Translated by Deborah Smith
from Issue 21
1. Back in her hometown, Kyung-hee said, she’d been a stage actor specialising in recitation.
Several times already now, I’ve had the idea of visiting the houses I’ve left behind. Grasshoppers spring up around my feet, transparent carapaces propelled into the air as I cross the dirt yard and approach the cement buildings, their desiccated structures hard and dry as stale bread, and riddled with holes. I peer through the window into the ground-floor flat, where a naked bulb casts a cold, orange light. Empty objects crowd the interior. A table, a cupboard. A vase, a bed. Chairs. Clothes without bodies to give them shape. That cold yet dearly missed tenement flat, never somewhere to stay for long. In reality, though, I never did go back, there or anywhere else, and it’s only in the realm of imagination that my nostalgia has kept them fresh. Their precise location grows uncertain over time, as inevitably happens with even the most beloved hometown. Kyung-hee enjoyed talking about the various houses she’d lived in. This one was in that city and that one was in this, some days they would breach the surface of the present with all the suddenness of a cloud of dust whisking up into the air, in the heart of a bygone city to which no name can now be put, some unforeseeable instant.
Kyung-hee told us about the groups of peddlers who wandered up and down the square near where she lived, hawking Rolexes. Adding, but obviously they were fakes. First they approached a tall, smartly dressed young man, then tried their luck with a group of bashful girls, probably students at a women’s college, and asked whether they weren’t perhaps in need of a watch. Because they’d broached the topic in such an off-hand manner, as if it didn’t really matter to them either way, and because their introverted, extremely un-businesslike body language managed to make them seem somehow above such things as commercial transactions, it didn’t immediately occur to the travelers that these were unlicensed sellers peddling fake watches. Having just arrived in some faraway country, and feeling as though they’d finally awakened from that deep, soporific stupor known as day-to-day existence, the travelers marvel at the novel perspective they now encounter, this world appearing as though through the eyes of another; nothing could be further from their minds than the purchase of a watch, but as they stop and stare about them they unwittingly attract the attention of the sellers, who now draw nearer, their parted lips seeming liable to inhale the travelers’ souls as they whisper into their ears. Eight hundred for one, a thousand for two. Kyung-hee herself wasn’t sure of the denomination.
We first met Kyung-hee in front of Central Station, just after the last train had pulled in. It was summer, late at night, and the taxi drivers were striking yet again. There had already been several announcements over the PA system directing passengers to the temporary bus stop nearby, but we assumed that Kyung-hee hadn’t understood the instructions, as she was still sitting on her big suitcase when all the other passengers had disappeared. She was wearing a long-sleeved denim jacket over a pigeon-grey dress; she looked exhausted, but not to the point of having lost that tension or agitation peculiar to travelers. Feeling unaccountably friendly, we offered to accompany her to whichever hotel or hostel she was planning to stay at. But Kyung-hee’s answer was that she didn’t have a reservation at any hotel or hostel in this city; she’d merely arranged to meet someone at the station, but he seemed to have forgotten their appointment, or else something had come up to prevent him from keeping it. He wasn’t someone Kyung-hee knew directly; they’d been introduced through a mutual friend who lived in Vienna, and he’d agreed to let Kyung-hee use his living room for a few days, though now of course he hadn’t shown up. We’ve never seen each other in the flesh, you see, but we’re both part of a kind of community, Kyung-hee explained, which means we let other wanderers stay with us free of charge. If someone comes to visit whichever city I happen to be living in, then I provide them somewhere to stay, and then when I go traveling other people in other cities will let me use their living room, veranda, guest room, attic, or even, on the off chance that they have one, a barn. It all depends on their individual circumstances. So I know nothing about these people aside from their name and the city they live in, and if something comes up so that they can’t come and meet me, well, that’s unfortunate, but there’s nothing to be done. I just have to spend the night at the station, then take the first train to another city the following morning.
Our curiosity had been piqued, so we stayed and talked with Kyung-hee a little further; in the end our conversation went on for much longer than we’d anticipated, until we impulsively invited Kyung-hee to come and spend a few days with us. Of course, this had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Kyung-hee came from the same city as we did! After all, it was such a long time ago that we’d emigrated. We’d been perfectly happy to forget the city we’d left behind, our forgetting was by now almost complete, and even the threadbare skeins of faded memories, which we’d used to wear like uniforms of sorrow, had, in time, slipped furtively from our withered shoulders. Our first impression was that Kyung-hee’s traveling was entirely aimless, quite unlike our own one-off relocation, which we’d undertaken specifically in order to die in a city other than our place of birth. Her ethnicity wasn’t apparent at first, and, like I said, we didn’t care. Judging from her talk about the various cities she’d lived in, we simply pegged her as northern Chinese or Mongolian, or perhaps, though this wasn’t very likely, a member of some Siberian tribe. We’d never personally met a woman from Mongolia or northern China, or, for that matter, from some Siberian tribe, but we thought we’d noticed the tell-tale traces in Kyung-hee’s high cheekbones, and that characteristic northern expressionlessness which, at certain moments, crept over the upper part of her face. But we were mistaken.
Back in her hometown, Kyung-hee said, she’d been a stage actor specializing in recitation. Despite being from the same place, we couldn’t recall ever having heard of any such occupation or art form. During Kyung-hee’s stay we had some other immigrants over to dinner, old-timers like us, and she spoke to them about her travels; one day several years ago, she’d heard the news that her old German teacher, whom she hadn’t seen for a number of years, and with whom she hadn’t exchanged so much as a phone call after their abrupt parting, had died, and after that certain things were irresolvably vague and depressing, and neither happiness nor unhappiness could touch her anymore, and so she suddenly decided, though it was impossible, that she needed to go in search of him, she needed to travel; this, apparently, had been the initial motivation for her current wandering life, an entirely unplanned development which now seemed to have been inevitable.
* * *
Kyung-hee told us that the secret salespeople all wore leather shoes buffed to a sheen, as though they had some kind of appointment to go to. The sun had burned their foreheads and the backs of their hands the color of rust, and the skin that wrapped their figures was a mixture of scurf and gooseflesh. As the afternoon wore on, she said, they would shield their eyes with their hands and gaze up at the darkening sun; at such times vague shadows, blackish splotches in the shape of leaves, would tremble on the backs of their hands. From planes passing by overhead, she explained.
Or else it was sunspots caused by seething solar flares, or eclipses, rare and invisible to the naked eye. At the time, one of them recalled how, several years ago on a flight to Japan, he’d passed over that city where Kyung-hee used to live. Muttering as if to himself, he said “If the plane we were on had been the kind that fly really low, beneath the clouds, then the shape of that grey city would have stretched out beneath us, a wide, flat disc glinting like a sheet of beaten iron on the other side of the windows. Its flesh buttressed by a scaffolding of bone, looking like a long valley gashed into the land, a dried-up river bed cratered with red depressions, or the gaping mouth of a huge cement cellar. But even then, given that we would have been asleep at the time, our cricked necks jammed into the creases of our headrests, it’s unlikely that we would have spotted any travelers roaming the streets, any mysterious wandering traders. Ah, I’ve just remembered, I was in that city another time, on an eight-hour stopover while I waited for a transfer to New Zealand. I paced up and down the airport corridors, trying to make sense of the hazy, distorted images visible on the far side of the windows. Why is it, I wonder, that no one ever talks about how those places known as airports, and the time spent there, feels like a stage of metempsychosis, a way station on the journey from this life to the next? As the night lengthened, I huddled up on a chair in the smoking room and smoked a cigarette. And in the chair opposite, it’s all coming back now, there was this enormous monkey with a chain around its neck, crouching in exactly the same pose as me.” After all, the city had an airport, Kyung-hee said, or rather muttered, her words somewhat indistinct. Someone else who’d been there seems to have retorted that every city has an airport. Almost every city, another voice put in, but so quietly it was practically inaudible.
Kyung-hee had spent two years in that city, renting a room right in the center; towering over her lodgings was a skyscraper so tall it was difficult to judge where it ended and the sky began, while down below the pedestrian underpass stretched for several kilometers. The second-floor window had an old wooden frame, and its glass was blurred with dust and soot, but she said that if you shunted it open you could look down onto a large, square fountain, now dry, and an intersection webbed with zebra crossings, a tangle of black and white radiating out like the spokes in a bicycle wheel. Above all this hung the enormous elevated expressway, slicing through the heart of the city as though suspended in mid-air. The fountain’s stepped base recalled a ziggurat, and halfway up the column was a hook on which they sometimes flew the national flag, though Kyung-hee had no idea what its original function might have been. Every time I looked out of the window, that fountain reminded me of Egon Schiele’s gaunt, decapitated Venus; she smiled as she told us this.
“Those fake watch salesmen you mentioned,” a woman chimed in, “I used to see them too”; she was one of the immigrants we’d invited, but she was only stopping here temporarily, just like Kyung-hee. “I used to see them loitering in the square in front of the department store, holding rolled-up copies of the Seoul Herald—you know, as though they’d arranged to meet someone there and were just killing time until they showed up. There was this one woman, sometimes she’d come up to me and try and get me to buy a watch; now I think of it, she looked an awful lot like you. At least, like you probably would have looked, twenty-odd years ago. Early one morning, we were riding the bus from the airport into the center. Mornings often began with scattered showers, but the clouds soon dissolved in the brightening day, leaving the whole world suffused with the sun’s honeyed glow. The sky’s blue intensified with every passing second, and the shreds of cloud sailing away to the east were a purer white; the light sharper, more distilled. The sunlight glinted cold and smooth off every conceivable surface, as if the whole world was scintillating light, and all sharply defined borders were being reflected in an enormous mirror—that was how it looked. I told her I didn’t need a watch, that I didn’t have the kind of job that went with one of those heavy, yellow-gold watches she was flogging. And then you, no, the young girl with the black hair—she couldn’t have been more than twenty—gave me this bald stare, and asked if that meant I didn’t have a job. I didn’t answer, I just laughed. So she said in that case she would guide me up Monkey Mountain. Unfortunately, though, Monkey Mountain wasn’t on our itinerary. So you, no, the young woman, I mean, gave me up for a lost cause. She waved her rolled-up newspaper and marched off to another part of the square, though she didn’t actually seem all that put out. She seemed to be shaking the raindrops from her jet black hair, from the long, slender rims of her eyelids, or actually, perhaps that’s it, from her big black umbrella, yes, it’s so vivid now, as though I’m seeing it again right in front of my eyes. The square had a large, raised flowerbed, packed full of sunflowers, right next to the bus stop for the airport shuttle, so there was always a line of people there, some standing, some sitting on their suitcases. I can see it all now, right this very moment, overlaid upon the present like a palimpsest done in flickering chiaroscuro, confounding the senses. Two blind beggars shuffling from store to store, playing a Chinese fiddle, but when you got up close to them you could see that the things they held in their hands weren’t the fiddles I’d seen in Shanghai, why, they were nothing but cassette players, though I suppose the long, slim antenna which extended from the recorder’s round bulk might, from a distance, have resembled a fiddle’s long neck. And each of the beggars had a middle-aged woman to guide him, one of whom had a small child strapped to her back, bald as a monk; men in police uniform were keeping a lookout at the level crossing; stunted youngsters loaf around in white shirts; a woman stands in the center of the square, beating a grey quilt with a paddle; another woman holds the quilt by the corners, pulling it taut; over to one side is a makeshift stall, just a small table and chair for street peddlers to hawk souvenirs; those tourists who’ve decided to go to Monkey Mountain are gathered around the stall; of such elements is the scene composed. The square is bustling with life, yet there’s a strange undercurrent of agitation. Being tourists, our gazes snagged on every little thing. And so I can’t recall exactly where she wandered off to, that young woman who was selling watches. Even with the peddlers constantly crying Monkey Mountain! to Monkey Mountain!, the sound produced by each individual droplet of water as it was shaken from the woman’s umbrella onto the pavement was noticeably loud and distinct, much more so than would be usual in our day-to-day reality; a sound that throws the door of memory wide open and permits sensory impressions to blur the boundaries between past and present, so now all of a sudden it’s as though Monkey Mountain, which I never once set eyes on, which I’d never even heard of before then and never have since, really does exist, a location not only specific but intimately familiar—at least, that’s how it seems to me.”
“I thought a city with an airport was what you were interested in, not fake-watch sellers,” was Kyung-hee’s curt response. “Isn’t that what you wanted to hear about?” Someone else who’d been there seems to have retorted that every city has an airport. Almost every city, another voice put in, but so quietly it was practically inaudible. “A few years ago I had an accident on stage—I broke my toe in the middle of a recitation. The role didn’t call for anything extreme, all I had to do was sit on a chair and read my lines, then, after a while, stand up and walk across the stage with my script in my hand, just a few paces back and forth, and tap my hand lightly against my chest as I walked; that was all the physical acting that was required of me. Aside from the chair there were no other props to clutter the stage, and it wasn’t that I slipped or stumbled somehow. There was nothing about the set-up that might have been expected to lead to an accident; the stage wasn’t too dark, but then it wasn’t too bright either, so I wasn’t in danger of being dazzled. There was overhead lighting throughout the performance, because that was best for when I was sitting in the chair and reading the script. In other words, it was just the kind of staging that I was accustomed to from other performances, with nothing that might catch me off guard. I got up from the chair and walked across the stage, careful not to step on the hem of my long skirt. I had the script in my hand but I’d already memorized most of the lines, so it wasn’t as though I had to keep looking down at it. Now, it’s true that the script was quite intense, quite emotional. But even with the most intense script in the world, could whatever emotions I experienced really be sufficiently physical as to cause the little toe on my right foot to break, entirely of its own accord, while performing an action no more complicated than a simple step forward? And then there was the sound it made, so loud that the audience in the front row could hear it too. Snap! Even more than the pain itself, the thing that really shook me was how intrusive that sound was, how definitively it seemed to have interrupted the recital. The pain only made itself felt after a couple of seconds, you see, whereas my embarrassment was entirely synchronous with that snap. Ah yes, I forgot to mention my shoes. Well, they weren’t high heels, or the pointy kind that really pinch your toes. They were just an ordinary pair of pumps that I wore all the time. In fact, the other actors used to say they made me look like some old nun shuffling about in her slippers. So it couldn’t have been the fault of my shoes. What it was, was an unwitting step forward into that too intense, too excessive, too heavy, too restless, too chaotic, too grating, too dizzying, too profuse, too lacking, startlingly dramatic whirl of emotion, the kind that strips you bare and leaves you gasping out noisy sobs over every little thing, even while remaining utterly unmoved. You know, people often dismiss mental or emotional dizziness as just some abstraction, but they’re wrong; it has its own concrete form, its own specific scent. And what’s more, there are certain objects and places that are saturated by it. For example, sitting on the second chair in the kitchen would always call up a very specific feeling for me. That chair was one of those objects that are made animate by emotion, a country we step into quite by chance. A couple of seconds after the snap, cold sweat broke out on my brow and the dizzying pain meant it was all I could do not to collapse right there, but all the same I had to grit my teeth and make the three or four steps over to the chair, a distance I only just managed; even then, finally able to sink down into the chair, I knew. I’d gone far, oh, much too far from myself. My body is a burning brand, a traffic light regulating the flow of my life. That thing, that riot of emotion, has flicked it to green: Go. And from that moment onward I was set in motion, propelled into a peripatetic life. The tears streamed down, scalding my cheeks as the audience fixed me with their bright gazes, exclaiming, look at that woman, look how red her face is, like a burning lump of coal!”
So you’re saying that was when you decided to go wandering—walking—halfway ‘round the world? someone muttered diffidently. The moment your toe broke? A walking trip wouldn’t exactly have been the first thing on my mind.
“It wasn’t a decision,” Kyung-hee replied, “more like a thought that came to me already decided. I’d conceived this notion of walking being the purest form of travel—though really, it would barely have been any less fanciful if I’d imagined I was going to sprout wings and fly around the world instead. Because of course, what lay between me and my destination weren’t seas, deserts, and endless, featureless steppe, but modern borders, surveillance systems, arms traffickers, soldiers, and government officials. All of this means you have to travel by train, or at least in the cargo hold of a truck. And when you come to the sea, it’s only natural that you have to pay for the ferry, right? Yes, it’s true that I’d decided I had to go on foot, though the reasoning behind this wasn’t clear even to me. But that decision came after I broke my toe. In fact, there’s no apparent connection between the two events, aside from when they happened. But, as I say, they both found me at a similar time in my life, sweeping in like a whirlwind and somehow taking possession of me, of my flesh. Thinking about it now, the common ground between a toe and trip made by foot would have to be the authenticity of blind flesh. An authenticity both pure and unmediated, that’s what I was hoping for, one that would be sufficient for me to be granted entry at the border of that unidentified country I was heading for. And perhaps I would have walked all day. All day long, and then all day long the next day. But all that was something for later on; for the present, my toe was in a plaster cast, and while I waited at home for it to heal I passed the time listening to Bayern 4 on the radio. For no apparent reason, I can still remember the news bulletins that were on at the time. The station had an hourly news program, and when nothing special had occurred in the world since the last broadcast, the same stories would usually be repeated again and again, more than ten times in the same day; as this is what happened with the story of the UN Secretary-General’s trip to Pakistan, perhaps it’s not all that surprising, though it doesn’t really explain it, that the sound bite about the Secretary-General in his kaftan is still stuck in my head. And one day I thought yes, I have to travel on foot. This seemed to be the only way of acquiring a kind of authenticity unmediated by language, of comprehensively representing both the flesh and that which animates it—self-legitimation achieved through a purely gestural self-performance, as far as such legitimacy is still possible. I might find my way blocked and have to turn back. Retracing my steps might take even longer, with occasional further obstacles to taking the direct route, and enough of these forced diversions could eventually lead to complete disorientation, but still nothing will prevent me from walking that lost route, the same that my feet have always taken me down at decisive moments in life. And I realized that I’d only ever lived in the city where I was born, a city which now seemed incomparably solid in spite of its embellishments, like a besieged fortress encircled by a moat, archer’s holes in its castle wall, adorned with gargoyles of pig-faced warriors. At some point I myself had become one of the solid stones which made up that city’s wall. I formed a single discrete part of that soaring battlement, from whose summit traitors were hung by their necks. I constituted and extended the city, and at the same time I was like a spear or cannon, part of that menacing bulwark defending the city against its potential deserters. And the feeling that I was a part of the city’s eye. A part of that geographical entity, the physical weight of its flesh, the tangibility of its epidermal sensations. I’d never felt like this before, you know. Up until then, I’d never doubted that my life was lived freely, the product of choices I myself had made. Never suspected how I might be being constrained.
It was probably the incident with the plaster cast that brought about that desire to detach myself from a specific location, to untie my material self from a set of coordinates, fixed at a single place. Looked at from a certain angle, perhaps it’s more accurate to call my soul the author of that shriek of despair, and to relegate my toe to the role of intermediary. The doctor sawed the cast off after four weeks. The serrated edge crunched into the solid cast, pain grating along my nerve endings as sensation returned to numbed bones and stiffened muscles. It hurts, I said. Of course, it’s bound to be a bit sore when the cast first comes off, the doctor replied brusquely, without looking at me. I gritted my teeth and tried to bear it, but the pain’s keen edge seared through me, surely more than any doctor had a right to demand their patient endure. Every time the blade of the saw made a pass, that pain flared up inside me. It’s too much, I said, I can’t take it. But she told me it was nothing but the stimulation of stiffened muscles, why, even a child could put up with it. At the time I was already planning to step outside of life into the perfection that lay beyond its borders, an escape dependent upon the act of walking, which made my broken toe seem especially inopportune. My jaw clenched, mouth convulsed into a rictus, an image of perfect clarity suddenly penetrates into the heart of the pain—that of a person lying on a hospital bed. He once described hospitals as “the home of that particular brand of physical and psychological torture which goes by the name of surgery.” Death, he said, has been reduced to nothing more than medical formality. Though few people now remember it, the institution we know as the hospital had originally fallen under the purview of the military, functioning primarily as a facility for disposing of the city’s escapees or invaders, who, according to him, were falsely accused of treachery or theft. These hangings were extremely popular, and businessmen struck a deal with the mayor to provide those necessary accoutrements of the death penalty: axes, rope, and plenty of wooden buckets for carrying away the filth. The city is the abode of the arrogant. Miniaturists and amateur anatomists transferred the corpses to the hospital. Hobbying engineers trailed behind, seeking a glimpse of that mysterious automaton inside each human body, wondering whether there might be a way of making it start up again once stopped. The city’s condemned pass down the hospital corridors, their progress hampered by their broken necks. Their own stench is rank in their nostrils. Their necks are bent forward at such a crazy angle that their faces are entirely hidden, even to those standing directly in front. And so, he said, I fervently hope that nothing happens to bring you here—to this charnel house they call a hospital.
* * *
The toe that was encased in the cast had been sawn almost halfway through. Pain and shock had left me insensible, but I still remember the doctor’s look of utter astonishment, how she practically wailed into my face: Oh I’m so sorry, I must have misjudged it, there’s no way I could have known! I’m so sorry…
You must never come here.
Bae Suah has been widely acclaimed as one of Korea’s most innovative contemporary writers. Her debut novel, A Dark Room, was published in 1988, and she has since then published two collections of short fiction and a number of other novels. Her prizes include the Dongseo Literary Prize (2004) and the Hankook Ilbo Literary Prize (2003). She lives in Germany.
Deborah Smith (@londonkoreanist) is a London-based translator of Korean literature. Her translation of The Vegetarian by Han Kang will be published by Portobello Books in January 2015, and she has also translated two novels by Bae Suah, The Essayist’s Desk and The Low Hills of Seoul. She is studying for a Ph.D. in contemporary Korean literature at SOAS.
Used with the permission of Jaeum & Moeum