The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 16 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul
Choi In-Hoon’s “House of Idols” begins with an unnamed narrator and the sentence, “The war was over, the capital back in Seoul.” Despite the apparent “return to normalcy” of the first line, the story describes a world in which the neo-Confucian basis of Korean society has only totemic significance – a play of semi-random and meaningless interactions set against a bleak background with which Greek stoics might easily identify. It is a story, as many of the time, which delineates the broken social and belief structures of post-war Korea. The story also suggests that personal identities are fluid and meaningless as its main characters are all unnamed and seem quite impermanent.
The unnamed narrator is the acolyte of a famous writer who, in possible homage to Kafka, is named “K.” This is difficult to tell, as the work is translated. In this case the translation is by John Holstein and it is sturdy and serviceable.
The narrator regularly meets K at the Arisa Café. One day a stranger walks in and treats K with a kind of willful disrespect that is extremely difficult to imagine in South Korea. This is the first indication of sundered social ties.The narrator is properly appalled, and dislikes the interloper immediately, both because he breaks the proper social order (in a classically Korean moment, the narrator fulminates that the stranger is “more that twenty years” younger than K) and because he is a threat to the narrator’s relationship with K.
This is frame to the center of the novel, a quick friendship and a complicated and extremely convincing lie that the stranger tells. At the mid point of the story the narrator and stranger (as unnamed as the narrator) have a discussion about relationships and the stranger says directly, “I’ve been cursed, I’m under some curse to destroy anyone who comes close to me.” The narrator responds, semi-ironically, that this might lead to the “bitter fruit of disillusionment,” but he clearly believes himself immune to this poisoned fruit. The narrator has quickly persuaded himself that he and the stranger have a “special relationship.” In a moment of bonding the stranger tells the tale that putatively underlies his ‘curse.’ It is full of sound and fury, and while the stranger implicates himself in its course, it is primarily a cry for sympathy
In the stranger’s personal narrative her describes the destruction of the North; he sees US bombers in his mind. He also falls in love with a literary character, Dumas’ Nana, and finds a living incarnation of her (once again an unnamed character) in Korea. In a first indication he might not be all that he seems to be, the stranger, by his own admission, becomes George, a character from Dumas’ novel. Then, when his unannounced love is “betrayed” the stranger, in an act of omission, becomes complicit in her death. The stranger’s tale is one in which he accepts a tremendous burden of guilt.
The stranger’s story, as it happens, is merely a story and when the narrator comes to visit the stranger he discovers that the stranger lives in a psychiatric residence. Here a doctor greets the narrator with the unhappy news that the stranger’s story is a fiction.
There is a brilliant moment. The presiding doctor says of the stranger:
He’s got a variety of complexes all wrapped up together in him like a ball of yarn, and I can’t really sum up his condition in one word. Exhibitionism, megalomania, Oedipus complex, hero complex … a confusion of these roots all tangled inside of him.
To which the narrator replies: “But I don’t see anything wrong with him, other than this story of his.” In response the doctor assents: “That’s exactly what has me stymied, that no other symptoms have appeared. His is the most difficult sort to fix.” This is intentionally ridiculous – all the symptoms have been named, but there is no diagnosis forthcoming. This most likely seems a comment on the irrationality of post-war Korea.
Then, without any reaction from the narrator, the stranger turns violently against him, shouting and accusing the narrator, in a variety of colorful ways, of the crime of being bourgeois. The narrator, in turn, leaves without a word or a defense. They repudiate each other without a moment’s hesitation.
This is emblematic as no personal relationship in this story is what it seems. In purely technical terms Choi takes away the personal by creating a story without formal identity. Characters are nameless (I should note that this is characteristic all the three stories of Choi’s that I have read), described as “various types,” the “gaunt man” and “in (their) forties.” In fact, the only named ‘characters’ in “House of Idols” are physical locations.
Within the plot, the stranger’s story within a story is the clearest example of his lack of real social bond, as its central relationship is purely imaginary. The narrator’s relationship with K is also demonstrated to be weak, perhaps imaginary, as the narrator quite clearly fears the stranger, the “interloper.” The narrator seems unable, prior to meeting the stranger, to make real relationships. He is a kind of ass who believes that he can accurately assess people’s worth, which he does in his search for “compatibility,” by which he essentially means usefulness. Even K’s relationship to the stranger is finally left intentionally opaque. I don’t think most readers here need a primer on how a world lacking relationships is a non-Korean and non neo-Confucian world. It is a world without moorings.
The story begins to end with K walking into the asylum while the narrator is walking out. Needless to say, they exchange no words or recognition. One walks in, the other out of, the asylum that is the “House of Idols.”
“House of Idols” is a nameless ghost story, showing a moment of time in post-war Korea in which relationships are doomed to be, as in the last image of the tale, in “desolation expanding without end.