Finding a Home: The Square by Choi In-hun
- onFebruary 16, 2015
- Vol.26 Winter 2014
- byCailin Neal
- The Square
Tr. Kim Seong-Kon 2014160pp.
In Choi In-hun’s 1960 novel, The Square, “the square” represents a place where “no one knows or wants to know who you are and what you are.” Torn between two countries, two ideologies, and two histories, the novel’s protagonist, Lee Myong-jun, must find in what country his square is.
When the novel opens, Myong-jun is a philosophy student in South Korea. His mother died years ago and his father defected to the North. When his father starts to broadcast against the South on Pyongyang radio, the police take Myong-jun in to ask whether he is an accomplice or shares the same ideology.
The interrogation and subsequent beatings compel him to reflect: the South was filled with greedy politicians and selfish citizens, while he longed for passion, revolution, and Communist paradise in the North. Myong-jun defects to the North, but soon finds that in this square, he cannot live truly as he is because it is the Party who “will do all the thinking, judging, feeling, and breathing for us while we are merely asked to repeat and follow.”
In the North, we quickly see that Myong-jun does not fit in: at his post as a journalist, he must falsely report in order to keep an equilibrium. He resists at first, but learns to keep quiet and to monotonously recite his loyalties to the Party. He finds love and comfort in a woman, but that love is often tested by her loyalty to the Party.
When the North attacks the South in 1950, Myong-jun fights for the People’s Army, but is taken prisoner in the battle of Nakdong. Three years later, the POWs can choose to either go back to the north, the south, or to a neutral country. Myong-jun wants to go to a neutral country: “I just want to be an ordinary man . . . Give me a small Square and a friend, that’s all I need.”
The Square is an up close and personal recounting of the time. For a time period and a war that seem so far from my own home, this book puts history into perspective, giving me a lot to think about, and go back and learn.
by Cailin Neal
Dalkey Archive Press
Choi In-hun is one of Korea’s most renowned writers and dramatists. His masterpiece The Square has been translated into eight languages, including English, French, Spanish, and German. He attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 1973, and the play he wrote during this time, Once upon a Long Time Ago, became the first Korean play to be staged at the Playhouse Theatre in New York City. He has received the Dongin Literary Award, Baeksang Arts Award, Chungang Culture Grand Prize, and Lee San Literature Prize. English editions of his works include A Grey Man, Reflections on a Mask, The Daily Life of Ku-Poh the Novelist, and House of Idols.