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INTERVIEW

The Man Who Loved Moebius: Novelist Choi Jae-hoon

  • onOctober 20, 2014
  • Vol.23 Spring 2014
  • bySuh Heewon

Truth and falsity, fiction and reality, stories inside stories, and stories outside stories all meet and are reconstructed in Choi Jae-hoon’s work. It is both “stranger than fiction” and a smorgasbord of “too strange to be false”-reality, storytelling, and imagination that goes beyond even the wildest fiction.

 

- Suh Heewon, “To sleep is to die, and to dream”

 

 Prologue

All types of love exist in the world. There are even people that are in love with shoes, stockings, corpses, and baseball bats. Love operates in mysterious ways, so it’s not surprising to meet a man in love with Moebius. Or more accurately, a man in love with the Moebius strip. Enthralled by the curious ribbon that is both many and one, one and many (try cutting the strip laterally), Choi Jae-hoon’s writing resembles the object of his love. That is to say, it is twisted.

Suh Heewon: You didn’t become a novelist right away. You majored in business administration, but went on to study creative writing after graduation, rather than work at a company. Then afterwards, you worked at your alma mater on the administrative staff. Fast forward a few years, you quit your job to devote more time to writing and then got your first book published a year later. How did you come back to literature from the brink of worldly success?

Choi Jae-hoon: I wasn’t very interested in fulfilling my own desires. I thought, isn’t it enough to let life take its natural course? I could’ve just been someone who liked reading, but my military service changed me. I became more realistic about what I wanted to do, so to speak. Living a highly controlled and disciplined lifestyle made me look back at my life and desires. When I went back to school, I started reading more than ever, mostly classics. I would make lists of books to read and kept my own notes on them.

Suh: There’s a saying in Korea, “One becomes a man when he goes to the army.” Going to the army is thought of as the first step to entering the real world. You’ve said that you first experienced society in the army and spent the time there reflecting on yourself. This must be the kind of perspective that differentiates an artist. As someone who got his start in art through voracious reading, what books made an impression on you in your youth?

Choi: Like most people, I was strictly a reader at first. I thought that writing was for people with a special gift. The book that first made me think that I too could write was J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I think there’s a kind of trigger in that book that brings something out in the reader. I later learned that the book is a favorite among assassins. I thought that was a striking coincidence. You could say that that book assassinated my other self, the me that was living peacefully, and the person I am now survived to write books.

Suh: How did you begin your life as a writer?

Choi: I began learning about fiction and started writing in earnest when I entered the creative writing department. But I had very different ideas about writing from what we were taught. I was an oddball. Remember, that was the era of Shin Kyung-sook, Jo Kyung-ran, Ha Seong-nan. It was all about the descriptive novel, and that was how we were told to write. I was more interested in the fiction of writers like Baek Min-seok. When I quit my job, I looked at my bank account and decided I could do nothing but write and still live off my savings for two years. So for one year, I just wrote. The next year, I began writing to submit. “Baron Quirval’s Castle,” the first story I ever published, was the first one I wrote after quitting my job. That was when I wrote stories like “The Hidden Cases of Sherlock Holmes,” “Her Knot,” and “Maria, You Know What, Maria.”

 

Writer Choi Jae-hoon and critic Suh Heewon

 

Suh: Since becoming an author, you’ve published a collection of short stories and two novels. The reception you’ve received from readers and critics has afforded you such prolificacy. You don’t describe the psychological or situational in your writing, but rely on the narrative at all costs, and this narrative has a geometrical structure, or as you’ve call it, “odd.” How do you plan your novels and work out your thought process?

Choi: I don’t have any special method, nothing very different. When 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.

Suh: You say it takes genius to immediately hash out a story from an idea and that you’re hopelessly lazy and talentless. But is there only one kind of genius? If there is such a thing as genius by inspiration, then there must be such a thing as genius by planning. Inspiration appears and vanishes like a muse, but planning must look like a person who is dead set on working through everything without fail. What kind of blueprint do you use in your planning, then?

Choi: If I had to name a blueprint I would have to say, I saw the etchings of Maurits Cornelis Escher when I was very young. Then in university, I learned his name and was able to properly view his works. What I saw was the static space that was constantly in movement, the way life moves endlessly only to come full circle, both perpetual motion and motion that converges to nothingness. I’ve read that Escher worked in a mathematical way to achieve this kind of space. So do I. The critic Nam Jin-woo once wrote about me, “He paradoxically creates chaos through the play of pushing the intellect.” That’s the kind of world I want to depict. Chaos in differential calculus, chaos in equilibrium, the infinite flickering of nature. All of my characters stand in an Escherian space, so to speak.

Suh: Escherian space. The progress of a novel depends on the narrative. Can there be a narrative of chaos, a labyrinth without an exit? One of the greatest mazes known to man, the labyrinth of Daedalus, was designed to imprison the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Ariadne ties a string to her lover, Theseus, however, and helps him escape safely. Ariadne’s thread is an excellent metaphor for narrative. Without narrative, the sentences of a novel turn into a labyrinth. The reader is lost and forgets what they have been reading. In that sense, there can be fiction that is like a maze, but not fiction that is a maze in itself. What is it that you want to achieve with fiction?

Choi: I don’t think about conveying meaning through fiction. When I was a child, I wanted to be an artist. I gave up that dream when I realized that dreams and talent aren’t the same thing. What I’m doing is painting a kind of picture out of the narrative and the sentences. I want to show the reader a picture of the chaos that’s the result of my thoughts.

Suh: A Moebius band-like narrative, multi-layered plot, multiple personalities, and closed circuit-like mazes are all elements that characterize your fiction and also reflect your experience as a Korean writer. Korea is the soil that nourished the boy that was impressed by Escher and turned him into the writer Choi Jae-hoon. What are your thoughts about being labeled a Korean writer who writes from a Korean perspective?

Choi: Korea moved towards a modern, democratic, capitalistic society in a very compressed time frame. The subsequent societal changes have been dramatic and cutthroat competition has become the norm. If things like our strength in IT or the Korean Wave are the positive manifestations of that energy, then the negative manifestations of that energy are how barren our inner emotional lives are, our mindless pursuit of trends, our humanitarian crisis. We didn’t have the time to acclimate to such change, to assign meaning to it. I think we should keep an eye on how this will play out in the future. Korea could be the poster child for a future society where speed is everything.

 

1. Baron Quirval’s Castle
Choi Jae-hoon
Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2010, 304p, ISBN 9788932020525
 
2. From the Sleep of Babes
Choi Jae-hoon
Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2013, 372p, ISBN 9788932024578
 
3. Seven Cat Eyes
Choi Jae-hoon
Jaeum &Moeum Publishing Co.
2011, 378p, ISBN 9788957075418
 
4. Sept yeux de chats Choi Jae-hoon
Editions Philippe Picquier
2014, 326p, ISBN 9782809709810

 

Suh: You count Seven Cat Eyes as your favorite work. It’s a novel composed of four connected stories, the writing is equally eclectic. Can you tell me about it?

Choi: When I wrote Seven Cat Eyes, my intent was to express everything that I had in my writing. To put my whole self into the blender, turn it on, and see what happens. The result is 100 percent Choi Jae-hoon juice, so to speak. (Laughs) People don’t believe it when I say so, but I didn’t have a particular message when writing this novel. I was more concerned with the feeling. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the title as well. I think, or rather, what I feel, is that the number three means balance. Three cats, six eyes. What’s the other eye, then? That eye is the eye of balance, an outside perspective, or the perspective of the unconscious. I looked at myself and my thoughts through that perspective. Now I’d like to write about something that gets under my skin from the outside, not something that comes out of me.

Suh: I was intrigued by the last scene of your latest work, From the Sleep of Babes. The narrative is divided into dreams and reality; the character driving both narratives embarks on a journey to solve a mystery, but the end waiting for him is his own sudden death rather than a solution. Like Detective Erik Lönnrot in the Borges story “Death and the Compass,” the protagonist of From the Sleep of Babes rushes to the scene to solve a murder mystery only to become the victim of a premeditated crime. What was it that you wanted to say with this ending?

Choi: For me, the death itself was not important. I wanted to offer it as a kind of salvation, so I had the main character get hit by a car and crucified, formulaic as that is. My goal was to create a kind of portrait of the modern person. People are beings that deviate from the balance of nature. Man made God to compensate for the freedom and loneliness that comes with that deviation. Religion is a gym for the soul, comfort for humans who don’t have anything else to turn to. From the Sleep of Babes is the culmination of my thoughts on these ideas written in narrative form. Did you enjoy reading it?

 

 Epilogue

Did I enjoy it? Before answering, I should elaborate on “Death and the Compass” by Borges. In the story, Detective Erik Lönnrot chases Red Scharlach, a criminal who has sworn to kill him. The brilliant Lönnrot interprets signs left by the killer, following crime scenes to get closer to the man committing the murders. Lönnrot figures out that the three murders were committed in times and places that correspond to a perfect triangle, and rushes to the scene of the last crime. There he meets a waiting Scharlach and realizes that he has fallen into a trap. Sensing that the end is near, Lönnrot asks Scharlach to build him a different kind of labyrinth, should he ever hunt him again. The last sentence of the story is worth quoting:

"The next time I kill you," said Scharlach "I promise you the labyrinth made of the single straight line which is invisible and everlasting."

Choi Jae-hoon is a Scharlach of our times. As the criminal genius promised, his labyrinth is made with a straight line: an invisible, everlasting labyrinth. The man’s love affair with the Moebius strip, that simplest yet most philosophical of complex mazes, appears to be here to stay. The pain of his struggles, however, is no doubt a blessing for his readers.