Pomegranate Lee Hyoseok Translated by Steven D. Capener
Pomegranate By Lee Hyoseok Translated by Steven D. Capener
Literature Translation Institute of Korea 1
Originally published in Korean as Seokryu in 1936 Translation ⓒ 2014 by Steven D. Capener
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, Hyoseok Pomegranate [electronic resource] / by Lee Hyoseok ; translated by Steven D. Capener. -- [Seoul] : Literature Translation Institute of Korea, 2015 p. 원표제: 석류 Translated from Korean ISBN 978-89-93360-73-8 55810 : Not for sale 813.61-KDC6 895.733-DDC23
About Lee Hyoseok Lee Hyoseok (1907 – 1942) is counted among Korea’s best short story writers along with the likes of Hyun Jin-geon, Yi Taejun, and Park Taewon. His most widely read story, “When the Buckwheat Blooms,” is the tale of an itinerant peddler, going from market to market in the vicinity of Bongpyeong, Lee’s birthplace. The story unfolds against the lyrically depicted moonlight and blooming buckwheat flowers. Gasan (Lee’s pen name) was born in Gangwon Province and graduated from Gyeongseong First High School before going on to major in English Literature at Gyeongseong Imperial University. Together with his contemporary Yu Jinoh, he was classified as a “fellow traveler” writer. Such an epithet was used to describe writers who, while not officially joining KAPF, sympathized with its ideology and aims and reflected these sympathies in their writing. A number of his early novels such as “City and Specter,” “Siberian Coast,” “Correspondence from the North Country,” and “Mahjong Philosophy” are good examples of such works. However, with the decline of proletariat literature in the early 1930s, Lee became a member of the modernist coterie Group of Nine. The Group of Nine, that was begun by Yi Jongmyeong and Gim Yuyeong, included in the original nine Lee Hyoseok, Lee Mu-young, Yoo Chijin, Yi Taejun, Jo Yongman, Gim Girin, and Jeong Jiyong. Later, with the addition of Yi Sang and Park Taewon, this group became, both in name and in reality, the locus of Korean modernist literary activity. After joining the Group of Nine, Lee discarded his socialist leanings in favor of a powerful eroticism based on a lyrical style of storytelling. Characteristic of this style are the works “Pig,” “Bunnyeo,” “Mountains,” and “Fields.” As his career progressed, he focused even more on the themes of human desire and sexuality, using a style of writing often more redolent of verse than prose. Such works include the short stories “Wild Apricots,” and “The Sick Rose,” and the full-length novel “Pollen.” Lee has been called the D. H. Lawrence of Korea.
About “Pomegranate” “Pomegranate” is one of Lee Hyoseok’s shorter pieces of fiction. It follows a plot pattern that became more evident in his later fiction (that written after 1935 or so) in that the protagonist is a woman who suffers from the patriarchal strictures of the Confucian culture of the times. It is implied that the protagonist Jaehee becomes pregnant at the hands of one of her schoolmates and later is pushed into marrying a man she doesn’t love because the union might help her father’s failing business. The man she marries turns out to be a swindler, and her father’s business fails even sooner as the result of his malfeasance. The plot also contains another of Lee’s consistent themes: an unrequited love. This particular story lacks the depth of plot and development of character seen in other of Lee’s short stories, its denouement coming in a sentimental longing by the protagonist for lost youth and the boy that she knew as a student and for whom she still pines. Still, it does contain strains of the lyricism and idealism that characterized Lee’s fiction. 3
Rolling it around on the tip of her tongue, it was like something she’d never tasted before. When Jaehee realized that what she had in her mouth was pomegranate, her heart soared as if she had just seen a rainbow. After some effort, she was able to recall the image of a pomegranate that she had seen in a drawing on a folding screen. She didn’t know from where it emanated, but a subtle fragrance danced about her nose. It was a distant smell that she longed for. Her mother had been sitting with that screen spread out behind her, a bowl of medicine next to her. The fragrance of medicine had hovered around her mother’s haggard face and pomegranates hung preciously from a tree on the screen. Some of the ripe fruit had split wide open, its red seeds clearly visible, while other fruit on the verge of ripening looked about to burst open, the skin beginning to split. These fruit evoked a strange and awkward feeling like certain memories of youth. For no discernible reason, she had, for some time, felt worn out, and only two days before her back had suddenly started to hurt just before school let out. “Is there something wrong with your body?” asked Chaebong, a girl who was quite mature for her age, somehow sensing Jaehee’s secret. She crouched down, an unbearable pain in her belly. She was suddenly taken with a frightening thought and, leaving her book bag in the classroom, headed home. That night in her bed she rolled up her clothes, and couldn’t look her mother in the eye. Knowing she had a weak constitution, her mother made a fuss over her, tending to her needs. Life seemed so sad. Whether it be the past or the present, everything was the same. But now there was no mother, no ornate screen, and no pomegranates. Beauty could only be found in her longing for the past. The pomegranates were deliciously fragrant. But a fragrance is a sad thing that, like a cloud, cannot be held onto and easily floats away. Tears filled her eyes. And while her heart throbbed with this heavy ache, the rainbow dissipated and the pomegranates receded into the past. At these heartrending thoughts, her head ached and her fever spiked. The medicine by her side was bitter. But even the medicine, like many other things, was made more fragrant by its link with the past. She suddenly fell asleep with the thermometer wedged in her armpit. The tracks of her tears drew a squiggly map on her cheeks. Is it possible? Wondering if it weren’t all just a dream, Jaehee picked up her book again. The autobiographical novel had surprised her. The novelist was Junbo, the boy she had known at school. And the story was about their youth. Her heart leaped as if she had seen a rainbow. She was so bedazzled by this that her mind was in a fog. The young girl didn’t like the way her friends talked about her. As the rumors grew, the distance between the young girl and the boy grew. When it was her turn to bowl while playing “knock over the rock,” he was nowhere to be seen, and when he came to take his turn, 4
she would disappear. When they played hide-and-seek under the Ginko tree their paths never crossed, the two never ending up in the same spot, alternating like light and shadow. Ultimately, never having held hands even once, the boy’s stubbornness hardened. In the meantime, there was now this sly fellow hanging around her. The boy was filled with envy and bitterness when he saw this fellow hold her hand and gaily chat with her. While regretting that his stubborn nature would not allow him to do that with her, he felt aggrieved by the undeserved taunting at the hands of his friends. It was only after he had left that Jaehee came to regret that she hadn’t been warmer to Junbo. Jaehee knew that Chaebong was particularly fond of Junbo and this had bothered her. However, after he had left she realized that this had been a silly and useless concern. The last time Jaehee had seen Junbo was under the Ginko tree. A sudden change had come over her body making it necessary for her to rest in bed at home, and she had not been able to tell her mother about it out of shame. While she was resting at home, Junbo had also been taken by a chronic fatigue that had made it necessary for him to take bed rest also. She wasn’t able to attend graduation, and as soon as Junbo was well enough, he had left for school in Seoul. She was suddenly taken by an intense longing for him. It was several years later that Jaehee’s family moved to Seoul and she started to attend a local school. That whole time, however, thoughts of Junbo, like fragments of a dream, had never left her mind. But never in a million years had she thought that he would reappear as a novelist. To the Jaehee of today who was lying sick in bed, Junbo’s appearance seemed like some kind of revelation. Thoughts of him caused her mind to become agitated and she grew weak. She closed the novel and shut her eyes. She suddenly felt the desire to find a picture of Junbo from their school days but the effort seemed too much so she abandoned the idea. It wasn’t just that it was an extravagant thought, in reality marriage had been a great misfortune to Jaehee. Ending up with the scoundrel who was so different from Junbo, and who resembled that good-for-nothing of the old days, was a bitter miscalculation. He had worked for a bank. Her mother had passed away, and on top of that, the company that her father had run went bankrupt, and so out of pity for her father, she blindly followed his wishes that she marry this rogue. These events were what had planted the seeds of the tragedy. Marriage turned out to be no different than a grave. And her husband the swindler dropped a grave-like burden on her family. While that lowlife from her schooldays had ruined her reputation, her husband the swindler had outdone him by getting into the bank’s vault. After a year, his whereabouts were still a mystery. She now regretted her initial lack of will. There being no more reason to remain at her inlaw’s home, she had returned to her parent’s house. Once home, she had no choice but to go back to the school she had once withdrawn from. The school was a repository of old dreams. She could see the images of their former selves shimmering among the forms of the young boys and girls. Was this the thin candle-flame of youth burning in the shadows? Her father sat in the empty house all day in silence like a stone Buddha. His hair was turning gray and his chin was wrinkled. He would rarely speak the whole day long, but just sit like an old, tired parrot. He was as cold and expressionless as a stone. 5
He had not said as much as one word in reproach regarding the rascal. It was clear to him that everything that had happened was the will of the “creator” who justified everything. But in reality there was a reason he could not blame that good-for-nothing: he was too much like him. Jaehee’s first memories started at age four. It had been four years since her father had taken off for Seoul and he still hadn’t returned. Ostensibly he had gone to study, but the nature of the rumors finally forced her mother to go to Seoul to find him. Her in-laws allowed her to go out of pity at seeing her spending her days without a husband by her side. Jaehee accompanied her mother in the palanquin, the trip west of over five hundred li taking several days. They crossed the Han River in a dugout canoe at a spot where there was no bridge. It was reminiscent of a reed boat crossing the Nile. It was all buried in moss and so far away like an ancient legend—the palanquin and the dugout canoe. Having finished his studies and become a public official, her father had recreated himself as a citizen of the capital. Needless to say, their arrival came as a great surprise to him, as he had only distant memories of them and the Pocheon household. Life in the Seoul house was just as difficult for mother and daughter as it had been in the Pocheon house. The mother and daughter found some comfort in attending Sunday school and listening to the lovely hymns. While on an errand to buy cigarettes, Jaehee saw a captured snake and stood awhile in awe at the mysterious beauty of the beast. Occasionally, Gukhyeon, a boy who had come with his family to study from a far-off village, would delight her with gifts of roasted chestnuts. The warmth of kind Gukhyeon’s lap and that of the roasted chestnuts were the best part of her early days and a rare page of happiness in the book of her life. But, those times when she was four were now buried in moss and seemed far off like an ancient legend—the Sunday school hymns, the snake in the road, the warmth of that lap and the chestnuts, all of it. Whether times were easy or hard, legends are always recalled as something beautiful. This is what Jaehee felt when she left Seoul and looked again on her old home. Her father’s intention in leaving Seoul and returning to his hometown with his family was to take care of his aging parents one final time. The Pocheon house now reposed, eyes closed, in that unfamiliar desolateness. Not long after he left, they had followed him down. He had made up his mind to spend the rest of his life as a minor official in the countryside. And so, Jaehee’s mother was finally able to find some peace of mind. From where does one acquire a love of language? Jaehee learned how to read during their time in Seoul, and as soon as she did, she fell in love with books. On long winter nights, or when her mother would be in bed with some illness, she would sit by the folding screen and read out loud from the new novel Chuwolsaek. The poignancy of such moments was enough to bring them both to tears. The happy fortunes of Jeongnim and Yeongchang brought an endless stream of tears down their cheeks, and, sometimes when one candle would burn to its end, Jaehee would light three more and continue reading about their fates. Her mother’s tears 6
resembled the drops of wax running down the sides of the candles. The pomegranates on the screen swam in front of her eyes, and the odor of medicine coming from the bowl beside her mother caused a pang in her heart. Jaehee liked to imagine that the places described in the stories were Seoul. Therefore, to her, Seoul was an exceedingly beautiful place and, in her memories, a place she longed for like an old legend. Of course, after she was all grown up and saw Seoul through her adult eyes, this beautiful dream of her childhood disappeared gracefully, leaving not even the trace of a shadow−Seoul was now merely desultory streets. Junbo had been the brightest kid in school. A gleam of intelligence sparkled in his black eyes. Whenever it was test time he always surprised the teachers. It might be that the two became close because Jaehee as well was always at the top of the class. Whenever Jaehee could not find Junbo’s face in a group of people she felt a kind of emptiness. He was always the first one to whom she wanted to show a new dress or pair of shoes. She loved hearing praise from her teachers. And outwardly she made a show of being annoyed by the raucous teasing of her friends, but inside it made her feel good. For some reason, the sad events of Chuwolsaek never left her mind. When she thought of Junbo, Jeongnim and Yeongchang readily sprang into her head. During field trips to the mountains, Junbo would rummage in the bushes, skillfully picking bunches of ripe berries and tossing them to Jaehee. At the same time, however, he never spoke gently to her but was always sullen, gruff, and cross. When spring would come, the school would go on outings to the mountains. Once the kids were all set loose, Junbo and some of the others would go to pick azaleas above the large rocks. Even though it was early in the season, birds, the names of which no one knew, chirped in the freshly blooming willow trees. When they finally had climbed above the rocks, only Junbo and Jaehee remained with nothing to be seen of the rest of the group. The slope was steep, and below the rocks a magnificent blue stream could be seen rushing down the mountain. A tempting cluster of azaleas was growing at the edge of the rocks. In trying to get some flowers for Jaehee, Junbo forgot all fear. “Take my hand.” Jaehee said as she looked with trepidation at Junbo crawling out to the edge of the rocks. “Don’t need to. What do I need to do that for?” “You’re going to fall off showing off like that.” “You’d like that wouldn’t you?” “Why are you talking such nonsense?” When she turned away in a sulk, Junbo already had his hand on one bunch of flowers. He was barely able to pick a couple of them and, as he was reaching out to pick more, his arm dislodged some rocks that went bouncing down the mountainside. As his body convulsed in fright, he lost his footing and his foot landed hard on a brittle rock that broke to bits causing him to loose what was left of his balance. Junbo pitched forward, arms outstretched at the edge of the cliff. Overcome by dizziness, Jaehee reflexively fell to the ground grabbing Junbo’s leg with both hands as she did. She righted herself and, using all her strength, managed to pull herself back up. It was a miracle that Junbo had not gone over the edge, but 7
he did sustain a serious injury to his arm. “This was all my fault.” “Do you think I was picking those flowers for you?” “Jesus you’re stubborn.” As they walked down the mountain, Jaehee’s mood lightened and she thought about leaning against Junbo, but he never gave her a chance, walking without saying a word and staring straight ahead at the ground. This left her feeling discontented. That discontentment, along with a feeling of sadness became even stronger when Junbo left for Seoul. After he had gone as far as he could in his position as a public official, her father abandoned his hometown like a pair of old shoes, took his family and headed back to Seoul leaving nothing behind but the graves of his ancestors. He bought part ownership in a small company with the little money he had, and Jaehee began to attend school. Thoughts of Junbo never completely disappeared from her mind, but it was also true that his presence faded like stars do in the coming light of dawn. It turned out that Seoul was not a place of legends nor did it possess streets of dreams. The city and its streets were a story that was continuously being written. Jaehee’s youth had been written in gray letters against a gray backdrop. Losing her mother, to whom she had read novels within the folds of that screen, was the loss of her dreams. Before Jaehee had even graduated from school, her father’s company had started to sink. Her father’s face had the pall of someone who was taking quinine. No matter what he did, there seemed to be no way to right the ship. Inevitably, Jaehee became the lamb that was placed on the alter of sacrifice. Doing everything she could to finish school in a place that afforded her no chance to dream, she had to also find a way to make do. She ended up teaching at a school very much like the one she had attended in her youth, with kids like the ones she had known back then. But all her hopes and ambitions had been crushed, all that was left was a handful of ash. In the meantime, her father was pestering her to get married. She felt so sorry for him that she couldn’t go against his wishes. It wasn’t exactly her father wanted her to marry this guy since he worked for a bank and might be able to help her father. It was just that as nothing was going right for him, her father wanted to at least get the family matter of her marriage settled. Marriage turned out to be no different than a grave. The ill fortune of her marriage extended to her father’s company, which went bankrupt. Jaehee ended up back at the same school she had taught at before. And so, after realizing that no matter what you did life was not going to let you win, her mind found a modicum of peace. In the midst of her repetitive daily life, she looked for a source of energy, and for stories of her past in that handful of ash. When she heard the children’s choir sing, she tried to hear their voices as a song of hope. She tried to recover the dreams of her youth in the relationship between a boy named Gapnam and a girl called Aesoon who were in her class. Gapnam was as stubborn as a mule. Sometimes during art class he would not bring any drawing paper. When she would ask him why, even scolding him, he would sulk at his desk as silent as a rock not looking up at her as if he had lost the power of speech. He could just sit 8
there staring fixedly at his desktop with his black eyes, no expression whatsoever on his face. Aesoon was a warmhearted kid. Whenever she had some extra she would give a sheet of drawing paper to Gapnam. Sometimes he accepted it, but there were times when he dug in his heels and refused any help. “Take it.” “Don’t need it.” “Go ahead, be stubborn and get in trouble.” “You’d like that wouldn’t you?” “Why are you talking nonsense?” Even when he would accept a sheet of paper from her, he would repay her double the next drawing class. However, the other side of that stubbornness could be seen when he would lend Aesoon a brush on days she would forget hers. Gapnam was from a poor family. He would often go without lunch. The strange thing was that when he would not eat lunch, Aesoon would go without as well. As it turns out, Aesoon was not poor like Gapnam. There was no reason for her not to eat lunch. Thinking this was strange, Jaehee had a peek in her desk one day after lunchtime when the classroom was empty. To her surprise, she found that the girl had, in fact, brought her lunch that day. The next day, when Gapnam ate lunch, Aesoon ate too. But the following day when he had no lunch, Aesoon also did not eat. Of course, her lunch was inside her desk. The second time she saw this happen, Jaehee experienced a powerful emotion that she could not describe. Her heart was clutched by a feeling of sorrow, like when something sacred that should never hurt you suddenly cuts your hand. When she quietly summoned Aesoon and asked her the reason, what she heard made her heart ache and her eyes become misty. “If Gapnam can’t eat, I don’t feel like eating either.” After returning home from school that day, Jaehee cried in her bed. It was one of those rare days when she felt that life was really worth living. After that, she never scolded Gapnam again and came to feel a powerful love for the two children. She longed terribly for her own childhood. Her mind was agitated and her body unusually weary. She was missing more days at school, staying home in bed. Discovering Junbo’s name, now that of a novelist, had been a great surprise to her. Her heart had leapt as if she had seen a rainbow. But thinking back down the long years to her youth mentally exhausted her. She opened her eyes and on her face the tracks of her tears had drawn a squiggly map. She pulled the thermometer out of her armpit, but the mercury was up in the red. She was running a fever and her body burned. Turning her head, Junbo’s novel came into her sight again. Suddenly her heart contracted and tears sprang into her eyes. Her chest tightened, and the world seemed to momentarily disappear into a black hole of despair. That bitter, empty feeling caused a string of loud sobs to escape her lips. The thin light of the sinking sun cast a yellow glow on the windowsill. Her pillow was wet with tears. 9