authors and works, thus manifesting once again the benefits of a comparative literature approach that links international authors and works in the universal search for the meaning of human nature and life through art.

We may begin with no other than Cervantes whose Don Quixote, like El hombre gris, did not hesitate in its first part to incorporate other novels, related to and told by secondary characters, as well as another novel written by an anonymous narrator. Like Choi’s novel, Don Quixote also abounds with isolated discussions that complement the central issues, ideas, and the lives of its characters. Despite the criticism this brought about, and which Cervantes keenly refuted, today it would be difficult to find a cervantista who would still share such a misunderstanding of what is basically a challenging Baroque technique not limited to Cervantes’ day.

Other examples can be found in the Spanish Generation of 1898. Two of its most reputed writers obviously shared Cervantes’ and Choi’s idea of an “open” novel, namely, Miguel de Unamuno, who invented the term nivola for his novels in defiance of the structural inflexibility of a supposed model for the genre, and Pío Baroja, who described the novel as a broken sack into which everything may be poured. While Baroja’s view may lend itself more to digressions than to novelistic complements, as in Cervantes and Choi, still our only purpose here is to emphasize again the mastery of Choi in a novel that potentiates the various possibilities within this most elastic of literary genres, while at the same time encouraging the reader to appreciate to the maximum degree its reflections of the complexities of human lives.



by Eugenio Suárez-Galbán
Novelist, Poet, and Literary Critic
NYU Madrid

Author's Profile

Choi In-hun is one of Korea’s most renowned writers and dramatists. His masterpiece The Square has been translated into eight languages, including English, French, Spanish, and German. He attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 1973, and the play he wrote during this time, Once upon a Long Time Ago, became the first Korean play to be staged at the Playhouse Theatre in New York City. He has received the Dongin Literary Award, Baeksang Arts Award, Chungang Culture Grand Prize, and Lee San Literature Prize. English editions of his works include A Grey Man, Reflections on a Mask, The Daily Life of Ku-Poh the Novelist, and House of Idols.