[Spanish] A Collection of Fictions Wrapped in Fiction
- onSeptember 25, 2020
- Vol.49 Autumn 2020
- byCecilia Rossi
- El Castillo del Barón Quirval y otros relatos (Baron Curval’s Castle and Other Stories)
Tr. Charo Albarracín & Hyejeong Choi 2020250pp.
Every writer creates his own precursors, Borges reminds us in his essay “Kafka and his Precursors”. It’s no coincidence that I was reminded of this essay as soon as I started reading this impressive collection by Choi Jae-hoon. Indeed, I’d argue that Borges is one of Choi’s precursors. Like Borges, Choi was a reader before he became a writer, and, like Borges, rather than drawing inspiration solely from Korean literature, he draws much of his inspiration from the classics of Western literature and beyond. Indeed, it was Borges who took apart the senseless prejudice that writers must infuse their writing with ‘local colour’ in his seminal essay, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”. Choi certainly abides by the principle that in writing about the big themes of literature and in imbuing his stories with a deep understanding and keen delight in the classics, he manages to create memorable stories that offer an insight into contemporary Korean life, and which also resonate well beyond their original context.
In the essay “Fiction Wrapped in Fiction” (Inti: Revista de literatura hispánica: No. 15, Article 3), from which I have borrowed the title for this review, the critic Clark Zlotchew analyses four procedures found in fantastic literature, and also used by Borges, which enable the writer to effectively “destroy reality”. They are: 1) the literary work within the literary work; 2) the contamination of reality with dream; 3) the voyage in time; and 4) the double. It is fascinating to see these procedures at work in Choi’s stories.
The first story, which gives the title to the collection, opens with a university lecture in which the lecturer discusses a film based on a novel based on a short story which used to be retold by the writer’s grandmother . . . and we could go on. What I’m describing here is the mise en abyme (“placed into abyss” or infinity) technique in literature and film of placing a story within a story. Choi’s story also plays with the kinds of texts it uses as it creates this labyrinthine structure: the lecture transcript, the imagined dialogue, the magazine interview, the blog, the film review – to name a few. This is, in brief, fiction at its best: a clever construct in which the metatextual level is never far off. In several instances, we can take the narrator’s statements as clues for the understanding of the story, as when the fictive writer Michael Perrault says his grandmother’s skill in recreating fantastic worlds caused her child listeners to perceive them as far more real than the real world. This is the mark of a true storyteller.
In “El caso oculto de Sherlock Holmes” (The hidden case of Sherlock Holmes), the writer displays great skill in fusing reality and fiction – just what his fictional Sherlock Holmes says of the fictional Conan Doyle’s murderer. His first suspect is a fanatic reader with an ability to bring together reality and fiction since Doyle is murdered at the very moment he was determined to resurrect the detective that he himself had previously murdered. The categories of the real and the fictitious are confused, or rather, inverted: with the fictive (doubly fictive, I should add) Holmes claiming to be the greatest detective in the world in real life (my emphasis) who has now been admonished by a third-rate writer of detective fiction . . . (within the fiction). And again, we find the metatextual dimension, in the imaginary epistle which makes up the entirety of the tale, Holmes tells Watson that he had to leave logical deduction behind in favour of the imagination. This is indeed a recipe for writing fiction. Often the stories refer to themselves as literary constructs, of imaginary worlds capable of taking over the real world: The fictive suicide of Conan Doyle is presented in the story as the writer’s last work with the last reader being no one else but Sherlock Holmes. Doyle masterfully superimposes false clues with real clues, the twice-fictive Holmes tells us – but, I would argue, isn’t this what writers do? The story is a labyrinth which presents readers with a literary puzzle under the disguise of a detective one.
The detective trope is also found in “La sombre disecada” (The stuffed shadow). The story is a long conversation with a therapist who is trying to ascertain the narrator’s state of mind after having committed a brutal crime. He refers to the Korean phenomenon of the broken family, when families live apart and the father becomes a gireogi appa or “absent father” who, like the migratory goose, has to travel long distances to the English-speaking country where his wife and child reside, and where his child is receiving a much coveted English-language education. Once the father in the story settles into a peaceful coexistence with his other selves (named quite comically Tom and Jerry), he states that he feels he has, once more, a family. The story opens with the description of the murder that has just been committed: it also provides, in the very opening paragraph, the clues to solving the mystery – not who did it, but why he did it. The murderer says he sees hundreds of eyes gazing back at him from a mirror. “Mirrors,” according to one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar (in one of Borges’s most memorable stories, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) “and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number or men”. We learn that the narrator in Choi’s tale suffers from severe multiple personality disorder: the mirror becomes emblematic of his psychological condition. Using the detective story, allows Choi to tell another tale, namely, a tale of modern life in South Korea. This reminds me of how Kafka referred to the detective story as:
[A]lways concerned with the solution of mysteries which are hidden behind extraordinary occurrences. But in real life it’s the absolute opposite. The mystery isn’t hidden in the background. On the contrary! It stares one in the face ... Everyday life is the greatest detective story ever written. Every second, without noticing, we pass by thousands of corpses and crimes. That’s the routine of our lives. (Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka [London: Andre Deutsch, 1971], 133)
As readers, we are drawn to the tidy resolution of detective stories, but Choi uses the genre not to seek a tidy resolution but to “show the reader a picture of the chaos that’s the result of [his] thoughts.” (Korean Literature Now 2014 Spring 23) On his method of composition, Choi admits:
[W]hen I have an idea I don’t write it up immediately. I keep it in mind and turn it around in my head as much as I can. I twist the narrative in different ways, do research, and focus my thoughts. Sometimes I’ll cut everything up according to character and narrative thread. I line up everything in my head and then put it all together again in a completely different way. I only write after I’ve exhausted those possibilities.
This suggests Choi is a very able craftsman: far from chaos, there is narrative order. The very last tale is further evidence of this: it is a tale with a twist which masterfully brings together all the characters in the collection. Reading, like solving a mystery, is finding the missing pieces of the puzzle, and once found, it’s about the perfection of seeing it to completion. You can have fun in the process: this is, above all, a very funny volume.
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.