That Woman’s Autobiography
by Kim In-Suk
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
Published in Koreana: Korean Art & Culture (The Korea Foundation) Vol. 21, No.3 Autumn 2007 pages 88-99
“Do you like cats?” That’s what he asked me, the first time we met. I was listening closely to what he was saying, because I reckoned it would surely be no ordinary question, but an attempt on his part to try to understand me first. I had no need to feel uncomfortable. So far as our relationship was concerned, if there was a need to understand and investigate, it lay on his side, and probably for that very reason he would feel a wish to get to know me. The question whether I like cats was something I associated with the first topic in a psychological test. Depending on whether the answer was yes or no, the direction of the arrow indicating the next topic would vary.
“My wife likes cats.” Unexpectedly, he did not wait long for me to reply. “She has a gray Abyssinian. Have you ever seen one?” This time the answer, “No,” emerged quite easily. He nodded. “The same here. Until my wife bought hers in Japan and brought it back, I’d never seen one, either. She brought it back from Japan! She’s the kind of woman who buys cats abroad; amazing, isn’t it? Quite extraordinary! If there’s a cat in someone else’s house, I’ve been inclined to stroke its back once, at least. But this cat lives in my house . . . if I hate my wife, at least I can get a divorce, but this is a cat, what can I do? So when I want to be quiet without the cat, I sometimes use this hotel. So naturally I started to work in this hotel room with the person I was working with before.”
The arrow seemed to be pointing in the wrong direction. Certainly, one might associate questions about cats with psychological tests, but my anxiety must have been excessive. He and I were not young things in their twenties meeting for a tryst, and neither were we a patient and a psychiatrist meeting for a counseling session. Yi Ho-gap was fifty-two. At present, the only things I know about him for sure are his age and his name, nothing more. Of course, before we met, the materials I had been given had taught me more about him than I know about anyone else I know, but that kind of information could never be of more than variable use. I once more considered prudently this 52-year-old Yi Ho-gap, the way he had said he wanted to work with me in a hotel room, and had started off with a question as to whether I liked cats. It was not that he looked younger than his age, or excessively endowed with stamina, but at least he was not fat and his hair had not fallen out. Fortunately, there was nothing repulsive about his outward appearance, at least.
On our way up to the room, he and I were alone in the elevator. A curious sensation tickled the soles of my feet as I stood on the soft carpet. None of the men I had ever had a “relationship” with would have invested in such an expensive hotel room for the sake of his relationship with me. If my meeting with this man had not been because we were working together, but for a relationship, what would I be feeling as we rode the elevator together up toward a suite in a luxury hotel? But I shook my head to myself. What I was going to be obliged to do from now on was ghostwrite the autobiography of a wealthy man who hoped to enter the world of politics, without bringing into play a novelist’s imagination. At the twenty-third floor the elevator stopped. As the doors slid open, I glimpsed a corridor where the afternoon sunlight lingered on the brown carpet, extending in silence into the distance.
The reason why I had agreed to ghostwrite his autobiography, no matter what external reasons I might put forward, was ultimately on account of the money. When an older friend, who had already completed perhaps half the work for that autobiography, found himself obliged to give up the task midway for personal reasons, he said he would let me have everything he had done on condition that he didn’t have to give me the money he had received as an advance payment. When I got his unexpected call, with its talk of “ghostwriting an autobiography,” I found myself assailed by a disagreeable feeling of “who does he take me for?” but at the end of the conversation I simply replied, “I’ll think about it,” which was pretty much the same as accepting.
Yet once I’d hung up, I experienced an overpowering feeling of disgust. Ghostwriting an autobiography . . . for the past ten years what I’d been longing for was to be able to spend a couple of years, or even just one year, writing what I wanted to without having to worry about money. And this was a job that would enable me to write what I wanted . . . despite that feeling of disgust, there was no way I could look down my nose at the fact that the fat sum I would be earning by ghostwriting this autobiography was larger than anything I had earned in the past ten years..
That same evening, just like any other day, I was sitting at my laptop. On the television that stood on the other side of the room from my desk, home shopping announcements were replaying over and over again. Someone once wrote how, when they started to write, they could not stand even a speck of dust on their desk, could not endure the sound of the hands turning on the clock; I, however, was inclined not to be able to stand silence. For a time I had worked with a CD of classical music playing; then for a while I’d listened to a radio music program; nowadays, I turned on the television when I came in. No other sound was as soothing to me as the sound of home shopping advertisements echoing behind my back. Then, instead of hammering away at my laptop’s keyboard, or reading a book, I would turn round under some kind of compulsion and grab the telephone. Even as I was pressing the buttons, the numbers indicating sales of bedding sets, fitness machines, the latest models in household goods, would be racing up dramatically. Choose, choose. Impatiently watching adverts promising bonus offers to a fixed number of customers as if hoping for the jackpot, I would go so far as to shout aloud: Choose! Choose!
Yet that evening I did not purchase anything. It was almost as though the windfall that had materialized before my eyes had abruptly made that kind of petty urge to buy things vanish from within me. Unable to write a single line, incapable of reading one page from a book, but also not hurling myself at the telephone to become exactly the fiftieth purchaser of packs containing ten sets of lingerie, the night advanced.
A typical self-made man. Those words were especially underlined in the materials my friend had given me. Below that sub-heading were set out details of his family background, upbringing, and achievements(!). He had been born into a wealthy farming family, but his father having squandered the family fortunes, he had spent his childhood in wretched poverty—typical, indeed! He had begun his youth working as a delivery boy for a rice store, but thanks to the generosity of the store’s owner, who recognized his tenacity and sincerity, he was not only able to earn the equivalent of a high-school graduation diploma by examination, but was even able to buy a share in the store – surely that too was a story I’d often heard somewhere before? Having accumulated the basis of his wealth by selling rice, his first stroke of luck came with a rise in the price of the land in his home village, that previously no one would have looked at twice even if they were offered it for nothing. From that moment he actively began to invest in land, and that became a decisive factor in his accumulation of an immense fortune – a part of the text that my predecessor had underlined in a different color. At least, we might say, none of that was worth making widely known. He entered university when he was already quite old, and he had chosen to major in social work, because he wanted to plough back into society the money he had accumulated – at which point what more could be looked for? After that, he had set up a welfare foundation and a scholarship foundation, etc.
Perhaps because my friend’s notes were so very well organized, there was no need for me to spend a long time reading them, pondering every word. As I browsed through the pages of notes, what made me ponder what not so much his career, but rather the words ‘a typical self-made man’ he had underlined. It looked as though that had been the direction which he had intended to follow in the autobiography as he was going to write it. Nothing could be more ‘typical’ than the case of someone who becomes a millionaire, as a result of an increase in the price of the land that everyone in our society disposes of, that becoming the basis of their wealth, while yielding a valuable lesson in life – to focus on real-estate investment. Not only had a youth who was nothing but the delivery-boy for a rice store gathered together one by one the grains of rice falling from the rice-sacks until at last his own sack was full, then gone on to establish welfare and scholarship foundations, but he had even become rich enough to devote a huge sum of money to the ghost-writing of his autobiography, and there could be no doubt that in our society that was really untypical.
For a while, the work went smoothly. As my friend had said when he handed me the nearly finished work, as though I had suddenly won a lottery, it seemed there would be no difficulties. The documents concerning him had all already been recorded; things that should be discarded and things that must not be discarded were clearly indicated by separate labels. I hoped that having a female author undertake the autobiography would be satisfactory for the client, but it rather looked as though the choice of a woman writer had been his. The only misfortune in the life-records of 52-year-old Yi Ho-gap – not for himself but as far as the autobiography was concerned – was the record that, formally at least, he had been divorced twice. He did not wish to reveal all the details of that in his autobiography, but it looked as if he reckoned that, in order to avoid any misunderstandings that might provoke the women’s rights activists, the writing would need to be such as would make them happy. When I showed him my first drafts, a month after starting to write, that was precisely the part that satisfied him the most. In actual fact, I knew almost nothing about the kind of people his wives had been; I did not even know how many of them there had been. If there was one thing I knew, it was the fact that his present wife had bought a gray Abyssinian cat on the way home from a journey abroad, instead of some prestigious brand of perfume or handbag. And that was only true of his present wife. Considering the most recent trends, I could portray her as an animal lover, and to that extent as a woman abounding in love and devotion.
Yet no matter how smooth a piece of work may be, some part of it is bound to offer difficulties. At the very heart of his autobiography, what he hoped would be most clearly expressed was, as he put it, “his own contribution to democracy.” That utterly preposterous coinage seemed to have been the result of laborious efforts on his part. To his great regret(!), he had never been in prison; he had never been implicated in any political incident during the preceding decades. Even more regrettably, he had accumulated the greatest part of his fortune during the period that had been the most repressive politically. Unlike his two divorces, which he wanted to be passed over lightly in a sympathetic manner, he wanted this particular part to be expressed as clearly and accurately as possible. It so happened that among the groups receiving support from his foundation, there had been one opposition organization, and funding had been provided secretly to a certain famous person within that group; admittedly, it had not been during the most repressive period but even at that time it had still been an extremely hazardous thing to do; he had nevertheless decided to provide the funding despite the apprehensions of the foundation’s board, and he considered it to have been extremely necessary in order to advance the restoration of democracy in society . . .
I understood what it was he wanted. Times had changed, and in these changed times, a record of activism during the previous periods had become as much a required element in a person’s curriculum vitae as graduation from a reputed university. Understanding him was not difficult, but it took him some time to accept what I was doing. I kept reminding him that what I was writing was not his biography but his autobiography. Therefore what was doing the writing was not myself, only my hand. I was under a duty to write whatever he wanted, no matter how far from sincerity or the truth it might be. I stayed up all night writing, on and on, and all I hoped was that the job would soon be over and the money would come into my hands. But when it came to that section, he was not prepared to be easily satisfied with my draft.
“You there, Author.”
That was how he always addressed me.
“Authors are good at inflating words that aren’t there; can’t you put some flesh into what is there?”
While I was writing his autobiography, home-shopping advertisements poured day and night from the television behind me. While the writing was advancing smoothly, I heard the publicity simply as a soothing noise, without paying attention to the contents, but once the work began to go wrong, I started to listen compulsively again. Things bought by home-shopping filled my wardrobe and kitchen-sink, to say nothing of the shoe cupboard, and the space under my bed. In an attempt to control my impulsive buying, I shifted the telephone into the living room. As I went running to the living room instead of hammering away at the keyboard of my laptop, I would stop as though I had tripped over the sill of the door, suddenly struck by the thought: What am I doing? So far as compulsive shopping was concerned, it proved more effective than I had hoped, but by the time I was back sitting in front of my laptop, the urge to go on typing had vanished.
In those days, amidst all the various kinds of publicity spots for this and that, unexpectedly there was one for books, for multi-volume sets of works. I listened to the hosts, whose voices were about an octave higher than those of ordinary people, proclaiming in piercing, seductive tones how entertaining, how full of literary quality, and how instructive this or that book was, until I was deafened. For some reason, although I even used to feel an urge to buy on hearing adverts for male sexual stimulants, I experienced no desire at all to buy in response to that publicity. In the end, I turned off the television; a little later, I also turned off my laptop.
In my childhood, the bookcase standing in the hall of our poor home was full of sets of works—biographies of famous men, or historical novels. Father was extremely devoted to his books. Whenever he had a spare moment, he would dust them, and if any had been put back in the wrong order, he would earnestly correct it so that everything was arranged tidily. But as a matter of fact I never once saw him take out any of the books and, while reading, moisten the pages with his spittle as he separated them, or fold down the corner of a page as a bookmark. Thinking back now, I have a feeling that he was less intent on reading than on collecting. Still, he used to summon his son, when he was still only a child, in front of the bookcase packed tight with those sets of volumes, and address him:
“You’ve got to read books. Because in them you have the whole world, you have truth, you have the way ahead.”
He also used to say:
“All the things that I can’t teach you are in them, you see.”
His voice used to sound rather sad when he said that, unlike when he was talking about the world and truth and the way ahead. But to a young boy’s ears, it was all just an immensely boring peroration. As Father’s words went on and on, my brother would squirm, shifting from one leg to another. As a daughter, I was felt not to need to hear such speeches and I was therefore all the more impatient to listen to those lengthy, tedious addresses. I already hoped to become a writer, and I only had to imagine the day when my book would take its place in Father’s bookcase for my breast to swell. Late at night, after climbing back up onto the wooden-floored veranda on my way back from going to the toilet across the yard, I could be seen sitting in front of Father’s glittering bookcase. I longed for people to draw me from the shelf and smear every page of my life with fragrant spittle and the smell of tobacco-impregnated hands. I believed that my life would be saliva-stained, creased, increasingly tattered, but made glorious by all kinds of splendid incidents. Really, what I longed to become was not a writer but a book. It seemed that Father had anticipated that, because when I told him I wanted to be a writer, all he said was:
“I said you should get married. Writing? How could you choose such a harsh fate . . . a job where you’ll earn nothing; what will become of you . . .”
Now I felt as though my dead father’s voice was echoing, tut-tutting in the silence of the house. Unable to endure that illusion, I pressed the ‘power on’ button of the remote-control to start the television again; just then the telephone rang. Home-shopping here. Which product do you want to buy? My hand felt as light as usual as it held the phone.
There was no immediate sound from the handset. I repeated my “Hello?” Which product do you want? If you say you want the Mystery of Longevity Tonic, as the one hundredth purchaser you will receive one bonus set of stamina panties. If you say that you wish to purchase the stamina panties, as the one hundredth purchaser you will receive one bonus set of the Mystery of Longevity Tonic.
“It’s me . . . .”
The moment I realized that the cautious sounding voice belonged to my brother, all the lightness left the wrist holding up the phone. Brother only called cautiously like this when he needed something. This time it seemed he’d done something that meant his business had been abruptly closed down, at least temporarily. The previous night the police had staged an unexpected inspection and it turned out that the youths drinking in the main room of their chicken restaurant were under age. He’d spent the night being questioned at the police station, and had just got out; he said that naturally, his business had been closed down for the time being, and it looked as though there would be a not-too-excessive fine. As he hesitantly exposed the situation, he repeated several times that he had not known the youths were under age. Even if he had not kept repeating that, I had no reason not to believe him. He was not the kind of person to lie to me or to anyone else. He had always lived as he had decided he should, and his life was full of poverty-stricken right answers. “I feel really sorry toward you,” was what that simple, honest man always kept telling me. And so he should feel sorry. The cost of that simple, honest life placed a wearisome burden on him, of course, but also on the rest of his family, as he could not help but realize. I told him to wait a bit, since I might soon be coming into some big money. Since it couldn’t be helped, I strove to speak as affectionately as I could, but inside of me, indignation and rage seethed like a mass of insects. This was the brother who, after Father died, had paid my entire university tuition fees, and when he sold off our old village home, had refused his share and provided the key money for a semi-basement apartment for me to live in. This was my brother who had never once, on all those occasions, lost his expression full of goodwill, although there was no knowing whether he too did not all the time feel insects squirming inside him.
Once the writing began to go wrong, there seemed to be no way of sorting things out. I could see no way of filling out the portion that Yi Ho-gap was dissatisfied with. To make matters even worse, just then I got a call from a woman who said she had been his first wife. I sometimes received calls from Yi Ho-gap’s secretary, but there was no reason for me to receive calls from his wife, let alone from his ex-wife. While I was repeating, “Yes, yes,” as if I knew nothing about anything, the flood of words poured out by the woman indicated that Yi Ho-gap was the world’s worst swindler, a complete bastard, even a homicidal maniac who had killed any number of people. At the start I had repeated, “Yes, yes,” but after a while I simply held the receiver without saying anything, and finally she seemed to take my lack of response for an insult:
“Agreeing to write such a person’s biography for a few pennies—aren’t you ashamed?”
With that unexpected put-down, she hung up. Even after that I remained there, holding the phone in a daze. Some time elapsed before the thought occurred to me that I had simply endured it one-sidedly, and I felt a certain resentment. I kept saying, “Hello,” into the phone though I knew she had hung up. Now look; what I’m writing is his autobiography, you know, it’s not a biography. That means he’s the one writing it, not me.
But in that case, what am I?
“You there, Author.”
When I told him I’d received a strange call from his ex-wife, Yi Ho-gap addressed me using that extremely awkward title, as if it was something trivial, an everyday event.
“No one knows me as well as my author, do they now? For all I know, you may know me better than I do myself. In that case, what my author thinks of me may really be the truth.”
Without asking what had been the contents of the strange call, he gazed at me fixedly as if asking if there was anything more that had to be explained. Yi Ho-gap was someone who spoke well. So well that it made me wonder if he hadn’t taken courses in conversation at some speech-training academy in preparation for his entrance into the world of politics. But the moment he mentioned truth, I realized that the problem was not a matter of conversation. I suddenly developed a headache, while a booming sound echoed inside my head. Regarding my relationship with Yi Ho-gap, what was I? The person who was going to have to provide the answer to that was not his former wife but Yi Ho-gap in person, and I myself. That I was merely a ghost-writer, that the money I was receiving was simply for that, that at least there was no reason why I might be up to knowing the truth about him, so that I knew nothing about him being the world’s worst swindler or a homicidal maniac – the thought struck me that I ought to say at least something clear about one of those, but that was the best I could do. On top of the headache, I was struggling to control a growing feeling of nausea in my stomach.
When I called my friend later that day, he said he was preparing his lectures. What lectures? To my abrupt question, he told me a vacancy had come up in our alma mater and he was able to teach there several hours a week. When I said something about him winning a lottery, he replied that his winning ticket was not a fulltime professor’s position, only a few hours per week as a part-time lecturer. But it seemed that for him, since he had failed in several applications for fulltime jobs, just being able to build up a teaching record at a university in central Seoul was something that counted.
As soon as we met, he said I didn’t look well. The same could be said of him. He had written several novels that no one remembered the titles of, and had served on the planning committee of a publishing company no one had ever heard of, and was a nominal member of the executive committee of some kind of NGO. But among the various name cards he carried there did not seem to be one that really satisfied him. It was not even sure that, if ever he obtained a name card as university professor, it would prove to be his happiest name card.
“Hasn’t his second wife turned up yet?”
That was his response when I told him I’d received a disagreeable call from a woman claiming to be his first wife; he seemed unsurprised. I was about to reply that his jokes were not funny, he was trying to put me in a bad mood, but I sensed that his words were no joke.
“That woman who used to be his second wife says her former husband is a criminal without an equal anywhere in the world. It looks as though she wasn’t his legal wife at all, but anyway it seems he’d set up house with another woman even before he left her. Besides, she says he used to beat her at the least provocation. That would have been the twelfth or thirteenth chapter of the autobiography I abandoned . . . .”
My face must have turned pale. Leaving his light tone, my friend continued in a more serious voice.
“To my way of thinking, they’re all after just one thing. They each hope not to figure in the autobiography of Yi Ho-gap. The problem is not the kind of person he is being portrayed as; what they’re worried about is the impact on their own image if they figure in it at all. Only there’s no way they can protect themselves. Except by making Yi Ho-gap out to be a really bad guy, that is.”
“Do you mean to say you reckon he’s not that bad?”
My friend looked taken aback at my words. He even adopted a slightly baffled tone, as if to say that he had never for one moment expected me to ask such a question.
“A penniless fellow who inherited nothing yet gets to be as rich as he is now, and in addition says he’s dreaming of entering politics? Surely the answer’s obvious?”
Really? Was the answer so obvious? It struck me that I was not asking about the truth concerning him as a human being. But to the question what then I was asking, again no reply emerged. While I simply fidgeted with my coffee cup, he continued to speak.
“What percentage of the things Yi Ho-gap tells you do you reckon are true? The story about him becoming a rice-store delivery boy because his father had squandered the family’s fortune; do you think that’s true? And the high-school graduation by examination? The university graduation? The foundations? Do those foundations really exist?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you want to know about that person? Yi Ho-gap is merely Yi Ho-gap. He’s not the main character in your novel.”
I looked at my friend rather dumbly. I knew that Yi Ho-gap was not the main character in my novel. I knew better than anyone that what I was writing was not a novel. But if he was not the main character in a novel and if what I was writing was not a novel, what was reality and what was novel?
“Why did you stop work on the autobiography?”
I asked the question in an uncertain voice that I could not disguise. After all, even if he had got a job as a part-time lecturer, as he had said, that was not so time-consuming a task that it would oblige him to abandon work on the autobiography. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, then began to speak as though he had no choice.
“I told you that my father nearly died of stress caused by accumulated anger, didn’t I?”
I seemed vaguely to recall something of the kind. It had been about a family burial-plot. He had told me how, all through his life, his father’s only talent had been to cultivate his land, then one day some people from Seoul had turned up, who treated him to a meal, and to drinks, then having got him in the right mood, they had embarked on a lively gambling session in the course of which, since he had no money, he had been robbed of the family’s burial ground . . . . only, surely, the person who had been brought to the brink of the grave by fury had not been my friend’s father, but he himself? After all, he had been impatiently hoping to sell the burial ground to raise some cash. If he ever thought of that land, that had disappeared for next to nothing because of his ‘stupid father,’ he came close to dying of rage; yet in fact from his point of view it was really a stroke of luck, since if that had not happened, he would surely still never have seen a day when the burial ground was turned into cash. That was about the time when my friend moved into a roomy apartment he had bought.
“But you see, that had something to do with Yi Ho-gap’s foundations. When he heard that I was writing Yi Ho-gap’s autobiography, the old man went into a towering fury . . .”
“You mean you didn’t know?”
Instead of answering, he gave a brief snort of laughter. I did not question him further. Of course he had not known. It was easy if you thought of it. The same was true regarding Yi Ho-gap. In any case, the name of the ghostwriter would not figure in Yi Ho-gap’s autobiography.
I went off to visit my brother, carrying a parcel of high-powered kitchen detergent I had purchased through home-shopping. My sister-in-law opened the door of the restaurant, her eyes swollen with much crying, as if she had had a row with my brother. She carelessly laid the bag of detergent on a table, then a little later hid it under the table. Whenever something happened, there was only me, his little sister, that my brother could call, and I would arrive carrying detergent or something similar, but we were equally pitiable. Without even thinking to ask my sister-in-law about the suspension of their business, I opened the door and went outside again, where I could see my brother sitting on a bench in a corner of the shopping precinct. Seen from one side as he stared at the madly speeding cars, holding a pack of cigarettes in one hand, my brother looked just like our father had been long ago.
“They say genes never lie; he’s just like your father . . .”
That was what Mother used to say, whenever she anxiously considered my guileless brother. Even while Father was still alive, Mother would say that at the least pretence, and Father never responded, no matter what she said. His silences on such occasions appeared to indicate a kind of assent to her insults. It was as though he had raised his son as he wished and his son had grown up according to his desires, but Father was still not satisfied with the son he had produced. On every possible occasion, Father would summon him, settle him down, and expound on the way contained in a book, but his son seemed inclined to ignore the way contained within that way. How did great men become great? To Father, what mattered was not the life of great men but the fame, the success, the wealth they finally achieved. The fact that a great man can be poor, but that a poor man can never become great; the fact that a great man can refuse success but a man who fails to succeed can never become great; and above all, the fact that someone poor and incapable can never figure in the pages of a set of volumes . . . those were the things he hoped his son would learn from books.
Father died before he reached retirement age; he had spent his whole life working as a clerk in a middle school in a small rural town. His work failed to bring him satisfaction. He dreamed of becoming a teacher and throughout his entire life he prepared to sit the teachers’ qualifying exam. But just as he failed to read all the sets of books that filled his bookcase, likewise he never opened a study-guide to questions likely to figure in the teachers’ qualifying exam. Father was the only person who did not realize it, but his dream was not in fact to become a teacher. What he really dreamed of was waking up one morning to find that the value of our fine, fair-sized, well-built old house had suddenly skyrocketed, or that the business plan he had written out in minute letters and figures in a note-book had turned into reality and money was pouring in, things of that kind. There was no reason why any such dream-like stroke of luck should ever happen to someone who had simply worked faithfully all his life as a clerk in the middle school of a small rural town. If Father bought those sets of books and prepared the teachers’ qualifying exam all his life, it must have been because he did not want his children to find out how tawdry his life was, at least. He wanted to be a father who would be revered by his children, and to that end he spent his whole life deceiving himself.
Luckily or unluckily for Father, my brother truly revered his father and just as he had spent his whole life as a clerk, he in turn dreamed of becoming a civil servant and living sincerely all his life. When I told him I was going to become a writer, Father clucked his tongue and said: That son of mine’s not a patch on my daughter. Yet even then, my brother did not realize that in some way he was a disappointment to Father. Brother received a certificate for perfect attendance every year without exception all through his school days; he never once failed to do his homework; just once he “fell under the influence of bad friends” and missed one hour of class, for which he felt such remorse that he wrote a full-length letter to Father. Such was my brother . . .
Belatedly becoming aware of me standing there beside him, he put on a show of being extremely surprised. As I sat down beside him on the bench, the breeze felt cool. After he had gone back to looking out at the cars as before for a moment, I abruptly asked him:
“You remember the old days, back home, I mean?”
He stared at me as if wondering what on earth I was talking about, suddenly going on about home . . . what he wanted to hear was whether I had raised some money, or how long he would have to wait, that kind of thing . . . I stopped talking, looked out at the cars, then made an effort to speak cheerfully:
“About ten days, can you wait that long? I’ve got a book coming out. They’re printing a big first edition. They reckon it’ll sell well.”
He stopped looking at me and mutely directed his gaze at the ground, then spoke again after a lengthy pause. He always used to hesitate like this when he was going to say something difficult.
“You know, I . . . I was always proud of you.”
He wouldn’t say something like that because he felt sorry about asking for money. Brother could never tell a lie; when Father handed him a book to read, he was never once able to discover a phrase saying it was alright to tell a lie; my brother spoke as he was.
Do you like cats? In the novel, not the autobiography, the person asking is not Yi Ho-gap but I myself. The ‘I’ who is the main character of the novel speaks first, before Yi Ho-gap replies. The I in the novel does not want to give Yi Ho-gap a chance to speak. I’ve had a cat, too. It may not have been a gray Abyssinian breed, but it was a pretty little kitten.
Really. It was a pretty cat. Besides, that cat had been a present from a boy I was having a relationship with at the time. One evening, as he was coming to my house very drunk, he’d seen a hawker selling cats and dogs late at night by the roadside. Making the taxi stop, he’d bought the cutest looking puppy. Rolling drunk, he rang my doorbell and the moment I opened the door, shouting “Surprise!” in a childish voice, presented his gift, only it was not a puppy after all, but a kitten. He’d been so drunk he couldn’t even distinguish a cat from a dog; so drunk that he’d even forgotten that the reason why he absolutely had to meet me that late was to break up with me. That night, for the last time he listened to an outline of my novel, lying with his head pillowed on my leg. Come on, tell me, what kind of things do you write? The first time the boy asked me that, I’d felt insulted. What, doesn’t this boy know the difference between what you can say and what you can’t?
Still, any relationship is bound to end up taming you. It did not take long before I began to stammer out the plot of my novel, and later I even began to invent new tales just so I could let him hear them. While I was talking, with him lying with my leg as a pillow, he would fall asleep and sometimes even start to snore. But just as I was coming to the end of my tale, he would suddenly open his eyes and say:
“It’ll be a great novel, but it won’t sell well.”
In those days I wasn’t interested in things like sales. Yet it’s true that I longed to write a novel that I would hear my boyfriend speak well of. As a result, I even longed to expound to him, not the outline but the way into my novel. What I wanted was that my life, my happiness and my pain, everything . . . when I start to think like that, I always seem to turn into the fiction I am writing, and that fiction has always been more wonderful or more terrible than real life.
Once the boy who’d brought the cat left, what made life impossible for me for a while was an inky-dark confusion where what I was and what I was not were blurred and mixed together. My home was a semi-basement unit in a terrace and in that unreal space there was a cat. I had no idea at all what to do with that cat. We’d kept a dog in the yard when I was a child, but I’d never once had a cat in the house. Unlike a dog, I reckoned, a cat doesn’t beg to be petted, it doesn’t deposit its excrement brazenly in the middle of the yard or the room, it doesn’t ask to be washed, and it doesn’t ask to be taken for walks. I felt that all that was required was for me to show that I exist whenever and wherever that independent animal decides on its side that it needs me. Then once affection is established, it will lick the back of my hand with its rough tongue, or if its owner is sick in bed bring the fish-bones left over from its meal and deposit them beside my pillow.
In any relationship, the first taming is important. But my little kitten seemed to have no thought of letting itself be tamed. The moment he put it down, the cat sped like lightning to hide on top of the bookcase, and showed no thought of coming down so long as I was in sight. When I got up in the morning, clumps of dust from the top of the bookcase were littered over the floor. I dragged a chair over and tried to pull it down, but the only result was a nasty scratch on the back of my hand. I tried tempting it with smelly fish placed at the foot of the bookcase, but it was no use. That cat would never even touch food unless I had gone out somewhere. On damp days the whole place seemed to smell of cat’s piss.
I was helpless. If I didn’t mean to starve the cat to death, I was obliged to leave the house whenever feeding time came along; only after breaking up with that boy I had nowhere particular to go. Each night I had to go to sleep in the bed on the other side of the room from the bookcase. If I woke late in the night, startled by a bumping sound, I would see the kitten, clambering down hungry amidst a cascade of books, then quickly scrambling back to the top of the bookshelf. And the steady gaze of its yellow eyes . . .
At that point I could not feel any liking for that little kitten. It was not that I disliked it. All that I felt regarding that cat was a realization, that I had no need to share with anyone, that I was helpless, that therefore I could neither like it nor loathe it; there was no such thing as truth here; no matter how many dozen times, how many hundreds of times I reflected, I was helpless.
So how did the cat disappear from my house? My brother’s face comes to mind. Unable to overcome his wife’s complaints that a rank-and-file civil servant’s salary would not be enough to send their children to university, he’d started a so-called business; just at that time he happened to visit me. He’d just been passing . . . that was what he always said, whenever he visited my house. Sitting down amidst the books that were piled in disorder all over my small room, he would drink coffee and eat the apple I’d peeled for him. On days when the room was so chaotic there was no real place for him to sit, he would lower his behind onto a pile of books. He used to look comfortable, as if he was in the only place where he could go for a rest. When he came visiting often, there were times when I would crossly wonder if that was why he’d bought me the place, really. Just like Mother said, he left me feeling anxious, too. After he had left, I used to open the window, disturb again the books that he had arranged neatly in order, volume 1, volume 2, when I wasn’t looking, and evacuate the smell of books permeated with mustiness that filled the damp space of my semi-basement.
On that occasion when my brother visited me, I could not so much as offer him a cup of coffee as I usually did. Cohabiting with the cat had left me completely exhausted. Seeing that I was looking off color, he asked what was wrong I replied angrily that I couldn’t write on account of that cat. Only the anger I felt was not directed at the cat but rather at my brother. He might be my brother, but I wished he didn’t live so narrowly; and that he’d bought me a proper apartment instead of this semi-basement in a terrace; but, far more than that, if only he wouldn’t come visiting me looking so miserable . . .
Seeing my brother ignore chair or cushion, and instead settle his behind on the pile of books the kitten had brought tumbling down, I let myself down onto the bed briefly, where I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke it was already dawn, and in the darkened room there was no sign of my brother, nor of the cat. All I could see was the pile of books where he had been sitting, and the cat piss smearing every page of those books. It was no fit time to be phoning, yet that day at dawn I called my brother. He answered before it could ring for long. I said, I just called, like he always used to say when he visited me. And he simply replied: Sleep well.
In the end, I found I could not ask my brother about my cat. Did you take my cat away? Then did you get rid of it in a dark park or in a corner of a marketplace? The thing that I had only dreamed of every night, until I became fretful with the unbearably wretched wish and the sorrow? At the moment when you were ridding yourself of a living creature, were you happy that a chance had come for you to do something for me? . . . Instead, I quietly put down the phone.
The very next day, I got rid of the baby that had been lodged in my belly for the past nearly five months. I knew it could be dangerous beyond four months, but as on several previous occasions, the operation was simple and trouble free. I bought a bowl of beef broth in the restaurant on the hospital’s lower floor. Determined to consume the broth to the very last drop, I scraped the bottom of the bowl with my spoon and at the same time I reflected. Got to go on living, just like scraping defiantly at the bottom of a bowl of ox-tail broth. I had to think about something or other, if I was not to fall into sentimentality, but thoughts like “Got to keep on living” were worse than not thinking at all. Yet apart from that one, no other thought came to mind.
Just a minute. After excusing himself, Yi Ho-gap had gone to the toilet. Then, instead of returning to the table where I was sitting, he went into the bedroom without saying a word. Touching up the final draft once again, I waited about thirty minutes but still he failed to emerge from the bedroom. Had he fallen asleep without saying anything to me? Or having found my draft as unsatisfactory as ever, was he catching his breath after a sudden fit of anger? The thought struck me that, if he was angry, the day I got my money would be delayed a little longer, but now there was nothing more that I was afraid of. If he wanted, I felt that I could even try giving him a lifetime as an independence fighter. Anything difficult at first, once started, would not prove so difficult. If Yi Ho-gap wanted, or rather, in order to get my hands on some money, I reckoned I would even be capable of making out he was God.
After waiting a further thirty minutes, and not being prepared to wait any more, I was about to knock on the bedroom door when it slid open silently as if moved by a breeze, not having been completely closed. He was standing at a window that looked out onto the river. The side of his face was red. Incredibly, he looked as if he had been crying.
“I’ve really had a hard life.”
In a voice from which he was unable to banish the emotion, without turning he addressed me as I stood outside the door.
“Whatever insults people hurl at me . . . it doesn’t matter. I tell you I’ve really had a hard life. But who is there who understands that?”
I nodded, though he was not looking at me. It was true; how could anyone understand that? The miserable poverty of his childhood, the adolescence he had been forced to start as a mere rice-store delivery boy, then the wife he had been obliged to exchange for another several times, then being slanderously labeled as human trash, a homicidal maniac, and then . . . then that gray Abyssinian cat so impossible to like, who could understand that? Who could understand the notorious criminal, the killer, the immoral lump of greed that he was?
Gazing at his bowed shoulders, I quietly closed the door. Having seen him burst into tears instead of exploding in anger, there could be nothing more to improve in the draft. I returned to the table but, having nothing to do, I sat there quietly for a while. Then, turning around the chair that had its back to the window, I began to look at the view outside that Yi Ho-gap had been contemplating. Soon the sun set. I could see the riverside highway along which the street lights were beginning to glow faintly. I had a feeling I had once gone speeding with a poverty-stricken lover along that road as the lights were coming on. That had been in days when I had not yet got rid of anything, before I even knew what getting rid of something meant. Getting rid of means being got rid of, not by another but by oneself . . . such thoughts are always accompanied by sad feelings. Perhaps, if this were not a hotel suite, I might cry a little, as I always have done at such times. But at present I feel as if this hotel room is mine.
Once the street lights were on, before long a nightscape began to loom beyond the window. The gray sky of twilight grew dark, the street lights cast a brilliant glare, the extremely gaudy high-rise buildings shone out with a glow of breathtaking temptation. Beyond the window of the suite, Seoul by night looked beautiful. Or rather, it was beyond beauty. It looked like the symbol of a breathless moment of life, one that only those capable of possessing it could possess.
What Father had dreamed of, what Father had dreamed for his son was surely just such a moment. I recall those sets of books that filled Father’s bookcase in our childhood. When you reach the point where fiction becomes truth, truth becomes fiction – there must have been such a phrase in one of the books that filled his bookcase. Might it have been in the preface to the “Dream of the Red Chamber”? Yes, words like those were concealed within the covers of that Chinese classic, deemed unsuitable for children to read, glossy and shining without a speck of dust, let alone any trace of spittle or a folded page.
“You see, the things that I can’t teach you are to be found in them too.”
As Father’s melancholy voice comes into my memory, I try to imagine Yi Ho-gap’s autobiography inserted in his bookcase. Father disliked books that were not part of a set, Yi Ho-gap’s autobiography would have to form a set of several volumes. I see my little brother and myself standing by the bookcase. My brother, well-behaved and docile from infancy, unable to resist his sister’s day-long importuning, pulls the thickest book out of the bookcase. I am determined to dry a leaf between its pages. Father only collected books, he never read them, so that my brother feels no anxiety that he might discover such a sacrilegious act. Once a day my brother and I pull the book from the shelf to see how much the leaf has dried. As the pale green leaf’s color fades and the living creases it had when alive slowly vanish, it grows more beautiful than reality, more everlasting than reality. Brother and I pull petals and leaves from all the flowers and trees in the garden and insert them between every page. Yellow and red and green juices seep softly into the paper. By night a flowery scent wafts from the bookcase standing in the hall and fills the whole house with fragrance. Every night, my brother and I dream sweet dreams. On such nights, even the yowling of marauding cats is heart-warming. Over my brother’s and my little faces, virtuous, warm smiles are spread.