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FICTION

A Modern Classic: A Stranger's Room by Choi Inho

  • onNovember 3, 2014
  • Vol.20 Summer 2013
  • byKim Hyoung-joong
A Stranger's Room
2005
426pp.

Choi Inho first began writing when he turned 17 in 1963. Considering how he was only a high school student, there is no doubt of his brilliance. This is evidenced by his remarks on his two short stories, “The Boozer” (1970) and “A Stranger’s Room” (1971), which earned him a reputation as one of the most controversial novelists of the 1970s. According to Choi, “The Boozer” was completed in a mere two hours, while “A Stranger’s Room” was written overnight for the first issue of Literature and Intelligence.

Choi has been astonishingly productive both inside and outside literary circles. He started out as an outstanding writer of short stories, and today, is popular for his novels. In addition to writing, he has also worked as a film director and scriptwriter, and a plethora of Korean movies are based on his books.

It is impossible to summarize Choi’s vast experiences as a writer over the past 40 years, but if we focus on his short stories and novellas, his literary ideology can be described as “the exploration of Korean modernity.” This is also the reason why he is noted as an important figure in Korean literature of the 1970s, which is a time represented by keywords such as urbanization, industrialization, and modernization. Choi was most sensitive to the everyday, psychological changes experienced by Koreans under the 1970s urban culture. His short story, “A Stranger’s Room,” is a good example.

“A Stranger’s Room” is a story of metamorphosis with a simple plot. A man returns from a business trip. His wife, seemingly greedy, lies to him in a letter and leaves the house. For no particular reason, the protagonist gradually transforms into an object. The plot consists of many objects including a bathtub, dining table, spoon, socket, a loaf of bread, shower head, clothes, lights, mirrors, chewing gum, and lipstick. It is rare for a short story to contain such a long list of everyday objects. Then, all of a sudden, these objects begin speaking to the man. What is unique about this story is that as the objects become more active, the man stiffens up as if he were something non-human. In the end, he degenerates into an object himself. When his wife returns home she sees not her husband, but a strange object that she would soon get sick of and throw into the attic. The charm and horror inherent in the objects and the psychological anxiety of the protagonist is depicted in a style that was ahead of the times for fiction in the 1970s.

For Korea, the 1970s was a period of rapid modernization accompanied by national violence. It is appropriate to interpret the apartment in “A Stranger’s Room” as an allegory of Korea. The room’s owner changes in the story. The objects are given life while the man turns into a thing. In other words, the owner of the room is the objects, and the man is the tenant. It was around this time that alienation and materialism—unique to the tragic circumstances of a modern society—surfaced as important literary themes in Korea. This is what makes A Stranger’s Room a Korean classic.