A Reality All Too Fragile: The City of Familiar Others by Choi Inho

  • onOctober 23, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • byJang Sungkyu
The City of Familiar Others

Choi Inho is an author who enjoyed great literary stature in the 1970s. He represented the view of a subculture, giving expression to an era of rapid industrialization. At the time, when many Korean writers aimed through literature towards resisting contradictions in the military dictatorship and industrialization, Choi countered the process of industrialization by employing a lowbrow culture code. The fact that so many of his works were made into films contributed to his tremendous popularity.

This time, however, in the newly published The City of Familiar Others, it is interesting that Choi has concentrated his attention on aspects other than cultural subversion. The most prominent strand in the novel represents a spiritual investigation into the relationship between reality and fantasy, the real and the fake, good and evil, and beauty and ugliness. One day, the hero K senses his present reality becoming unfamiliar. He suddenly feels that his wife, his daughter, his puppy, and everything surrounding him have become unreal. In the course of uncovering the cause of this phenomenon, he testifies that the reality that makes up our lives is an illusion that can easily be smashed. K’s life, as if manipulated by a matrix, has been formed as some sort of program. And such a life can easily be broken with even a slight crack, as is symbolized by the sudden earthquake which brings reality crashing down at the end of the novel.

As has been theorized, post-industrial reality is composed of thousands of signs, and in our life we can never be free from the order of those signs. We regard it as self-evident that reality exists, but in fact a reality made up of signs is fragile. Choi advances ideas such as these using a religious frame. The outcome is that Choi poses questions fundamental to our lives: Is our familiar reality ours, or an unfamiliar place made by strangers? Isn’t it possible that what we consider to be our lives and reality are fake, master-minded by a matrix? For those of us living in a post-industrial society, these are serious questions. And with this work, too, Choi offers undeniable evidence that he is enriching Korean literature in new ways, over and beyond his achievements in the 1970s.