Born in 1936 in North Hamkyong Province (now in North Korea), Ch'oi In-hun attended Seoul National University. He sprang to fame as one of Korea's most important novellists with Kwangjang (The Square) in 1961, and that has remained as probably his most admired work, while he is now generally considered to be Korea's leading living writer of fiction. On the whole, he has avoided the full-length novel, writing only 2-3 novels including his most recent Hwadu (Question for reflection). He has produced a very considerable number of short stories, as well as enough literary and personal essays to fill several volumes. The edition of his collected works published in 1979 already filled 12 volumes. He has also written at least one play, Hans wa Gretel (Hans and Gretel, 1981). A number of his works have been translated into a variety of languages, including a 1985 English translation of Kwangjang by Kevin O'Rourke. A translation of one of his short stories, House of the Idols, was included in the first issue of Korean Literature Today in 1996.
Ch'oi's fiction is essentially an exploration of the problems confronting the thoughtful individual in modern Korean society. Choi is always turned toward the realities of the Korean society in which he is writing, although the techniques he employs are often non-realistic, with narratives of dreams and fantasies, as well as fictional biographies, political treatises, and a variety of other techniques which have sometimes earned him the reputation of being a 'surrealist'. In certain works, the ideological division between North and South is explored but in many more Choi explores social realities. This is linked to another major theme, the exploration of the tensions and conflicts between the Korean culture of the past and present. In the story that follows, that dates from the earlier 1960s, Choi highlights the changes that Korean culture has experienced in the present half-century. Christmas, with its atmosphere of conviviality and shared happiness, has no roots in Korean tradition but its introduction serves to highlight the closed nature of conventional social life.
Throughout his career, Choi has stressed, directly and indirectly, the need for Korea to become an open, democratic, humane society. For him the present is a time of transition, in which the future is coming to birth. While he portrays the suffering deriving from the inheritances of the past he suggests the hope that a better future can be established.
A Christmas Carol
Again a burst of cheerful laughter, laughter that reminded him of the splendor of a huge magnolia bouquet thrown up in the air. The merrymaking in the next room, his sister's room, seemed to pick up and ripen. But the cheer no longer buoyed him up; it now got on his nerves. Their laughter still reminded him of bouquets, but now they were made of lifeless, tissue-paper flowers.
Sitting at his desk, he turned to the window without getting up. His face was reflected in the window pane, framed against the darkness outside; a face so familiar but so pitifully lacking wisdom and confidence after all these years. Tonight he felt this more than ever. For a second he thought he might reread the letter lying on his desk, but on second thoughts he picked up the empty envelope instead. Aimlessly he scrutinized the postmark and the design of the foreign stamps as though they had a direct bearing on his present, absurdly empty state of mind. On closer scrutiny, he could make out the picture drawn on one of the stamps. It was a bird's-eye view of some European town, packed with massive, old-fashioned brick buildings. It was the town of R-. Then, for the first time, he realized that drawings on stamps are made up of fine lines just as newspaper pictures are nothing but a series of small dots. He kept looking at the fine lines that made up the town of R-, but soon the lines turned into the creases and wrinkles of an aged face. It was the face of an old woman he used to know in that town. Naturally, this took him back to the days he had lived in that town while attending school there.
He used to think that he had made the right decision in going to Europe. Furthermore, he considered it fortunate that his university was located in an old town like R-, which had flourished during the Middle Ages as a center of commerce and was known as one of the cradles of Protestantism. It was specially noted for its tanning. The leather produced there was still very expensive and all the society ladies and debutantes were said to wear shoes made from leather tanned in R-. Tanning was still the town's chief industry and so it was noted for its unpleasant odors. Once he visited a tannery and the odor made him sick. It was a small tannery-perhaps no larger than the ones in which the present employees' forebears had worked in the Middle Ages. There were many such small tanneries in the town. The peculiar odor was particularly bad in the early morning when the fog from the canals shrouded the town.
The apartment in which he lived during his stay in the town was an old somber brick building on the eastern edge of the town. It used to be the dormitory of the theological seminary, but it had been sold when the seminary moved to the other side of the town. Except for installing gas and electricity, no renovations had been made when the building was turned into apartments. His rooms were on the third floor (the building was three stories high) at the end of the west corridor. His window commanded a view of the whole town, and the canal stretched out to the west as far as the eye could see. His rooms became very sultry in summer, but he did not mind because the view was worth it.
Perhaps the hollow feeling that had taken hold of him when he first moved into these rooms after a long journey from Korea had nothing to do with the surroundings. He should have felt satisfied, for his long-cherished desire was at last fulfilled-to study Western history in Europe. Many of his friends had gone to the United States for advanced studies, but he had always had Europe in mind for his studies abroad. It was probably due to the influence of the snobbishness of characters he had read about in English novels that the regarded America as still being a culturally inferior colony. At any rate, the university in the town of R- had many noted scholars of Western history and he had nothing to complain about concerning the school. Nevertheless, the hollow and somber feeling persisted until the end of his stay in Europe. With the same heavy feeling, he had made the round of the lecture rooms every day. He could not help seeing the cobbler in the professors, eminent scholars of Western history. He saw in them the cobbler, with his grey hair, enlarged knuckles, and drooping shoulders. It was not so such their physical features as their manner of handling academic subjects that impressed him. Once he thought he had almost verified this impression; it was during a lecture on medieval industry that went into tanning techniques in detail. At that time he thought that learning was not something vague and abstract to these old scholars with huge hands but something concrete and practical, such as tanning the pelt of a mare or nailing on the sole of a shoe. To them learning was not ideological logic but something resembling manual work, and this very idea weighed down on the heart of the Oriental student, who had always regarded learning as something cosmopolitan and ideological.
Even his ideas about the spirit of Protestantism had to be adjusted and corrected. Protestantism there, he had learned, was roughly equivalent to what he had regarded as Catholicism back home. He came to understand the Jacobinic blackness of Calvinism as the direct opposite of liberalism. It was like the jealously and obstinately guarded body of rules of an old family; there again he saw the enlarged knuckles of the professors. This feeling was everywhere. Even his apartment was permeated with it.
It was one summer afternoon when the sky was overcast with the thin layer of clouds peculiar to this part of the country, and the hot summer sun filtered through into the mild summer mellowness. He had been there two months already and he was getting accustomed to the view of the town from his apartment window. Directly below his room was the backyard of the building. From that height the square plot of lawn looked like the bottom of an empty well. An old woman was sitting there on the bench. In the half-light of the overcast day everything looked soft and calm. There was no one in the backyard except the old lady, and for no coherent reason he was intensely impressed at the sight of her. He could not explain it; it was one of those strange sensations we receive at a certain time, or in a certain place, or from a certain person. He stared at the old woman aimlessly. She had a book open but the way she held it was strange. She was not holding it; rather she was shielding it as if protecting a cat or some other pet and was leaning slightly forward. He figured it was the Bible or a prayer book. As a foreign student, he elaborated on his impression: an old woman living alone in an apartment式a quiet summer afternoon式basking in the sun on a bench式the Bible serving the role of a cat on the lap. That's it, this is religion式this is Christianity式religion blended into living, learning and the soles of shoes式religion and an old woman式the Bible and a cat式that's right, there is a cat crouching in every fold and crease of the people's lives here式the cat weighs down on the loneliness of life式the cat is the learning that measures the weight of life式the cat is also of utility and practicality in the political system of their world as is the needle of the cobbler式the same cat can turn into a panther for a foreigner at any moment.
He heard a knock on the door and turned. A blond young man of medium height walked in. He introduced himself saying that he was a student of engineering at the university and that he came because he had heard that there was another student living in the same building. Herr H式(for the was his name) went over to the window and looked out. He pointed out the old woman, shrugged his shoulders, and said:"She is the guardian saint of the building.""Saint?"
"Yes. She had been living here for over twenty years now and no one knows anything about her except that she was once a nurse.""What's that book?""The Bible. That's why she is called a saint, I guess. But I'll say she is a funny saint.""How so?"
"Well, saints usually do penance and good works. Not this one. She doesn't like meeting people. She always holds onto the Bible like that.""Perhaps she accumulates her good works in the Bible.""I don't know. She doesn't seem to read the Bible, she merely holds onto it. No one has ever seen her without it, day or night. Maybe it's a kind of penance too, to have to carry it around all the time."His view was clearly different from H-'s idea, but he did not wish to go into it since it would involve a lengthy discussion. The "saint" continued her penance in the sun without moving even once.
This was how he came to know H式. As might be expected from an engineering student, H式 sometimes made fun of the foreign student who seemed to be so steeped in and concerned with culture, tradition, and the like. He argued that the trouble with Orientals was their humility in trying to find universality in their own tradition. Then the humble stranger would retort by saying that it is easy for a student of natural science to dismiss everything like that, but to him it wasn't so simple as long as he saw massive medieval walls everywhere and women crouching over the Bible as over a pet cat.
"It follows that the guardian saint's Bible," he said (they always referred to the old woman thus after their first meeting) is not for a rational analysis of logical demonstration but a living thing like a pet cat. You said she never reads it, didn't you? It is quite natural, for no one ever reads a cat. To her, other cats don't mean a thing. She would stick to her own, however dirty and insignificant it might be. That's religion. It's not like garments that you change according to the seasons. Moral science is devoted to the recording of individualiy while natural science handles illustration. There is a wall built around individuality. There is a gap between individuals and this widens when it involves individuals whose languages differ and--""What you are saying amounts to racial discrimination,"broke in H式.
"No, cultural discrimination," he said.
"Well, isn't it the job of science to clarify the extent of that discrimination to establish the basis for mutual understanding?""Yes, but living itself is not science. Science is merely a means of living. You Occidentals have what might be termed a vested interest in this matter, and it is not likely that you would be willing to relinquish it," he said.
"A transitional period is inevitable, is it not?" said H式.
"I agree," he said. "It is difficult for an individual to go through the transitional period, especially from our point of view.""Is it difficult while you are staying here too?" H式asked.
"It's the same everywhere.""Why? If I may ask.""Back home, we have our version of you, you know.""God knows I am not responsible for that!""Gertainly not.""Who is responsible for it?" said H式.
"Who know? Maybe Columbus," he said rather facetiously.
"Right you are! May the filthy Italian go to hell!"But he knew consigning Columbus to hell would not solve anything. You make fun of your greats as though they are your inferiors but in fact you are cashing in dividends and profits from their achievements, and maybe that is the very reason why you want to speak unkindly of them.
It was early the following spring and nearly six months after his arrival. He left the library earlier than usual to return to his apartment. As he started to climb the stairway to the third floor, he heard a short cry of dismay and something dropped at his feet. Standing about halfway up the stairway was the old woman. Her eyes stared at a spot near his feet, at a small book. She must have let the book inadvertently slip from her hand. It was one of those things, and no real harm was done to anything or anybody. But he was shocked to see the expression on her face; she looked, he thought, as though she were seeing the end of the world. Embarrassed, he picked up the book. It was a small Bible bound in yellowish leather. After a moment's hesitation he handed it to the old woman with an awkward smile. Then another shocking thing happened; she rushed toward him, two steps at a time as a young girl in a hurry might do, stopped in front of him, and snatched the book from his hand. Dazed, he merely looked into her eyes. Clutching the book, her arms shivered. Her face式eyes wide open and the muscles around her mouth twitching式showed terror and hatred. Then for the third time a change took place that baffled him; suddenly all the tension disappeared from her face. He heard her say dispiritedly, in a low tone, "I am sorry, stranger, I really am." She mumbled the words, almost to herself, and went on descending the stairs. He stood where she had been and watched her till she disappeared. A ray of the early spring sun about the size of a handkerchief, coming through the skylight, rested on the handrail of the stairway. The building was quiet as usual. The deserted stairway seemed to extend both ways, up and down, interminably. He sat down on one of the steps. Violent loneliness took hold of him, and he thought he would feel better if he could throw up.
Coming back to his apartment, he sat down astride a chair by the window and looked down at the canal. The canal stretched out straight and endlessly. Then he thought about home and his friends there. He pictured the face of a friend who had been killed in the war just before he left for Europe. A kind of guilty feeling began to mix with his loneliness式guilty because he was so far away in a safe place while his own people were going through the hellish tortures of the war. Then he recalled what another friend said at his departure. He had said: "Go, go if you can. Do you know what books we young Koreans should pack in our combat bag when we go to war? None, absolutely none. In other words, our country doesn't even offer the romantic and sentimental flare of war. Why die in this war? Why spill blood for nothing? To die in this war is no better then to die in a traffic accident." His friend rambled on and on in this vein while he quaffed rice wine with self-abandonment. It followed that he went abroad to a foreign country to learn how to satisfy that romantic and sentimental urge. One spoke of the dead as those to be pitied, but wasn't living far worse than death? History was always there, but what good can history do for a decaying corpse? Then, there is nothing to feel guilty about. We cannot live for others. We have ourselves to look out for. Let's not deceive ourselves. Man is always a wolf who preys on men.
His wandering thoughts inevitably returned to the incident with the old woman. She snatched the book from his hand as though he had been trying to take it away from her by force. It was merely a hand-worn Bible, not a holy relic of Christ or of some saint. Stingy faith. To her faith was like money. It was not something to share with others. It was a savings passbook. Her expression on the stairway was not unlike that of an old miser caught counting and recounting the money he has taken out of his old safe. To them foreigners would never look like normal persons. "I am sorry, stranger, I really am." Was it not the usual apology of a white woman to a Negro whom she had mistaken for a thief or a rapist? Loneliness only ends with either hatred or love for someone. So does humiliation.
He lit a cigarette and blew smoke against the window pane. Then he muttered to himself; "Man is always a wolf who preys on the people, and that's what I've got to learn."He often woke up in the night. He would get up, dress, and go out to see the canal, for he knew he could hardly get back to sleep again. It was quite nice to walk the quiet, deserted street to the canal. The moon would be pale on the cobbled pavement. At night the town was really scenic. The quiet town in the middle of the night looked like fertile ruins, if such things existed. Sometimes he would see other people taking a midnight walk, but that was quite rare. The buildings seemed to show their faces without makeup. He felt at home with them during such moments. Since they were of neither brick nor stone, it was not unlike looking at sculpture. The canal itself was a delight to look at, too. With one or two all-night lamps burning, the moored barges seemed to be sound asleep. He would sit down on the bank. The water was about a fathom below his dangling feet. It looked heavy with darkness and floating oil. He groped for pebbles around where he sat but finding none he dug in his pockets for coins. He would drop one into the water. Plop. Nothing more. Then he spat into the wather. Plop. Nothing more. He got up and started to stroll along the quay. Then it occurred to him that it might not be possible for him to enjoy such nocturnal walks back home. No, it would be out of the question. The curfew alone would be enough to make it impossible. Don't be a wet blanket, don't think about home. He would go through the park on the way back to the apartment. The acacia blossoms were in full bloom, and the scent almost suffocating. But the faint, fishy smell of leather mixed with the scent of the acacia.
One night he came back to his apartment from one such nocturnal walk. He started to climb the stairs slowly so as not to disturb the others in the house, but suddenly he stopped frozen, a cold shudder running down his spine. He saw a young woman silently descending the semidarkness of the stairway. Her steps were so stealthy that she took him by surprise. As she drew closer, however, he realized that she wasn't young at all. In fact, she was the old woman with the Bible. This shocked him again. She was clasping the book to her bosom as she passed by him silently like a ghost. When he had recovered enough to be able to move, he realized that his back was cold with sweat. When he reached his room he was nearly exhausted, and he knew it wasn't from his walk along the canal.
Toward dawn he stole out of his room, tiptoed downstairs to the second floor and, reaching the end room on the left, he opened the door without knocking. On the bed he saw the old woman, with the face of the young woman of his illusion on the stairway, making love with a young man. Her corpulent white buttocks heaved wildly like those of a mare. The young man was H式. He tried to run but his legs froze. He became desperate...
Then he awoke. It was a dream. His bed was wet with sweat. He had ejaculared and was completely exhausted. After this he fell asleep again and dreamed. He was sitting by the canal and throwing coins into the water. Plop, plop. He spat. Plop, plop. Soon he ran out of coins, and with that he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
He did not come into contact with the old woman during the remainder of the three years he stayed in the town of R式. He only learned that she was a recipient of the Florence Nightingale Medal and that she was a member of the Evangelical Society. Maybe her attachment to the Bible might serve certain purposes of such a society. Other tenants in the building seemed to regard her with a certain respect, for she was really harmless save for the fact that she disliked meeting people. Besides, being a recipient of the Florence Nightingale Medal and member of the Evangelical Society, she was bound to command respect and reverence, for she was thus associated with both kinds of crosses, secular (Red) as well as religious. The unpleasant impression she once made on him wore off. In the course of three years she even became to him a mysterious figure with a halo around her head.
Perhaps his reaction to the incident, as is common among foreigners, was stronger than normal. In fact, he ran into many characters like her during his stay abroad, old people, living on a pension or on their savings like mice gnawing away at a wooden pillar but still enjoying some secret and jealously guarded hobby or the like. Of course they were of many kinds, but in essence they did not differ from the old woman who carried her Bible around as she would a pet cat. An old man, a retired sea captain, living in a room two doors down from his, was another of them. But he never got to like the captain. The old man's hobby was the collection of hydrographic charts, and he pestered everyone with rambling accounts of how he fought German U-boats during the two world wars. But he tried to avoid the old man ever since the captain asked him once which part of China Korea was. He could not stand the old man's good nature. It was different with the old woman; she had cut off all human contacts, and to him it seemed a form of enviable stoicism. Twenty years式for twenty years she had been engaged in only one thing. No matter what that one thing was, it was something in itself to be able to concentrate oneself on doing only that one thing for twenty long years. The same work, the same appearance, the same expression, the same routine, the same obsession. He envied the magnificently huge accumulation of hand-worn time. Time is the start of everything and it must precede changes or revolutions. He felt the same thing when the old captain showed him a chart which was said to have been used by pirates in the Middle Ages. It bore the skull and crossbones, symbol of pirates. He thought, "Europeans must understand these symbols physically while outsiders understand them mentally. They live among such symbols. Such symbols are their nerves, their cells, eyeballs, the dirt under their fingernails. But to us they are learning, logic, culture, and ideas." He could see the gap between the two approaches. The old woman was simply one such symbol of Europe. He had seen in her eyes that night on the stairway how obstinate and consistent those symbols were. It was enough to "grab" the Bible; God was to be grabbed like a savings passbook. He knew how hard the task of bridging the gap would be and later, after his return to Korea, he verified it while teaching Western history at a university. With a sense of despair he felt his lectures lacked the tenacity of those old cobbler-professors and the almost hostile obsession of the old woman with the Bible. The human being is not the same everywhere. That is merely a shallow illusion born in the mind of the colonial intellectual. Man, as the product of history, is soaked in time, history, tradition’ he had believed all this most strongly up to a little while ago. But now this belief was completely shattered.
Just then his sister stepped into the room without knocking,"What's holding you up?" she said jovially. "I've already asked you to join us. My friends are dying to meet you." Then she noticed the letter in his hand. " My, my. Is it a love letter? From a blonde with blue eyes?""No." He laughed awkwardly.
"What pathetic laughter!" She went on teasingly, "A heart-wrenching love affair separated by a whim of fate, is that it? This is news!""All right, stop it. I'll join you in al little while.""Make it quick. Make hay while the sun shines, as they say.""What are you saying? This is Christmas. Do you think Christmas is some kind of carnival or something? And you are not even a Christian.""You are more old-fashioned than most people who have never been to the West. The new generation has its own ways. You must learn them in order to get along with them.""Anyway, you go ahead," he said.
Winking at the letter, she said, "Show it to me later, will you?"Then she left the room, slamming the door behind her. He watched the closed door blankly for a while, then began to read the letter for the second time. It was from H-, his former fellow tenant in the town of R式.
Recently there has been a campaign going on here to recapture the ancient spirit of Christmas. People have become fed up with the commercialized version of Christmas of recent years, it seems. What is striking about the campaign, however, is the fact that it is whole-heartedly supported by the young people while the older generation seems reluctant to join in. I think of you often in this connection, you who obstinately refused to join Christmas parties while you were here. If this campaign succeeds, I mean if our young people succeed in becoming older than our old people, then I fear that the wall of your theories concerning cultural discrimination will become higher and higher. Speaking of the old people, I have some news to share with you. You remember the guarian saint, don't you? She died not long ago. But she confessed a shocking story on her deathbed. There were quite a few people besides the minister present because she had been a member of many societies. She said it was both her confession and her apology to the people of the town of R式. She said that she had deceived people for thirty years, that she was not worthy of her membership in the Evangelical Society, that she had never been really interested in the Bible though she still clutched that same Bible at that very moment, and that she had kept the Bible for such a long time only to keep the leather cover. She disclosed the shocking fact that the leather cover of the Bible was made from the skin of her lover who had died in an accident nearly forty years before. Her lover died in the hospital where she worked, and she had removed part of his skin the night before his burial. She had been a nurse in the surgical department, and so she had no problem. Upon her retirement she had come to the apartment to live, and one day she had thought of the idea of covering the Bible with her lover's skin. Of course, she had feared the profanity, but she covered the most sacred thing in the world with the dearest thing in the world to her. In this way she was able to be near her lover at any time and any place. She said she had to confess this on her deathbed, this unpardonable sin, and she begged for mercy.
Well, doesn't it shock you? You used to say something about her being a symbol of Europe, Christianity, and so forth. But her lifelong obsession had nothing to do with Christianity. It was rooted in and sustained by love, which is common everywhere. And most human. I hope this news will be of some use to you in your research into Western history. Wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, I am.
He again heard a cheerful burst of laughter from his sister's room.
He put the letter in his desk drawer and locked it. He put on his overcoat. Stepping out of his room, he could hear the merrymaking coming from his sister's room even louder than before. He stood in front of his room for a while and mumbled something to himself. "H式argues that she was being merely human and that her act had nothing to do with Christanity or tradition. But did she not confess her deed as profane and sacrilegious? A race of people who must hold onto love in the form of a piece of skin’ can you imagine a Korean woman keeping the Book of Fortune covered with the skin of her dead lover?"He felt sick. And he knew the feeling was familiar to him. He passed the door to his sister's room silently. The record player was blaring Christmas carols sung by a male voice. Just then he was caught by his sister, who was coming back to her room from downstairs. "Going out?" she asked suprised.
"Yeah, I forgot I had to...""But you promised you would join’" She did not finish the sentence. She looked very hurt. Ordinarily; if she had looked that way he would have softened immediately, but tonight was different. He felt completely indifferent to her. With a stony stare he turned away and walked down toward the front door.
"Where are you going? I know you don't have an appointment," said his sister reproachfully.
"Appointment?" he thought. "What sort of appointments do you kids need to make you get together and frolic like this? Christmas. Christmas parties. Christmas in this country is nothing but a pretext for the younger generation of both sexes to get together and romp. A female who preserved a piece of male skin using the Bible as a shield. Is there any similarity between the two? Have our kids jumped over the cultural wall? No, there is a difference. The old woman had a partner to renew her contract with on her deathbed. She returned the Bible to God. The Bible, the cat, the skin of the lover, then back to the Bible; thus the cycle was complete. But what about these kids? They don't have a partner to renew their contract with.
"Is Pat Boone your cat?" he asked his sister quite abruptly. Now she was giving him an icy stare. He saw the stony eyes of the old woman on the stairway in his sister's eyes. He turned the door knob slowly and stepped out into the darkness. Where to? He was aware that he did not have either of the old woman's possessions式neither the Bible nor the piece of skin. Moreover, he did not have those kids' Pat Boone records. "Well, I don't even have an appointment to keep. What am I then? The sweet and sour puke that is brewing inside me, that's me." Just then he knew where he should go. To R式. To that gloomy-looking dormitory building that belonged to the theological seminary in an old town where a man can leave a piece or two of his hide when he dies. "Then I should sit on the stairway to the third floor and lean against the handrail where the ray of sun coming through the skylight rests. Then I will throw up what's inside me and chew it as a cow chews her cud. I will keep on doing it till this night in Seoul where Christmas rampages like a beast is over."