Har bi n
Tr ans l at edbyAl l yHwang
Harbin By Lee Hyoseok Translated by Ally Hwang
Originally published in Korean as Harbin in Munjang, 1940 Translation ⓒ 2013 by Ally Hwang
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 Lee, Hyo-seok Harbin [electronic resource] / [written by] Lee Hyo-seok ; translated by Ally Hwang. -- Seoul : LTI Korea, 2014 p. 원표제: 하얼빈 Translated from Korean ISBN 978-89-93360-29-5 45810 : 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21
About Lee Hyoseok Lee Hyoseok (1907-1942) was born in Bongpyeong in Pyeongchang Province in 1907 and his pen name is Gasan. In 1928 while attending Gyeongseong Imperial University, he made his debut by publishing “City and Ghost” in the magazine The Light (Joseonjigwang). In earlier years, he wrote as a “fellow traveler,” publishing socially critical works. Along with the general decline of proletarian literature, he sought a new genre of literature: lyricism. Publishing “Hog” (1933) as his turning point, he became absorbed in the world of eroticism, using idyllic settings, and freeing himself from his political tendency. The works that show this new tendency are “Bunnyeo” (1936), “In the Mountains” (1936), and “The Buckwheat Season” (1936). His works are generally categorized as having three tendencies: the tendency of the “fellow traveler,” eroticism, and xenophilia. His well-received works published in the 1930s are highly appreciated; they were considered the most shining artistic achievement during the colonization period over all. “Harbin,” published in the literary magazine Munjang in October 1940, is the leading work from his later years and has recently attracted attention. On top of everything, this short story impressively reveals the problematic circumstances around the 1940s and Lee’s assessment of his own self-awareness. The dialogue between the protagonist who considers himself a skeptic and a cabaret worker, Eura, who says, “I always think I just want to die,” is the main storyline of this short story. This work effectively describes the desolate inner sentiments, feelings, and skepticism of the protagonist who travels to Harbin and the sorrowful sentimentality of the city. In addition, “Harbin” impressively portrays that the Second World War, which broke out in 1939, greatly influenced the city of Harbin, which was located in Northeast China at the time. This is evident especially in the lines describing the closed French and Dutch Consulates on Kitai Tverskaya, the main street of Harbin where Russian stores and Western style buildings are located. The theme of this work seems to be the sorrow of an intellect under colonization, feeling only fundamentally skeptical and depressed, even while conversing with a beautiful waitress at the exotic Harbin’s hotel, cabaret, and café where Tchaikovsky’s chamber music plays.
As the hotel is located in the center of Kitai Tverskaya1 and my room faces the main street, I can see the streets right under my nose when I draw a chair up to the window. From the third floor window, people look small, carts look tidy as well, and all things seem pleasantly well-organized. But then the constant din flows forth from everywhere and dominates each day like the continuity of eternity. Starting with the sound of the wheels on milk delivery carts finding me in my bed early in the morning, the sound grows uproarious over the course of the day and continues its ebb and flow through midnight until it is early morning once again. Sounds must be a necessity in human life. I enjoy this view from the third floor and have decided to spend most of my time in this room sitting in the chair by the window. The most beautiful times of the day are when the morning light casts long shadows in the street as it starts to become crowded and when the night is just about to begin on the streets where the lights are turned on after evening. It is also this time when I hear the overflowing pleasant energy from the rough sounds of wagons and cars running and footsteps tapping on the uneven cobblestone street, and the striking faces of women wearing makeup catch my eye. However, without any attention or clear purpose, I only watch the dizzy moving picture absentmindedly. While looking at it, I become sad each time. Not being able to explain my anxiety blurs my vision. The human life may as well be needlessly anxious. In fact, the reason I cannot sort out the source of my anxiety is because this short trip didn’t start originally from anxiety; neither did I leave my misfortune back in my hometown nor do I face one in front of me. All I need to do is look at my favorite streets as much as I like, eat my fill of my favorite food, and enjoy the trip until I’m satisfied—I came on this trip for that very reason. However, my heart doesn’t always necessarily feel cheerful. In the hotel restaurant downstairs, plentiful and pleasantly-arranged delicacies like Russian style soup and rich butter on the side are served with an old waiter’s polite service, but even as I sit at the well-served table, why does a part of my heart feel somehow frustrated? After a few days I find it troublesome to go downstairs to the restaurant, so instead I send the bellboy for room service, and take to having late breakfasts with bread and coffee. I ring the bell to have the bellboy bus the dishes, and return to the chair by the window. The main street has become a great deal busier. Who’s to know the destination and purpose of each person passing by? I love Kitai Tverskaya Street. Does my love cause the anxiety in my heart? “Why is this street changing so much every year?” As if change is nothing but an unfortunate thing, my eyes lose focus and the sights grow distant.
It is the main street of Harbin, where Russian stores are gathered and quite a few Western style buildings still remain. 4
In fact, the street I look at now is not the street I saw on my trip last year. The momentarily changing impressions try to inscribe their truthful traces on the street. The faces of the people passing by have changed and the scenery has also changed quite a lot. In the place where the old, profound things are eventually exhausted and drawn back, how the new things suddenly barge in, so real I could almost touch them with my hands. Because of this glorious alteration, layers of grief descend over Harbin. “Do I come here to see this change every year? To see this change?” I meant to think it to myself, but it turns out I end up letting someone hear it because someone suddenly appears from behind. From the sound of the knocking, I think it is the bellboy, so I said, um hum. But the someone who came in quietly turns out to be Eura. As I turn around, I am startled. “Why are you surprised?” “It was so out of the blue.” “I promised I would come.” “I remember you did, but….” “Do you think I go back on my own words? I came out earlier since I didn’t have much work to do until nighttime.” “I was thinking about the changes of Harbin…” I say as I open the window while Eura drags over a chair and sits right across from me at the table. “We can’t help it. It’ll just go as it goes.” Is this naive indifference or bold resignation? When her face is expressionless, her eyes are beautiful. How better it worked out with that peaceful face instead of a sad one! “Look at these disorderly odds and ends. Kitai Tverskaya has already become a colony. Everything’s gone by like a dream.” Eura’s beauty is the finest, even at Fantasia. Her eyes wide open make my blood feel cold, but at the same time, they somehow reveal her innocence. She has a small frame, and her arms and legs, like those of a young girl, are sorrowful. “I also feel like a foreigner here maybe because I’ve inherited my mother’s Polish blood.” The way she sits in a chair, in her bright red dress with the black beauty mark on her face, goes perfectly well with the ambience of a night salon; does she mean, nevertheless, that for her she is also a foreigner in this salon? If understanding her that way, she does have a habit of watching the singing, dancing, or short skits on stage with excessive obstinacy. While doing that, her figure is undoubtedly that of a foreigner. The way she sits still, almost a little awkwardly, bearing rather meditation than caution in her eyes, looks nothing but estranged in this place. She and Rina appear smooth and familiar when they get up from sitting together and begin to dance as the band starts playing, maybe because they are two women. But when she dances with me, she trips over my feet, is dragged by me, and moves irretrievably off-beat. I
think it’s not because my dancing is awkward, but because her mind is complicated. She seems unable to find her bearings with her complex mind. Why did Rina tell me her friend’s secret while Eura was away from her seat, even when I didn’t ask? “Eura acts decent to everyone in the salon, but in fact…” “Her face is fine. Elegant and lost in meditation.” “In fact, she had been at Nyessa until last year. People on this street all know.” I’m surprised by the charged-up, sharp animosity in her swift chatter and give her a hard look. Without any sign of being affected, she blows cigarette smoke up to the ceiling. I couldn’t figure out if what I’ve just heard was something obvious or confidential; contrary to my momentary surprise, I feel my heart has immediately started to calm and empty. Nyessa is, by no means, a glorious place. The mark of infernal disgrace imprinted on her body would never leave her all her life. Was Eura so desperate to have such fatal injury on her body? “There has been no such shame for Fantasia ever. I’m afraid, by any chance, people will think all of us are the same kind of woman as her.” Was it this resentment on Rina’s part that made her spill Eura’s secret to me? Her tone is unexpectedly vehement and strong. “But aren’t you two closer to one another than with anyone else?” “Friendship is different from social status. Isn’t it appropriate to have a clear understanding that we are from different circles?” Cabaret is not just a place to be entertained. It’s frustrating and tiresome to observe and experience the fact that every human is finely intermingled in their heart with psychological conflict and intermingling emotions. Moreover, I can’t say that I’m in a happy position regarding Eura and Rina’s case. There is no need to think that Eura has gladly come to see a wandering traveler like me because of her ignoble social position, and it’s enough to consider it her expression of good manners to keep her promise; therefore, I don’t have to feel ashamed as I stand next to her when we come out to the streets. It’s also my other joy to walk on Kitai Tverskaya towards the side of the river and pass by the residential area in the relatively quiet pier district located on the left curve of the riverside. Elm trees are lined up in two rows on the main street as wide as a yard and the houses on both sides of the street are mostly a milky egg color, so it is a kind of quiet, organized back alley. What in the world would remain of Harbin’s grace without the elm trees, pearly houses, domes of churches, and sound of the church bells? To clumsily read house signs in Russian one by one while passing the shadows of trees on the pier brings about a beautiful joy. Every house has an extensive garden with lush trees and plants. There’s also a garden with corn and kidney beans planted, so it must be a rural scene that would rival any other town. “It’s the French Consulate.” 6
When we reach the entrance of a big two-story house sitting in the woods, Eura draws my attention to it. The house appears like a regular house, only larger. This holds my interest. Is it a sign of democratic culture? “What has changed is not only Kitai Tverskaya, but this consulate is also different from how it used to be.” “It’s because they lost the war with Germany.” “Money stopped coming and communication has been disconnected since the correspondence with France was discontinued, so I heard the consul’s family is having difficulty getting by nowadays. The newspaper delivers all kinds of news, such as them selling their car or even the jewelry in their possession.” “The world has probably been created for changes.” There’s the Consulate of Holland several houses down the street from the French Consulate. It’s slightly smaller, but this modest house peeking through tree branches seems the tidiest in the district. In its garden, scarlet salvias are bright in their full bloom. But why the lock on the metal gate? “Is it completely closed off?” “It seems so. The consular staff pared down their living space to one unit in the back and rents out the rest of the house and belongings to some company.” “The consulate became a rental house.” I blankly stare inside the closed metal gate for quite a while, and slowly continue on my way with Eura. I start to feel dizzy and the green leaves of elm trees overwhelm my view as if they are sticking to my eyes. The alley in the afternoon is quiet, like people working on puzzles. Only our footsteps reverberate on the neatly ordered main road. I could only keep silent to collect my jumbled thoughts for a while. As if I was awoken from momentary hallucination, I yet again feel marvelous that my body is properly all intact. The main road, forest, and houses are lined up intact. They are just there as they were. “I wonder if you’re like this as well. I’m sometimes greatly overwhelmed with surprise and suspicion by the present.” “Why is the present like this, huh?” Eura seems to have rightly identified the thought rising up from my mind. “For instance, why is this sidewalk laid this way? Why are these houses shaped like this? Why is this street this particular width and length? Something like that…” “You’re saying why Kitai Tverskaya has changed this way and why the French Consulate has lost its former prestige.” “Looking closer around me, why in the world do we have five fingers? What does it matter if we had four or six? Why just two eyes in the front of the head and not one more in the back? Why can’t the belly button be on the side? Why is my hair black and Eura’s eyes blue…?”
I could come up with examples to feed my suspicion endlessly. The things I see and hear, depending on how I think, all become riddles. “Scholars explain by the law of evolution and reasons of necessity, but would it be so inconvenient and unnecessary to have six fingers? Besides all those casual speculations, what I want to know is the truth of genesis; how do we arrive at these coincidental decisions now? Given that the present is already a coincidence, couldn’t we think of another result of coincidence? It’s good even if my hair turned blond and it’s also no problem if this street runs south, but I wonder only because this was decided differently by coincidence, so that I ended up with this hair and this street turned out the way it did. For that reason, I can imagine a different world other than this one and cannot bear not to think about it…” “You’re one scary skeptic. That’s why your face is always gloomy.” “Why did I come on a journey to this place and why are you walking with me and…?” “If you think about things that are too difficult you’ll only weigh yourself down. Isn’t thinking about something beyond our power a rebellion against nature? An aching heart would be punishment for the rebellion.” Eura’s voice is gentle while it also somehow sounds persuasive. Just when I look up, I can see the church dome far in the distance, towering over the trees. Is the dignified and solemn figure of it to show the majesty of the omniscient and omnipotent being? Is the tall cross on the roof scolding me for being a skeptic?
I go out to the Songhua River, walk down the long riverbank alongside it, and upon reaching the yacht club, sit in the peck parlor. Vast and remote, the river unfolds right before my eyes. The dining customers almost fill up the parlor, and it must be six o’clock in the afternoon already, for the band inside the hall starts playing. I value the music as a huge luxury of Harbin. It doesn’t seem the people eating think much of the music; first of all, how many of them would understand and enjoy it? Tchaikovsky’s chamber music runs in vain, wasted on the ears of a boorish crowd, such as to cast pearls before swine. All of Harbin drips with this kind of luxury. When I order food and listen to music, Eura is thoroughly scanning over the river and Tai Yang Island across it with the binoculars I brought. She keeps smiling as she excitedly focuses the lenses on this spot or that. She giggles as she hands me the binoculars, saying that she discovered something amazing, and points at one place. I readjust the binoculars because my eyesight is different from hers. As I put the binoculars before my eyes and mindlessly turn the dial, the red roofs in Tai Yang Island, a family sitting out on the veranda, and a couple swimming in the water come into view through the lenses. People are standing close to one another on the upper deck of a ship sailing down the river, and I see the figure of a peaceful couple at a small wharf by the riverbank. A husband is fishing, and on the other side a wife in a swimsuit is reading a book. The tiny letters of the book are clearly reflected as if it’s held right in my hand. The wife suddenly turns 8
her head because the husband screams that he has caught a fish. After sitting silently, when the white fish is rigorously flapping at the gunwale, the couple becomes lively with smiles and excitement for a while on the boat. I never become tired of this happy scene no matter how long I watch it. Perhaps it is the best scene at the river this day. Eura, giggling happily as she played with the binoculars just moments ago, does not seem very glad at the sight of the food spread out on the table by the waiter. Instead of setting food on her plate and picking up a fork, she’s still smoking. Even though I offer a glass of beer, she barely brings her lips to it and puts it down. “How come this kind of delicacy is not to your taste? This place is said to be famous even in Harbin,” I say, feeling sorry for gobbling up the food alone. She says, “I have no appetite at all.” “Because you smoke too much.” “It’s not that I don’t have an appetite because I smoke, but I have no appetite so there’s nothing for me to have besides cigarettes.” She smoked excessively even at the cabaret. She was always chain-smoking. Her fingers look yellow like fully grown silkworms. “Please, I will stop nagging you about it, have some food and take care of your body. Look at your wrists. They’re so thin like a stork’s legs.” “What do I need a healthy body for?” She couldn’t even finish half of what was put on her paper plate. Picking up my hat at the door on my way out the parlor, I drop a silver coin in the palm of an old waiter whose face I think I’ve seen before somewhere. I cock my head as I step down into the garden. “That’s it! Stefan! How in the world does he look just like Stefan?” The old waiter—what is his name, I wonder? Would it be something common like Ewan or Anton?—looks so much like Stefan. Stefan is the old waiter who watches Fantasia’s restroom. He’s the waiter who pours water over customers’ hands and passes them towels. Why are there so many old waiters all over Harbin and why do they all look alike? They all have red faces, wrinkles like spider webs, and grey hair, and don’t they all look like Stefan, Ewan, or Anton? Thinking that, I recall Stefan’s face. When a drunken customer stumbles out of the stall and stands in front of the sink, Stefan approaches, smiling, pours water prepared in a cup over the customer’s hands, and holds out a towel. By the time the customer finishes wiping his hands, Stefan smiles and looks straight in his eyes. Stefan’s smile has a meaning. It means to tip him. After knowing that, his smiling face looks crafty and unpleasant like that of a monkey, but thinking about the money he earns from doing this as the income he needs for the night, I can’t just hate him. It seems that there is no one who is as lowly and pitiful as Stefan, even among so many waiters in Harbin. This could be why he left such a strong impression on me. The green plants are fresh in the garden and the flowerbeds are clean; it makes a resting area by itself. Even as we walk over to the white bench in the shade of a tree and sit together, I
cannot shake the thought of Stefan from my mind. When I think of him, I feel sorry about one thing. “I feel a little guilty about Stefan.” As I say so, Eura looks at my face reassuringly, “You’re talking about how you couldn’t tip him more that night. How many times have you mentioned this story? You can only tip him once or twice a night, but not every time.” “But his face seemed to tell me he wanted it.” I could not reward his smile with a tip because I had already been to the washroom many times that evening and had run out of change. I would not be able to argue against the accusation that it was stingy of me not to readily give him a bill because a bill wouldn’t have been too much or unnecessary for his gentle manner. I was surely saving my bills. I could only falteringly step back from him shamefully after looking for change I did not have. The more I think about it, the sorrier I feel. “It would also be nice to give him a fat bill, but where in the world could that generous customer be?” Eura seems to try hard to console me. However, the story she tells me about Stefan’s circumstances rather all the more touches my heart. “In fact, he’s been saving up penny by penny like that for his traveling expenses to go back to his country. Even a penny is of immediate importance to him.” “To his country.” “He wants and needs to get back to the Soviet Union.” “Well, you mean that every penny he earns at the restroom translates to fare covering for each mile of the few long, thousand miles.” “So, he cannot help but smile, no matter how subserviently, to fulfill his one and only wish in life.” “That makes me feel sorrier.” “Stefan’s dreams lie far beyond. He has nothing in front of him.” What about your dreams? I think about asking her, but I just shut my mouth and look out to the river. The yellowish muddy stream is endlessly wide and full of boats—some sailing by, others anchored. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I wonder, Could Stefan be Eura’s father by any chance? I’m needlessly surprised by my own desultory thought and, turning my head, look at her. Eura, who was also looking at the river, turns her head and looks at me as if noticing my movements. I have no way to read her complicated mind only by her gaze. Looking towards the river again for lack of a spot to fix her wary gaze, she says, “When I look at the river, I…” I can barely make out her faint voice. “I always think I just want to die.” “D…die…” I unwittingly raise my voice and look yet again at her wrists as thin as stork legs. “Why harbor such a dangerous thought…” 10
And then, it occurs to me that Eura is a bigger skeptic than I am. She, who smokes all the time, has no appetite, and is thin as stork’s legs, has been inwardly contemplating death. “What do you mean die? Don’t ever…” What I mean to say repeatedly is that thinking about death is rather a luxury and a human being cannot help but live, no matter how hard one struggles against the idea. But I have no way to figure out how it sounds to her. But then again, giving her a long and boring lecture about death again seems not to be my job either. “I always think about it in the end. That’s the only thing that makes me happy.” As I’m absorbed in my own thoughts, Eura is also encased in the shell of her own mind. There is no way for some foreigner to squeeze his way into that shell. Besides death, what words of comfort have I to offer her? I still hear the frustrating music from the parlor and the river is gradually fading in the sunset. The double-decker ferry carrying people, crossing over to the island in the sunset looks distant, as if it belongs to another world faraway.