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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Square

Choi In-Hun

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Square

Title: The Square
Author: Choi In-Hun
Genre: Novel
Written: 1960 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 158 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Square - US
The Square - UK
The Square - Canada
The Square - India
La place - France
Der Platz - Deutschland
La Plaza - España
  • Korean title: 광장
  • The original has been repeatedly revised
  • Includes the author's Prefaces to the original, 1961, and 1989 editions
  • Translated by Kim Seong-Kon
  • Previously translated by Kevin O'Rourke (1985)

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Our Assessment:

B : some of the style and attitude stiff, but quite effective exploration of Korean identity and early (post World War II) nation-building

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harper's . 10/2014 Joshua Cohen
Kirkus Reviews . 24/8/2014 .
NZZ . 20/9/2003 Ludger Lütkehaus
TLS . 4/3/2015 Claire Hazelton
Translation Review . 96:1 (2016) Janet Poole

  From the Reviews:
  • "Awkward in several off-putting ways, this earnest work -- originally published in 1960 -- can be appreciated for offering a window onto Korean history during the crucial period of division. (...) (T)he result is a strange quasi-poetic treatise that could well make a withered vegetable sink." - Kirkus Reviews

  • "(V)erdient das Prädikat eines eminent politischen Romans, ohne darin aufzugehen. (...) Ob man Choi In-Huns ambivalentem Helden alle Brüche in seiner Entwicklung abnehmen kann, steht dahin." - Ludger Lütkehaus, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The lack of introduction to this new English translation of the novel -- by Kim Seong-kon -- means that important details of its context and historical significance, and of its authorís life (which partly mirrors that of his protagonist), are lost on anglophone readers. But Dalkey Archiveís Library of Korean Literature has nonetheless done us a service through its revival of a novel that, in its concerns with the self and consciousness, its inquiry into the concept and possibility of an absolute truth, and its criticism of the prevailing political parties of the time, is a cornerstone of Korean literary modernism." - Claire Hazelton, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Square remains an indispensable testament to the difficult formation of the nation-state (.....) (A) good example of a less accessible novel that is nevertheless of great historical significance within the modern Korean tradition due to both its subject matter and its form. (...) For a novel that so famously appeared at a moment of historical contingency, when an interregnum between dictators allowed for renewed discussions of national reunification, it is fascinating that the majority of the extensive rewriting has taken place from the decade of the 1970s onwards." - Janet Poole, Translation Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Square finds released Korean prisoner of war (POW) Lee Myong-jun aboard the Tagore, a ship taking him and a group of other POWs to a neutral country after their release at the (nominal) end of the Korean War. Myong-jun had his choice of returning to either South or North Korea -- he had lived in both after the defeat of the Japanese (who had controlled the entire Korean peninsula from 1910 until the end of the Second World War) -- but ultimately chose a third alternative, leaving behind the homeland(s) that had disappointed him; in a sense, The Square is about how he reaches that decision. While beginning and ending aboard (more or less ...) the Tagore, much of the narrative looks back to Myong-jun 's earlier times, in Korea, with only the occasional present-action scenes aboard ship a reminder of Myong-jun's ongoing journey.
       As a university student Myong-jun lived in the household of and was supported by Pyon Song-je, a banker who was a close friend of his father's. Myong-jun had lived there since the death of his mother, soon after his father left -- without even telling his family -- for North Korea, where he became a high-ranking propaganda official. Myong-jun studies philosophy, and is close friends with Mr.Pyon's children, daughter Young-mi and son Tae-sik. A bookworm, he lets himself be led especially by the fun-loving Young-mi -- and it is through her that he gets to know Yun-ae, who becomes his girlfriend.
       A poem he wrote -- "His heart had been typed into a transformed message", as Choi/Kin somewhat awkwardly also put it -- is published in the university newspaper, which he takes considerable pride in, but he is more cerebral-romantic philosopher than writer. He notes:

     Poets abuse their words to the extreme, almost sadistically, to feel catharsis. They do so because they are so poor that they cannot buy women, the real object of this catharsis.
       Myong-jun's sexual frustration plays a significant role in his life, and he remains mystified by what women might want or feel. His relationships with Yun-ae and then, in North Korea, a dancer named Eun-hye, are intimate and profound, but also undermined by his demands -- including, in Yun-ae's case that she go with him to the North, in Eun-hye's that she not travel abroad with her troupe.
       Myong-jun remains self-centered and often isolated, uprooting himself and unable to comfortably fully integrate in larger society. He also remains convinced:
It is a big mistake when one person assumes that one understands the other. A person can only understand oneself.
       Even when he eventually is in a somewhat stable relationship with Eun-hye he only sees her occasionally, and he is literally living in a small cave. Yet from the outset, Myong-jun has become convinced of a philosophy of 'the Square', the communal space that he believes is necessary for a functioning, healthy society:
     Mankind cannot live in a closed room. Mankind belongs in the Square.
       South Korea has failed, he finds -- "Especially in Korea's political Square, excrement and garbage have just piled up". When his father is found to be broadcasting propaganda to the South on the radio, the police investigate Myong-jun, and their attitude further disillusions him. Eventually, he decides to abandon the South -- "It was too foul and gruesome a Square" -- for North Korea.
       It, too, however, is a disappointment, the Square there no more like the ideal he imagines than that in the South, even if it is differently flawed. Venturing north with revolutionary fervor, imagining the possibility of societal and political change:
     What Myong-jun discovered in North Korea was an ash-gray republic. It was not a republic that lived in the excitement of revolution, passionately burning blood-red like the Manchurian sunset. What surprised him more was that the communists didn't want excitement or passion.
       Working for a newspaper, he also finds:
     Myong-jun had to completely revise the words he had been accustomed to using. Here, people were creating a new language. This, however, was not the real problem. If the efforts of Dadaists and Automatists, in creating a new language, were worthwhile, then Myong-jun ultimately had no desire to criticize those who set out to lead people in a new order. The problem lay in the quality of the language created. Just as the Dadaists had failed, the communists had also failed. If the object of the Dadaists lay in creating an interior monologue, the communists tried to create a completely dull collective language. There was neither change of color nor distinctive personality in their language.
       Disillusionment is then superseded by the turmoil caused by the war between South and North, which also brings Myong-jun back to Seoul, and the traces of his former life. A possible future with Eun-hye is tantalizingly close, but ultimately theirs is yet another of the countless fates shattered by the conflict. And eventually Myong-jun must decide where to make his future. Still seeking his ideal of 'the Square', he decides he can't return to either South or North Korea. 'A neutral country' would seem to offer the greatest potential -- yet on the Tagore it eventually sinks in that he can't really escape. It was a fantasy:
When he boarded this ship in order to go to a foreign country where no one would know who he was. There, he would be reborn as a new man. He believed that, in a foreign country, he could even change his personality. How nice that would be !
       The novel shifts back and forth between the present-day on the ship and Myong-jun's path there, and there is some action on the ship itself. Myong-jun has befriended the captain and stands increasingly separate from most of the other POWs. As the ship anchors in Hong Kong en route, the others are desperate to visit, and they try to enlist Myong-jun's help in convincing the captain to let them off the ship, but he won't -- they're not supposed to disembark until they reach their destination. In not fully taking their side, Myong-jun alienates himself from the other POWs -- typically finding himself isolated yet again; for all his ideal of 'the Square' he manages to undermine most of his opportunities of being part of a larger social group and order.
       Even as the conclusion is quite predictable, The Square is a fine philosophical novel of (Korean) identity and modern nation-building. Certainly, the novel is Korea-specific -- yet the Korea of that period is particularly well-suited to the universals that Choi is also addressing (and there are some curious odds and ends from other cultures drawn in -- notably an actual, valuable Egyptian mummy). Myong-jun is a typical over-thinking youth -- of course he's a philosophy student ! -- and seems as familiar and believable as characters in novels from any other continent or period. The romance and sex -- significant parts of his voyage --, in particular, are somewhat rough and uncomfortable, the most dated (and, specifically, era-specific) parts of the novel, but they would seem to reflect those times.
       The Square is widely hailed as a significant text, a turning point in Korean literature, but it can and should also be appreciated simply as the fine novel that it is. Yes, the language -- also (or especially ?) in translation -- is often somewhat stiff, an uncomfortable mix of the philosophical-poetic, and 'the Square'-concept is perhaps too frequently and emphatically hammered home, but for all its flaws it's still an approachable and even quite powerful read.

       Note that the Korean original of The Square has been revised numerous times since its first publication, and it is unclear from this translation what these changes have involved. An editorial note discussing these would have been welcome; as is readers at least can turn to Janet Poole's discussion in her review in Translation Review.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 February 2018

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The Square: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Choi In-Hun (최인훈) was born in 1936.

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