Dyi ngWor ds
Tr ans l at edbyJ anetHong, J ackJ ung
Dying Words By Yi Sang Translated by Jack Jung and Janet Hong
Originally published in Korean as Jongsaenggi in Jogwang, 1937 Translation ⓒ 2013 by Jack Jung and 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 Dying words [electronic resource] = 종생기 / [written by]Yi Sang ; translated by Jack Jung, Janet Hong. -- Seoul : Literature Translation Institute of Korea, 2013 p. ISBN 978-89-93360-14-1 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.
About “Dying Words” “Dying Words” is a confessional story, narrated by a character named Yi Sang. By the narrator’s self-deprecating manner, the reader can tell that this character is a parody of the real Yi Sang. This story is one of three, along with “Wings” and “Child’s Bone,” that takes the relationship between man and woman as its subject. This particular story, which is about a man who loves an unfaithful woman, juxtaposes the past and present to build the narrator’s inner world. As suggested in the title, this work foretells Yi Sang’s own imminent death.
“The coral is lost between the cracks…” Having forgotten to place “whip” after “coral,” I may have messed up the poem already. I should be ashamed of myself as I look to the heavens, but the shape of my error, ever growing in human wisdom, is truer to life. Even if I should die, I shall die clutching the coral whip. A phoenix shall come and perch on top of my tattered clothes, the clothes of a poor scholar, on top of my fading bones. I will reveal my economical writing style, a style whose thrift equals my desperation that my “Dying Words” strike terror into all those gentlemen-scholars whose eyes are open on this earth. There was once a soldier, notorious, but he could not avoid becoming a hero after one gunshot. Thankfully, he did not blubber out some last words on the final day of his ninety-odd years; in this way, he passed his death scene very safely (whew!). But our Leochika—Tolstoy’s nickname—packed his traveler’s bag and left home as he was dying, which was fine, but in his final five minutes he made a mess of things. With obnoxious last words, he destroyed the tower he had built over the course of seventy years and left a permanent scratch on what was otherwise a good life. I have been slyly observing the lives of these imbecile saints; I will not make the same mistake. I shave while looking into a mirror. I make a mistake and cut myself. I get angry. But I collide with all the versions of me swarming about. They do their best to apologize; it is difficult to find the guilty party. That is probably why the ignorant masses rest easy, saying “monkey see, monkey do.” But the truth is, humans are mimicking monkeys; humans do not understand the lessons of the past. Aha. Each of Adam and Eve’s impulsive habits from long ago has been eradicated. In between reactions and more reactions, when my self-consciousness might imprison my finger for an instant as brief as a flash of lightening, I might rub the bridge of my nose, a bizarre rock that has been neglected at the center of my meaningless days. Or in between our noble conversations linked and laid out like iron chains, a window surely allows a gleaming blade that swiftly cuts through my self-consciousness for an instant, in which case I might begin to worry that there might be sleep in my eyes—my eyes which are my most valuable treasures and should be as clear as the clearest mirror—and take out a suitably wrinkled handkerchief to rub them—
My soul and body’s languor follows (and returns after seeing) every trivial smoky and fiery act of human beings, and reports all that it has seen back to my brain, and I am overwhelmed with such busyness. I cannot handle it. But I would like to boast of my most treasured coral whip. “Trash” and “cabbage.” Sir, do you understand the mood of these dirty words? I think that on the day you were married in a Christian ceremony, you must have felt at the nave and aisle a similar depth of feeling as that given off by “trash” and “cabbage.” Is it not so? I’m trying to scatter ribbons like “trash” or “cabbage”—the tedious ornaments planted pitifully all over my dying words— Fortunately applause follows. The end. * “The extravagant girl,” “standing by a stream bank during the spring thaw,” “her lips turning pale like falling petals,” “wondering what moves under the thin ice,” “lowers her head as if to peek,” “just then comes a balmy spring breeze,” “skirts,” no, no, “to touch the very.” No, no, “the somewhat,” “sad-looking hair with a scarlet ribbon,” enough. No more. But I should make an earnest effort to add another wretched phrase. “Fluttering, fluttering.” This is certainly a fully prepared metaphorical device. In order to clearly depict the famous coral whip that will adorn the preamble of my dying words, I have prepared above these undeservedly extravagant and formidable furnishings. However— Perhaps this is too much. Since there is enlightenment under heaven, I worry that one may become exposed all too hastily if my words are not gilded enough. But— Let’s just write as the words flow. I am alone, lying in my filthy room, dying. The autumn wind is desolate. According to my father and mother, I am without a doubt “a beautiful boy of rosy cheeks,” aged twenty-five years and eleven months. And yet I am most definitely an old man. Every single day “life is short and art is long.” It’s a wonderful life. Every day I am fated to die. When I awake from the sleep I have been sleeping— how long ago did I begin this sleep that I sleep—a bone-painful life resumes and even though I lie down and cover myself with blankets, I witness the squandering of my youth. I eat poorly in my old age. I will face my death in twelve hours. I cannot avoid thinking about many things, searching for the last words that might have become lost somewhere along the way. When I find them, I pick out the few that seem sophisticated. But in this lonely final year I cannot gain a single epigram. I die the horrible death of a criminal. 5
A single day in the life— And thus ended a life of a single day, and then ended, above all else (before anything). Here—watch this. One feels that putting on such makeup is much too extravagant. But one also feels that such an investment is well spent in order to raise up a Hamlet (speaking lowly of himself in his last words) who has no contemporary equal in either style or presence. I am autumn. The girl is the spring thaw. When will the two meet and play house? Again that spring— I was forced to face the pathetic, unlucky comings and goings of the sun and moon with a body dignified with frost and ill at ease with the futile world. Beautiful prose, beautiful prose, a dim, open mouth! Beautiful prose. Beautiful prose is a dangerous business. It cannot be dealt with easily. It is so easy for me to die in dimness. Anesthetized. Like a butterfly heading for a mountainous forest that becomes stuck in a honey jar of emotion. I know. I need to revise my style carefully. I don’t recall what I was thinking about that morning, but while brushing my teeth, I fell ill because of the last testament I was composing. Nearly thirteen wills were nearing completion. But none could go beyond mere imitation of the supreme and singular work that a certain “genius” left beside his pillow before killing himself. This was the limit of my talent. It made me angry and bitter. It was the source of my anxiety. I did not forget to furrow my brow to keep up the appearance of a most noble face. And while in ceaseless pain (not a single moment of waste for me—I continually squeeze out the wisdom I lack), an express letter arrived for me from the girl. Dear Sir! I dreamed of you again last night. You’re so affectionate in my dreams. You dote on me like a child. But under a cloudless sky, you are distant and you do not call on me. If you would like to see the color of cowardice, look in a mirror. The color of the face you see reflected there is the color of cowardice. Your only source of pride seems to be that you never told your ex-wife to leave while you lived with her for three years! Can your kindness be so pathetic? I’ve ended my relationship with R. And you do trust that five months ago I ended my relationship with S as well, don’t you? For five months, I’ve had nothing. I hope you can acknowledge my faithfulness. I’ll give you something of mine that has never been tainted. It is a shame that the beauty of my white skin has had nothing to do for five 6
months. My neck covered in soft peach fuzz, my cool, refreshing heat—they are waiting for you. Sir! Please call on me. You never ask me to return. Is that your pathetic idea of an apology, produced from the same logic that let you justify leaving me? I love “only” you. Please, please make me yours, your one and only. Make me “exclusively yours.” You must think I’m naïve. But you’re wrong. I want to tell you something. You might think you’re safe and secure, but just one word from me will strike your safe haven with disaster. Also— Damn it! Life is disgusting. And that makes me want to act this way. You must come to the bus station at Small East Gate on March 3rd at two in the afternoon or something horrible will happen and you won’t be able to escape my punishment. From Jeonghui Now nineteen years and two months old To Mr. Yi Sang Of course the whole thing is a lie. But the sense of precarious caution is clear. Everything could blow up with one small touch. This explosiveness is especially true at the end of the letter—an exquisite piece of prose with a sudden turn the likes of which one might see in gales and lightening strikes. I nearly faint with my mouth hanging open. I decide to let myself be deceived for just a moment. I end up deceived. I, Sir Yi Sang, he who is like a scarecrow, experienced my whole life the night before. After reaching a withered old age I saw the morning (when it came) and oh! I try to sleep, cheekily, in full view, as soon as possible, but I have the habit of brushing my teeth and then going back to sleep right away. And I’m going to do the same today. People look at me, and because they think me so bizarre, they are fooled into thinking that I am burdened with an ambitious plan to move heaven and earth. That is the only method that allows me to maintain this spiteful appearance. In other words, I take my naps for others to see. But after receiving her letter, I flitter in happiness like a wren taking flight and decide to wash away my worries over my last testament and my plans to upend the world, and head straight to the barbershop. Like a rare hero, I sit in front of the dazzling mirror, my lips white with tooth powder, to have my look prepared before the curtains are raised for my death, so that I can enjoy the show at leisure. First of all, my unkempt hair, infamously termed a magpie’s nest, is styled into a flattop. My full beard is neatly trimmed. My ears are cleaned and my nostril hairs are trimmed. I even receive a massage. After washing my face I glance into the mirror, but 7
alas, not a trace of class can be found. But what can one do about the station one is born into? I have no evidence, but I want to insist that I am handsome, if only one could see my face as that of an elegant novice who could very well be a Pre-Raphaelite. Dear me! I realize that I, too, have a hat, although it’s been crushed over the winter. I take it out and dust it off, then bring it to a fifteen-minute drycleaners and make it whole again. When I wear those burgundy ankle bands with white pants and a shirt, my style seems quite unique. My attire lacks a satin luster, but with a twilled old-fashioned overcoat, I daresay I could be compared to geniuses from antiquity to present day. I remember to clutch an appropriate cane that is neither too thick nor too thin, in order to insufficiently modify my insufficient appearance. Left with no alternative— In fact, today is March 3rd. With dignity, I arrive at the promised location at the Small East Gate half an hour late. Jeonghui, like the Jeonghui she is, in her Jeonghui kind of way, had arrived half an hour early. She is standing like a sorrowful Tsarist Russian postage stamp perhaps because the frozen ground is thawing and the wind is icy enough to make her seem sad. I walk toward her with heavy steps, thinking that in this situation to have my eyes well up with tears is perhaps just the unconventional approach needed. We stroll daintily, like a pair of swallows that have alighted to the ground for the first time. I am careful about each crease that forms on my overcoat, as well as the rhythm to which I swing my cane. I want to flaunt my coincidental death, so I vow that I will not accidentally ruin my pose of treading on thin ice. What heartbreaking epigram should I pull out as my conversational opener? Because of this thought, I cannot help hesitating for a moment, but I can’t just rush ahead either, because I will end up saying something stupid to her. For example, “You look so anxious, just like a Tsarist Russian postage stamp.” Instead, I blurt into Jeonghui’s ear, “Can ‘the improbable’ kill someone?” My voice is deep as it rumbles from my belly, and I pronounce the words clearly. My very first utterance in such a situation is a success, I think. My specific intention is to let her know that she could not have possibly dreamed that I would actually come. I taste a slick pleasure that is like finagling the purchase of three jeon’s worth of bean sprouts for breakfast when the vendor had refused to sell only three jeon’s worth. I feel that I’ve been masterful in not wasting a bit of my precious money. But a serious issue arises. Jeonghui doesn’t respond to my greeting, which should burst upon her like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. She looks as if she will knock me down in one strike with a small, bold gesture, like when children play the game where they sing “to eat a pepper, buzz, buzz, to eat tobacco, buzz, buzz,” spin themselves until they are dizzy, and then try to knock one another to the ground. 8
What if she truly means to knock me down like that? The firm, unassailable manner of this new Jeonghui is no mere show. I sense my cutting remark that I have unsheathed for the kill crumble and fall to the ground like so much pathetic dust. I signal final absolute despair by gesticulating wildly with my hands and feet. Since matters have come this far, it no longer matters whether my gestures are right or wrong. Since I seem to have no expression left to assume, I try a minor adjustment to my appearance and say, “Jeonghui! I’ll be off now,” and I bid her a polite farewell and then… I turn around to begin my walk home. My turbulent life, full of ups and downs like waves, has been reduced to ashes with a single petty word. Thinking that I have died a cruel death, I try at least to give life to that thought by whirling my cane a few times and moving my lips slowly, pretending that I am walking in procession. Five seconds—ten seconds—twenty—thirty—a minute— I make my best effort to not turn around. I try to look as though I have been defeated and am left without selfish motives. I try to look as though I have lost my heart. I am actually dizzy. My weak heart is unable to keep up these sluggish gymnastics for much longer. How about some tombstone engravings? On a cloudless day in the evening hours of March 3, in 1937 A.D. according to the Gregorian calendar, the exceptional genius Yi Sang, after living a life as full of fluctuations as the waves, suddenly passed on, leaving behind his magnum opus “Dying Words.” He was twentyfive years and eleven months old. Oh, what a loss! What a gaping void he has left! I the other Yi Sang, still in existence, wail to the highest sky and erect a stone in your memory on a cold mountain. Your lover Jeonghui has become a concubine to many men after your downfall and is enjoying a long life. So Yi Sang, dead and buried, I pray that you will shut your eyes! The mess isn’t so bad. Let’s leave it as is but cover up some shabby flaws. They shall be filled with the above literary acrobatics. For now, I have decided to contemplate what the future lineup of events will be for the remaining half of my life. The end. All the epigrams in history and the laws that nations legislate are nothing more than a suave excuse to bury my hypocrisy in secret. In order to rationalize my fate, I will slip to my death as abruptly as if I should twist my ankle in a fall, since I don’t see a paint palette like Corot did or possess a measly memory for maxims like Tolstoy. “Love” comes hunting for me, bearing holiness as one of its names. I reply to it by raking in, at a bargain price, the dying instructions that had been picked clean and discarded by wily men of virtue, young and old; I toss them in a smelter and recycle them. Or so I think. But I only punish myself. After a spoonful of cold rice and a sip of cold water, I have the skill and wisdom to point out the “bitter truth” that will overpower an era.
I have already easily mastered a method of humility to adorn my etiquette in beauty. This method involves selling the secret of my death throes, which is at the peak of my self-consciousness, to a countrywoman who sells mushrooms at the night market for a few coins. How strangely eye-opening. The end. A somewhat tragic exploration of myself is like a chaotic muddle I cannot make sense of. And it is a subject that is as ragged as filthy feet: something that I, who have a fine family pedigree, am not in the position to deal with right now. I need to be careful, purposeful, even in how I drink my tea Western-style. When I whistle, I must follow the procedure I learned from our ancestors, which was selected with utmost care and secrecy. If not, I won’t be able to whistle to my heart’s content in that hopeless twilight. What lofty knowledge of animals do I have? Except for the deer and duck, both sweet and pitiful, other species must be exempt from my animal kingdom. I remain willfully ignorant about animals that are not hunted. Also— What is my arrogant rule of conduct toward landscapes? I do not ask for a specific landscape. Instead, I stress—outrageously—that there should be origin, center, and focus for any landscape, that I should act like a “young gentleman.” I must shut my eyes tight and believe in this unconditional dogma. It is truly difficult to be “stupid” and “confused” on one’s own will. Look! This smug talent of stupidity! This talent of confusion. A white albatross is right for white sands; do not go near spring grass that is green. Li Bai. The grand noble poet for all time. I must become like him. To do so, I must make at least one self-possessed mistake in a five-character classical Chinese quatrain. Everyone feigns ignorance and willingly goes along with the deception, even when someone with an ornate literary pedigree makes an elegant but authoritative error in reciting an ancient poem. I must awake from every ruthless scolding with a naughty smile, as neatly as succumbing to deception of a finely washed and pressed chemise— Today I tried to trick a girl I am not certain is one of my kind and tripped over myself instead; I have revealed this worthless stain on my long-cherished, elegant death, casting my life away like a spoon. How can I possibly face my original purpose? Such is the handsome excuse that emerges toward my front yard, which is a hand shorter than the night of eternal day. What sluggish, trustworthy statement! Immediately, I grab hold of an unlikely point in space and purchase a pack of cigarettes from thin air (and then put it in my pocket). Lighting up a smoke, I return to tracking Jeonghui’s predictable footsteps.
I whistle as though overlooking daily trivialities. As I take control of myself and annoying details, like the tempo of my heels hitting the pavement, I manage to pull astride Jeonghui in three minutes. As if protesting that my distress can find no remedy in this futile world, I let my sad eyes wander toward an uncertain spot on the new landscape beyond the Small East Gate. The gesture is intended to give her a glimpse of my dogged, annoying posture, a master stroke of mine that I am hastily trying to improve. A wooded mountain at dusk. The day grew dark. Dear me! Better to say that it has not yet grown dark. The day has not yet grown dark. If so, it seems that the universe has sent me a golden opportunity before me, to bring out the metaphorical furnishings I had prepared to arrange one by one for housekeeping. Now— A daughter who cannot hide her lowly “position” because she cannot overcome her origins. (The hearsay about the extravagant girl came from stupid Yi Sang’s perverted interpretation. Take Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif” for example. The family prostituted its daughter, who was younger than fourteen. The second time, she volunteered before turning nineteen. And, ah—the third time, the spring of the year she turned twenty-two, she sold food and drinks, pretending to be a virgin by braiding her hair according to custom with a scarlet ribbon and letting down her decorative hairpin, which she had put on in spring.) A lowly daughter, as she stands by the stream bank during the spring thaw, her lips turning pale, like falling petals, wondering what moves under the thin ice, lowers her head as if to peek, just then comes a balmy spring breeze, and her skirt … no … the very sad-looking … no … and touching the rather sad-looking hair with a scarlet ribbon and— Touching the rather sad-looking hair with a scarlet ribbon, fluttering, fluttering— It is as above. Before me is a ridiculous, greasy stage and I, as I am, like myself, resolve to remember the petty tone known as one’s family lineage, and as I look over to the stone quarry’s pale layers, I say in a lament of sorts, “Those who cut Earth open destroy nature.” Or something like, “It is the ant’s house that is in good order.” Or “If it rained, ah—if it rained on all under heaven.” Or even “The plants and trees that grew last year can sprout again this year. What is it when that which returns does not return again?” Something along those lines. I pick out the most unassuming remarks that would seem quite sophisticated with some embellishment and make myself look casual. Could it be true? Or is it a lie? Jeonghui suddenly speaks. She says, “Spring has come.” She covers her top teeth where she has a little gap that she considers ugly, but at the same time she attempts to cover her pretty lower teeth. Still, she displays them unwittingly as if to say, “What can be done? They have been seen.” And so she presents them on her inscrutable, ambiguous face. Good, good, good, this is good enough. 11
I nod not my head but my cane. In my haste, I end up putting my hand on Jeonghui’s shoulder. She is silent for a moment, as though finding the gesture a bit bizarre. But then, would you believe, she whispers that she, too, can guess what is going on, since she has learned about lineages or, to put it simply, about etiquette? Gulp! My worthless death is being swallowed up and I have made so many mistakes. Where is the original intention of the coral whip, which I have defended by squandering my whole material life? My rage surges to the point that I feel I will faint. I seem to have spun many lies for a lonely night before my thirst for death can lead Jeonghui into a gloomy back room of Heungcheon Temple, the Temple of Heaven’s Beginning. As I have planned in deeply fragrant secrecy, I now see that the various rare tools attempting to disturb the eternal libertine Yi Sang’s petty literary slum have suddenly turned dull. What about society, what about morality, introspection, pursuit, exposure, what about punishment, what about excessive self-consciousness? What about all those sleek, extravagant billboards? Each one is absurd. “Poisonous Flower.” Sir, why don’t you keep this phrase for the time being, this phrase which is nothing more than a marionette? The fair-looking relatives of the city of death always crawl in hunger beside a futile furnace called art, more so than anyone would beside a corpse, and I go stand amongst them, amongst the stench, and I— Shred my girl’s underskirt, make rags of her socks, destroy her dark hair and fair complexion as though a ferocious bear has trampled on her face, steal all my relatives’ money, lay waste to a venerable temple, deceive a cowardly moneylender, make the moneylender’s bill collector swoon, drive a wedge between boss and director and in-laws and husband and father and brother-in-law and sister-in-law and father again and father’s daughter and other daughter, mislead them, make them fight, spill the ink pot, spill the chamber pot, spill red bean soup on the new tatami floor of my rented room, leave someone impotent— Now do you understand, at least a little, the piercing sensation at the phrase “Poisonous Flower”? I feel more humiliated than if my girl has committed adultery, because I have committed the crime of being deceived, briefly, into clapping a few times when someone appeared humbly with scraps of poetry and fiction that resembled poorly made rice cakes. Now the cheap protocol of etiquette dictates that I must pretend I did no such thing, which is a lot like whining—why don’t I just say that what happened was the deed (infection) of an evil spirit (the genius of the household)? “Poisonous Flower.” 12
Of course, it is possible that on a familiar street at daybreak tomorrow, I may finally be reunited with a covert libertine who is my equal in every sense. But I do not lightly relinquish my self-mortification at being lashed by wind and rain, even as I raise and lower my shoulders excitedly like a shaman possessed. Ah—for some reason my body is itchy. I must be dressed as a villain because of the many grudges held by the indifferent. Secretly nauseated, I wash my hands clean in a clean basin and return to my seat and repent calmly—to put it simply I should lay out a petty count. Etiquette? Pedigree? Formality? Metamorphosis? But it would be ludicrous if I took my hands off Jeonghui’s shoulders right now. It would ruin everything. I need to be circumspect about the flush in my cheeks and keep saying, “Good, good, good.” That is all I need to do. Acting as if I have understood everything, with my arm still around her shoulders, we stroll side by side into the grounds of Heungcheon Temple. Once inside, we act as though we have suddenly lost our way and climb to the top of the mountain. At the top, I offer an elaborate hesitation, as though Jeonghui has completely knocked me over in our game, leaving me with no opportunity to assume a pose. But in reality I am fine. The sound of the wind chime is perfect. In such a situation a refined man could— Ah—why do I always retreat from convention? Have I forgotten? Forgotten the noble learning and etiquette I gained by offering my substantial monthly tuition fee? In such a situation, why can’t I present, fair and square, the stern, austere education that I received from a lieutenant colonel? At this dejected, venerable temple, in this installation without enlightenment, I must come to my senses. I must make honest use of my distinguished background. I must lower my head, like a cow being dragged into an abattoir, and smoke a cigarette and passably succeed in a solo performance of a hasty, clumsy pose that I despise more than death,. Then she says stop it. Stop your ridiculous act. She is fed up with it, she says. Then what? Won’t my ceaseless efforts pop like bubbles one morning or night? It means that this pitiful “stony woman’” named Jeonghui has managed to sniff out my wicked scheme. I immediately become fatigued. My spirit goes slack. What lies before me begins to spin, making me dizzy. Thinking that I will faint, I try to focus my strength on what I am wearing, but no! This time it will be very difficult indeed to be revived from death. Yi Sang! You cripple, you do not know how to deal with the world. Are you so “deluded”? While you were wandering, you found yourself at the temple site, didn’t you? Why don’t you have a look at Brothers Karamazov or Klim Samgin?
No! Jeonghui! This is the most excellent, the most terrifying spell among all the superstition that I’ve created, a con, a trick borne out of my need to remain alive so you can too. Yi Sang! Stop! Why don’t you set just one foot, just one step into the muddy field as a test? As I stagger within this funny tale that is as smooth as a musical score, I feel about my eyes the presence of an immaculate libertine who is every bit my equal. Anyone would scramble to be rid of my unkempt pose. At that moment I feel the miscarriage of my descendants beneath my roof, and I place before me this talisman of a nefarious, secret lineage of firstborns. This talisman has appeared over ten thousand years, and I feel anxiety, as well as complacency, over this loss of soul that resembles my death. I urge Jeonghui with a sad heart, as though seeking a humble plot of land for my gravesite, and descend from the hill. If I plagiarize that the wind chime I hear behind me provokes me to the highest degree, those words will help tidy up this touching landscape. The wind chime behind me raises this last sullenness of mine to another level. A wind chime that replicates a fine landscape is as dangerous as a piece of beautiful prose. If a wind chime that resembles a fine landscape is adapted into beautiful prose, it becomes like a puddle in which one might easily drown. No one should go near it. Dostoyevsky and Gorky acted as though they lacked the habit of beautiful prose, and they did not “handle” elegant or wasted sceneries; sly adults that they were, they seemed as if they were about to create beautiful prose, as though fine sceneries were about to appear, but in the end they were like old snakes who do not completely show their tails so that their tricks are much more advanced. And so, their effect is absolute. For millennia upon millennia, they can fool the masses who desire only meaningless comfort. But— Why is it that when I gaze at a dignified piece of modern architecture that soars sleekly in the sky, I sense immediately its steel frame and iron bones, its cement and fine grains of sand? This cry of fate that I cannot wash away, this Mongolian spot, this loneliness, this desolate dignity, this isolation, this agony, falling and rising, falling and rising, like a weighted tumbler toy, so that it does not matter whether it falls or rises, having not a single thin wall to lean on. I have seen the light today. Thus I avoid beautiful prose and conceal the view of a fine landscape. I quietly slip into the afterlife, uncovering the sad veil of fate with which I was born, and die beneath a refined, persuasive shadow, lonely but warm. This soft, incomprehensible death; I must be dying young. No, this is what it means to be oppressed and disappointed while alive. Death draws near and I cannot overcome it, and in the midst of a flock of blind crows that curse out loud, I am a libertine of libertines, a drunkard of drunkards, an impenetrable gate’s ruin; my death is a bleaching out of the vanity among the decorations that infiltrate and contaminate every nook and cranny of the Savior’s Last Supper; it is the bleaching out of uncommon genius.
The immorality of having a husband. The immorality of not having a husband. Immorality is enjoyable. Sir, have you known the taste of taking bold action without worrying about the price of alcohol? The small gap in the upper teeth, the attractive lower teeth. Take a look at this face that can act coy, like a bronze mirror from the Han Dynasty with flawed beauty. Her only source of pride is that she powdered her face with pollen hidden in a plantain lily until she was seven years old and has never washed or powdered her face since. Jeonghui is cross-eyed. Nothing can defy that. Jeonghui is nearsighted at 6 diopters. That is an innate meritorious service medal nothing can defy. Astigmatism in the left eye and color blindness in the right, ah—what is this if not perfection? I was fooled after being fooled. I was fooled again after being fooled again. Jeonghui’s family forced her into prostitution before age fourteen. That’s what I thought had happened. A single teardrop— But when her family forced her was already long after Jeonghui had voluntarily prostituted herself. A scarlet ribbon always fluttered behind her back. Her family trusted that this precious scarlet ribbon would ward disaster away from immorality— But— Immorality is like a noble person and is truly enjoyable. An adulterous virgin— she is an eternal forest that cannot help but be enjoyed among all immorality. Does Jeonghui stop there? I introduce myself. I don’t want to part with Jeonghui, so I make a cruel introduction of myself. I have never seen a rice stalk. I do not know how to ride a bike. I sometimes forget the year, month, and day I was born. With my own hands, I demolished my family’s heaven-sent ancient castle of ten generations to where my ninety-year-old grandmother was married off when she was a sixteen-year-old bride. With my own hands, I have cut down the base of a walnut tree that had flourished for a thousand years. The ginkgo tree, carrying within its marrow the embittered family, was chopped down, and it has been four years since. Now, every year when spring comes, sprigs bloom like poisonous seeds. But I have endured it all. Once I seized a pomegranate tree and made my way out of the ruins. Unripe, overripe, brain-numbing stench of rotting persimmons. At the crossroads of death and life, a pale flower bloomed in the shade of a smiling, desiccated body that had no equal for roughness and wildness. I painted a watercolor before the age of fourteen. Watercolors and puberty. Observe how, in the coldest month of winter, steam rises from a wrist as thin as a wooden chopstick. Steaming wrists and parasitically seductive skin where fine peach fuzz grows from prostitution. Her crossed eyes; my uneven eyes that show no whites. Cosmetics from the old days like bizarre magic from the plantain lily and the complete abolition of cosmetics, countered by my precarious nature that does not know how to ride a bike. The
immorality of a scarlet ribbon, and the helpless nakedness of mine that neglects immorality. Oh, Judge! Do I not have more shortcomings than Jeonghui? So we have about the same? I shall fight till the end. A gloomy back room at Heungcheon Temple, two cushions, one furnace. A table for food and alcohol— The sum of dozens of challenges. Hitting and smashing to the left and to the right. I enter through Jeonghui’s loose and empty gateway with the strength of an old man dying. But the counterattacks from the lethal weapon are several times fiercer than when going in, and they cause me to inflict injury on myself. Do I lose? Do I lose and give up? I decide to introduce my last weapon to the battlefield. The weapon is none other than drunken frenzy. It is difficult to look after a single body. I feel as though I am about to vomit. I do vomit. On Jeonghui’s skirt. On her stockings. Still I am unsatisfied. I stand up and dance. I shove open the double windows at the back of the room. I say that I will jump out and kill myself, shaking the handrail with everything I’ve got, except for the last ounce of strength that I’m saving. Jeonghui grabs me, trying to stop me. She’s trying to stop me, but it looks like she’s not trying. I grab at her skirt. Something falls with a slap. A letter. I pick it up. Jeonghui pretends not to notice. Express delivery. (And you do trust that five months ago I ended my relationship with S as well, don’t you—the letter is from that S.) Jeonghui! I’m furious with myself! What happened last night at the Western Villa? I had no intention of doing that to you. I didn’t take you there so that I could make such demands of you. Please forgive my stupidity. I will take your surprising calmness as a small comfort. Of course, I won’t forget your passionate words, urging me to waste not even a day in making you my one and only. But unlike what you may think, it’s not so easy dealing with the ugly matter that is my “wife.” I will wait for you today (March 3rd) at exactly eight o’clock in the evening in front of the Golden Residence, at the same place as before. I want to apologize for what happened yesterday. And I want to walk through the pine forest with you, since it seems the moon will be bright tonight. Let’s talk about our future as we stroll together. Morning of March 3rd, S It is an express letter she received after sending an express letter to me. 16
Everything has ended. Last night, Jeonghui— With that face, Jeonghui had sent me an express letter—Mr. Yi Sang. With the same face she had met me. It was a metamorphosis close to terror. In order to feel and enjoy this trembling ecstasy she had taken over innocent Yi Sang. I have been deceived and deceived again and deceived again and again and deceived again and again and again. Of course I end up fainting right there. I die. I wander the afterlife. In the underworld, the moon is bright. I shut my eyes again. From the sky, a voice asks, How old are you? I am twenty-five years and eleven months. An early death, I see. No, sir, it is a late death. When I open my eyes Jeonghui is gone. Of course, it is past eight o’clock. That’s where she has gone. Thus my death is complete, but my dying words continue. Why? Because even now Jeonghui is sitting in a chair in some building, unlacing the strings of her underwear, even now she has her head resting on a Western Villa cushion, unlacing the strings of her underwear, even now she is lying on a coat laid down on the floor of a pine forest, safely unlacing the strings of her underwear. This is a disaster that I cannot simply watch, standing by idly. I grind my teeth. I pass out, easily. I seethe. But now I would like to step aside from the heavenly grudge. I long for the warmth of peace of mind. Or something similar. In other words, I am a corpse. I realize that a corpse has no right or ability to envy the Lord of All Creation. Jeonghui or her uncomfortably warm breath may sometimes graze my tombstone. When that happens my corpse turns as ruddy as a carrot and lets out a wail that pierces the nine heavens. Meanwhile Jeonghui will have washed and left her many blankets (even the one with my stain) out to dry under the brilliant sun. If only the sad memory of my life will fly away from my corpse to the limitless sky for the sake of my many-layered dowry— I am thinking such pathetic thoughts right now. Then— Mr. Yi Sang, now twenty-six years and three months old! You scarecrow! You are an old man. You are a skeleton whose shoulders reach above his ears. No, no. You are your distant ancestor. The end. November 20th, Tokyo
Yi Sang was one of Korea’s most innovative writers of modern literature, enough to deem him Korea’s finest modernist. He died at the early a...
Published on Sep 16, 2015
Yi Sang was one of Korea’s most innovative writers of modern literature, enough to deem him Korea’s finest modernist. He died at the early a...