Choi In-hoon: "The flame in my mind has never died down for the past 48 years.”
Jeong Yang-hwan

Staff Reporter
The Dong-a Ilbo

"From the viewpoint of political history, 1960 in Korea was the year of students. But it was the year of ‘The Square’ (Gwangjang) from the viewpoint of the history of novels,” said the late literary critic Kim Hyeon. The author of this epoch-making novel, Choi In-hoon, 72, now a professor emeritus at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, has published “Complete Collection of Choi In-hoon’s Works” (Moonji Publishing Co.), looking forward to the 50th anniversary of his literary debut in 2009.     
A collection of Choi's works was first published in 12 volumes from 1976 and 1979. The second edition, revised by the author, was published in the 1990s. The third and latest edition consists of 15 volumes, including the novel “The Keyword” (Hwadu), a collection of essays entitled “Meditation on the Road” (Gil-e gwanhan myeongsang), and analyses of his works by literary critics Kim Myeong-in, Park Hye-gyeong, Lee Gwang-ho and U Chan-je. Meeting a group of reporters in a downtown restaurant in Seoul on November 19, Choi said, “I’d like to thank you for your continued interest in me in spite of my insignificant achievements.” A symposium on “50 Years of Choi In-hoon’s Literature” is slated for November 21 at the Moonji Cultural Institute at Donggyo-dong, with participation of many writers and critics.  
Q. You must have very special feelings about republishing your representative work, “The Square,” in the 21st century.
A. “The Square” reflects the spirit of its times. It must be difficult for the young generation of today to understand how I felt when writing it. Everybody thinks he has been through the gravest time. So do I. I don’t think the flame that burned in my mind when I put out the first edition of “The Square” has ever died down. At a young age I faced a historic incident and was able to document it through the powerful medium of literature. Time has flowed but I hope my readers will understand it as a literary work.
Q. You are famous for repairing your own writing for every new edition.
A. I’ve fixed my writings whenever there was an opportunity. It may seem peculiar in view of the general practice in writing. But I want to give my works better shapes when I think I’m leaving them for future generations. Isn’t it better to improve them when considering them to be cultural heritage of mankind? I’ve revised important parts of “The Square” in its latest edition. It’s the readers’ duty to identify the changes.
Q. What significance do you attach to this complete collection of your works?
A. For example, I wrote “The Square” in the autumn of 1960, the year when the April 19 student revolution took place. As it was based on a too vivid incident, I was gasping under the pressure to bear witness to history. Now, I wanted to reinforce its literary quality as a novel. I hope the readers would also accept it as an artistic work rather than a field report of historical events.
Choi looked quite satisfied with the latest publication of his works. Several times he thanked the critics who wrote commentaries for the edition, saying, "I feel overly honored." Lee Gwang-ho, one of the critics, wrote, "'The Square' explores the deep archaeological strata of history rather than simply describing historical incidents in the past. It demonstrates political imagination as a power to dream about ‘a possible different course’ of history.” Choi himself added, “There’s one more thing that has to be changed, but I will probably look for another chance…”
Q. The April 19 revolution seems to have a great meaning to you.
A. In my personal view, the March 1 Independence Movement of 1919 and the April 19 Student Uprising of 1960 have been the two great events in modern Korean history. The April 19 revolution was an event in which the people realized the great principle that state power comes from the people, wasn't it? I came to the South during the Korean War. And probably because of my personal experience, the April 19 revolution impressed me far more powerfully as a new landscape in the South. I didn’t write “The Square” with my own ability or talent. I believe I wrote it as “a scribe of the time.”
Q. What do you think of the novel "The Keyword” (Hwadu) which you wrote 34 years later?
A. We’ve talked about a big event on the Korean peninsula and then, from my viewpoint, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a huge drama in world history. In the face of such a drama I couldn’t help but write again. A country which had exerted various influences on the fate of Koreans, including the division of South and North Korea, vanished into history. After remaining silent for a while, I was again driven out to write “Hwadu.”
Q. Please evaluate your literature on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of your literary debut.
A. When compared to the fine arts, I don't seem to be an avant-garde writer like an impressionist. Nor can I say I've reflected the reality in my works as it is. I think I've created an “internal reality” or an “imaginative time and space” while sharing realities of the contemporary world. I hope you would not look too much at the aspect of me as a writer of a turbulent period but rather at the literary world of my work.
Q. How are you doing these days?
A. I've had much free time since I retired in 2001. I've written enough to make a volume of novels. I’m going to amend them before publishing, but they are quite avant-garde, aesthetic, and purely artistic. I used to emphasize only political and historical aspects in my novels in the past. But this time I allowed myself to become immersed in my own thoughts. We’re now living in an age of diverse opinions and free speech, aren’t we?
Q. Do you mean we're living in a better time?
A. I don’t mean there are no problems, but it certainly is a good thing that you have more freedom to speak your mind. It’s not good to have unilateral communication. Diverse opinions should coexist. They say we live in a noisy world but isn’t it more worth living because of all the noises?
Q. Do you have regrets as a writer?
A. I've lived long as a writer but I've failed to establish any significant world view. It doesn't hurt me much, though. (He laughs) What I regret most is that I failed to graduate from college (Seoul National University’s College of Law) when my poor parents struggled to pay my tuition fees. I feel even more guilty when I think how I would have suffered if my own child did so. My father watched me receiving the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the SNU College of Law. I hope I repaid the slightest bit to my father (who is 96 years old this year) by winning the award.
Choi is going to have cataract surgery soon. When asked how he felt, he said, "It's minor surgery. I'm enjoying good health otherwise." He had a strong grip and looked cheerful when he shook my hand and bid goodbye, saying, "Let's meet again for sure when my new novel comes out."
Choi In-hoon's Personal History
△1936 - Born in Hoeryeong, North Hamgyeong Province, North Korea
△1952 - Admitted to the College of Law, Seoul National University
△1959 - Debuted as a novelist with recommendation from the literary magazine Free Literature (Jayu Munhak)
△1977-2001 - Professor of creative writing at Seoul Institute of the Arts
△Novels - "Reflections on a Mask" and "The Square" (1960); "A Dream of Nine Clouds" (1962); "A Grey Man" (1963); "Journey to the West" (1966); "The Sound of Laughter" (1967); "One Day in the Life of Novelist Kubo" (1969); "Typhoon" (1973); and "The Keyword" (1994)
△Plays - "Where Shall We Meet Again?" (1970) and "Shoo-oo Shoo Once Upon A Time" (1976)
△Essays - "Meditation on the Road" (1989)
△Awards - Dongin Literary Award (1966); Best Playwright Prize of the Hankook Theater and Film Awards (1977); Meritorious Prize in the Arts Category of the JoongAng Cultural Awards (1978); Seoul Theater Critics Group Award (1979); Isan Literary Award (1994); and Distinguished Alumnus Award of Seoul National University's College of Law (2004)
△2003 - Published the short story "A Letter from the Sea" in the quarterly magazine Yellow Sea Culture (Hwanghae Munhwa)
[November 20, 2008]