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Consumpt i on


Tr ans l at edbyJ anetHong

Consumption By Choi Seo-hae Translated by Janet Hong

Literature Translation Institute of Korea


Originally published in Korean as Tohyeol in Donga Ilbo, 1924 Translation ⓒ 2014 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 Choi, Seo-hae Consumption [electronic resource] / by Choi Seo-hae ; translated by Janet Hong. -- [Seoul] : Literature Translation Institute of Korea, 2014 p. 원표제: 토혈 Translated from Korean ISBN 978-89-93360-60-8 95810 : Not for sale 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21



About Choi Seo-hae

Choi Seo-hae (1901-1932) is one of the major writers of early proletarian literature from the 1920s. Designated as the first of the Anti-Conventional School, Choi’s works heralded the arrival of a new kind of Literature of Poverty in the history of Korean literature. Born in Seongjin in North Hamgyeong Province in 1901, Choi grew up in extreme poverty. He wandered the Gando area from an early age, leading a rock-bottom existence, but despite a lack of formal education, he had a burning desire to pursue literature. He was able to debut as a writer when “Homeland” was published in Chosun Mundan in 1924 on the recommendation of the writer and activist Yi Kwang-su. His representative works, such as “Escape,” “Hunger and Slaughter,” “The Death of Bakdol,” “Seizing the Big Water,” “The Tyrant,” and “Bloody Flames,” take as their subjects struggling destitute characters who reject the established order and pursue survival through murder and arson. Although his vivid descriptions about poverty that have been borne of his personal experience are striking, the abrupt leaps in exposition tend to undermine the overall artistic composition. Choi’s debut story, “Homeland,” which depicts the hardships and frustration of one Korean man during the colonial era, is unlike the rest of his works, for the story is devoid of “anti-conventional” aspects. Although the motivations of the main character Unsim and the cause of his discontent remain unclear, the story still introduces the basic elements that characterize the rest of his fiction. Both “Consumption” and “Hunger and Slaughter” are clearly more in line with the rest of Choi’s work in terms of style and treatment. “Consumption,” with which Choi also debuted in 1924 when it was published in the Donga Ilbo, depicts the sufferings and pressures of a destitute man who cannot provide for his elderly mother, ailing wife, and young daughter. Their troubles increase as the story progresses, with the story ending in bleak despair when the protagonist’s mother is mortally wounded. In “Hunger and Slaughter,” which was published the following year and is essentially the same story as “Consumption,” we see Choi’s attempt at expanding and reworking many of the same themes and concerns. Names and the perspective have changed, and the thoughts of the main character, Kyeongsu, have been expanded to better illustrate his inner torment. However, the most significant and drastic change is the ending. Instead of simply fading out in passive despair, “Hunger and Slaughter” ends in tragic violence. Established in 1925, the Korean Federation of Proletarian Art (Korea Artista Proletera Federatio; KAPF) praised Choi Seo-hae’s works for serving the ideological purposes of the Party. However, it is difficult to say that Choi’s Literature of Poverty adhered exactly to Party principles, in the fact that his work had been shaped mainly by his own experience. This is also the reason why Choi’s work could not fuse with KAPF’s 3

ideology in the end and came under attack. After this period, Choi turned his attention on portraying the everyday joys and sorrows of the petit bourgeoisie, but his work was not met with a positive response and he ended up dying at an early age in 1932.



It is February and spring has not yet come to this northern region. The sky is filled with gray clouds, as though it is going to snow. The wind passing over the Wojil Pass is extremely cold. The day is already darkening. I sink down outside my hut with the heavy load of wood I barely managed to carry still on my back. My joints are numb with cold, sweat drips from my forehead, and my whole body feels feverish. Now that I’m home, I don’t even have the energy to remove my burden. I’ve known only fine things until now. Although I might have experienced some emotional distress, I have never known any physical anguish. I have no brothers or sisters. As for my father, he went overseas when I was still a babe and that was the last I heard of him. And so it was my mother who raised me. As her only son and child, she doted on me and I led a sheltered existence. We weren’t able to amass a fortune, but because she was skilled and clever our lives were not difficult. Saving little by little, she fed and clothed me with fine things. We lived comfortably, knowing no lack. I had never even carried a load of wood before. I would have shuddered to set my eyes on the shabby clothes that I now wear. The fate of my family now depends on me. It is up to me whether they eat or starve. Mother is an old woman now, her hair is entirely white. Even her acumen has declined with age. I also have a wife. I even have a child named Mongju who turned three this year. But for over a month now, my wife has been moaning on her sickbed. I still haven’t found any work. There is not one soul who has helped us in this unfamiliar land. We are badly off. Now that it’s my turn to provide for Mother, I cannot give her, who has endured every kind of trouble to raise the son she loved, even a chance to eat her fill of cold millet. But worse than that, I have yet to give my wife, who lies wrapped in a thin sheet moaning on the cold kitchen hearth, even a sip of warm medicine. Every time I, the so-called penniless head of this household, look upon my starving mother and wife who are dressed in rags, I am so filled with shame that I cannot even lift my head. However, they never show any signs of discontent. Hearing me put down my load outside the hut, Mongju looks through the window opening and calls, “Dad!” She taps on the door, as though happy to see me. Through the window, I see her gentle, smiling eyes—her dark eyes like wild grapes—and for a moment, I forget all my pain and sorrow. I feel a beautiful love that is difficult to describe. Right then, my mother opens the kitchen door and looks out. Etched on her old face is the passage of time, a record of every kind of grief, torment, and worry. Seeing that face, I feel as though a knife is shredding my heart into pieces. 5

“Oh, you just got back … you must be hungry,” she says with a painful smile. “I’m all right. I had a big breakfast,” I answer as cheerfully as I can, pretending not to feel any pain. But to be honest, I am hungry. I take off my heavy load. Every time I move, the smell of sweat wafts from my soiled clothes and stings my nostrils. I remove the sickle from my belt and step into the kitchen. The kitchen is poorly heated. It is dark outside and the walls and window are dingy with smoke, making the inside even dimmer and the air, oppressive and unpleasant. It makes me think of a secret basement cell I once read about in a western novel. Mongju smiles and clings to my pants. My wife’s once plump face is now just skin with a blue tinge. Lying quietly by the hearth, she listlessly opens her crinkled eyes to look at me and then shuts them again. Her weak breathing is fast, as though it pains her to breathe. I hold Mongju and take a seat by the window. Mother sits by my sick wife. Mongju fiddles with the buttons on my vest, takes out scraps of paper from my pocket and puts them back again, and smiles at me. As always, her smile is full of innocence, but my heart aches. Every time I see her—my daughter who doesn’t own a single skirt and had to spend the entire winter in the ice-cold room without a bottom to cover her—tears pour from my eyes. Ah, do I even have the right to be a father? It’s enough to drive me mad. My insides seethe. I want to wail out loud. I send Mongju to Mother and lay my head on a wooden pillow. I clench my eyes shut. My stomach hurts. The stomach troubles I have had for several years have not gotten any better. But I don’t show any signs of pain. An evil spirit spews fiery flames toward our home. Our house goes up in flames. It burns quickly. My family also goes up in flames. I open my eyes, writhing. It was just a nightmare. I close my eyes again. But I can’t calm my mind. I pick up the old newspaper by my head and open it. But I read it thoughtlessly. It is impossible to register any of the words while my mind is so ill at ease. I cover my face with the newspaper and close my eyes again. My wife’s moans grow louder. I suddenly think that it would be a relief if everyone died. If my mother, my wife, and even Mongju died… If that happened, if I buried them all in the ground, what would happen to me then? After being rid of all that weight, would I finally be free? No, no, of course not. They’re people too. They cherish their lives. It is up to the universe to decide their fates. They cherish their lives, just as I cherish mine. They, too, have the right to live. Why die? Why? Why must we die? Without thinking, I clench my fists. “Darling...” my wife whispers. “What is it?” I get to my feet at once with a scowl, replying as though I’m annoyed. But I’m not upset at her. If anything, I’m upset at myself. Hearing my curt reply, she gazes at my irritated face and shuts her eyes again. Tears seep from her closed eyes. My insides tear into a thousand pieces. Why did I take out my frustration on her? Couldn’t I have at least made things comfortable for her, when I couldn’t even properly tend to her sickness? I’m overwhelmed by shame and remorse. 6

I go to her side and massage her arms. Her limbs twist and shrink and writhe. She starts to convulse. She looks utterly wretched. Her forehead beads with sweat. Her breathing grows ragged. I think: “She’s going to die!” “Sweetheart,” I say. Her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth and she is unable to answer. Her eyes become bloodshot. They flash open and close again. Mother, who has been massaging my wife’s legs, begins to weep. “We’ve let you die … we’ve let you die without giving you even a taste of medicine…” she wails. “Mommy, Mommy,” says Mongju, who, oblivious to what is happening, climbs atop her unconscious mother to nurse at her breast. Tears stream from my eyes. What can I do? “If only we could call a doctor and get some medicine! Go explain our situation and find someone,” my mother says, half weeping. I stand up without a word. The day is already dark. Smoke rises from every house announcing dinner. The wind grows crueler. I summon a doctor who has a reputation for being bold. I beg him to come. After taking her pulse, he says, “It’s serious. But it can be fixed.” I feel somewhat relieved. Welcoming the news, my mother says, “Then please help her. So she isn’t going to die?” “She won’t die, but…” says the doctor, hesitating. His eyes sparkle strangely. Wondering whatever is the matter, I ask, “Then what’s the problem, doctor?” “There’s no problem, it’s just that people these days take the credit themselves when someone gets better…” With that, he sits facing the other way and turns up his nose. I have no idea when she’d gotten it ready, but Mother sets a table with drinks before the doctor. Assessing the situation, I pour him a drink and say, “Now who would do something like that?” The doctor drinks. Then stroking his beard, he says, “Then why don’t we sign a contract?” My heart sinks for some reason. “What kind of contract?” I ask. “I’ll fix that sickness right now if you give me a hundred won,” he says in a voice triumphant and full of authority. I cannot answer right away. I doubt whether I could ever come up with that kind of money. If I can’t, my wife—the wife I love who has suffered all kinds of hardships— will die. I wonder how the world can be so heartless and cruel. Right then, Mother says, “Of course we will give you a hundred won. Please just save her, we beg you.” “Really?” asks the doctor. My mother assures him. “Then let’s sign a contract.” 7

“Is our word not good enough? Do you think we’ll pretend this never happened because there is no contract? If only you can save her, we’ll never forget this debt…” Even as I reply, an animosity that wants to defy him at all cost rises up inside me. That damned good-for-nothing! If he manages to save my wife, I am going to make sure he never gets a hundred li, let alone a hundred won! The doctor pushes needles into her limbs. I take her hand. After inserting all the needles, the doctor writes up a prescription. His skills are surprisingly impressive. My wife gets better. Her limbs relax. Even her breathing grows steady. As though he has achieved some kind of victory, he smiles in satisfaction and says, “Well, of course… Of course she was going to get better. Don’t forget our agreement now. Goodbye.” With that, he gets to his feet. After he leaves, I go to the pharmacy. I pace back and forth in front of the shop and then finally make up my mind and step inside. The smell of herbs and medicine stings my nostrils. I set down the prescription. The owner who is sitting arrogantly in his seat looks at the prescription and asks, “Well, did you bring any money?” He picks up an abacus and calculates the cost of the medicine. Right then, he seems like God to me. But at the same time, the sight of him makes me sick. “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring the money. I’ll have it for you by tomorrow,” I answer politely. “Then I can’t fill it for you,” he says, handing the paper back to me. “Sir, it’s urgent. Please, won’t you make it?” I beg. “Don’t be foolish. Just bring the money,” he says and disappears into his house in the back. Tears cloud my vision and all my strength leaves me. Rage surges up. I return home. It is already evening. The dark air inside is depressing. My wife is still lying in the same spot by the kitchen hearth. “Where did you go?” she asks me. “Yes?” But I have no idea what I meant by that. It was merely a sound of sorrow and bitterness. I didn’t know how to respond. I couldn’t tell her that I had gone out to get her medicine, only to return empty-handed. “How do you feel?” I ask weakly. “Better,” she says, struggling to sit up. I light the fish oil lamp that hangs outside. The light shines into the room. Mother is not home. When I ask my wife where Mother is, she replies, as though worried, “She went out right after you left, but she hasn’t come back yet.” For some reason, I feel uneasy. The night air flowing in through the open window is frigid.


Mongju is fast asleep by my wife’s side. As I gaze at her, I think: What a miserable fate. Why were you born to me, only to starve like this? My heart aches. I touch her soft, tender cheek. “Why did your bind up your finger like that?” my wife asks suspiciously, looking at my left index finger. “Oh, I nicked myself with the sickle,” I answer. “The sickle?” she asks, saying no more. “Uh-huh.” I look at my hand. It is hard to believe that it belongs to me. I never thought my once-soft hands would look like this. Right then, someone outside calls for me. I could hear the commotion of several people talking. “Oh my god, how dreadful…” a woman’s voice says. My eyes grow large. For some reason, my heart sinks and I think of my mother. I run outside. It’s my neighbor Lee who’s calling me. He looks at me and says calmly, “Over there.” In the dark, a man is carrying something on his back. I run up to him. But ah, what is this? The thing on his back is my mother. I grab her icy hand and shout, “Mother!” Mother, who is unconscious, does not reply. I feel as though my insides are shriveling and drying up. “Mother!” I shout again. But she remains silent. Kim, who followed from behind with a small bundle, says, “Why don’t we take her inside?” We lay her down inside the room. Her grimy clothes, which she had worn since last fall, are dark with blood. Blood flows from her face and legs. I clasp her cold hand and embrace her. She does not wake. She is still breathing, but her breathing is very weak. The people sitting and standing around in the room chatter loudly. “What on earth happened?” I ask. This is what Kim says. Kim had gone to Sunam village that evening and was on his way back when he heard a dog barking incessantly. It was the dog that belonged to the Chinese family near the corner of the big bridge. Then mixed in with the noisy barking, he heard someone shouting, “Help! Help!” When Kim ran up to see, he discovered that the person shouting for help was my mother. Even while the dog was attacking her, she held onto her little bundle. He managed to chase away the dog and the person who was accompanying Kim carried Mother on his back and Kim followed with the bundle. “What’s in that bundle?” Lee asks. It is only two or three handfuls of millet. Mother had gone to Sunam to get food. She had taken off her hairpiece to sell for our supper. My wife begins to weep. Despite her sickness, she wails loudly. Even Mongju, who had been sleeping, wakes up from the noise. She goes up to Mother and holds her face with both hands, saying, “Up, up!” She is telling Mother to get 9

up. But Mother doesn’t move. Then Mongju starts to cry. Not one soul offers to boil water for Mother. I don’t weep. There are no tears. My heart fills with rage. I want to smash something, I want to run wild. All of a sudden, I feel dizzy. I can’t breathe. A foul stench surges up from my throat and pierces my nose. My breathing grows ragged. It feels like my heart is going to stop. Gagging, I hit my chest. Someone pounds my back. I retch. What comes out is a lump of blood. Ah, what a miserable life! The sounds of my wife and Mongju crying ring dimly in my ears…



Born in Seongjin in North Hamgyeong Province in 1901, Choi Seo-hae (1901-1932) wandered the Gando area from an early age, leading a rock-bot...

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