OurToesAr eAl i ke
Ki m Dong-i n
Tr ans l at edbySt ephenEps t ei n, Ki m Mi Young
Our Toes Are Alike By Kim Dong-in Translated by Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi Young
Literature Translation Institute of Korea
Originally published in Korean as Balgaragi dalmattda in Donggwang, 1932 Translation ⓒ 2014 by Stephen Epstein and Kim Mi Young
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 Kim, Dong-in Our toes are alike [electronic resource] / by Kim Dong-i n ; translated by Stephen Epstein, Kim Mi Young. -- [Seo ul] : Literature Translation Institute of Korea, 2014 p. 원표제: 발가락이 닮았다 Translated from Korean ISBN 978-89-93360-35-6 95810 : Not for sale 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21
About Kim Dong-in
Kim Dong-in (1900 – 1951), together with Yi Kwang-su, is one of early modern Korean literature’s representative writers of “pure” fiction. His debut work “The Sorrow of the Weak,” which appeared in the journal Changjo (Creation) in 1919, is considered the first Korean short story to focus in earnest on character development and psychological analysis. A clear, concise style is the hallmark of Kim’s writing. As the first author to adopt the plain past tense “-ieottda” style and to establish an objective stance in fiction with a third person point of view, he is regarded as having employed a realistic technique and well-rounded character types, in contrast to Yi Kwang-su, who saw literature as a vehicle for enlightenment and whose characters were more flatly drawn. At the same time, Kim declared that fiction should create an autonomous world whose value inhered within itself. His belief in “art for art’s sake” led him to a unique method of composition, which he likened to handling puppets. In Kim’s view of literary creation a writer must act like a puppet master, controlling his characters, just as God created human beings. This attitude contributes unbridled free rein to a writer’s imagination. In “Our Toes Are Alike ” (Balgaragi dalmattda, 1932), Kim deploys his skills as a satirist and sardonic social commentator within a framework of literary naturalism. Here the first-person narrator contemplates the life of his friend “M,” whose debauched sexual adventuring has likely left him sterile. Though the text provides a window into the underlying patriarchal misogyny of the period, the narrator’s incisive portrait of the self-deception that M experiences when his wife unexpectedly becomes pregnant have a larger human resonance. The work also leaves an interesting footnote in Korean literary history: it created a rift between Kim and noted fellow author Yŏm Sang-seop, who believed that the plot had been based upon rumors about his own life.
Our Toes Are Alike
M had become engaged. We shot each other glances, unprompted, at the news. M was 32. The trend for men to stay single longer was becoming more widespread. Reasons varied: either it was sudden changes of circumstance or they had financial problems, or they couldn’t find the right woman, or they were just rebelling at marrying too soon. Even so, 32 felt old. As a result, at every opportunity M’s buddies urged him to tie the knot. But M always begged off with a bitter smile. (His interest, however, was obvious enough.) And now here he was engaged, catching us all off guard. M was poor. He worked as a salaryman for a company that was in a rocky state. The uncertainty seemed to have kept him single until he’d become old for marriage. The pathetic appearance of his bachelor life made his friends nudge him to get hitched. But I alone had a different theory about why M had yet to marry. As his doctor, I was privy to M’s bodily defects—and this knowledge gave me a different perspective on why he had remained a bachelor into his thirties. M had led a wild life since his school days. But given his finances, a wild life meant slumming it. As soon as he had 50 jeon or one won in his pocket, he’d rush off to a noodle house or a brothel. He had a high sex drive and never passed up an opportunity to satisfy his lust. If he met with us, his favored treat wasn’t a meal but a trip to a whorehouse. “I don’t know about quality, but I’ll match any guy in the world for quantity!” M didn’t hesitate to speak of the number of women he’d been with, and would just count them off without distinguishing between them. By his early twenties, he announced that he’d had sex with more than 200 women. When he was 30 he must have already been peering down at that dissolute Buddhist monk, Shindon. For this reason, though, there was no venereal disease he’d avoided. On top of that, he was notorious for how much booze he could put away, and, horny as he was, he didn’t rein himself in when infected. Not a single day of the year went by when he was diseasefree. He oozed pus chronically, and every other month he’d come to see me for an injection because the swelling in his balls forced him to walk awkwardly. Still, as soon as he had fifty jeon, one won—off he was again for an encounter. Naturally, he’d done in his ability to reproduce. I knew this fact very well and linked it with M’s bachelorhood. It made me sympathetic toward the—moral, shall we call it?—stance that left him unmarried. He would live a lonely life in poverty and without kids. And because there’d be no one to 4
look after him, when his hair turned gray, he’d swim in a sea of agony caused by his own doing, a pitiful soul. But M went and got himself engaged unbeknownst to us all. One evening after dinner a few days earlier, however, I was by myself reading a recent treatment report, and M paid me a visit. Looking less than happy, he reluctantly answered my questions, and tossed me one of his own. “If a guy has syphilis, does that mean he’s infertile?” “Not necessarily.” “What about the clap?” “He’d still be okay as long as his balls aren’t infected.” “Balls, huh?...A friend of mine had his get really inflamed. He said he’s sterile and feels miserable. Would it be impossible for him to father a kid if his balls were infected? He said they were both swollen….” “If the inflammation was mild, it shouldn’t have an effect.” “Mild? Would you consider my case mild or severe?” Without meaning to, I looked straight at him. Given how seriously he’d been afflicted, for him even to pose the question couldn’t sound like anything but a joke. M’s face appeared serious and dark, as I expected. Like someone awaiting a crucial verdict, he looked down, anticipating my answer. After studying his expression for a moment, I said, at a loss, “Your case was very much on the light side.” “Light side?” “Absolutely!” Thus we said our farewells. But now, on the face of it, my answer that night must have spurred his engagement. It was T who brought the surprising news about M. As it happened, a few friends were gathered. All of us knew M personally. “A legend bites the dust,” one said sarcastically. I prodded T. “Was he dating the girl this whole time?” “Dating? No way! The only women he knows are whores. Where is he going to find a girl to ask out?” “Maybe there’s a dowry involved?” “Not a chance!” Here I saw the most unpleasant aspect of M’s engagement. If love had made M give up his bachelor lifestyle, we should have been congratulating not criticizing him. Considering the world we live in, even if it were arranging a dowry that made him decide to marry, we couldn’t really badmouth him. We all knew his circumstances well. But given an engagement that was the result of neither a romantic relationship nor a financial arrangement, I couldn’t help but come to a single, unsavory conclusion. “Well, well…” I said in a very irritated tone, “looks like he’s getting married to save some of the cash he’s blowing at brothels.” T looked askance at me for my sardonic comment. “Don’t be so cynical. He’s already in his early thirties. At that age he might 5
want to have kids sitting on his lap. But he had no way to find a suitable girl…” “Kids? What kids is a guy with testicular inflammation like that going to have? Kids….” Annoyed as I was, I thoughtlessly blurted out a professional secret. I had to stop mid-sentence. But I couldn’t swallow back what I’d let slip. “Huh? What are you talking about?” Questions about M’s fertility status came at me from all sides. I couldn’t shirk responsibility for what I’d said, and had a hard time reframing my words. Though I couldn’t be completely sure, M was likely sterile. Still, I hadn’t tested him, so maybe he wasn’t. Irritated by M’s not-so-serious engagement, I let loose a nasty remark but tried to take it back. I made excuses. A young man of 20 at the table piped up, “Life without kids is pretty convenient, don’t you think?” I picked a bit of an argument to change the subject. “Young guys can’t understand the love a man has for his own flesh and blood.” I offered a view on the current trend to treat such matters lightly. M held his wedding in secret. None of his friends knew the date in advance. Not only that, his ceremony wasn’t the western type that everybody follows nowadays, but a traditional wedding at his own house. Rumors circulated that although the bride, a graduate of X girls’ high school, had objected to the traditional ceremony, M rode roughshod over her wishes. And so the red-light district lost a loyal customer. “There’s a lot to be said for monopoly.” So M supposedly remarked to a friend after getting married. Even though his marriage did not come from a romantic relationship, the remark hinted that it hadn’t turned out a particular failure. The inveterate bachelor, who used to slake his transient desires with 50 jeon or one won, obtained an unimagined right of sole access to a woman. His pride appeared substantial. Although not a love marriage, love appeared to have developed between the couple. M had always worn a gloomy expression but now the brightening of his face made the rumor sound likely. “Be blessed.” All of us, me above all, offered heartfelt congratulations on the marriage. At first, I wished that the marriage would turn out happily for the sake of his young bride, who’d wedded M only to become a sacrificial lamb for his lust. Regardless of the motivation, may beautiful fruit result! Don’t let her be a victim as your wife! Since she won’t have a chance to enjoy a mother’s pleasure, as a wife let her taste twice the joy of others! Every time I thought of M’s situation, I extended such wishes from the bottom of my heart. Not long into their newlywed life, though, rumors grew little by little that M was mistreating her. Whispers even suggested that the abuse had turned physical. I didn’t pay too much attention, though. When the gossip reached my ears, I couldn’t help but think of the story of a genie from the Arabian Nights. Once upon a time a fisherman was casting his net, but when he pulled it up, 6
he found no fish, just a bottle sealed tightly with a lead cap. Hesitating a moment, he tore the seal apart and pulled off the cap. A strand of dark smoke rose up to the sky and soon coalesced into a huge genie. “The prophet Solomon imprisoned me in this bottle. While trapped inside I swore to myself that if anyone rescued me within 100 years, I would give him an enormous fortune. I waited for 100 years, but no one came along. So I made another vow. If anyone rescued me within another 100 years, I would give him all the treasure in the world. I waited another 100 years in vain but extended my promise another 100 years. If anyone saved me within 100 years, I would bestow upon him the greatest power and glory in the world. But another 100 years passed, and still no one had saved me. So I made one last vow. If anyone rescued me, no matter who, I would kill the bastard immediately and take my vengeance on all the years that I was imprisoned.” Thus went the story of the genie released from the bottle. I couldn’t help but think of this story when rumors of how M was treating his bride reached my ears. I thought he was wreaking vengeance upon her for the pain and loneliness that he had endured as a bachelor into his thirties. I would pray more earnestly. “Mistreat her all you want, mistreat her all you want!” One evening, almost a year after his wedding, M and I were having dinner together. He looked particularly troubled. He gulped down liquor and barely touched his food. M was naturally taciturn but that day he was even quieter than usual. Not until he was totally drunk and could barely handle another cup did the words burst forth from his mouth. His bloodshot eyes flashed fire. “Okay, okay. Don’t lie to me. Just give me the truth. Do you think I can have a kid?” “I’d only be able to tell if we do a test.” I tried to skirt the issue. “Then test me.” “What’s with the sudden concern?” He looked as though he intended to answer right away, but he swallowed his words. He gulped down another drink and then spoke up, eyes downcast. “I mean, if I’m sterile, wouldn’t my wife be pitiful? If the test says I’m infertile, wouldn’t the right thing be to let her go while she’s still young? That’s why.” “I need to examine you.” “Then let’s do it soon.” A few days later, I heard whisperings that shocked me: M’s wife was pregnant. There was little need for me to examine M. I was virtually certain he was sterile. But here his wife was pregnant. I then understood why he’d wanted to get tested a few days ago. It wasn’t because he cared about his wife’s future, but because he was suspicious. He knew that the chances were over 90 percent that he was sterile. But she was pregnant. 7
It made for a compelling piece of theater if you thought about it. M, sterile, marries without dropping a hint of the truth. His wife becomes pregnant. She doesn’t know her husband is infertile and openly prides herself on her adulterous pregnancy. M hasn’t indicated that he might be sterile and has no right to criticize his wife despite his agony. He says he wants to get tested. But if the result confirms sterility, he’ll have no idea what to do. If he wants to accuse his wife of immoral conduct, he has to reveal his own deceptions. If he covers up his behavior, he might end up increasing his own agony. One day M came to see me for a test. I had several patients, so I told him to go to my office and wait. I headed down after I finished with my patients, only to find that he’d left. The following day he returned. But he went away again. I couldn’t make up mind what to do. If it turned out that M was indeed sterile, my conscience and medical responsibility would have kept me from lying. To reveal that he was infertile was a frightening sentence that could destroy his life. M’s wife, lawfully married, would clearly be culpable of engaging in illicit pleasure. But if I ignored the truth and lied about the result, M, who was unable to father children, could have potentially adorable offspring (so to speak) to comfort him in his old age, and all would turn out smoothly. I hesitated over the road I should take. The dilemma resolved itself a few days later. M came to see me, looking gloomy once more. Out of loyalty as a friend I asked whether we should carry out the test. “I already got myself tested.” His response was terse. “Oh? Where?” “At P Hospital.” “And the result?” “I’m not sterile.” I looked quizzically into his face without meaning to, not so much at the unexpected answer as the sorrow in his voice when he said “not sterile.” M’s answer relieved me of my responsibility, but I couldn’t prevent my eyes from widening at the startling result of the P Hospital exam. When his eyes met mine, they darted about as if he were in a quandary and let me sense that he’d just told an untruth. Why had he lied to me? To protect his wife’s honor? To have a child he could call his own at the expense of deceiving the world and his own heart? I was having trouble understanding what was going through his head. He started to talk, his voice heavy with despair. “Can you understand how I feel?” “In what sense?” He paused. “Let’s say a man gets his paycheck. As soon as he has the money, he goes out, eats, shops, spends to his heart’s content. On his way back home, it’s obvious there’s 8
not a lot of money in his wallet. But he doesn’t dare open it, because it’s possible there’s still a good chunk left. Once he opens the wallet, he has to face the reality that hardly any is left. He’s afraid, and deceives himself, saying that some should still be there. He needs to buy rice and firewood too. Once he opens his wallet, the reality that he’s broke will become real. So he keeps his hands as far from it as he can on the way home. Can you understand how he is feeling?” I nodded. “Yes.” He sealed his lips again. At that moment I realized that he hadn’t even been tested. He was afraid. He’d avoided the test. His wife had become pregnant. Common sense would hold that she’d conceived her husband’s child. Nobody would dare be suspicious. No need to be suspicious. What’d be the point? It’s natural for women to conceive after they marry. If you’re suspicious over things for which no suspicion is necessary, any resulting unpleasantness is a calamity you bring upon yourself; no one else should shoulder the blame. It’s foolish to poke beehives. M avoided a test that had ten-to-one odds of producing an unpleasant result. M decided not to stir the beehive facing him in order not to create misery for himself, and to allow maintenance of a small hope in the midst of his anguish. Under compulsion he decided to love the baby in his wife’s belly, which, by common sense, could be judged his. It’d be a stroke of fortune if a test revealed that his sperm were active. But if not, even leaving aside a tragic sense of anger and the despair that would arise between him and his wife, he would end up living a life without progeny and would lack someone to lean upon as he aged. It was a frightening outcome. There was no need to act rashly and deny facts that would be judged by common sense. And so M abandoned the idea of the test, but apparently remained unable to abandon lingering suspicions. One day after that incident, while we were chatting, he said in passing, “I wish children looked exactly like their dads…” I gave all sorts of examples in which the resemblance could show up. He sighed. “Women must worry when they get pregnant. If a baby looks like his father or grandfather, there’s no problem. But if he takes after his mother’s side, or doesn’t resemble anyone in the family at all, then there are concerns. It’s safest for a baby to look like his dad.” He laughed. “I don’t remember the title since it’s not my field,” I answered, “but isn’t there some German work along those lines? A play called ‘Father’ or something? A man has a baby, but he’s in agony because he’s not sure if it’s his. Even so, there shouldn’t be a problem if the baby looks like his father.” “Ah, this is all such a hassle.” M’s wife gave birth to a boy. One day, when the boy had grown to be about six months old, M came to see me for a check-up, cradling the baby in his arms. He had a slight sore throat. M sat for a while after receiving the medicine. Unbidden, he started to talk. 9
“People say my boy looks just like his great-grandfather.” “Is that so?” I responded. I had no small interest in what he was saying. To my eyes, there weren’t any points of resemblance between the little baby and M. How strange, then, that the baby and M’s grandfather looked alike….It appeared as though M’s relatives, unable to discern a resemblance for the baby on either the father’s side or the mother’s side and at a loss, introduced M’s dead ancestors into the equation. Great suspicion over his offspring, and a greater hope that his suspicion stemmed from a misunderstanding, allowed M to welcome his relatives’ words. At least he appeared to have been convinced to trust that the baby was his. M hesitated for a while, seeing I was interested in what he was saying, and eventually let out a second remark he’d prepared. “Not only that, he takes after me in a particular way.” “How so?” “Look.” M gingerly shifted the baby to his left arm. Clasping the baby tightly, he removed his sock with his right hand. “Look at my toes. They’re kind of unusual. The middle toe is longer than the others. It’s rare. And my baby…” M lifted the swaddling clothes to reveal the baby’s feet. “Look at my boy’s toes! Don’t you think they look exactly like mine? I do….” M looked at me, eager for agreement. How desperate his search for resemblance, to find it in their toes. I was close to tears over M’s emotional state and his efforts in the midst of his grave doubts to purge himself of suspicion at any cost. Those efforts evoked gutwrenching tragedy. I didn’t take in the baby’s toes that M wanted to display to me but ended up looking at the baby’s face instead. Finally I spoke. “It’s not just your toes. You’ve got similar features.” I turned my chair away to avoid the blend of doubt and hope rising in M’s eyes.
Published on Aug 10, 2015
Kim Dong-in (1900 – 1951), together with Yi Kwang-su, is one of early modern Korean literature’s representative writers of “pure” fiction. H...