Page 1


Ch’ aeMan-Si k

Tr ans l at edbyJ ami eChang

The Cuckoo By Ch’ae Man-Sik Translated by Jamie Chang

Literature Translation Institute of Korea 1

Originally published in Korean as Ssukguksae in Yeoseong, 1938 Translation ⓒ 2014 by Jamie Chang

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 Chae, Man-sik (The) cuckoo [electronic resource] / by Chae Man-sik ; translated by Jamie Chang. -- [Seoul] : Literature Translation Institute of Korea, 2014 p. 원표제: 쑥국새 Translated from Korean ISBN 978-89-93360-56-1 95810 : Not for sale 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21



About Ch’ae Man-Sik Ch’ae Man-Sik (1902 – 1950) was born in Okgu, North Jeolla Province in 1902. His pen names are Baek-reung and Chae-ong. After graduating from Jung-ang High School, he studied the arts at Waseda University, Japan. Ch’ae Man-Sik is considered to be one of the most emblematic novelists of the colonial period. He produced works that authentically showcased the social realities and conflicts of the time such as “My Innocent Uncle” (1938), Turbid Waters (1937-1938), Peace Under Heaven (1938), Frozen Fish (1940), and the play The Legend of the Mantis (1940), among others. His artistic world puts emphasis on reflecting and criticizing the reality of his day. In his works, he truthfully describes the destitution of farmers under colonial rule, the anguish of intellectuals, the fall of the inner city lower class, and the chaos that ensued after independence. After the restoration of independence, he produced controversial pieces such as “The Story of the Rice Paddy”, “Mister Bang”, and Transgressor of the Nation, that reflected on the history of Japanese forced labor camps and incisively delved into post-independence Korean society. He died right before the outbreak of the Korean War in June 25th, 1950, from pneumonia.

About “The Cuckoo” Jeomnye, Mireoksoe, Napsun, and Jongsu all live in a country village. Jeomnye has feelings for Mireoksoe, who believes he has claim on Napsun, who is in love with Jongsu. Out of jealousy, Jeomnye informs Mireoksoe that Napsun and Jongsu are frolicking up in the mountain. Mireoksoe tracks them down and attacks Jongsu, who flees the village. Mireoksoe succeeds in marrying Napsun, but fails to win her heart. Not long after their wedding, Jeomnye informs Mireoksoe that she just saw Napsun and Jongsu entering Napsun’s room together. Mireoksoe runs home in a murderous rage, only to hear screams coming from his house.


The Cuckoo

Chapter 1 To the left was a grass field on a gentle slope studded with graves in the public cemetery. Not a single tree in sight. To the right was a slope where ugly crawling pine clung to the unseemly yellow-orange rubble. A winding mountain path cut between the two areas climbing over the tall hill. The clear sun of May stretched across the lush bushes on both sides of the path. Violets stuck their heads out here and there among the tufts of grass. Violets were blue, and oxalis, no bigger than fingernails, were yellow. White spider lilies were also in full bloom. Even the daehwang had pretty flowers. Halmikkot, the “grandmother flower,” got to stretch its back only after it’d grown old and fluttered its white hair in the air. The field darkened for a moment when a cloud passed above, and soon became bright again. A startled pheasant squawked as it burst out from the bushes. Mireoksoe struggled and grunted as he climbed this steep hill, crushed under a heavy load of wood. He had too much greed and not enough cunning. He was eager to use the pickax he’d sharpened on the last market day, but he had to gather wood without getting caught by the forester who’d have whipped him if he were caught. So Mireoksoe cut down everything he could get his hands on – rhododendron, azalea, pine, and sometimes even perfectly good pine. It was too much for him to carry, but he had faith in his own strength which threatened to betray him as he nearly tumbled downhill a few times on his way down. And now there was this hill. To make matters worse, he was hungry because he’d been up since the early April sun rose; he’d skipped lunch, and it was past noon. The squeak squeak of his A-frame and the clank clank of his lunch box responded to his grunts. He might have stopped once or twice on his way up to catch his breath, but his pigheadedness drove him on. His tanned, bulging calves were ready to burst under the weight of the load he carried on his back. When he finally made it to the top of the hill, he gasped for air, propped his Aframe off to the side with a stick, and got up. “Stupid ninny! The things I have to do because of that…” Mireoksoe looked over at the cemetery and untied the towel from his belt and wiped the sweat off his face. “… I could have gone around the easier way. The trouble I go to for that… ninny!” A cool swift breeze swept over the hill. There was another mountain below and it was another 5 li beyond that to get home. After his sweat had cooled, he untied his lunch box from below the A-frame and ambled over to the cemetery with his hands behind his back.


A tuft of halmikkot blew white petals over the way like snow. Not a single blade rustled in the cemetery as still as night. It didn’t take him long to find his wife’s grave, which was off below the hill all by itself. The grave still looked shabby as the grass hadn’t yet laid root, and crimson clay peered out of the sod. On one side of the grave stood a stake with the following inscription in ink: Grave of Park from Miryang On another stake on the other side, it read: April 2, 1938 Even though he couldn’t read, he looked at the stake for a long while and circled the grave. There weren’t any bald patches in the sod nor were there any holes. After he’d gone around the grave once, he opened up the lunch box in front of the grave and placed a spoon in the rice. All he had was brown rice that contained more unhulled rice and barnyard grass grain than rice, with a few pieces of pickled radish. “Here, stuff your face with it. I saved it for you even though I was hungry,” he said as if she could hear him. He placed the lunch in front of the grave and stared off into the distance while he waited for her to taste the food. The vast, open field below the hill and the mountains on the far side looked like a painting. The train crawling around the small hill in the middle of the field looked like a toy. Tears welled up in Mireoksoe’s eyes as he sat absentmindedly, snapping off blades of grass. “Why’d you have to go and die, you ninny? Why couldn’t you have stayed put where you were? Why’d you have to be such a nincompoop and die? Ninny!” Choking back tears, he wiped his eyes with his fists.

Chapter 2 It happened just last March. Mireoksoe was on his way back for lunch after fertilizing the fields when he saw Jeomnye behind the spindle tree fence of the village well glancing over at him like she had something to say. “What are you smiling at, you broad?” “You son of a stinking bitch! My name isn’t broad, you bastard.” “The very sight of me makes your bottom itch, doesn’t it, broad?” 5

“Ha! In your dreams!” She acted nonplussed but he’d hit a nerve. “Son of a bitch? Why would I want to have anything to do with an imbecile like you? As I live and breathe!” “Sorry, broad. I don’t care what you say. I’m not interested.” “Who said I was interested? You make me sick! I hear you got it bad for Napsun in Saemal. Why would an apricot blossom like her so much as look at a turd like you?” “I’m going to rip open your mouth! What’s it to you if I’m interested in Napsun? Stupid broad!” Mireoksoe was angry and glared at her with his large eyes, but Jeomnye wasn’t scared in the least. “Who says I care? But sir, try to control yourself. No matter how much you drool over Napsun, nothing will come of it.” “That’s none of your business.” “A dog who’s been chasing a chicken looks up at the roof, but what will our imbecile look at once he finds out that he’s pining for Napsun, who’s only got eyes for Jongsu?” “Shrew! If you’re lying, a tiger will come get you!” “You poor thing. Napsun came across the river today to collect wild aster and went up into the woods, and Jongsu strolled up there, too, pretending he was getting firewood. Now do you believe me? You don’t have a chance!” She stuck her tongue out at him. “Really?” “Hmph! Now you’re sorry! Well… go away! Go on!” Jeomnye spun around and drew the water pail up the well, making a swishing sound. “You damn shrew! I hope you fall in the well and die!” Mireoksoe spat as he walked away, crushed. He thought to himself, That Jeomnye can’t be making this up. I knew there was something strange going on with Jongsu! I can’t let that little cur steal Napsun from me! She’s been mine since we were little! This makes me so angry! But then Jongsu does have that slender face of his that makes him look prettier. Damn it! He produced half a mirror from his pouch and studied his face in it. His wide mouth looked like a long gutter dug with a hoe, and his nose was as flat as a pile of cow dung. His bulging eyes, very narrow forehead, and yellowish, curly head of hair made him look like a wild calf. Or something like it. He could not deny that he was unattractive. Damn it! No woman would like an imbecile like me! Only that girl Jeomnye does that whole song and dance because she can’t see straight. How did I get to be so ghastly? Wait a minute. It’s my parents’ fault! Father’s dead, so I’m going to complain to Mother about this. Still, I am strong. And a man doesn’t make a living off his face. Damn it… I’ll just go for it. Can’t have her stolen from under my nose!


Mireoksoe rushed home and told his mother to go to Napsun’s home right that minute and tell her parents that he wants to marry her, that if he can’t marry her, he’s going to hang himself and die, and that she owes him for making him so ugly, so she has to make sure he gets to marry Napsun. He ranted like a madman and then rushed up the mountain. He searched all over the place and finally found Jongsu and Napsun lying side by side in a sunny spot in a secluded valley. Napsun took off, horrified, but stopped a little ways away to look back at Jongsu who was standing his ground trying to stare Mireoksoe down when he would have normally backed down if Mireoksoe shot him a glare. Mireoksoe was more upset at Jongsu than at Napsun. “You bastard!” Mireoksoe glared hard, flared his nostrils, and stepped up right to Jongsu’s face as though he was going to crush him. “What do you want?” Jongsu’s voice and body were shaking, but his words were courageous. “Look at you, all grown up.” “What? What do you want? This is none of your business.” “None of my business? You’re dallying with the girl I have dibs on. How is that none of my business?” “Dibs? What is she, a patch of wild melon? Son of a bitch is as dumb as he looks!” “Son of a bitch!” Mireoksoe couldn’t win an argument with Jongsu so he grabbed him by the throat instead. He would’ve done that sooner, in fact. Jongsu grabbed Mireoksoe’s throat back. “What are you going to do now, huh?” “Filthy son of a bitch! Going around seducing other people’s women! I’m going to kill you!” Mireoksoe dragged him down to the ground, but even as Jongsu was thrown about like a bundle of straw, he kept the insults coming, “What do you care? Did I seduce your mom? Or your grandmother?” They wrestled each other for a while without a word. Both men were twenty-one and although Jongsu was fueled by rage, he was no match for Mireoksoe’s ox-like strength. Mireoksoe sat on Jongsu’s stomach and pummeled him on the chest. “You want more, you bastard?” “Is that all you got?” “Watch your mouth!” Mireoksoe pressed his hands down on Jongsu’s neck. Jongsu gasped for air as his eyes bulged and the blue veins popped on his face. At that moment, a stick landed squarely on the back of Mireoksoe’s head. “Ouch!”


As Mireoksoe fell forward, he was dealt a second blow on the head. Mireoksoe collapsed, unconscious, and Napsun pulled Jongsu up by the hand and they ran away.

Chapter 3 Napsun’s mother had been fretting over the rumors going around about her daughter and that good-for-nothing Jongsu, and so immediately said yes for a dower of thirty won when Mireoksoe’s mother made the offer. Mireoksoe’s mother sold the calf – now a middle-sized cow – Mireoksoe’s father had left behind before he died as Mireoksoe’s dower for fifty won. She also sold six lamb for thirty won, and sent thirty won to Napsun’s as dower and spent fifty more on the wedding. That was only ten days after Napsun hit Mireoksoe on the head with the stick. The night of the wedding, Mireoksoe limped into the nuptial room after having been hit on the bottom of his foot repeatedly, a wedding day tradition. In the nuptial room lit by a candle for the first time, Napsun sat gingerly in full makeup glowing brighter than the flame. Mireoksoe’s already large mouth smiled ear to ear. He stood looking and grinning at his bride for a while before plopping down in front of her. “Hehe. It was you who hit me with a stick, wasn’t it?” Napsun was as cold as the snowy winter day. She did not move a single eyelash in response. “It really hurt! You beat me senseless! Hehe…” She did not say anything. “But I still married you because you’re pretty. Isn’t that right? Hehehehe…” “…” “So…” Mireoksoe grabbed Napsun’s hands. They were as cold as ice. “Let’s forget about all that. You’re my wife now, so you’ve got to listen to me. Okay?” And so went their first wedding night. Mireoksoe was no longer angry and put the word out that he was not going to kill Jongsu, so Jongsu returned to the village a few days later, and Napsun continued to spend her time as cold as a snowy day. One evening a fortnight later, Mireoksoe was pissing in the spring barley field when Jeomnye ran out to him crying “Mireoksoe! Mireoksoe!” Mireoksoe felt his chest grow cold and met her at the edge of the field where Jeomnye pretended she was out of breath clinging to his arm. “Mireoksoe…” “What’s going on?” “I… I told your mother on the way here, too.” “Told her what?” 8

“It’s Napsun…” “Napsun!” “I was spying on her…” “And?” “Jongsu…” “What about Jongsu?” “Yes. So Jongsu and Napsun… In a room…” “What?” Mireoksoe pushed Jeomnye aside and charged home like a bull. Once he was over the hill, he heard his mother shrieking. He rushed through the gate and saw his mother dragging Napsun around the yard by the hair like a dog. There was a small bundle rolling in the dirt off to the side. “Here he is.” Mireoksoe’s old mother, now with an audience, raised her pitch to the next level. “The bitch… the bitch did that… that thing with the bastard… and she was packing up to run away with him… Bitch! Give me back my eighty won! I’ll rip you to pieces!” Mireoksoe ran about the yard looking like he was ready to rip someone to shreds, then rushed into the kitchen lunging at Napsun with a three-foot pestle. “Bitch!” He raised the pestle over his head, ready to crush her skull. But at that moment, his eyes met hers. The face of Napsun he so adored looked up at him. She looked up at him so piteously that it almost brought him to tears. Thud. The pestle landed on the ground next to her instead, making a hole in the ground. “I should finish you off now, but hold on… where’s that bastard?” Mireoksoe threw the pestle on the ground and whipped his head about in a fury. “Where’s that son of a bitch? I’ve got to tie them together and kill them in one go. I’ve got to go find that bastard. Mother! Keep an eye on her. Don’t let her get away. I’m going to find that bastard and bring him back.” Mireoksoe ran straight out the gate. Outside the gate, the village children who’d gathered to watch cleared out of the way. Jeomnye stood among them, smiling and winking. Mireoksoe pushed past Jeomnye hard with all the anger that had been directed at Napsun when he was about to hit her with the pestle. Jeomnye fell to the ground, and Mireoksoe ran off. Mireoksoe, who ran out of the village in pursuit of Jongsu like a wounded tiger that had been hit but not fatally injured, stopped at a pub in Dragon Head, drank until late, and collapsed there for the night. The next morning, Mireoksoe stumbled home and took down Napsun’s body hanging by the neck from the ceiling beam in the kitchen. Mireoksoe’s old mother had dozed off for a moment early in the morning after standing guard all night, and Napsun snuck into the kitchen to do the deed. She thought she’d be beaten to death, or at least crippled – the frightening pestle he’d swung at her! – and would be stuck living with 9

someone she didn’t love for the rest of her life, so she took her life thinking death would be better than any of that. “I should’ve finished her off with my own hands when I had the chance! Damn it!” Mireoksoe cried in front of the villagers and pretended to be angry. Tears spilled forth. The villagers thought he was angry, but did not see that he was truly sad.

Chapter 4 Mireoksoe, who’d been sitting blankly in front of his wife Napsun’s grave, came to his senses and turned to the grave. A few flies had flown over from somewhere and sat in the lunchbox with the spoon sticking out. “Have you had a few bites?” Mireoksoe murmured as he picked up the lunch box. “I don’t have any water. You must be thirsty.” He let out a sigh. “Why’d you have to die, you ninny? If you’d just stayed put, you’d have been okay. Why’d you have to go and die? Ninny!” Tears welled up in his eyes as he murmured to himself. He pulled out the spoon from the lunch box. “Gosire.” He threw some rice in front of him, and then some over his shoulder. “Gosire.” And then to his left and right. “Gosire. Gosire.” He offered food in all directions. In the mountain behind him, a cuckoo cried, Ssookook! Ssookook! Mireoksoe, who was about to eat, stopped and turned toward the sound. Ssookook! Ssookook! He could hear it, but not see it. Ssookook! Ssookook! The sound grew more distant as it seemed to be flying over the mountain to the other side. Mireoksoe was reminded of an old tale. A daughter-in-law had just given birth, but the stingy mother-in-law refused to make her seaweed soup and fed her ssookook, or mugwort soup, instead. The daughter-in-law did not stop bleeding and had stomach pains then died three weeks later. Her spirit became a bird that dreaded mugwort soup, and so cried Ssookook! Ssookook! day and night. “What kind of bird did Napsun become? I hope she’s a cuckoo so I can hear her.” Mireoksoe looked at where the sound of the cuckoo disappeared and then let out a deep sigh. Ssookook! Ssookook! The last of its cries echoed dimly and then stopped. Mireoksoe forgot about lunch and sat as if his spirit had left him.


The cuckoo  

Ch’ae Man-Sik (1902 – 1950) was born in Okgu, North Jeolla Province in 1902. His pen names are Baek-reung and Chae-ong. He produced works th...