Chi l dâ€™ sBone
Tr ans l at edbyJ anetHong
Childâ€™s Bone By Yi Sang Translated by Janet Hong
Originally published in Korean as Donghae in Jogwang, 1937 Translation ⓒ 2013 by Janet Hong
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and Literature Translation Institute of Korea.
The original manuscripts to these translations were provided by Gongumadang of Korea Copyright Commission. The National Library of Korea Cataloging-in-Publication Data Yi, Sang Child's bone [electronic resource] = 동해 / [written by]Yi Sang ; translated by Janet Hong. -- Seoul : LiteratureTranslation Institute of Korea, 2013 p. ISBN 978-89-93360-13-4 05810 : No price 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21
About Yi Sang Yi Sang (1910-1937) was one of Korea’s most innovative writers of modern literature, enough to deem him Korea’s finest modernist. He died at the early age of 27, but despite his short literary career, he produced surreal and highly experimental pieces that were avant-garde and far ahead of their time. He showed brilliant literary prowess not only in poetry and fiction, but also in essays, exploring the confusion and anxiety of those living under Japanese colonial rule, the psychology and despair of uprooted urban dwellers, and the alienation, disquiet, and terror experienced by intellectuals, more than perhaps any other writer in Korean history. He did not shy away from presenting decadent subject matter, and experimented ceaselessly with form, created selfdeprecating characters with excessive self-consciousness, portrayed the delirium of sensation, and employed wit, paradox, montage, and other various techniques all to brilliant, enigmatic effect, to the extent that his works resist easy comprehension even to this day. These are the reasons why he was heralded as a “modern boy,” who sprung onto the literary scene during Korea’s dark colonial period. Yi Sang’s fiction is largely autobiographical. From his sole novel December 12 all the way to his short story “Dying Words,” Yi Sang has used his own life as material. However through his unique method of processing those experiences, in other words, through his unique artistic method of handling language, his work continues to be cutting-edge even today. His short story “Child’s Bone” (1937), which is written in the stream of consciousness narrative style, skillfully depicts the love and affection between a woman named “Yim” and the two men in her life—Yun and the narrator. In order to rescue this common subject from its conventional treatment, he uses various techniques. The story is composed of six natural scenes, like that from a play, from which the narrator’s inner thoughts and feelings flow out. Thus, Yi Sang shows the reader the true condition of the psychological novel.
Feelers This is the scene that my feelers detect. After a long period of time I open my eyes to find myself on my own, lying in a neat, empty room on the city’s outskirts. When I look around me, the room settles like a memory. The window is dark. Soon after, I’m shocked to discover a suitcase that I must guard. I also discover a young woman placed like a potted plant beside the suitcase. When I continue to look at this strange sight, would you believe it, she gives me a smile! Ha ha, this I remember. I think hard. Who is it that loves this woman? While I’m still thinking, I start by asking, “Is it dawn? Or is it dusk?” She nods and then smiles again. Her skirt and jacket, which are suitable for May, swish as she opens the suitcase. She takes out a gleaming knife. If I act surprised in a situation like this, it might be more difficult to set things straight later. I squeeze my neck without thinking and ask quite calmly in a clumsy northwestern accent, “Are you a killer?” Her face brightens and she flashes a smile. I don’t know when she put those there, but she picks up a mandarin orange from near my pillow and deftly removes the peel with the knife. “Well, what do we have here?” My mouth waters and all of a sudden, I’m dying to crack a joke. “Hey girl, look at me for a sec. Will you marry me? You swear?” I go on. “It drives me crazy knowing that Yun beats you every day. What do you plan to do?” We eat the fruit, relishing each bite. Time hurtles toward night. I clasp her hand and sigh, “We can’t get married until night comes.” Now there’s an idea! I feel like snickering, but ah, what’s the point of getting married? What does someone like me know about getting married? But it’s still funny. “Isn’t it night now?” “No.” “What are you talking about? Don’t be silly. Of course it’s night.” 1
The original title, donghae, means “child” in Korean, but the Chinese characters, 童骸, which literally mean “child’s bone,” are a term invented by Yi Sang.
“No, it’s not.” “Stop it. You know it’s night.” “Then I guess we have to get married.” “So then—” “Hee, hee, hee…” I snicker out loud. I’ll end up hating Yim if I marry her. Then what about Yun? Yim just came from his place. She said he threw her out. He probably didn’t mean it. But she thought he was being serious and cried all the way here. (My goodness, it’s night.) “So what happened?” “That’s none of your business.” “Come on.” “I left him.” “Really?” “Of course!” “Hee, hee.” “Please don’t insult me.” “Fine.” She gets to her feet. Now I’ve got to describe Yim for a minute here—at least make a note of how she looks—but she turns the suitcase upside down. I don’t know what’s gotten into her. She is digging frantically through the pile. It’s obvious she’s looking for something, but I can’t help her unless I know what she’s looking for. Since she’s so worked up, all I can do is watch. I leave her alone. In the end, I can’t contain myself. “What are you looking for?” “My ring, my ring,” she sobs. “What are you talking about? What do you mean your ring?” “My wedding ring.” “Ah, I see, your wedding ring.” “Where is it? Oh, where did it go?” A bride who loses the wedding ring before she gets married—is that even possible? The whole thing’s ridiculous. But who knows? And isn’t it the groom who’s supposed to have the ring ready in the first place? So I pretend to know all about it and say, “You know, in theory, the ring should be in my suitcase.” “Where’s your suitcase?” “I don’t have one.” “Tsk, tsk.” I take her hand. “Come here.” “Ouch, stop it. Let go of me.” I coax her and draw a double band around her left ring finger with my ink brush. She likes it. She says her finger tickles, as though she’s wearing an actual ring. 5
I don’t want to get married. I need to come up with an excuse. “So, how many times?” “Once.” “Honestly?” “Honest to God.” This wasn’t working. I couldn’t stop here. I had to find another way to crossexamine her. “Then how many besides Yun?” “Just him. One in total!” “Yeah, right!” “I’m serious!” “Forget it.” “Two.” “Nice.” “Three.” “Nice going.” “Four.” “That’s real nice, real nice.” “Five.” I was fooled. Completely fooled. Night was here. I light a candle. I blow it out. Since a fake ring like this can be exposed easily, I quickly lit and blew out the candle, in order to hide the ring. It takes a long time for night to come. The Beginning of Defeat What do you think about a scene like this? While sitting in a barber’s chair— The barber holds a familiar-looking knife and lifts up my hairy chin. Are you a killer? That’s what I would like to ask, but I don’t think it would be right for me suspect him, especially now that I’ve started to accept the fact that I have a wife. Snip-snap, snip-snap. What else was used, besides the two mandarin oranges? I think hard, but nothing comes to mind. What was it? When I open my eyes, as though escaping from a long period of time, I find myself, not in a barbershop, but a bridal chamber. It looks as though I got married last night. A bird peeps through the window and minces in a mellow way. My chin is still just as hairy.
But something is terribly wrong. The bride, who should be here this morning, asleep next to me, is gone. Ha ha, does that mean the scene where I’d been sitting in the barber’s chair was real life? It’s difficult to believe something this vivid is just a dream. I’ve been fooled. I may not have lost anything, but I wonder how much time has passed. When I think along those lines, it’s unbelievable that I only met Yun for the first time yesterday, when it feels as though I’ve known him for several years. Isn’t this something I should talk about with Yun? I’d tell him: I seem to have met you only yesterday, but how many years has it actually been? I’m positive I married Yim last night, but could that have been a dream as well? Like now— But the matter grows only worse in the next moment. The bride appears all of a sudden. She is dressed in western-style clothes that look a little too warm for May. This is not the Yim I know. Not only that, she has cut her hair short in a bob. Perhaps this is another woman. The Yim I know doesn’t have short hair or wear western-style clothes, so what kind of unhappy fate has bound me with this stranger who would barge into my room like this? The girl dusts off her hands and says, “Well, I threw it out.” It is definitely Yim. Feeling relieved, I ask, “What are you talking about?” “My clothes.” “Your clothes?” “Yeah, the old-fashioned clothes I was wearing.” “Why did you do that for?” “They’re the same ones.” “What do you mean, ‘They’re the same ones’?” “I told you they’re the same ones. Do I have to spell it out for you?” Early fall clothes are similar to late spring clothes. I decide to trust what Yim is saying; after all, she has only once with Yun— Hold on, I feel I’ve got to explain my situation for a minute here. In a nutshell, I’m pathetic—a pathetic modern boy. It seems for the rest of my life, I’ll have to pay the retribution for the sins of a previous life. Take one look at me and you’ll know you don’t want to have anything to do with me. I may look like this, but would you believe me if I told you I weigh as much as 116 pounds? This skeleton has swallowed a fair number of bullets. I’m basically a deep cave; it’ll be difficult to find your way out. Most of my weight is in my brain. This is the secret why you should fear me. So— Since fate has brought everything to this point, I think I need to confess my true objective. Then— Yun, Yim, and I. Whom do I hate the most? In other words, whose side am I on? What should I do? I wish to say it once and for all, but it also seems right to stop right here, so let me at least demonstrate my decency and poise. 7
One day last fall, no, late summer—I’m sure Yim remembers the exact date of that historic moment—I saw Yim looking miserable, sitting in Yun’s office early in the morning. I was under the assumption that she had come early in the morning, but she was actually on her way out. In fact, she was sitting there unable to go home, because she was scared her father would punish her for spending the night out. They were the same clothes from that day. The same chemise, the same drawers, the same plaited hair twisted up, one man and another man. No, I must stop. Maybe she threw them out without thinking, because it was too awkward, but that’s absurd. It’s difficult for me to accept that kind of extravagance. But that’s not all. First, there’s the matter of my attitude. What did I do during those days? I have no concept of time. When the window would grow dark, I’d give the landlord’s kid who went in and out of the house a jeon coin and ask, “Hey kid, is it morning or night?” I don’t even remember what I lived on during that time. Did I survive on dewdrops? Impossible. Yim is trying to keep up appearances, uselessly, for someone like me. How touching. But the strange thing is that if I’d told someone I lived not knowing whether I was hungry or not during that time, he would have easily believed me. I’m a chronic liar. It’s become such a habit that I’m scarcely aware of it when lies spill from my lips; if that’s the case here, I’m in big trouble. To be honest, I feel hungry this morning. Then what I said before about Yim throwing out her skirt, slip, and underwear must have all been a lie. It was probably my stingy affection for Yim that caused her to throw out those clothes. But Yim, like a spirited letter I can’t pronounce, is sitting beside me, cutting my nails. “In order for a wild beast to become domesticated, its poisonous fangs must be removed.” This is certainly an artistic piece of advice. But even in the midst of this, I say stupidly, “Oh, I’m so hungry,” and thrust my ugly face up to hers; I dare not ask if it’s morning or night. A bride is always charming. It would be difficult to guess the age of this tender flower, even if you were to examine her with a magnifying glass. In order to ward against disappointment, I take her to be seventeen, just to be on the safe side. But she whispers in my ear, “Don’t be silly, I told you I’m twenty-two. You should know that already. You’re just mocking me now.” This miserable bride has gone out empty-handed. She went out, probably looking for some rice, firewood, coal, and things to eat.
But I’m bored. I think about calling over the landlord’s kid, but even before the words are out of my mouth, he comes running and slides open my door to tell me, “It’s morning.” From now on, he won’t get another jeon from me. Thinking I won’t be able to play with him anymore, I have no choice but to put on an angry face and pull the door shut, as though slapping him in the face. When I shut my eyes and my heart begins to pound, I hear him bawl, as he walks away toward the courtyard. For a long time, I shiver alone. Yim returns, smelling of milk. Slowly I gather my energy and focus my attention on her. She smells good, like a newborn baby. “I went all the way to the farm.” “So what?” She brought back some castella sponge cake and goat milk wrapped up in cloth. It’s like a gypsy morning. Even still, all I can do is babble about my needs. “Hey, I’m dying of thirst.” This is how it goes for the most part. Here in the city’s outskirts near the farm, there is no electricity or running water. There’s an old-fashioned water pump instead. She heads out to fetch some water and comes back crying. It looks like she’s crying, but she’s actually laughing. She laughs, with tears in her eyes. “I wonder whose kid that was. Would you believe it? The little rascal says to me, ‘So you’ve cut your hair. Are you going to school?’ He must have thought I was his pal. It was unbelievable. So I say, ‘No, I’m not going to school.’ Then he has the gall to say, ‘Hey, pour some water on my feet, would you? I want to wash my feet.’ So I practically tossed the whole bucket on his feet. Then he says, ‘You want to wash your feet, too?’ I told him I was going to wash them later and came home. Unbelievable!” No one should ever be fooled. Six years ago, this woman found her virginity too tiresome and gave it away for practically nothing. Since then for five years, she has never taken a break. This is something I should know and something I already know, but I have a sudden change of heart and ask, “Hold on, how much did everything cost?” Two mandarin oranges, twenty jeon at the most. And I almost forgot about the candle, also twenty jeon. The sponge cake—twenty jeon. Then does that mean the goat milk cost nothing? “Forty-three jeon altogether.” “Wow.” “What do you mean by wow?” “That’s an indivisible number.” “A prime number?” That’s right. Incredible. 9
“That’s incredible!” Oppose the Beggar When it’s time to stage such a scene, this act of revenge will fizzle out in perfection, or near perfection at the very least. For a woman to confess her fate to me and for me to easily listen to that confession of fate, you could say I’m relatively happy, since I’m in the same position as a priest who’s listening to the penitent. But I’m clever. Because I’m clever, I never betray any sign of happiness on my face. In order to silently apply this “logic,” I don’t shave my ugly beard, because it is the most natural of all the natural styles. But this stupid woman never mentions the ugly patches of hair on my chin. That’s because even the act of confessing her fate has been just a show, and she doesn’t have sufficient affection for me. In fact, she has no affection for me. To be honest, I don’t even hope for affection. Let’s say that I went out with my bride the day after we got married and had the good fortune of losing her on the street. Then would I lose sleep, looking for her? Right around then, I vaguely hope an important message arrives for me. “On a certain day of a certain month, I have found a girl on the street who is confirmed to be your wife. You have been notified, please come and claim her.” Still, I stubbornly refuse to go. Let her come on her own two feet, I think. My mind is only filled with thoughts of vast freedom. Just as someone who doesn’t know which pocket holds his wallet is most likely to lose his wallet, I take care not to take any notice of my bride Yim as I walk down the street. To be honest, I have a migraine. In May, the streets here in the city’s outskirts are blinding; I’m dizzy. Whip a Galloping Horse That’s what it feels like. Since Yim isn’t walking ahead of me, this day which is the day after we got married, does this mean there’s no place she wants to go? Can she actually be lonely? As though I’m whipping a galloping horse, I walk reluctantly at a relaxed pace, wanting to see where Yim’s small steps would finally end in a swoon, but surprise, surprise, she’s gone. From what I’ve heard, when an aristocrat wants to take a turn around the garden, the animals take the lead. Should I be surprised that I’m taking the lead? In this kind of situation, it is more dignified for me to remain cool and collected? 10
Even still, she has suddenly vanished. Thinking about my solitude and my old age while not being aware that I’m standing at the corner of a bank, I look three or four times around me. Girls in westernstyle clothes with short hair are rare. “Can she be lost?” When an approaching event finally approaches, I must get my bumbling body under control. But like magic Yim comes out of the main doors of the bank. Her heels look quite a bit bulkier than before, but this isn’t strange. “I changed all the ten-won coins into ten-jeon coins. Just look at this, look how much I got! Put them all in your pocket.” It meant that my exhilarating phrase—whipping a galloping horse—had finally entered a slump. I’m not pleased. Still, I don’t dare put on an agreeable expression in front of this girl. So I quickly say, “A souvenir!” If two people walk toward the same object at the same, balanced pace, they may appear to be intimate, but I command my mind to be patient and begin my paradoxical revenge. How long must I bear this jealousy? This is proof that she had no affection from the beginning! But as long as the word “revenge” falls from my lips, I can stubbornly insist that I, at least, have affection for Yim. Now look here! I find my tired feet and Yim’s pair of high heels standing before Yun’s front door, but she isn’t upset—shrewd girl! She’s both calm and composed. Yun isn’t home. Since this gives me an unexpected opportunity to test Yim, I write, “Come to Diamond by 5 P.M.” I give the note to Yun’s housekeeper and glance over at Yim, but— On an impulse, I find an explanation for myself about blood types that contain no pigment as though I’m on her side. A face that doesn’t change color even when faced with a storm is the root of suffering. I am a man of hallucination, unable to recall an image of a single tree after wandering through a thick forest all day. All expressions look the same to me, like tombstones in a cemetery, so how am I supposed to extract dignity from this bustling anxiety? I hesitate so much in front of the entrance of Diamond café that it’s the first time I end up unable to enter. If Yun should arrive… Even the waiter boy here knows that Yun and Yim are a couple that loves the dark corner, so I write again: “I will expect you at your house for dinner at 6 P.M. Signed an unforeseen Husband and Wife.” I hand the note to the waiter boy and leave. I had no intention of buying this vile toy, Doughty Dog. I had merely taken a bit of a gamble with the change from the ten-won coins and Yim’s indecipherable mood. What happens at 6 o’clock completely destroys me. Suppose (I say to Yun)— 11
“Ah, you’re home. Did you go to Diamond? I left a note there saying I was coming over at six for dinner. Am I right to think drinks will also be served?” “Of course I went to the café. My wife’s gone out somewhere, so dinner isn’t ready, and I’ve already had a drink.” First of all, Yun never went to Diamond. The housekeeper said so herself, that he came home not five minutes after we had left and had been waiting here ever since. In other words, he hadn’t even bothered to meet me at 5 P.M. “You’re awfully arrogant,” I nearly say, but I stop myself. Instead, I stick out my belly a little and say, “Let me introduce my wife. The name’s Yim.” “Your wife? I could have sworn she was my wife! She looks exactly like my wife!” “I’m sorry, but let me say one more thing. So I’ve picked up a fountain pen to write this stupid threepenny novel. My theory is that memory, in short, is something that can’t be grasped like this fountain pen. What do you say about that?” “I’d say you’ve bitten off far more than you can chew. I told you, you’re not cut out for this aristocratic hobby. Your health isn’t great, so why don’t you just worry about yourself? No matter how much fuss you make, what are you supposed to do with a fountain pen you’ve thrown out once already?” My face grows still. I have nothing to say. Looking for something to do, I take out the Doughty Dog and wind up the spring. The greyhound has a shoe in his mouth that is as big as himself; he shakes and jerks it around. But no matter how much he shakes the shoe, the hard-line positions of the shoe and dog don’t change. I find this terribly pathetic, and I also feel dirty. Does “doughty” mean dirty? Or does it mean anxious? I cannot bear the threat of these words. “To tell you the truth, when I came home, I was surprised to hear from my housekeeper that a man who looked to be about forty had come looking for me, along with a girl who looked around seventeen. She said the girl appeared to be his daughter or his mistress. I read the note, but you didn’t write down your name, so I had no idea it was you. I thought about going to Diamond, but who was I supposed to look for? So I thought I’d just sit tight and wait right here. I figured whoever it was, if he wanted to see me, he’d come looking for me. But things have gotten a little mixed up, haven’t they? Ha ha.” Seizing this great opportunity, I look back at Yim once more. She takes her stubby fishlike hands that have fondled two different men and deftly winds the spring on the Doughty Dog. This is the reason for my irritation or this is my guilty sin. Ah—ah— I want to cry, “Ah—ah—” but I cannot ignore this dirty, wet moan, until I prepare the words that will hold up my disintegrating body. Clear Statement
Is a woman indeed a supple being, like nature’s gift, whose precondition for thought is the duty of looking upon man from start to finish? The next instant, my very last taste cries, “No more animals.” I want to toss everything into the field of oblivion, save for a thin strand of taste, and cross the threshold of myself. Oh, the pain! I detest the smile of an ominous apparition reflected in a mirror. I want to laugh a merry laugh, the kind you could feel with your hands if you wanted to. Not the kind that contains pain, not the kind that doesn’t contain pain. I want to look back from this dirty murkiness with the aloof stance of someone who’s been dropped off on a street in the middle of the night— This will require no small measure of skill. Like a knife slicing through water, I say, “That’s right! I almost forgot T’s getting paid today. (But the rest of the words I don’t spit out hang from my tongue like eels, tickling me. Yun is as impassive as a plant; is he wearing a bulletproof vest that wards off humanity?) But Yun, listen to me! Yim’s naked body you say you’ve licked every inch of—all you’ve tasted is the soapsuds she wears when she’s bathing! Now—no, for the first time in history, I’m the one who has the monopoly over her naked body! So why don’t you stop right there and get rid of your brutish arrogance? Do you understand me?” Yun’s face is ruddy, as though the rays of the setting sun are hitting his face. His sneer, gleaming like fat, spreads across his face and stirs up my antagonism. As though he feels sorry for me, Yun says, “I’ve put up with you until now, but if you insist on acting this way, I might slap you across the face.” Yim, who has been watching the greyhound shake the shoe until he finally stopped, raises her hand like a dancer’s, as though asking us why we won’t submit our foolish argument to her judgment, and says, “I am the goddess of the Dioscuri. Why don’t you switch heads for once? Impossible, isn’t it? So stop it, both of you. The body I gave to Yun came with its own set of virtues, just as my marriage yesterday also came with its own set of virtues, so there’s no need to show off or get jealous. So stop this right now and shake hands like good fellows, all right?” Yun and I don’t shake hands. I don’t know about Yun, but I feel as though a rod of discipline, more terrible than a handshake, has landed on me. Isn’t this an omen that I will end up as flat as a herring if I continue to sit here? When fear creeps in, I jump to my feet and consider spitting out the window, but I calm myself and say, “Just know you’ll never set your eyes on Yim’s naked body again, even if you had all the money in the world. Instead of simply putting up with me, why don’t we live our separate lives in peace?” “Everyone knows that the man who comes in second place ten times still cannot lift his face in front of the one who comes in first place only once. You should have enough sense to know this, so why all the fuss? And what’s this ‘all the money in the 13
world’ nonsense? You should know something about me. The more a woman refuses me, the more I chase after her, but the moment she shows any sign of affection for me—in other words, the moment I touch that last object of hers, I end up despising her. You talk about living in peace and all, but I’m telling you the honest truth here. I hate those who are lower than me. After a woman shows her last object to a man, all she can do is crawl to the bottom and gaze up at him. This is something I can’t stand.” I turn away. It is difficult to bear such thorough abuse. Yun lights his cigarette again and rummages through his pocket. Is he looking for a weapon to kill me with? He can’t be looking for a light, since his cigarette is already lit— “Here’s ten won. Don’t bother poor T for money and why don’t you buy him a drink instead? You seem pretty depressed today about your threepenny pride, so it’s probably not a good idea to be with your so-called bride. So why don’t I take her to the cinema, borrow her for a bit, so to speak? Why, does that make you feel uneasy?” “You know, you don’t need to plan my every moment. But I do need to step out on my own for a while, so Yim, why don’t you go to the cinema with Yun? You like the cinema, right?” But even before I finish speaking, Yim says bitterly, “I don’t have the right to pity my husband or treat him like some charity case. No one does. You shouldn’t take that money. Here, take this instead.” She hands over a stack of ten-jeon coins. “Ha ha ha, would you look at that.” As though killing an insect, Yun squelches his cigarette in the ashtray and refuses to wipe the grin off his face. To be honest, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think the same thing when I saw all those coins. But I put on a smile, rub Yim’s back, put a fistful of the change in my pocket, and prepare to be on my way. “Once I’m done, I’ll be waiting outside the cinema entrance. Where is it again?” “At Dansungsa. But I have to say you stole the pleasure of treating my friend to a few drinks. What a shame.” Everything is spinning for at least a hundred paces up ahead. I stagger along from the dizziness; it’s not something I can show off to anyone. Text “A love affair—how about a love affair with no obligation to fidelity? I enjoy those. Do you believe me? But the day I take up the responsibility of fidelity, my conscience will obliterate all memories of past love affairs. You have to believe me.” Criticism: According to Yim’s explanation that is explained below, the above is bound to become Yim’s clever lies. “Even when there is an obligation to fidelity, a love affair that is managed in the following manner can be forgiven—this is strictly my personal opinion though. The wife 14
or the husband, using whatever method of preference, must carry out the love affair in secret, smoothly, and leave no trace behind. Do you follow me? However, instances where this isn’t permitted would result in guilt and pain. Since I’m familiar with both guilt and pain, it would be difficult for me. Do you believe me? Please believe me.” Criticism: Here near the end of the passage where she says it would be difficult for her is obviously a lie. This is evident in the next part—also in her handwriting— where she happens to divulge her subconscious thoughts. “Incapable of having an affair and not having an affair are two very different things. They don’t change depending on the circumstance. So what of it? Let me explain. Be happy for me. It’s not that I’m incapable of having an affair. I’m choosing not to have one. An affair is a self-conscious romance, that’s all it is. When I think of how a person may be incapable of having an affair, as opposed to choosing not to have one, a word comes to mind: Nausea. This, to me, is an unbearable physical punishment. Every spontaneous stance of the body somehow seems like a piece of rag that will leave behind shame for future generations. Be happy for me. I hope you’ll love me in line with this view.” Criticism: I don’t like it, but I will cancel my stance that was about to dash at Yim from this close range to rebuke her. It is loftier, when measuring by sophistication and knowledge, to not have an affair, than to be incapable of having one. But to say that she’s choosing not to have an affair, rather than being incapable of having one, makes it sound like a conditional contract, which means that she could at any time, without any hesitation or consideration for modesty, decide to have an affair, depending on my mood. It’s as though she’s forcing me to install a safe zone in the middle of a busy road. In order to guide you to an epilogue that I myself find offensive, why don’t I construct the following conversation, as though treading on thin ice? “You don’t think you’re being brazen when you enter my castle gates with such boldness, bearing the body you gave away to not just two men, as you claim, but probably far more than that in reality?” “Let me remind you that you flaunted that distinguished body of yours to countless prostitutes at a low price. It’s the same thing.” “Ha ha! It seems you don’t have a clue about the kind of social structure we live in! Do you think this is Tibet? Or do you think we’re still stuck in the pithecanthropus age when men nursed babies? Ridiculous! I’m sorry, but men have no concept of the flesh. You understand?” “I’m sorry, but you’re the one who’s backwards here. Fidelity needs to be determined case by case. Do you think we still live in a barbaric age of plunder and rape when men could simply carry off their brides?” “According to man’s authority in matters of the flesh, jealousy is an instinct, not some scrap of sophistication. Do you think your knack for ignoring this instinct or arranging everything with your tasteful kiddy gloves will actually work? 15
“Then in all fairness, based on your definition of ‘instinct,’ I, too, will dig jealously through your past. Let’s see—should I start counting?” Criticism: There is nothing in my textbook from this point. Anticipating a fresh set of morals, I resolve to cast off my outdated dignity. The only thing my inadequate effort must acquire from now on is knowledge that I’m able to shed. Several years after I turn sixty and for as long as my knees are able to support me, I want to go to a teashop with my grandchildren in tow, my grandchildren who are like a cluster of grapes made from oak. My à la mode is my current sorrow that wants to calmly face my grandchildren. Failure I fear that at this rate my health regimen, which is my last known neutral zone, might simply break down. With the utmost care, I need to examine whether toxic vermin have made a home on my seat. As I sit over watered-down drinks across from T, my eyes are damp. It’s to be expected, since I’ve been thinking of killing myself this whole time, in a way that perfectly suits my situation— The verdict concerning my suicide is as follows: “The accused has cooperated in squandering his life, so to extend his life by a single day would raise the operating costs of the universe. Therefore, the accused shall go forth into the rat hole that has been prepared for him and not turn back once, not even to look at his own tail.” There it is. My language has already been squandered on this vast earth, to the extent my mind has become a cavern and my thoughts have grown impoverished. But I cannot simply shut my mouth and stay sealed like a honey jar, so that I can safely sleep through this long stretch of time, so that I can streamline my fantasies. “The hot-air balloon invented by the Montgolfier brothers will hinder the development of the airplane which is heavier than air. Likewise, a bird’s wings, which were the clue and starting point of the airplane heavier than air, will hinder the development of today’s airplane. In other words, the effort to fly a plane by studying a pair of fluttering wings is the same as attaching four hooves to a machine instead of inventing wheels, just as the rational behind a galloping horse had been used to build a car. It’s a dead language without intonation. Naturally. To borrow the words of Jean Cocteau.
However, I seem to have blabbered on in my own words about my one despair— no, my one hope—after fixing its tense. “I am secretly in love with a certain female writer!” That female writer possesses a merry negligence that inserts a spelling mistake in every line of her work. All I can do is show her my ugly behavior. Fortunately though, this woman has already borne a child. But don’t take what I say seriously. It is merely a tool I use to maintain my honor. “I was angry because I couldn’t marry the woman I wanted to marry, so I ended up marrying someone I didn’t want to marry, someone who also didn’t want to marry me. As a consequence another woman who had surprisingly wanted to marry me became angry and ended up marrying another man. So right now I’m standing bewilderedly on top of a marriage that is rapidly falling apart—it’s basically a tricuspid act.” T stares at me, as though he feels sorry for me. “Since you’re having such a difficult time, why don’t you go abroad for a while? Go learn a new language, meet new people, start over, and build a new life for yourself, little by little. This seems to be the only thing that will save you from committing suicide. Is it wrong of me to think that?” Suicide? Does that mean T is on to me? “Don’t be so shocked. I could tell you were thinking of committing suicide from the fact that you don’t carry around a knife in your pocket. And of course this epigram, too, isn’t mine—I’ve borrowed it from someone else.” If I continue to sit here, I feel that I will blow up like a blowfish. We narrowly escape the bar and walk toward the entrance of Dansungsa just in time and wait for about three minutes. Yun and Yim walk out side by side, like two columns of text. I decide to watch the premiere of The Flame Within with T. Yun hesitates for quite a while and then finally says to me, “Take the baton.” But I don’t. Bowing deeply, I say, “Oh, first-place winner! Please just ignore me and pass me by, the way a train would pass by small stations like so many stones along its way.” In that instant, venom blooms on Yim’s face. It’s only natural. It was about time that I threw out the honor of the second-place winner. So I hastily withdrew from the relay race. In this case as well, as a vagabond who has squandered all his language, I have paid the monthly rent with the words of the formidable Riichi Yokomitsu. Yim and Yun disappear into the crowd. Inside the darkness of the theater, T and I sit shoulder to shoulder and watch a comedy about characters that have traded places. There’s a sharp pain in my lower belly. When I press down on it with my palm, the air gets pushed up my body and threatens to burst out of my mouth as laughter. I crave a little opium. Since I’m a barbarian who cannot be cautious, I need to be about half dead in order to stay out of trouble. 17
On the screen those who should die are struggling to stay alive and those who are alive are struggling to die. A man, stroking and fondling his mustache, turns toward the audience and says, “Our doctor doggedly insists on saving the lives of those who want to die while he himself doggedly plods through this difficult life. Isn’t it absurd?” In other words, those trying to develop cars with hoofs were running about on the screen. Sitting in the space emptied of all people, a sinking terror gradually comes over me, as though heavy fruit seeds hang from my belt. Just as my mind becomes dim, T quietly slips a gleaming knife into my hand. (He is telling me to take revenge.) (Am I supposed to stab Yun? Would it not result in my ultimate defeat? I don’t want to stab Yun.) (Then am I supposed to stab Yim? To think that I must pass into the next world while picturing the venom in her eyes.) My heart is paralyzed with fear. My teeth gnash against each other. (Aha, he must be telling me to kill myself. Oh, it’s difficult. It’s difficult, too difficult.) In the next instant, as if to taunt my cowardice, T slips a warm hunk of something in my hand. Surprise, surprise, it’s a mandarin orange. It seems that T had it in his pocket the whole time. Before my mouth begins to water, my eyes tear up with teardrops that don’t form, like condensation on a cooling cup.