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TheHeatoft heSun

Ki m Yu-j eong

Tr ans l at edbyEugeneLar s en-Hal l ock

The Heat of the Sun By Kim Yu-jeong Translated by Eugene Larsen-Hallock


Originally published in Korean as Ttaengbyeot in Yeoseong, 1937 Translation ⓒ 2013 by Eugene Larsen-Hallock

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, Yu-jeong The heat of the sun [electronic resource] = 땡볕 / [written by] Kim Yu-jeong ; translated by Eugene Larsen-Hallock. -- Seoul : Literature Translation Institute of Korea, 2013 p.] ISBN 978-89-93360-26-4 05810 : No price 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21



About Kim Yu-jeong Kim Yu-jeong (1908-1937)’s stories portray, with a unique, folksy sense of humor, everyday people living out hardscrabble lives against the bleak backdrop of rural Korea. Kim Yu-jeong made his literary debut in 1935 with the selection of “The Rainstorm” by the Chosun Ilbo, and “The Bonanza” by the Joseon Jungang Ilbo. He then went on to publish prolifically during the two short years before his death in 1937, leaving behind more than 30 novels and 10 essays, and opening up a new horizon in Korean literature. Many of Kim Yu-jeong’s most representational stories—including “Spring, Spring”, “The Mountain Traveler”, “The Rascal”, “The Golden Bean Patch”, and “Camelias”—depict various aspects of life in rural Korea. Kim’s prose, with its liberal use of lively onomatopoeia, rustic dialects, and homespun colloquialisms, lends great animation to his subjects, providing us with vitality-filled sketches of the impoverished and miserable lives lived by the lowest classes in rural villages under Japanese colonial rule. The particular significance of Kim’s stories within Korean literature, however, comes from the consistent sensitivity of feeling which they evince in their telling. “The Heat of the Sun” (1937) follows Deoksun as he struggles to carry his starving, deathly-ill wife to the hospital, buoyed by the foolish hope that the hospital will pay them for the opportunity to research the wife’s illness. In the end, however, it is impossible for the kindhearted, impoverished characters of the story not to be overwhelmed by the heartless world around them. The image of Deoksun carrying his wife on his back as he walks beneath a scorching sun is one of Kim Yu-jeong’s most enduring portrayals of the lower class, and contains within it an incredible sense of the pathos of human existence.


The Heat of the Sun

Just as Deoksun came to the Tongan intersection, he lifted a stocky arm to wipe the beads of sweat from his nose with the hem of his left sleeve and came to a sudden stop. His face broiled red by the sun, he took a long look at his surroundings. It was the height of the sweltering days after the end of the monsoons, and passers-by were clustering beneath the narrow eaves along the side of the road. The road glistened in the heat, and clouds of suffocatingly hot dust billowed up behind each passing car. He realized that, no matter how long he waited, he wasn’t likely to see anyone who looked as though they might have the patience to tell him which way he needed to go. He wiped away the sweat with his sleeve one more time, and stood awkwardly. Then, with luck, a smartlooking young man happened to pass by. Deoksun politely waved out to him. “Hey! Which way to the university hospital?” “Just go straight up that way,” the man replied, gesturing with his chin. Deoksun set off to the north along the road the man had gestured toward. With every step, the wooden frame across his back dug heavily into Deoksun’s shoulders, and the sweat streaming down from his back stung his chafed rear-end. It was so hot, he was huffing fire as he panted along. He blew his nose with one thumb pressed against the side of his nostril and wiped his finger along the side of a telephone pole. At that moment he was feeling particularly vexed. He desperately wanted to toss off the frame he was carrying and sprawl out in the cool of the shade. Dammit, why’re you so heavy! Scowling, he almost spat out a curse. But thinking of how embarrassed his wife would be from her perch atop the frame on his back, he checked himself. Grumbling under his breath, he just muttered, “Whew, it’s hot.” And then he just couldn’t walk any further. Deoksun set the frame down beneath the shade of a willow beside the road, and shook his shirt to cool the sweat from his back. There wasn’t the slightest hint of a breeze to cut the heat on the road, only clouds of burning dust. Deoksun checked the sky, but there was no sign of rain. As he moistened his parched lips with his tongue, the water truck came by, clanging its bell. Feeling the spray of water across the top of his feet, he felt reinvigorated, as though he had returned from the dead. But when he reached into his shirt pocket to pull out his pipe, he remembered that he was completely out of tobacco and peevishly shoved the pipe back in his pocket. “Your butt sore?” he asked, turning to his wife. “I’m fine!” she said, but she was actually in a sorry state. She had the look of a dying woman, and her eyes were brimming over with tears. It had been two months since she’d last seen the sun, and in that time her face had withered and yellowed. The feeble way she swayed back and forth in her seat atop the carrying frame suggested she might collapse any minute. Deoksun gave her a hard look. 4

“Hey now, you’d better dry those tears,” he chided her. “But when we get to the hospital, they’re probably going to want to cut me open.” “You think they cut people open, just like that? I told you, they’re going to study you,” he said, trying to reassure her. They could worry later about whether they needed to operate—the more immediate question was where they were supposed to find the money to eat. “Didn’t you hear what Giyeong’s grandpa said?” he continued. “But you think the hospital will really pay me when they make me better?” “Sure, why would an old man lie? They say there was a Dr. Ito, or a Doctor-somethingor-other, who found some fourteen-year-old Korean kid bigger than a grown man. Whatever that boy had, it was so strange that the doctor put him straight in the hospital, where even now they’re paying him ten won a month just to be able to study him. And not only that, they give him food and clothes, too. How about that!” “Then they’ll probably want to keep me in the hospital, too.” “Well, we’ll find out when we get there.” His wife had accepted it easily enough, but Deoksun couldn’t help but wonder whether everything Giyeong’s grandfather said could really be believed. It hadn’t been very long, however, since they arrived in Seoul from the countryside. Thinking that anything might be possible in the city, he’d picked up a voucher for a free examination. Whatever the case may be, he’d heard that the stranger and harder to treat a disease was, the more the hospital was willing to pay, and he was extremely curious to find out how much his wife’s own peculiar illness might be worth. He thought wishfully to himself that, if that fourteen-year-old kid had been worth ten won a month, his wife must be worth fifteen or so. His wife would be cured, they’d have plenty to eat, and all their luck would change. Just then a boy called out, “Chamoe melons!1 Delicious chamoe melons!” Deoksun’s eyes were drawn to where the boy was sitting with melons spread out in front of him. The melons looked so plump and fresh, and it was such a brutally hot day. Deoksun almost wanted to snatch one up and devour it right on the spot. He longingly looked at one melon and then another and thought immediately of the four jeon he had in his coin purse. But as soon as the thought occurred to him, he realized how stupid he was being and resolutely turned away. He had been holding on to that four jeon since the day before, hoping to find one more jeon somewhere so he could buy a five jeon-pouch of Huiyeon-brand tobacco. It would be foolish to fritter that money away on a melon. “Hold on tight!” he said, as he lifted the carrying frame onto his back and stood. As he set off, hope-filled thoughts of the fifteen won a month they would be getting buoyed his steps. Deoksun followed the nurse to the obstetrics department and waited in front of the door for their turn to come. His wife was slumped in the chair he’d set her in, and she was struggling to breathe. She had one arm across her grotesquely bloated belly and held the folds of her skirt in 1

Chamoe melons are a small, yellow variety of summer muskmelon indigenous to Korea.


the other. Her gaunt head shook with every breath as she gasped for air. Patients were being wheeled out of the operating room on gurneys, and the sight of their blood and pus filling the waste bins was more than enough to make her face blanch and set her teeth chattering. “Don’t be so afraid. When you’re in the sort of shape you’re in now, coming to the hospital is the only way to get better,” Deoksun said, trying to comfort his wife. In truth, however, he was just as uneasy about the whole thing as she was. He was filled with questions. What was his wife ill with? Would it really be so unusual that the hospital would pay to study her? Would they really be able to patch her up, just as if she’d never been ill at all? Deoksun had been propping up his wife in her chair and thinking aimlessly about this and that, when he happened to see a cigarette butt lying next to the spittoon on the other side of the room. He took a quick glance around before rushing and snatching it up. Emptying the tobacco into his pipe, he smoked as they waited for their turn, but still no one called them. They must have wasted two hours that way. Then, around fourteen minutes past one, the nurse came again, calling out the name of Deoksun’s wife. “Over here!” Deoksun called out as he hurriedly lifted his wife onto his back and carried her into the examination room. Nurses immediately set upon her, stripping off her clothes and prodding about her abdomen. Deoksun’s wife shrank, trembling like a terrified rabbit. The stinging odor of medical regents piercing their nostrils was almost enough to give them goose bumps, but what was truly terrifying was the glistening collection of medical instruments arranged at one side of the room. Deoksun’s wife was trembling so hard she was making a complete fool of herself, and it was impossible for Deoksun not to also feel embarrassed. He grabbed his wife by the arm and gave the stern look he used when chastising her at home. “Hey, why all the fuss?” he said. But when he heard the sounds of the doctor’s instruments clacking against the glass tray, a shiver ran down his spine. “How long has her belly been swollen like this?” the nurse asked, interpreting for the pudgy Japanese doctor. “I’m not sure exactly…” Deoksun began, scratching his head. “Seems like it got this big sometime ‘round last winter, maybe. Thought it might be a baby at first, but doesn’t seem like one now. I mean, a baby would’ve come out after ten months. Who’s ever heard of a baby that stayed in there for thirteen?” But as soon as he said this he wished he’d just kept his mouth shut instead of blabbering on about babies and such. Before the doctor could even open his mouth to speak, Deoksun hastily added, “But don’t you know it, no one had any idea what was wrong with her. They all said it was the very first time they’d seen anything like this.” Deoksun knew everything depended on this one moment, and intently watched the lips of the doctor for some sign of their fate. But the doctor, in his gold-rimmed spectacles didn’t say anything right away. He just pressed Deoksun’s wife’s belly here and there, and tapped at it, and 6

pressed his ear up against it a few times before going over to the wash basin and rinsing off his hands. Looking rather unimpressed, he spoke through the nurse, “There is a child inside, but it died before it could come out. If your wife remains as she is, she won’t last another week. It is urgent that we operate, but I cannot promise that the outcome will be good. It is possible that things may not go as we would like when we open her up to remove the child. As long as you can agree not to hold us responsible for any misfortune that may come about, I am willing to operate on her as early as tomorrow.” The young nurse conveyed all of this without the slightest change in inflection, before asking, “What would you like to do?” “Well…” Deoksun looked rather perplexed as he awkwardly reached up to scratch the back of his head again. He hadn’t completely understood everything that had been said, but he got the gist of it. He was deeply concerned to hear that his wife’s life was in danger, but it crushed him to find out that the problem was nothing more than a pregnancy gone wrong, which definitely wouldn’t be worth studying. Not having anything left to lose, however, he decided to go ahead and ask. “Well, we don’t have anything to eat, so…” “After she’s admitted here we’ll see that she’s fed, so there’s no need to worry yourself about that…” “But, what I’m trying to ask is…” Deoksun hesitantly stammered out his question, “will the hospital pay us?” “Pay you?” “I mean, sometimes the hospital pays people to get treated here, right?” The nurse scoffed dismissively, “And just why would we pay people to come here when we’re the ones helping them?” Deoksun’s face reddened. He knew then that all of their plans to turn their bad luck around had gone to ruin. He felt like his stomach had caved in and could do nothing but wipe away the sweat from his brow with one thick hand. All the same, they’d need to save his wife’s life, and he bowed deeply as he said, “I’ll bring her back tomorrow. Please do what you can for her.” He tried to seem as deferential as he could. His wife, who had been beside herself with fear of the horrific things being discussed, sat up startled from where she had been lying and sharply interjected, “If I’m dying, so be it. No one’s cutting me open.” Seeing the way the color came up in her face as she said this, there was no way Deoksun could argue with her. Maybe it was only right for a husband to at least let his wife choose how she went when the time came. Incredulous, the nurse protested, “Surely, having an operation must be better than dying!”


Unable to contain themselves, the doctor and the nurse sneered mockingly at Deoksun and his wife. Deoksun turned away so he wouldn’t have to look at them as he clumsily hoisted his wife onto his back and walked out. He placed her on the carrying frame to leave. But when he put it on his back and went to stand up again, he’d be damned if it wasn’t twice as heavy as it had been when they came. Deoksun had been filled with hope on the way to the hospital, but he was trudging back home, weak and defeated. As his wife cried silently on his back, it was as though he were looking right at her. The doctor with all his learning certainly knew better than Deoksun and his wife, who didn’t know anything at all, and if the doctor said that she wouldn’t live another week, then that was the end of it. The only thing left to do was lay her back down in the dismal gloom of their hovel and wait for the end. Deoksun wiped away the sweat beading on his brow with the back of his hand and thought about the dark days to come. He’d had high hopes when they first came to Seoul, but they’d only barely managed to scrape by, and now he was going to lose his wife. Damn it all! Blast this luck of mine! He wanted to curse, but he grit his teeth and let out a heavy sigh instead. The midday heat was even more intense than the morning’s. Deoksun felt as though his back were covered in welts and, unable to stand it anymore, he set down the carrying frame in the shade of the tree they’d rested under on the way to the hospital. He shook his shirt to dry the sweat and looked down at his wife. He thought about all the ways he’d made her suffer and regretted that he hadn’t been able to take better care of her. If he’d known things would end up like this, he would’ve stolen a neighbor’s chicken for her to eat. “Hey, don’t cry now. What do they know, anyway? The fools!” He was almost yelling, trying to hide his shame. “How about some melon?” he suggested. “I don’t want melon!” She must have been burning up in the heat, for she pointed at the ice water seller across the road. Deoksun took out the money he’d been saving up for tobacco and brought back a bowl of ice water. When he pressed it to his wife’s lips so she could drink, she seemed very pleased and gulped it down in a single draught. When she had drunk it all and he asked if she wanted more, she said she’d rather have some Japanese rice cakes. Thinking that this might be the end, Deoksun used the last of his money to buy three rice cakes. He watched as his wife chewed them slowly, savoring each bite without even bothering to wipe the tears from her face. As though she’d just thought of something, she suddenly started sobbing and said through a mouthful of rice cake, “Remember not to forget to pay back your cousin for those two doe2 of rice we borrowed.” Deoksun realized that with this request his wife was sharing her final wishes, and tried to reassure her, “Don’t worry, I will!”


A “doe” is a measure of volume equal to slightly less than two liters, or about half a gallon.


“Also, explain the situation to Yeong-gun’s mother, and ask her to help you with your laundry,� she managed to get this out before she once again broke down sobbing with her lips trembling. These last requests of hers were so pathetic that his eyes filled with tears as he heaved the wooden frame back up onto his shoulders. It seemed like the best thing for a good husband to do would be to get her back in bed as soon as possible and try to get some rice porridge for her from somewhere. It was the midst of the hottest days of summer, and the heat was enough to melt the horns off a bull. As Deoksun plodded home, wiping away the sweat pouring off his back like rain, first with one hand and then the other, his wife continued reciting her last will and testament, interrupted only by tears.


The heat of the sun  

Kim Yu-jeong’s prose, with its liberal use of lively onomatopoeia, rustic dialects, and homespun colloquialisms, lends great animation to hi...

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