A Seeker of Truth: Writer Choi Suchol
- onOctober 19, 2014
- Vol.20 Summer 2013
- byHan Eun-hyeong
Writer Choi Suchol continues to challenge readers and keep them awake with his unconventional short stories and novels. Author Han Eun-hyeong sat down with Choi to talk about writing, love, and his readers.
From Mind to Body, from Form to Story
Han Eun-hyeong: How do you spend your time when you’re not working on a novel?
Choi Suchol: Recently, I’ve taken a great interest in the “Alexander technique,” also known as “meditation of the body,” and have been studying and practicing it in my own way. I’ve also been playing table tennis whenever I can for several years, and plan to continue. As a writer, I’ve focused on the issues of the mind, but now I think I can awaken my body through the Alexander technique and table tennis, and come to encounter a new self through communication between the mind and body. I expect that my works will continue to change as a result.
Han: I’ve read your recently published short story, “Journals of a Madman.” I felt that it was an integration of your past works, which deal with characters that suffer from diseases and symptoms, or are exceptionally sensitive.
Choi: I write novels in order not to be numbed by daily life. My characters are sensitive because they’re aware that they’ve become numb. They make an effort to free themselves of that state, through their senses or consciousness. Ordinary people are awake to a degree, and numb to a degree, but a madman is overly awake. You’re right. My characters have always had a streak of madness to them, and I try to take it to the extremes in order to find, in daily life, a revelation on existential life.
Han: It occurred to me that your short stories are like the Mobius strip. Their beginnings and endings are unclear, and they’re structurally entangled. When I read your short stories, I feel as if something’s wrong with my senses.
Choi: I intentionally create a labyrinth with stories that are like the Mobius strip in form, and have the characters and readers take part in an adventure together. When that happens, the senses become confused, or deranged, even, but eventually you figure out a way to get out of the labyrinth. In a way, a derangement of the senses is the most effective way to resist the conventional world, because what’s normal is bound to be conventional. I’ve also been influenced by poets like Rimbaud and Baudelaire. When you get out of the labyrinth, you’re finally awakened from numbness.
Han: You’ve translated five novels by Le Clézio. He seems to be an author who has a literary goal or path similar to yours.
Choi: I was mesmerized by Le Clézio’s early works. Le Procès-verbal and Le déluge are works that represent nouveau romans. But since Terra Amata, Le Clézio began to publish lyrical novels that were easy to read. I felt betrayed, in fact. I hosted a reading for him once, and asked him what had led to such changes. He said the changes just came about naturally. Now I think I can understand how he felt. In fact, I’m in a process of transition myself, moving on from experimentation on the form of writing to a world of fascinating stories.
Han: Bed seems to be in a different category from the novels you wrote in the past. In the past, the character’s senses or sense of identity were at the center of your works. What led you to write a novel like this?
Choi: The story is very important in a novel. In the past, I decided that the two axes forming a novel were reality (or concreteness) and symbolism, and tried to combine the two to find my own story. I went through a lot of changes in the process. I once wrote a novel titled Cicada, that veered more towards symbolism than reality, and was somewhat allegorical in nature. The novel I wrote after that was Pest, which served as an important turning point for me. I was able to bring reality into relief within the philosophical theme of death. In Bed, I focused on creating a more diverse and compelling story than in Pest. I tried to reenact within a single framework the many human affairs that take place around a bed. I enjoyed the writing process, too. I think in the future, I could write a novel that’s simply a story.
Communication Requires Inconvenience
Han: Seo Sang, a writer in Pest, says, “He said he’d never written a novel of manners, nor did he ever intend to, being too proud.” What kind of a novel did you want to write?
Choi: Actually, all novels reflect the social conditions of the times. But from early on, I tried not to write stories of people’s lives as novels. In other words, I sought to raise objections to the conventional world view we have by provoking and confusing readers, rather than move their hearts. As I did, my novels came to have a stronger and stronger tendency to dissect and analyze reality. Then I wrote a novella titled “Smashing the Channels” after which I fell into despair. The story was completely shattered. I was kind of lost after that for four or five years. And I came to realize that integration, more than dissection and analysis, was necessary, and devoted myself to writing Pest, which took almost six years.
Han: In Pest, a woman is depicted as a main character for almost the first time in your works. This seems to be one of the changes that came about in your works.
Choi: As you know, Pest is a story about people in a city hit by the wind of death, sinking into the madness of suicide. For some time, the key figures in my novels were men. To be more precise, they were neutered beings called “humans.” But as I wrote a novel about death, a strong female protagonist was brought to life from within myself, probably because the power to stand up to this terrifying mystery called death lies more in femininity than in masculinity. Through this heroine named “Myeong-in,” I embraced and integrated a divided world, and found great joy in the process. And to my surprise, the heroine was myself exactly. Through Myeong-in, I discovered the femininity within myself, and experienced a merging of the femininity and masculinity in myself. I was able to create many important heroines in Bed. I even fell in love with some of them (laughs).
Han: Pest reveals all kinds of motives for and methods of suicide. Did you come to any kind of a conclusion about death after writing this novel?
Choi: As times change, opinions on suicide change as well. Suicide isn’t an object of affirmation or negation, or of judgment as to whether it’s a crime or not. Suicide is merely an important phenomenon that occurs in life, one that’s growing increasingly serious. You could say that suicide is one of the many ways in which we meet death. The only thing is, nearly all human actions arise from the fear of death, but paradoxically, suicide, too, has its roots in the fear of death. It could be compared to the act of slashing one’s wrists before being executed. Pest seeks to objectify and make our fear of death relative so that death may be reconsidered.
Han: We all live in different worlds. You could say that this perspective is maximized in your novels. You come to the conclusion, “Hell is other people,” as Sartre said.
Choi: The most important theme in my novels, which appears consistently, is a search for the possibility of true communication. In order to allow true communication, you must go beyond conventional and superficial communication. To do so, you must be acutely awake. But people who are keenly awake make other people uncomfortable. So they’re excluded or persecuted, or even martyred, and my novels often end in this way. But it’s quite meaningful to continue bringing to mind how important, and at the same time how difficult, it is to have true communication in our lives. Besides, the novel is fundamentally a tool and a venue for deeper communication between people.
Choi Suchol, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2011, 582p, ISBN 9788932022130
2. Pest (2 vols.)
Choi Suchol, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2005, 364p, ISBN 9788932016627 (Vol.1)
Love Came After Communication
Han: A place called Mumang often appears in your works. What does it mean?
Choi: You could say that Mumang is the prototype of the city in my heart. I know all about the city, and have ambivalent feelings about it. I’m from Chuncheon, which is the seat of a provincial government, but a simple, quiet, and beautiful place. Growing up in Chuncheon, I dreamed of a place that was different, and in that respect, Mumang could or could not be Chuncheon. As a side note, I like the word mumang. It corresponds to my identity. The word has several meanings, such as to not forget, to wish fervently, and to go wild, and as a writer, I wish fervently to write good works without forgetting anything, and often go wild. (laughs)
Han: In your works, men are always fighting, often over women. It seems that it’s love they seek to gain through fighting. What does love mean to you?
Choi: Love is the ultimate state of true communication. So love, too, is the most important and difficult theme for me. That’s why I kept putting it off, and talked instead about communication between people, preparing myself to talk about love. Then finally, I was able to say “I love you” in my novel, and since then, I’ve been dealing much with the theme of love. This is what I think love means now: to place not yourself but someone else at your core, and thus discover yourself through that person.
Han: What do you think of your readers?
Choi: I once gave a lecture, during which one of my readers said that my novels weren’t easy to read and asked, “What in the world do you think readers are?” I said in retort, “What in the world do you think a writer is?” Everyone burst out laughing at that, and I barely managed to get myself out of a sticky situation. Then I added that writers have an ideal reader in mind, and in a way, I place more importance on the ideal reader than a real reader, and that by doing so I attend to the real reader. A writer could neglect his duty by making his novels just fun and easy to read, when he could be writing with greater intensity. But after a while, my ideas began to change. I wondered if I myself weren’t staying alone in a lofty and isolated world where the ideal reader lived. You could say that since then, the ideal reader and the real reader have been growing closer together.
Han: What could you tell us about your next novel?
Choi: My novel is being serialized in a monthly literary journal. The novel is titled Love Despises the Lazy, a line from Ovid’s poem. It’s a typical love story in which a man and a woman, unable to adjust to reality because of their peculiar tendencies, come to save each other through love. I’ve been using the motif of a chair, instead of a bed, throughout the work, and have been told that the story has become richer as a result.
by Han Eun-hyeong