Choi In-ho’s Tower of Ants is a short, but compelling, story about alienation and sacrifice. The first message is clear, as the books’ comparison of human life to an anthill is not subtle (and the accompanying notes by Lee Nam-ho make it even clearer). It is the second message, with its bizarre hint of hope, which could be overlooked.
Our narrator is a man without strong connections – he picks up random women, brings them home, has sex with them, and then apparently leaves them (or they leave him). His neighbors slightly disapprove of him, and he is struggling at work.
The story begins with one of his assignations waking up, biting an apple (I suppose one could see some symbolism there) and getting a mouthful of ants. She screams, runs into the bathroom, and vomits. Later, while they are having sex, Choi uses a metaphor that seems relatively benign at the time, but comes back to be critical by the end:
He licked her body here and there, as if he were licking sweet sugar. She melted and squirmed like boiled sugar. Suddenly he recalled memories from his childhood of liquefied sugar being poured into molds and made into the shape of birds and butterflies … The woman’s body lay quivering in the form made by the melted sugar. (41, 44)
The ants originally come to him as a surprise, and as an oppressive one. He imagines they are everywhere, surrounding him and threatening to engulf him. As time goes by, he becomes more ‘understanding’ if that is the right word. His judgment seems to fail him a bit as well, his ultimate strategy for defeating them is to lure them all into his house by leaving food out, despite the fact he has previously noted that the only way to conquer ants is to kill the queen.
He is clever enough to realize that ants are one of the limited number of creatures which, right or wrong, are unafraid of humans and their manifestations. He also believes that ants have lost their original form. Further, he comes to believe, humans have replaced aphids as the sugar-producing animals upon which ants depend. In a strange way, part of his vision is that man is even less significant than ants. This is immediately followed by his memory that ants are now a degraded species: Ants have lost their “carnivorous nature.” First, they used to be bee-like insects, but had now devolved into a sexless species of nearly unanimously workers and soldiers. Here, of course, is a direct parallel to the society the narrator works in. Second, they have become denatured by their contact with man, no longer living in nature. Here, as he begins to go mad, he forms a vision – that he can teach ants a “new taste” in order to help them “create a culture beyond their instincts.” In essence, his plan to make them become man-eaters.
He begins to have visions of being devoured by ants and at the same time begins to identify personally with the ants. Finally, he devises a plan (which I won’t ruin by divulging) to end his own suffering and empower the ants, perhaps even set them on a new course. The ending is a bit macabre, but it also hints that there are solutions (an interesting word, given the ending of the book) to the problems of the hive.
This is the interesting point. The commentary in the book claims argues that the narrator’s sacrifice is meant to point out that human society is just like ant society, and certainly many aspects of the book, and the narrators musings, might lead to that conclusion. But if it is all the same, why would the narrator have any preferences with respect to ants or humans? In fact, I think a closer reading of the end of Tower of Ants is that the narrator is sacrificing himself for the ants, with the hope that his sacrifice will
fundamentally alter them. This can be read as resignation (he is not capable of making a similar sacrifice that will ‘free’ mankind) or nobility (he will provide a model that towers of ants can come down). Either way, it complicates the simple narrative that “human society = anthill.”
Choi’s writing is strong (he also wrote the excellent Deep Blue Night) and full of arresting images. His description of ants eating a dehydrating worm alive is brilliant, and he can weave the hallucinatory and the exceedingly factual without any trace of the work:
Oh, oh, ants, ants, ants, ants, ants, countless ants filled the room. There was not a single clear space. It was like the division of one by three, 0.333333, which continued infinitely.
The text is in Korean and English, which could be useful to a burgeoning translator, or someone studying Korean, and the book is simply but cleverly illustrated in Black and White by Jacob Junhee Lee.