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Korean Short Stories

Kim Yeonsu Whoever You are, No Matter How Lonely 네가 누구든 얼마나 외롭든 Translated by Jae Won Jung

Information This work was previously published in New Writing from Korea . Please contact the LTI Korea Library. library@klti.or.kr


About Kim Yeonsu Kim’s literary world is shaped by his study of humanities and at the same time owes much to the Spanish writer, Jorges Luis Borghes, whose influence is paramount in his first collection of short stories, Twenty Years Old. The author’s admiration of Borghes is particularly evident in such stories as “Babel’s Library” and “Funes, A Master of Remembrance” which are often seen as an homage to the famed writer. Kim did not content himself with a place in the shadow of a literary great. His third novel, Good Bye Lee Sang was met with a critical reception worthy of a masterpiece at the very pinnacle of humanistic imagination. To be sure, Borghesian influence is still unmistakable, but only in the background: the novel, as a whole, is animated by the author’s own meticulous and in-depth study of Lee Sang, the Korean existentialist writer of the 1930s who produced some of the most exotic and complex stories in Korean literary history. Good Bye Lee Sang is concerned with the question of truth and of existence as well as the very definition of literature which, in Kim’s view, are not mutually exclusive. “The reason why I write,” the author has said,” is to find out whether the truth does indeed exist in the act of writing.” LTI Korea eLibrary: http://library.klti.or.kr/node/73

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Whoever You are, No Matter How Lonely A bit of thread that was loose but certain. 1. At first, I thought the photo had come from the South Sea Islands. It was of a woman leaning back on the couch, her legs spread to the world, and it was singed around the edges. The flames had left a half-circle mark at the bottom. On either side of it, you could make out 'Pier...s 1895).' The photograph, more precisely speaking, was a pair of images captured by a camera's iris, separated by the distance between the eyes. When I held the photograph away from me and tried to get the images to overlap, the nude would appear at the center in 3D, like a vision, with her emaciated upper body-almost like a boy's-her hairless groin and her nipples staring in opposite directions. I had some sense of her being a Western woman, not yet twenty, but I had no way of knowing what country she was from. I figured she had to be European, maybe German. It probably had to do with the fact I'd seen Marlene Dietrich's face before when I was very young. Her alluring lips had remained vivid in my memory for a very long time. Germany. Hamburg, Berlin, Munich.... Names of these distant cities flitted past my mind. At first, my girlfriend was curious about the photo only, but she lost interest soon enough. She told me to stop looking at it. But from that winter on till the following summer, I would often blur my vision and stare into that hallucinatory nude of unknown origin. I broke up with my girlfriend not long after. Then I was bound for Germany. I got to hear about the strange life of a man who claimed he was nobody's sorrow. He took off for a crimson star falling into a lake, and for a long time I was seized by that spectacle. But that's not the story I'm trying to tell right now. This isn't that kind of story. Right now I am at the Frankfurt Airport and there's still time before the plane takes off. First I'll talk about that autumn when I went down to my hometown to get that photo. After all, it's the 3D nude that started everything. 2. The photo, to be precise, was brought by my grandfather who'd gone all the way down to the tropical islands in the South Seas during his college days, and enlisted as a student

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soldier in the Japanese army. The place was called something like Palau. The name alone gave off a feeling of heat and humidity. My grandfather spent a long time locked up in an American POW camp even after Japan lost the war. On an autumn night in 1947, when my grandfather opened the doordressed in an American uniform and reared his skeletal head, my great-grandmother, not to mention the rest of the family, thought my grandfather had at last returned to his hometown, but as a ghost. Actually, they weren't half wrong. After the war, he became a ghost-like figure at our house. I still don't get how someone locked up in a POW camp managed to keep a photo of a nude with him all that time. Could it be that the American POW camps were actually tolerant when it came to the private hobbies of its detainees? Or maybe he obtained the photograph as a souvenir at an overseas port before boarding the ship back home. Thinking of places of like Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, I thought he could have just as easily brought home a real-life blonde. It wasn't easy for me to understand, as a man in my twenties, why a Joseon straggler from the Japanese Army would secretly obtain such an obscene item on his way back to his liberated homeland. I thought maybe I didn't know my grandfather well enough. I don't have a clear memory of what kind of person my grandfather was. I did meet him once, when I was five or six, and he seemed to me basically sound. He was staying in Gimje, out in North Jeolla Province, and was fully absorbed in a truly sweeping business venture. In order to see my grandfather, we-that is, my grandmother, my father and Ihad to transfer a number of rural buses to get to Gimje. My memory of those times might be hazy but the odor, touch, scenery, taste and other sensory impressions remain lucid, if in fragments. The second most vividly remembered fragment is the smell of gasoline coming off the bus driver at the terminal. The odor shot up my nostrils, filling my head and rattled inside with the shaking of the bus. The trip out to Gimje was agonizing. Before everything came rushing up, I kept my mouth sealed and tried my best to ignore the smell rattling inside me. One way was to try falling asleep. But that made me even more nauseous. When I closed my eyes, I could actually see the odor squirming before me. So I was stuck between not being able to fall asleep and trying to stay awake, and soon I was vomiting my lunch-the rice and the hot dogs I'd had at the Daejeon Terminal. For a long while after this grueling experience, I couldn't take rural buses. By the time we arrived in Gimje, the sun was dipping over the western field. A scene I

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had never witnessed unfolded over the horizon. Both sides of the widespread yellow horizon were bent towards the sky, dyed red. Though my head was now filled with the smell of gasoline and vomit, I was so fascinated by the view of the horizon that I kept turning my head left and right to take it all in. I thought there was something sad and plaintive about the view. The tree with its elongated neck and the street lamp hanging obliquely from the telephone pole looked like they were thinking back on a moment from days gone by. A thought crossed my mind. What if I hadn't gotten a whiff of that gasoline? Everything I saw that day felt unreal to me because I'd never thought I would look out at the horizon and find myself regretting having smelled the gasoline. That slick, rolling, sourish smell of gasoline in my head; the smell of vomit; the sponge in the handle stripped of its covering that I'd been squeezing; even my grandfather in his winter suit sitting at the terminal with dust flying everywhere, waiting solely for our arrival. It had been a beautiful, clear day and the sky was visible to the ends of the horizon, dyed by the evening glow. I haven't forgotten my grandfather's squalid first impression. I couldn't believe that the old man my father was pointing at was my grandfather. Maybe it was because the picture of him I'd seen in the family album had been of a middle-aged gentleman in a dashing suit, his hair slicked straight back. I found myself clutching my father's arm, the arm he'd pointed at my grandfather with. I grabbed his forearm so hard I thought I could feel the veins, the muscles and nerves. That's the most vivid impression I have of that trip. On nights of the ancestral rites, we kept the doors open so that our deceased ancestors could come in to dine. I wondered where they went to eat on the other nights. I pitied my grandfather even more because it was exceedingly rare for my grandfather to visit our house for the ancestral rites. To me, he was someone who always had his meals somewhere else I didn't know about. Even so, I assumed it couldn't be much farther than Chupung Pass or somewhere around Daegu. I never thought he was having his meals as far away as Gimje. In the words of my grandmother, lamenting about the husband that had made her shoulder the responsibility of running the household while he spent his whole life wandering outside the house, my grandfather was a 'Kim Taebaek'-like figure: a dreamer, always immersed in his fantasies and chasing after the moon. He was a poet who placed a huge amount of importance on rhythm and meter, as we would later learn, but as far as I could tell from that day's meeting, he was even shabbier than the cramped

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restaurant he took us to by the terminal. Dressed in his rat-colored winter suit, he kept taking out his handkerchief and wiping his sweat. My grandmother told him he should just take off his uwagi (using the Japanese word for jacket) but he kept it on till the very end.

The dishes from Jeolla provincewere so strange, like they'd been prepared for

ghosts, and the boarding house he'd been staying at for a long time was way too cramped for four people. My grandmother said, "Live away from home and insults are all you get." When my father couldn't take it anymore and said he was taking me to another room to sleep, my grandfather insisted that a family reunited after a long time apart had to sleep in the same room. He'd suddenly taken on the dignified air of the head of the family. It was faint like the trace of dusk already faded to dark, but my father obeyed my grandfather's order anyway. I passed between dream and reality before slipping into a deep sleep. Every time I woke, I could hear the low voice of my grandfather, grandmother, and occasionally, my father. The voices allowed me to tell my dreams apart from reality. Even when I was wandering through my dreams, I would find comfort in those voices. But the voices were unusually heavy and slow so that I began wondering if they weren't coming from my dreams after all. I found my father's forearm and fell asleep hanging on. The next morning, my grandfather put on his winter suit again and said he would show us what he was working on. We took a bus, which was differently colored from our hometown buses, and drove down a dusty road for a long while and got off on a secluded street, where no other passengers got off. We walked over the hill and went a half-hour farther. My grandfather said that's where his "company" was but it didn't seem likely that we would even find a corner store or a house. We walked on a path overrun with foxtails, half of us on each side of the road. It must have been early autumn because I was on the lookout for a corner store that sold ice cream. That's probably why my grandfather had been sweating so profusely. There was a low hill and when we'd reached its top,,past the pinewoods, we saw the dark earth spread out before us. Fog billowed from the ground and in the space between the white fog and the dark earth, sea birds were teeming with their heads pitched high. My grandmother, my father and I were standing there, at a loss for words, when my grandfather gestured at us to follow. Nobody budged. My grandfather continued his descent, looked up at us one more time and waved his hand. Come on down. Hurry up

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already! He was like those mimes I'd seen on TV. I didn't hear his voice. His words were being communicated through gestures. "I guess it was bound to happen. The man can't see nothing in this world but emptiness." That's what I heard instead. My grandfather would have disagreed had he heard what my grandmother had said. The world he saw before him was overflowing with rice. When we stepped cautiously down, he pointed to the black earth, sweat pouring from his body, and said, "I'm going to fill up that land and turn it into a rice paddy. It'll be tough going at first. But it won't be impossible if I take it one shovelful at a time. It'll be a hundred thousand suk wide! Look carefully at the spectacle of all this land being turned into a rice paddy. There's no reason why it can't happen, if you take it one shovelful at a time." How many shovelfuls would it take to turn all of this black earth into a rice paddy? All I could see before my eyes was the black earth, and most of it I couldn't even make out because of the fog blanketing the tract of wet dirt. I wondered if it was all a dream. So I reached desperately for my father's arm. Finding his arm, I would begin hearing voices in the darkness and if I woke up, any second now, I would be returning home with my grandmother and my father. 3. When I told her this much, Jeongmin said she wanted to see the picture too. I still remember the day vividly. October 3, 1990. It was National Foundation Day as well as the day that East and West Germany were unified. Unification-thinking back now, the occasion still feels significant. It was a holiday, so in the middle of the afternoon, the park was filled not only with pigeons but throngs of people. The leaves weren't showing red yet, but it was the time of year when a leaf or two would fall whenever the wind blew. We would meet up often around then. We were bound to run into each other since we both worked at the Student Union, but we tended to make plans to meet off-campus. We were completely engrossed in telling each other stories about ourselves. If we couldn't get together because something came up, we would pick up the receiver and talk hours on end. Needless to say, our conversations weren't about seeing how the other person was doing or confessing some secret woe. We would bring up whatever came to mind. It could be about our family, things that happened to us or the plot of a book or a film. Anything was game as long it could be talked about and listened to. It was

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a strange way to start off a relationship now that I think about it. Our chattery relationship began one night when we happened to stay behind at the Student Union Office to get some official documents in order. Jeongmin was the head of propaganda for the Committee for Self-reliance in the University, and I was Director of Propaganda for the Student Union. We started talking because it was tedious to work all night, but eventually we became addicted to what the other had to say. Once our relationship got started that way, we couldn't stop ourselves from talking. Were we to stop talking-that is, if we were to run out of things to say, or if we no longer wanted to talked to each otherour relationship would be over at once. So we kept talking. We quickly ran through our stock of philosophy and literature and our respective situations. We needed more to talk about. When we got to looking back on our days, I was surprised by all the stories hiding inside me. One of the stories was about the 3D photo of my grandfather who had returned from the South Seas Islands, the photo I had lifted from a ball of flames with my hand. It was hidden away in the second drawer of my desk, back in my hometown. "It's in your hometown?" she asked, staring at me. She sat with her legs folded and bobbed her right foot. I nodded.

We were sitting on a bench by Marronier Park and the shadows of trees

were bobbing over Jeongmin. "How long does it take to get down there?" "Three hours by train." "Then go and bring it, will you?" When I nodded, she shook her head. "No, I mean right now." "What? I can't go now." "Why not? Why would I ask you to go if I didn't want it now? You can do it just this one time, can't you? I'll cover the train ticket. It's one right now so you can probably get back by eight. I'm going to stay here under this tree until you get back, okay?" I sat there wordlessly staring off into space, and Jeongmin went on again. "Think about it. I'm never going to get to see it if I don't see it now. And I can't understand your grandfather without seeing that picture. Isn't it obvious? I've never even seen a 3D nude before. I didn't even know such a thing existed. It's like the aurora borealis. I can't even imagine it. It doesn't matter how much somebody explains it. I just can't grasp what it is. So why don't you go and bring it back. I'll listen to the rest of the

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story after I see this thing." "Then let's go together. We'll go and come back by eight. I'll tell you the story on the train." I was sure she would refuse. But Jeongmin said fine and shot up to her feet. "You know we're not going to the North Pole to see the aurora borealis." "I know! We're going to see a nude photo." Jeongmin's answer was so loud that I kept my mouth shut. We took the subway to Seoul Station and got two train tickets to my hometown. There was still time to kill until departure so Jeongmin said we should go smoke. Even back then, there weren't many places for a female college student to smoke around Seoul Station. If a college girl was smoking, people would frown in her direction or approach her to give her a good scolding. Some girls would even get slapped. We wandered around for a long time to find a good place out of sight where we could smoke. The place we finally found was the emergency exit past the elevator next to a coffee shop, on the second floor of the station. There was a stairwell when we opened the bulky metal door and walked out. After closing the door behind us, I took out a pack of Baekja from my pocket-a cheap 200won-a-pack brand that gave off a nauseating grassy odor. We sat side by side on the stairs and smoked our cigarettes. Jeongmin didn't inhale; she kept it in her mouth and spat it back out so that her smoke had a bluish tint. My smoke and Jeongmin's soared into the air, my bird white, hers blue. "When are you going to start actually inhaling?" I asked, looking at the blue smoke. "When I find my dream guy." "When you mean your dream guy, you think you'll have time to smoke with that mouth of yours?" "Tell me, what would I be doing then with this mouth of mine?" "Get away from me. Don't be gross." "You know how I learned to smoke?" There was obviously no way for me to know. "It was because of my ex-boyfriend. I was walking down some street right after we broke up and it suddenly hit me: cigarettes. I remembered the pack of cigarettes he left on the cafe table. So I went back. I hesitated a little about whether I should go inside but in the end I mustered up the courage to go in. I asked the owner of the caf? about a pack

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of cigarettes I'd left behind. I asked her whether she'd seen it. Then she took it out from under the counter and handed it over. When I held it in my hand, I could see how fragile it was. I thought it would crush if I held it too tightly. I stood there by the counter for a while and stared at the cigarettes, then I said to the woman, 'Give me four beers.' The woman asked me, to make sure, 'How many? Four?' So I told her, 'Yes, four should be enough.' You see, I had decided to smoke the whole pack. So I sat in the corner of the cafe by myself and smoked. I smoked three in a row, and besides my head hurting a little, it was all good. My lover's flown away like a bird and I'm smoking the cigarettes he left behind, I thought, and life seemed pretty cool. So I chugged the glass of beer and smoked another one, just like this." Jeongmin stood up from the stairs with the half-burnt cigarette in her mouth and drew in the smoke. It seemed like white smoke was seeping out of her mouth and nostrils and she began coughing severely, her body shaking. Surprised, I got up and patted her on the back and asked her if she was okay. She said it was okay but she didn't stop coughing and brought the cigarette near her mouth, trying to tell me she was going to keep smoking. I reached out and took it from her hand. Even after losing her cigarette, she coughed for a very long time. "Your dream guy is going to run away when he sees you in this sorry state. What are you smoking for if you don't even know how?" "Do you think I'm doing it because I want to?" "Never mind then. Let's go catch this train." But the emergency exit we'd come through wouldn't open. No matter how many times we pulled on it, itdidn't budge. I realized soon that it only opened from the inside. I took hold of Jeongmin's hand in a moment of panic and stood her up. She couldn't walk very well even though she'd inhaled just once, at best. I held Jeongmin's hand and we went down to the first floor. The door on the first floor wouldn't open either. We ran up to the third floor. The door on that floor opened and blinding white light pierced my eyes when we went outside. We were in a parking lot. We went back down to the first floor. Still holding Jeongmin's hand, I ran towards the waiting room. Four MP's marched in formation, the marbles in their hems clacking, towards the soldiers on leave studying the train schedule. Jeongmin said something to me in the heat of our run that I couldn't make out. We went past the military police marching in lock-step, past the people seated

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in the waiting room killing time reading the paper or watching TV, past a crowd of men standing by the ticket gate, all of them with their heads up and staring at the schedule, past the soldiers on holiday, and went through the ticket gate. The station employee standing on the platform gestured to hurry us down. Once we'd managed to board the train, I asked Jeongmin, "What were you saying before?" Catching her breath, Jeongmin said, "At least I finished all four bottles. I didn't finish the cigarettes though, but that.... That's the part you have to hear. That's why I began telling the story in the first place." "Four bottles, huh? Was that enough?" I was panting too. Jeongmin nodded and laughed sheepishly. The 2:15 Mugunghwa train was on its way. 4. During the train ride, Jeongmin told me a story about thescenery of some street. It had been a spring night. She had been reading Zorba the Greek when her uncle came by her door and asked if she was asleep. He was standing with the luminous halfmoon over his shoulder when she opened the door. He told her to come along because he was going to show her something really cool. He told her they should go for a ride on his motorcycle. It was one o'clock in the morning. She told him she wasn't sure because it was so late but her uncle insisted they had to go right away. When Jeongmin asked her uncle why, he said it was only on that day, that time of the year that the world looked different. First of all, the moon had to be bright, the cherry blossoms had to be in full bloom, and there had to be no traffic. When she asked how the world would appear different, her uncle said if you went for a ride on a motorcycle at this hour, the street turned white from the moonlight and the cherry blossom trees bowed towards the curved beam of the headlight from the motorcycle so that the whole world would look tunnel-like. It would look like everything in the world was going into that small, bright circle. Jeongmin was pulled along by his words and she did end up climbing on to the backseat of her uncle's motorcycle. But she couldn't see for herself if the street really looked like that. Her body was being shaken by the sound of the wind blowing her ears numb. The sound alone would've been enough to get Jeongmin drunk. According to her uncle, the street was full of cherry blossoms quivering on bent boughs, the brick-hard

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wind and light gathering in a rounded shape, but the only thing Jeongmin could feel was the wind. The gym clothes she had on made her shiver but she didn't let on. She closed her eyes and squeezed her uncle's waist tightly as though they were the only two people left in the world-the way I had gripped my father's forearm when I finally went to meet my grandfather in Gimje. Then somehow her uncle would know she was closing her eyes and tell Jeongmin, "Open them and you'll see the cherry blossoms." She would open her eyes only to to see that there was no tree the reality that there wasn't a tree in sight. Only the moon and the hilltop were pursuing them from a distance at high speeds. "I can't see them!" Jeongmin yelled. "I can't see any cherry blossoms. The cherry blossoms arecrushed. Where are we going anyway, Uncle?" Jeongmin's words went with the wind and faded far behind. The road was very deserted. Everything in the world was receding quickly with the two of them at the center. "That's the road where you got carsick. I don't know if it's what my uncle said it was. I still don't know if it really looked like that when I was on the motorcycle but when the cherry blossom trees whipped by me in a parabola, all the white flowers and the black trunks turned halftranslucent. It looked like some kind of guard rail. It didn't look like a row of cherry blossom trees but the whole lifespan of a single tree flowing by. I was getting dizzy from staring at it soI closed my eyes again. Then I yelled, 'Uncle, can you really see the cherry blossoms?' If I yelled a few times, he would slow down and answer, 'Open your eyes wider, Jeongmin. Don't you see the cherry blossom trees bowing ? Because no matter how wide I opened my eyes, that's not what it looked like. The strange thing is, I only wrapped my arms tighter around my uncle. Because what could I do? Even if he was a monster his waist was all I had to hold on to. Anyway, I guess he wasn't lying." "Why?" "He did go crazy." "How? From all of that riding around in the middle of the night?" I laughed as I asked. Jeongmin nodded.

"We weren't going any faster than this train. If people on this train

saw the branches all turn into snakes, I don't think anyone would go crazy. It's because I'm not alone; there are many people here. As long as people are looking at something together, it's okay to witness something grotesque or eerie. You won't go nuts. But if you're riding your motorcycle at two in the morning, seeing something as plain as a

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cherry blossom can make you crazy. That's how it works." Jeongmin bit her lip as she looked out the car window. "I've wondered.

Maybe he wouldn't have felt as alone if I'd told him that I could see

the cherry blossoms. Maybe. No one will ever know, I guess." Just as I thought about that road for a long time after meeting my grandfather, Jeongmin said she kept wondering if what happened to her on that road wasn't just a dream. All the white flowers had fallen to the ground and the road sparkled with freshly sprouted leaves. Time passed and summer was here. One day, Jeongmin returned from school and saw her uncle's motorcycle standing in the front yard. Thinking he was home, she rushed to open the room door and found her uncle lying very straight on the floor. There wasn't a thing she could do in that situation. She called out to him in a whisper, "Uncle, Uncle," knowing that it was futile. She was afraid he might wake up if she called out too loudly and maybe that possibility scared her even more. So she called his name gently a few more times. Then Jeongmin closed the door behind her and went outside, as if she hadn't seen anything. Her father was a surgeon, her mother a school teacher. The hospital was about five hundred meters from their house. Jeongmin walked that distance. The houses, the telephone poles, the storefront billboards split into pieces, as if from a puzzle, and began spinning in circles. Since none of this could be happening, she decided, "Oh okay. This is a dream. I should wake up." Then the street scene would come together vividly into a complete whole again. People's voices, the feel of the street meeting the sole of her shoes, the wind brushing her hair-they all felt utterly real. She thought she had woken up but the corpse of her uncle was lying in that room so none of this could be real. So when she thought, "This is a dream. When I wake up, it will all disappear," everything would break apart into a thousand little pieces then come back together to form a whole street scene. She would wake up and it would be a dream and when she woke again it would be a dream and when she woke yet again it would still be a dream. This continued until she found her father and told him, "Dad, Uncle's dead." When her father kept saying, "What are you talking about?" his words were so vivid, and the fact that the person speaking was her father was so undeniable, Jeongmin had no choice but to accept that what she'd seen had not been a dream. Still, Jeongmin worried that since she'd experienced such a vivid dream she would never be able to escape it. It was hard to believe it was all real even as

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her father was shaking her. "I've never told this story to anyone. That incident put me in a mental institution for a while. It's obvious, right? I couldn't bring myself to do anything because I thought I was trapped in a dream where my uncle had committed suicide. Why even study? It was all a dream. Somebody could just wake me up from it. The psychiatrist said something to me but I didn't believe a word of it. This guy was so eager to make me better but he would vanish like smoke the moment I woke up.

I explained it to him in detail. Doctor, I know

I'm not normal. But that's only because I'm in a dream. This is a dream where my uncle commits suicide and that's why I don't seem normal to you. It's not something that you can treat. Someone just has to wake me up. When I said this, the doctor looked at me the way you're looking at me right now. There was absolutely nothing wrong with my head. I just thought everything was a dream, that's all. Then one day, when I was in the ward, I went to wash my face in the sink. I must have turned it wrong because the water began gushing out. I tried covering the icy rush with my left hand, but the water splashed from the sink on to my clothes.

It was a huge mess. But I didn't think of shutting off the

water and I only stared at the water drops escaping between my fingers, bouncing off the sink and soaking my clothes and everything around me. One after another. All of them. I thought I could see all the microorganisms, the molecules and the atoms inside the water. Nobody could deny that what I was looking at was real water. What I'm trying to say is, if this isn't a dream either, maybe you and I have met before. If you're really sure you were in Gimje that time. Do you get it?" 5. One night, two years later, Grandfather returned. He had the look of a ghost, the way he'd appeared thirty years ago on that night. But this time it was with my father. Grandfather had cut his hair short so he looked as if he'd walked a great distance on a snowy day. Back when I saw him in Gimje, my grandfather had chattered away with his toothless mouth, but now he wasn't talking much. That wasn't the only thing that had changed about him. The biggest change was in his eyes. They weren't the eyes of the man who had pointed to all of that black earth a few years ago. It's true that they'd been looking at something that didn't exist yet in the world-that sprawling rice paddy he would create by filling up the sea-but he hadn't ignored the existence of the dark earth

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before him. Now he didn't seem to be looking at anything in this world. It was directed at some other place. His great scheme of taking the dirt from the West Sea to create a rice paddy never got the work permit he needed and he'd returned to idleness. But what wore away his body, in fact, wasn't because his dream to make a ten-thousand suk rice paddy had come to nothing. It was the Espionage Conspiracy Incident. That's what it's called now, but back then, they were calling it the arrest of an Underground Revolutionary Party in no uncertain terms. Things weren't so bad that he would have his national identity card photo printed in a newspaper column, but his plan to support the Local Farmers Organization by providing reclaimed land was turned into preparing funds for the Underground Party. He didn't even get a single shovelful of dirt from the West Sea. I would learn later that's why my grandfather had been released after a year and six months in a correctional facility. When my grandfather returned, he ignored the spread my mother had prepared, downed two bottle of soju and fell straight asleep.. My grandfather was more often asleep at home than awake. Of course that's how it looked because we could only see him when we were up; he always stayed up at night when everyone else was asleep. When he was sleeping, he would often sigh or talk to himself. My grandmother would say only when he was sleeping did my grandfather look like an actual human being. His longest stay with us was during the final year of his life. Once a month, when a detective would come looking for him, my grandfather would put on his suit early in the morning and wait. On some days, the detective would call when he was supposed to come by. If the detective asked, "Is the man of the house behaving himself?" then my grandfather would snatch the receiver from my mother and answer, "Yes, I haven't gone anywhere." I didn't know what he'd been made to swear at the correctional facility, but he stayed in the house. As he stayed put at our house, he became more and more emaciated. If Mother asked him, "Why don't you eat?" he would answer, "Don't you think I want to eat? Until now the hard part was getting food on the table but now the hard part is actually spooning the morsels into my mouth." I think when my grandfather was out of the correctional facility and saw that the rice paddy he'd been imagining was only a hallucination, he ceased existing as a living man, invested with his own will. But just as, how, when the sun sets, its light still hangs in the

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topmost branches of tall trees, even when a dream comes to an end, one's heart is bound to loiter in its vicinity. So our lives go on longer than we might have expected. When he returned from the correctional facility, it was poetry that sustained him through his final years. Like some poet who'd received a stay in his execution by the king, so that he could compose his final masterpiece, he decorated his final days with poetry. His poem began with the lines, "All the world's affairs/ are like a spring-day dream/ As I look back/ all seems fleeting," and it went on, seemingly without a beginning or an end, like images in a kaleidoscope, turning and changing form. He'd been born midst the 1919 Liberation Parade and had lived through (without any choice in the matter) the central events of modern Korean history like the Pacific War, the Korean War, the April 19 Student Revolution, and the May 16 Military Coup. This life was conveyed in 4-4 meter and went on endlessly. When he was awake, my grandfather stayed cooped up in his room and wrote a poem with an inky brush on mulberry paper, one line after another. Ultimately, it was an epic poem of two hundred and three lines containing the lifetime of a man who had endured with his body all the tumultuous events of modern Korean history. When he finished the poem, he called all of his relatives and put on his glasses and read slowly from the mulberry paper, the sheets joined by rice glue, as he moved it up little by little. It didn't matter if he was talking about his dream of becoming a lawyer back in his student days, or how he had returned from war after driving everyone into the South China Sea by calling up the wretched spectacle of that war, or how he'd wandered foreign lands after the Korean War after leaving his family, or how (in two concise lines) he'd suffered disgrace in the correctional facility; my grandfather's expression did not change. The rest of the family didn't react so differently. These were stories they had heard from others, experienced directly themselves or stories they could've easily suspected. Only the children, like me, perked up their ears and listened attentively to the poem. Most of the other adults, much like grandfather, had lived through the war. They had lived through agonizing times so they weren't very interested. If another man around the age of my grandfather had looked back on his own life, it wouldn't have been so different. The poem became a family heirloom we keep in our house. I thought you could probably find a similar poem in other people's houses. Modern Korean history was filled with such affliction; it had made everyone's lives identical. How my grandfather must have

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wept during those years!What a long road he'd had to travel all alone!

How many

shoes did a man need in his lifetime? The poem didn't say. Maybe this isn't surprising since these questions covered the most private domain of his life. But I mean something different. What I'm saying is my grandfather had had another piece of writing, beside what he'd left us. It contained different material. Nobody had ever seen anything else my grandfather had written because he threw everything about himself in the kitchen furnace. An orange flame shot up when he threw in the match and my grandfather's face bloomed like a flower in the darkness. My grandfather's whole life blossomed and disappeared shortly after. There's no way to know anything about the writing he threw into the furnace. My grandfather died with those flames, leaving behind only his epic poem in 4-4 meter, understandable by anyone who had lived through our nation's modern history. This is when he really died; when he threw everything that had to do with him in the furnace. Within less than a

month, around winter solstice, when it was

bitterly cold. I am the only person who watched this happen and I witnessed it in secret. I didn't cry during the period of mourning following my grandfather's death and I didn't cry on the day his body was buried. I thought I should be crying but the tears wouldn't come. I stood and watched absentmindedly as my grandmother and aunts sang plangent songs against the gathering wind, but their wailing didn't catch. When the tomb workers started slowly to push the coffin into the frozen ground, the adult men spat out sounds of grief. Just as they had during the period of mourning-first because my grandfather had died and now because each had his own reasons. But eventually everyone's tears dried up and now they'd run out of things to be sad about so their cries were dry. That's when my own tears began, flowing as if some faucet inside me had been turned. It wasn't because I suddenly realized my grandfather was dead, but it was because I was recalling a conversation between my grandmother and my aunt I'd overheard the night before. For four days my aunt had seen my tearless, wide-eyed face and she said, "Is he going to shed even a single drop?" Then I overheard my grandmother say, "Let the boy alone. He didn't get an ounce of affection from his Grandpa." I didn't become tearful when I heard these words. I didn't feel any sorrow. But it was when the coffin was being lowered that I recalled the night my grandfather had burned everything about himself. I recalled the photo I'd pulled out of the kitchen when my

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grandfather had briefly gone in the room. Grandmother had said I hadn't gotten one ounce of affection from my grandfather. He hadn't given me the photograph directly, but thinking that I had received something from him made my eyes water. First I started to cry silently but then I began wailing louder than anyone there and finally I rolled around on the mound of dirt, convulsing with tears. My relatives and family members were taken aback by my crying and stopped their own singing to watch. My father took me in his arms and tried to console me but when I wouldn't stop crying and struggled in his arms, he slapped me full in the face to snap me out of it. My grandmother held my father back and bowed down on the ground so that her forehead touched the ground. She shouted, "It's time for you to go now! Let the living take care of things. Don't be so stubborn. It's your time now to go!" I' d been seized by the notion we'd be crying for several days, but when I happened to overhear my grandmother say I hadn't received an ounce of affection from my grandfather, I figured I wasn't supposed to cry, but when I realized I had received something from him, and began crying during the lowering of the coffin, of all the times to start my weeping, I happened to cry a little excessively without even realizing it, and for a long time after, the grown-ups of the house would speak of the incident. That Grandfather had visited me. That's how I got the 3D photo with its singed margin as well as the first section of his writing. For a long while, when I returned from school, I would lie alone in bed and stare at the 3D photo. I was infinitely spellbound by the naked body of a woman, something I'd never seen before. But more than the nakedness, it was the image's vividness. I felt that if I stretched out my arm I could take hold of that small woman. More than once I actually stuck my hand out between the lens and the photograph. When I took my eyes away from the lens and looked at it, the woman existed as two separate photographs but when I put my eyes to the lens again, she would appear before me like she was fully alive. The three-dimensional woman was more vivid than any person I had ever seen. That's how I ended up getting addicted to the woman's body. The prose my grandfather left behind began like this: "Searching for the origin of my life's last few decades, I see they come from an era of hallucinations, no more substantial than froth. What helped me endure my shattered life, even midst that sprawling horizon of hallucinations was a thing like a loose bit of thread, but certain. Perhaps because this

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belongs to the heart, a truth that can't be understood by anyone, I am recalling those events on this page." The lines had a completely different feel from the more formal writing he'd left us, such as, "Everything that happens in this world is like a dream one has on a spring day. Looking back, one finds it to be fleeting," or, "During my student days at the professional school, I was dragged ten thousand ri away by the Japanese military to the South Seas where the mountains and the streams of my hometown‌" If the poem was in the form of an epic poem of the people, then thecharred writing seems to have been filled only with personal experience. If my grandfather in his poem was remembering his life in detachment, with no emotion at all, then this writing was filled with agony, despair and joy. Why had he left us a poem that any Korean would understand, a poem that was, in some way, so obvious that it was almost false? And why had he chosen secretly to burn the writing that laid bare his personal feelings? It was because it was filled with too much personal experience, much like the 3D nude he'd tried burning along with it. So that's where my grandfather's life had been, on a bit of thread that was loose but certain. 6. And the events of that night. Below the dim light of a bar in front of my hometown station, Jeongmin was staring into the singed photograph, bringing her eyes right up to the lens. With the song "All I Can Give You Is Love" playing in the background, I heard a voice saying, "How many times have you done it? Hundreds? Thousands?" When Jeongmin said, "So, shall we try smoking one here?" a song by the Shinchon Blues was playing. I even remember eeverything I said as well as how I behaved. But I remember most of this only because Jeongmin would tell me about it later. I don't remember it firsthand. For half a year, from the fall of 1990 to early summer of 1991, we would talk countless times about what happened on that night. It wasn't surprising but Jeongmin and I recalled more about each other than we remembered about ourselves. That's how we could fit our memories together and share in their ownership. There would be parts we would remember a little differently so sometimes the pieces wouldn't fit and I didn't feel like I was myself. Still, it was memory we could possess together. In Jeongmin's memory, I say, "Yup, I'm pretty good at it," but I refuse to believe I would

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say a thing like that. Similarly, Jeongmin would claim that she never asked me, "How many times have you done it? Hundreds? Thousands?" But I know for sure that's what Jeongmin said to me after staring at the 3D photo for a while. Looking at the photo, she asked me how many times I had masturbated before. I also remember her saying, "Should I try smoking here?" We were ordering our third or fourth round of beer. We had been drinking way too fast. We couldn't remember how many glasses we ended up drinking.

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"Let's see if my dream guy shows up here." "We're the only customers. You don't have to smoke. It's pretty obvious who your dream guy is." "I still want to try. It's a process, you see? You're meant to go through it up to a point." "What process?" "It's my own way of finding a dream guy." "Fine." While Jeongmin watched, I put a cigarette in my mouth and lit it. I offered her the cigarette. "Pretty cool. You can do it that way too?" "It tastes better with someone else's spit on it." (Of course, this was in Jeongmin's version.) She shot her eyes upward and began inhaling her cigarette smoke slowly.

"How is it?

Do you see it? Can you see it?" I was saying, but before I could finish, the owner of the bar brought out two glasses of beer. We looked at him at the same time. Had he been hairy? Or was he wearing a white dress shirt stained with redpepper sauce? Did he have the sleeves rolled up? I remember nothing about him. The only thing I can recall is her trying to hold back her laughter as the white smoke seeped through her hands. Right then, her eyes looked twice their normal size. As soon as the owner set down the glasses and left, we burst into muffled laughter. Smoke was still seeping out from Jeongmin's mouth and nose. I was slumped over the table and Jeongmin kept beating my shoulder while laughing through her hands. Her eyes were watering. "You saw it, right? You saw it!" she said and kept laughing. "So your dream guy... So‌" I couldn't even bring myself to finish, and soon we were whooping with laughter.I don't know what had struck us as being so funny. We looked into each other's eyes and laughed for a very long time. "So I


guess that's how you're supposed to smoke," Jeongmin said nasally. Her nose would get stopped up every time she got drunk. "The cigarettes are yummy," she said. "Let's get together and drink everyday." That night, Jeongmin became drunk the moment she inhaled her first cigarette, and I chattered away without break. It was probably because I was afraid of my words losing their thread. If the words lost their thread I thought she would say we should go back to Seoul. So I would keep on with my stories even if it meant some of them were lies. I began speculating about the psychology of a young soldier, who, isolated on a remote island in the South Seas, had stared at a 3D nude while waiting to die. I chattered on about how the 3D photo must've provided an image more lucid than reality, that it was common for people in isolation to have their sense of reality shaken, only to have a hallucination that would appear more real than reality itself. No matter how strong you were, reality was revealed to you through your senses. At least once, human beings were capable of experiencing their reality give way as a change came over their senses; St. John of the Cross called this "the darkest night of one's existence." All men chose isolation on their own accord to enter "the darkest night of one's existence," and it was to realize that reality revealed itself only through your senses. Once you experienced "The darkest night of one's existence" you saw the true beauty of reality constructed by your senses. Once you saw that reality materialized through your senses, you might think you could descend into a kind of nihilism, believing that everything is fleeting. It was ironic, then, that we should enjoy the lucidity of those senses all the more. That's why those who hadn't experienced such a night couldn't understand the pinnacle of happiness. All the little thoughts inside me were being scattered into the air like evaporating alcohol. I didn't realize at all, then, exactly what I was trying to say. The important thing wasn't the content of my words but that our conversation kept going. I was getting worked up talking about Buddha, Meister Eckhart, San Francesco d'Assisi and that Emanuel Swedenborg, who had visited heaven. While I was busy chattering away, Jeongmin, who could barely speak, jumped in. "So what you're saying is that we must experience a night like that before we can experience the greatest happiness? Isn't that what you're saying? Right? Isn't that what you're trying to say?" I stopped speaking and nodded, a stupid expression on my face.

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"That's not complicated at all. Why are you saying it like you're teaching a seminar? Fine. Experience the darkest night of your existence. Have you ever done it?" "Yup, I'm pretty good at it." I answered without even realizing what I was saying. She looked at me and laughed soundlessly. (I don't think I would've answered that way, of course. If I said anything I'm sure it was more like, "That‌That's not what I was trying to say...") "Fine then. As long as you're good. But I have one other condition. I don't like inns or motels. I like places where people actually live. So let's go to your house. To your room. It's just your room on the second floor so it doesn't matter, right?" "But my father, my mother and my younger sister are there." "Do I look like a censustaker to you? Let's just take a quick look. If you don't want to you can just forget it. I'll have to experience the greatest happiness some other time." I hesitated for about a second before saying fine. I called my house and told them I was drinking with a friend and it would be hard to go back up to Seoul so I would come in later and get a little shut-eye before returning on an early morning train. And we kept drinking until it was late enough for my parents to go to sleep. We waited for a long time, so we must have chattered away about all sorts of things. We compared Marlene Dietrich's lips with the lips of the woman in the photo. We discussed different kinds of kissing and the symptom of a fever that fell upon you when you kissed someone for the first time. We talked about lying on the hot asphalt while looking up at the dizzyingly hot sun on that year of the National People's Convention, and about Mersault from The Stranger, who murders because of the hot sun and his ranting speech right before death, about how "Others too shall be judged one day. They shall also be executed. So what did it matter that I was arrested for murder and convicted for not shedding any tears at my mother's funeral?" and Shimamura from Snow Country, who, like Mersault looking up at the sun, had looked up at the Milky Way in the fiery night sky and said, "It's bewitching enough to be scary." And finally I, who had been making up all kinds of stories to pass the time, said, "In the end, the reason I can't be someone else is because I lack the courage." And my memory fades around there. In the next scene, Jeongmin and I are busting our butts trying to hop the wall to my house. I propped up her butt on my shoulder and lifted her. Jeongmin's drunken body was heavy. Once Jeongmin was on the wall, she crouched down and clutched the wall

21


with her hands. She looked precarious, as if she might fall off any second. This time I hopped on top of the wall and jumped off. I stood in the yard and gestured her to come down. Instead of jumping off, she spread out her arms and stood in place. The scoop of the Big Dipper hung over Jeongmin's head. "No, no! Jump. Jump!" I yelled. Then Jeongmin fell very slowly, much like the princess in the computer game, The Prince of Persia. No matter how many times I call up this memory, she's falling very slowly in this scene. I caught her like I was catching a teddy bear. I couldn't handle that weight and fell over backwards. There was stirring in the house, so we lay still in the darkness by the wall. My younger sister was probably still up. I heard someone opening the front door and closing it. Until then I kept my arms around Jeongmin without budging. I didn't want to get up again. I thought how nice it would be if time were to stop right then. "This ain't bad." "I'm usually pretty athletic, it's just that I have my period now." "Really?" Everything seemed to collapse right there, and there wasn't much for me to say. Because what can you say in a situation like that? That night, I had spoken needlessly about so many things. So I didn't budge and kept Jeongmin in my arms and looked up at the stars in the sky. If I could be a star, I thought, I could give off light for hundreds of lightyears with what I was feeling that moment. Just then, something cool and glutinous touched my lips and Jeongmin's tongue thrust itself into my mouth. Among all those different kisses, it was what they called a 'French kiss' and I was well aware that if you knew what you were doing, you had to suck the tongue. And though I had said those very things to Jeongmin earlier, I didn't respond at all and looked up at the sparkling stars over Jeongmin's head. All of my life up to that moment-my former life which might or might not have existed, my life before that former life, the life before that one and all the rest of my former lives-turned into something splendid. I felt profoundly grateful to the French.

Copyright 2009 Literature Translation Institute of Korea

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[korean short stories]kim yeonsu, whoever you are, no matter how lonely  
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