The Origin and Inheritance of Imagination: The Castle of the Baron de Curval by Choi Jae-hoon
- onJanuary 4, 2017
- Vol.34 Winter 2016
- 库勒巴尔男爵的城堡 (The Castle of the Baron de Curval)
Tr. Wang Ning 2016219pp.
I like the thrill novels give. Because when you are immersed in the illusion of consciousness that words create, you feel you have stepped away from this world for a moment. As a writer myself, when I read such books, I feel something stirring in my heart and find new insight and inspiration.
Choi Jae-hoon’s The Castle of the Baron de Curval is an astonishing piece of work not least because of its unexpected format, but it still shows signs of the traditional narrative technique of East Asian literature. At least my sensitive senses react to its traces. Choi uses the right mix of references to Western classics, deconstruction and extension of images, and even humor to make the reader feel confused between reality and fantasy, and the past and present. The attention Choi has paid to craft the story is clearly visible and he comes across as a master artisan weaving his fabric. The sentences are elaborate, the logic clear, and the frame kaleidoscopic.
Choi appears to be deeply interested in icons generally considered grim, such as medieval culture, dark fairy tales, classical horror stories, and mental illness. He then combines these elements with academic research to unfold the narrative. When readers read a book, either their knowledge grows or they respond to the content. And yet Choi never tells us what the story is. Rather, he flips it on its head and makes things pop up at unexpected moments, making readers feel as if they are experiencing virtual reality through VR headsets. For example, Sherlock Holmes makes an entrance and begins to investigate the death of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; or Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein who died nearly one hundred and sixty years ago, starts to have a conversation with the novelist. The Mobius-strip-like plot unfolds endlessly in this manner. I believe Choi takes this approach to disrupt the standard single-story narrative to make the story gripping and less cumbersome to read by inserting his knowledge of Western classics into it.
In “The Castle of the Baron de Curval,” Choi highlights the cannibalism of the Baron, who revels in eating children’s flesh, through eclectic perspectives of cinema, journalism, comparative studies, and folklore. The plot offers up new interpretations and analyses of this grotesque theme through interviews and conversations of people from wide-ranging fields. It dazzles the reader as if they are inside a mysterious labyrinth but then covertly reveals that the fictional character of the Baron has his own story. Readers might feel at first as if the plot is a ragtag collection of people airing their thoughts in front of a camera as in a documentary, but Curval’s story is subtly hidden within it and generates a desire to continue reading the novel.
In “Her Knots Disordered,” Choi displays an understanding of so-called female psychology and his treatment of the details is skilled. The narrative structure is simple and both the plot and development are accessible but the emotions of the characters are colorfully handled. He expresses the feelings of two people who, unsure if they are friends or lovers, find it difficult to break the ice even though they have to do so. Especially in the scene where the female protagonist has an outburst of jealousy, the psychological description is handled superbly.
In “A Stuffed Shadow,” Choi expresses the loneliness, oppression, delirium, and compassion hidden in the mind of a middle-aged man. He unfolds the story from a first-person perspective. We witness the multiple personalities of the protagonist who go by Tom, Jerry, and Ubin respectively. The protagonist appears to inform his doctor of his situation, but their conversation betrays his different personalities. They are lively, eccentric, and even morbid. Left-handed, kleptomaniac, bipolar—these quirks or pathologies combine to create an unusual personality. In fact, this is a device to show the protagonist’s flaws, loneliness, autism, and delusion. Choi controls the narrative pace through subtle variances in the protagonist’s tone. Normally, when the protagonist is in his right mind, he talks about his family and himself but when he is unstable, the description is exaggerated, the words are ambiguous, and the story turns absurd.
“By the Bye, Maria” shows yet another narrative style. The different behaviors of two people of vaguely marriageable age (one married and the other just divorced) in their relationships with the opposite sex are revealed through metaphor and comparison. To add to the two people’s awkward and dull situation, Choi brings in yet another character called Mary and in doing so portrays the shock, trouble, and futile emotions that come with marriage. Choi expresses the delicate and inaccessible emotional changes within people’s minds in a new way. He draws out the most appropriate interpretation with accurate yet unique analogy. Sentences like “My love was one day marked ‘Address Unknown’ and dropped in the return box” or “Marriage is like an electric razor that keeps the relationship alive even when the power supply of love is cut off” are good examples.
Personally, I envy people like Choi who are blessed with the power of imagination.His infinite creativity and impeccable writing are at a level unreachable by ordinary people. He not only displays a rich imagination but also gives readers sufficient grounds for it.
In an interview, Choi mentioned that he was influenced by Akutagawa Ryunosuke and Jorge Luis Borges. I think this is because both writers were never confined by their inherent cognition but explored humankind’s destiny and logic in their own unique way. This method can sometimes be difficult and abstruse to read. Choi’s imagination always has a reason. He uses different plots for each story and writes in a variety of ways. He unfolds the story sometimes like an encyclopedia, sometimes from an omniscient and omnipresent viewpoint, at times as if lurking within the story, and at others as if transcending time and space. When you read his book, you feel many emotions, and this leads to confidence and creativity.
When you read Choi’s stories, you feel as if your cells are endlessly splitting. Although the format may be a short story, the structure is never linear. Some stories have simple context that could well be dull, but he constantly stimulates his readers by inserting fitting comparisons and metaphors throughout. He reveals the truth and philosophy of life in the conflict of these seemingly unrelated rhetorical devices.
The British writer Joseph Conrad said, “Every age is fed on illusions, lest men should renounce life early and the human race come to an end.” This seems to be why Choi presents characters such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and witches in his stories. This is because it is the origin of imagination and the inheritance of imagination.
Choi Jae-hoon (b.1973) made his literary debut when he won the new writer’s award from Literature and Society in 2007. His works include Baron Quirval’s Castle, Seven Cat Eyes, and From the Sleep of Babes.