By Yi Oryong
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
"Is this some kind of interrogation?"
I rose abruptly from the sofa where I had been sitting. I kept my voice low. His name card fluttered from the table but he did not pick it up. I reckoned it was good to show some open signs of ill humour. It was too humiliating just to sit there like a criminal, meekly answering his questions. One of the buttons on inspector Park's homespun waistcoat was swinging to and fro, hanging by a thread. Was that what had irritated me?
Detective inspector Park also rose. He seemed about to grab me by the lapels; I pretended not to notice, turned my back on him, and walked towards the window. It was only a little after one o'clock, yet it was already growing dark in the hotel room. Perhaps it was snowing outside? As I raised the window blind, I spoke again, rather more boldly and harshly.
"I've already told you, I have absolutely no memory of his name. I have already repeated it at least three times in exactly the same words. He presented himself as a reporter from the photo section of some newspaper, that was all I knew of him. I only ever met him once; as I said, we just had a drink together. I can't even remember the name of the bar now. I met him at the introduction of someone called Kim in the photo section, so wouldn't it be simpler if you paid him a visit? If you keep saying, 'That's impossible,' like that, aren't you inviting me to tell lies? What's all this about, anyway?"
The simple fact of a stranger coming to pay me a visit here in this hotel was in itself no pleasure. Even if he had brought a bottle of Frontera sherry with him, I would not have been very pleased. No one was supposed to know that I was staying at the Savannah Hotel. No one except the publishing house that had sent me there. So this detective had not come to visit me simply because he happened to have my address, like a postman. He must have traced my whereabouts with the help of several assistants, like a criminal, a wanted criminal. It was obvious that once having put himself to the trouble of coming all the way out to this hotel, he was not about to turn tail and take his leave with a bow and a scrape. Which meant... well, which meant that this detective must be labouring under some enormous misapprehension.
Inspector Park walked across to the window where I was standing. Then as I stared out, he spoke from behind me as if he were reading from a document. I found his voice, devoid of all intonation and emotion, oddly irritating.
"He's dead. The day before yesterday. The first day it snowed. Kim Ch'ol-Hun died some time during the night. Only..."
"Only what? Have you been asked to bring me some inheritance? What connection are you suggesting exists between me and his death, for goodness sake? This is no undertaker's shop. Neither is it a very suitable place in which to discuss the death of someone with whom I am quite unrelated. I'm sorry, but can't you just go away? The publishers will be none too pleased if they hear how you're taking up my time like this. After all, they're the ones paying for this room. These hours don't belong to me, you know."
Learning that he was dead merely seemed to make me more nervous. Only now a strange feeling of apprehension was beginning to make itself felt too. I sensed that my fingers, that had been holding a cigarette since the moment I first met inspector Park's gaze, were trembling slightly.
The sky was clouding over but it had not begun to snow yet. In that expanse of grey pollution, the November city spread, freezing. Old buildings lay slumped on the asphalt like rats in a trap. Nothing had changed since yesterday. Nothing was changing at all. There was nothing at all to make me nervous. So why was I standing there like that, angry and fretful and feeling so apprehensive? What was the reason for it? Surely that man's death, no matter how it came about, had nothing to do with me?
Inspector Park remained unruffled even when I told him to go away. Rather he smiled, as if we were friends talking.
"Of course, I have this kind of job but I'm a great admirer of your novels; I've read them all without skipping a line. From the very outset I had no intention of interrogating you. Only you must collaborate with us. We don't mean to trouble people, but we're determined to find out why he died."
Inspector Park pulled out his lighter and applied the flame to the cigarette I was holding in my mouth. It was only then that I realized it had gone out. His voice reached me across a great distance, as if it were coming from behind the wall, in the next room.
Ch'ol-Hun was dead. It had happened on the same day that his mother came up to Seoul from the village where she lived. It was his mother who had discovered the body. The room was full of the stink of coal fumes. Strangely enough, the lid of the coal-briquette stove was off. Ch'ol-Hun was lying sprawled on the floor with his hands clasped, like someone praying.
"He died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Only it was no simple accident caused by negligence. It was either suicide or murder. After all, he was a press photographer. He had easier methods available if he wanted to kill himself. He regularly handled poisons when he was developing his films. Besides, he was fond of his mother. Even if he meant to kill himself, surely he would have wanted to meet his mother first? Yet it happened in the night prior to the very day his mother was due to arrive."
We returned to the sofa and sat down.
"It was the first time I've ever seen a suicide who didn't cut his finger nails first. It's really quite fascinating. Not a single suicide is capable of making a complete break with the world. Even when they've got fed up with living and are doing away with themselves, they still worry about afterwards. For instance, they take care not to make any mistakes in writing the suicide note; or they take a bath and put on clean clothes before dying, so that their corpse won't look grubby; they can never stop worrying about what people will think. There are even some, the really bad cases, who go so far as to offer the press articles so as to dramatize their suicide. The contents are always grossly exaggerated. It's astonishing the number of pessimists there are in this world who die wondering just how many articles their suicide will provoke. I've dealt with any number of suicides and one point they all had in common was an inability to uproot completely every last trace of lingering attachment to life, and the way they all arranged to leave behind some melodramatic kind of testimony in their preparations for death. That's what's bothering me. The fact that in the case of Kim Ch'ol-Hun there is not one trace of any of those characteristic signs of a suicide. If it really was a suicide, it's the most absolute and perfect suicide anyone was ever capable of committing. Only I believe no one can kill themselves like that."
"You mean it was homicide? And if homicide...."
Now I was questioning him, in nervous tones.
"That is precisely the problem. Whatever bruises there were, he got them falling from the bed. I'm still waiting for the autopsy report, but there's no doubt about its being carbon monoxide poisoning. It might be assumed that someone waited until he was asleep, then took the lid off his coal-briquette stove. Only there's no sign of anything having been touched. More important still is the fact that he seems not to have had a single close friend. Even at work, he's reported almost never to have associated with his colleagues. He had nothing worth stealing, let alone worth killing for. There are only two things that look suspicious: one is that his camera couldn't be found, the other is the fact that the previous week he and the woman he'd been living with for six months broke up. His camera was a Rollei-Code, but after he quit the newspaper job he was unemployed for a long time. Don't you think a musician, say, if he's destitute, will sell the instrument that was like his own flesh and blood to him, in order to buy some food? We can't assume for certain that someone stole that camera. I met the woman too. Her alibi was waterproof and there was nothing dirty hidden in her relationship with him. It wouldn't be bad as the subject for a novel, I reckon. Don't you agree?"
Inspector Park seemed to be setting a trap for me. I felt obliged to make some kind of reply.
"You mean you want me to write a novel. Now you're not interrogating me, but giving me a lecture about creative writing, I suppose? You'd better bring a better subject next time."
Inspector Park assumed a solemn air once again and drew a crumpled envelope from the same inside pocket from which he had previously produced his name card.
"But fortunately there's still one last clue left: this letter. We found this letter, that he must have written just a few hours before he died. You hold the last key to this incident. So please help us."
"A suicide note? That's not what you were saying just now. You must be happy that he left a sign of suicide like other people, after all."
I had the feeling that inspector Park was playing with me.
It was no suicide note, however. It was a letter destined to be sent to me by way of the newspaper. It had my name clearly written on the envelope. It even had stamps on but they had not been franked. The sender's name was there: Kim Ch'ol-Hun. My fingers began to tremble again. The letter was written on a page of college note paper, without any initial greeting, a few words scrawled like a memo:
When I see you next time, I'll show it to you finished. I can have it done in less than a week. I feel confident. I don't care if you smile. If it doesn't work, it's the end of me. I'm not even thinking about what might happen afterwards. Could you let me have your address, please?
December 14. Hun
Inspector Park opened his notebook.
"More like a telegram than a letter, isn't it? You must tell us what he means by "it". You told us you couldn't even recall his name, yet you're the person he destined to receive his last written words. Now we..."
At last I could laugh.
"Alright. We've come by a very round-about way. It's as though we've left the nearest shortcut and gone wandering off somewhere. An indirect interrogation is sometimes the least scientific. Why didn't you show me this note to start with? Only I don't think you'll find it a particularly good clue. This "it" refers to "The General's Beard", you see. He..."
For the first time inspector Park's face grew flushed.
"Please don't joke. I don't think they'd be very pleased down at the station if they thought I was sitting here listening dumbly to your jokes like this. This time doesn't belong to me, either. Suppose we save the jokes for outside of working hours, for when we're in a bar or something?"
He spoke as if he assumed that I had merely been joking. But my words had been the exact truth. The first time we had met at Kim's introduction, it had also been on account of "The General's Beard".
He had wanted to write a novel. Only before he started to write, he wanted to discuss it with a novelist. In those days I was having a novel serialized in the newspaper he used to work for. Perhaps that was why he had chosen me.
The first time I set eyes on Kim Ch'ol-Hun, I did not think much of him. He looked like the kind of young man you can meet anywhere if you stand for just five minutes at the roadside.
Even now, except for the scar on his forehead, I cannot picture him at all. He was an ordinary youth, just one run-of-the-mill young man.
He was one of those fellows who worries all the time about getting failing grades at school yet has nothing brilliant but his dreams; there he becomes a public official with his own secretary, happens to fall in love with a millionaire's beautiful daughter (his only child, if possible), goes abroad to study, gets a Ph.D. in the States, rides about in a Cadillac, hangs out with diplomats, plays bridge with them... then stuffing all those dreams into his rucksack, he goes off to the wars, buries the fragments of his shattered dreams among exploding mortars and smoke shells, then goes about grumbling that society has nothing much to be said for it, but he'd like to get himself a well-paid job. He was one of those aspiring fellows who, when this and that and everything turns boring, goes about saying how everyone wants at least once to write some kind of novel.
If there was anything particular in his case, it was simply the fact that the title of the novel he was planning to write one day was an odd one: "The General's Beard". As for the plot, it was somewhat absurd, just about what might be expected from an admirer of Kafka.
As soon as the alcohol took hold of him, Ch'ol-Hun became garrulous. Originally he had said that he needed to learn a lot from me, but it turned out quite differently and he went on and on in a hostile tirade.
Despite the nervous glances of Kim, who was sitting beside him, Ch'ol-Hun kept affirming excitedly that the modern Korean novel was too anemic and that writers were mere bakers, incapable of anything except sprinkling yeast on newspaper articles to make them swell up.
I just sat staring at the "no credit" sign fixed to the bar wall and smiled, now at the odd etymology of the word credit, a combination of the Chinese characters "out" and "over", and now at the two characters for "no", one a so polite "thanks" and the other a warlike "cut off", the two hobbling along like a cripple, as I listened to what he said. That was the sum total of all that had passed between us.
"Really? Then the letter means that he was going to write a novel; do you..."
Inspector Park nodded in the direction of the wall, that was papered with a hempen weave. His face reminded me of a punctured balloon.
"I wonder if you can recall the broad outlines of the plot of the novel he mentioned that day? It probably won't be of much help but there were sheets of note paper spread across his desk; he had obviously been writing something...."
"I don't see that the novel could have contained anything worth killing him for. Really, of course, what you might term a story is like a human skeleton. If that's all you've got, there's no way you can tell if the woman was pretty or ugly. That's what I told him: that a novel isn't something you talk about, it's something you write."
"Still, the novel's title was 'The General's Beard'?"
I had the impression that inspector Park was someone who hated wasting time and on account of that found himself wasting more time than ever.
"He said that his novel began on the morning of a day when there was a coup d'etat. The main character was a low ranking employee in some office, I'm not sure what his job was. Then there were the unshaven faces of the troops making the coup: they had been living for a long time hidden up in the hills, with no way of shaving.... so down they all came with their long side-whiskers and beards. The only thing people could talk about that day was 'the general's beard', that general who led the parade of rebel troops, and not at all why the coup had come about or what the nation's future would be like. You see, he had a beard just like all the others but his was neatly trimmed and shaped, he looked that much smarter than the rest. Shall I go on?"
Inspector Park continued to stare at the patterned wallpaper. Outside it had started to snow. Freed now of my insecurity, I suddenly became talkative. I even felt sorry about my previous bad behaviour. So I went on telling him about "The General's Beard".
After the Revolution, people all began to grow beards just like "the general's beard". The civilians entering the revolutionary administration, in their struggles for power, began attacking one another over the growth of their beards.
Overnight, beards became a kind of symbol of a person's support for the Revolution. Not only the high grade civil servants, but the heads of government-run industrial firms, industrialists that had received favours, bank managers, all began to turn up at public functions sporting beards just like the general's in token of their loyalty.
"The general's beard" spread like an epidemic. Everybody, from university presidents to rickshaw boys, grew beards and went parading through the streets. Every morning when people got up, their beards had grown a little longer, and the "general's beards" that had by now become standard in their immediate neighborhood increased one by one.
The point soon came where it was hard to live in society without a beard. The novel's hero, the office employee, began to feel increasingly uncomfortable. All around him, faces without beards began to disappear completely. If he entered a barbers shop, they would refuse to go anywhere near his beard with a razor blade. He was obliged to argue with the barber every time he went to have a haircut, and found himself quarrelling with people wearing beards. In buses and in restaurants, as well as in the street, he lived in a state of constant anxiety and fear under the stares of individuals regarding him out of the corner of their eyes, the stares of individuals with beards. But he refused to the bitter end to grow a "general's beard".
"If you feel uncomfortable, you only have to grow a beard too, don't you?"
That was all the advice his companions at work offered, each with a splendid beard that transformed their faces so that they had all turned into strangers.
The more uncomfortable he felt, the more firmly he refused to grow a beard. Yet soon even the few friends he had been trusting most began to appear with unshaven faces.
"--Surely not? They've simply not shaved today."
All the same, as the days passed the area of beard would become more clearly pronounced and by the end of a month a completely different face would appear, as he had feared. People were gradually abandoning him.
His anxiety began to hinder him more and more severely. One day his boss, complete with full-grown beard, summoned him. He found himself being urged to take a rest and get treatment.
He ventured to enquire: "Is it on account of the beard? Have they brought out a law making beards compulsory?"
His boss laughed behind his "general's beard". Then he scolded him in polite terms: this was a democracy, individual freedom was guaranteed by the constitution, so how could he possibly talk like that? It was precisely to cure him of that kind of obsession that he needed psychological treatment. Being labelled insane and getting driven from his job was by no means the end of his torments.
If he met people in the street and tried to ask something, all the beards seemed to flee from him. Then at night the beards would come to take their revenge. He had recurrent nightmares in which long beards wrapped themselves round him until he could no longer breathe. No matter where he went, thickets of beards pursued him, clutching at his neck as he tried to escape. He would wake from the dream as he hung writhing in the beards like a butterfly caught in a spider's web.
He tried surrendering to the authorities. He would get himself dead drunk, then kick open the police station door and go barging in. Going up to the officer in charge, with his "general's beard" he would beg him in tears: "Arrest me. I won't grow a beard, never, I won't. Put the handcuffs on quickly, and take me off to prison". But they only drove him out of there too. Growing a beard or not growing a beard was entirely up to each person's free choice. He found himself being dragged out by the constables on duty, each with his "general's beard", and dumped like trash at the curbside.
"He was dumped by the roadside, you say?"
Inspector Park's eyes were shining.
"A political novel? Was the 'general's beard' a term for our present government?"
I had the feeling that this was the first time I had heard Inspector Park ask anything with so much attention.
"A fable. A modern Aesop's fable. I suspect that Ch'ol-Hun intended to symbolize contemporary conformism by 'the general's beard'. He probably didn't mean to satirize any one particular period or the events in any particular country. You can say it was about the days of the kings of the Golden Age, about the days of Alexander the Great, or about an emperor that we cannot even imagine who will rule some day in the far distant future."
I was afraid that inspector Park was getting the whole picture wrong again.
"...rule in the far distant future..."
Inspector Park kept repeating what I said, as if fascinated by something.
"Why yes. With every day that passes, society is become more intensely conformist. Only look at our shoes, our clothing, our pens, dishes, buttons, houses... everything is becoming more and more stereotyped. He wanted to deal with the way human destiny is going, the way everything, be it politics or daily ways of living, everything, our entire civilization, is being choked by that 'general's beard'. Only it was too intellectual for a novel, I would say... too intellectual a topic to succeed easily."
Inspector Park stared at the clock. The outside world was being buried under the first real snow of winter that was falling thickly. I saw inspector Park out. Just as I opened the door I added a few last words to console him.
"It's a tricky assignment you've got. By the way, have you ever heard this story? It happened somewhere abroad. A young fellow was cleaning his revolver when it accidentally went off, fatally wounding him; as he was dying he managed to write on the wall: 'It was an accident,' so that people would know how he had died. Now I can understand why he acted in that way. It's wrong to give investigators a lot of trouble. What do you say, wasn't it a suicide after all?"
I shook hands with inspector Park. His grasp was weak.
"No. It must be murder. I'll have to find that missing camera. If you say it was suicide, you'll have to explain why, what reason there was for him to die. That's more a task for someone like you, a writer, a psychologist, a philosopher, than for me. If you agree, I could let you have a look at his note-books, that we've kept as evidence. And you could read his final text, too. It's at his home. His mother from the country is still staying there. If it appeals to you, that is."
I felt fatigue overwhelm me. Nothing was going to get written now. I fell onto the bed. The sound of inspector Park's footsteps as he went down the stairs was absorbed into the grey space outside, where snow was falling. Then all was still. Why had that man died?
I passed through a number of dark, narrow, muddy alleys full of burned-out coal briquettes, scraps of egg-shell, the dried and twisted bodies of dead rats, all kinds of rubbish. Once past those alleys with their rows of collapsing wooden fences, I turned another corner. At the entry of the road I found myself in, a few women were peering into an alleyway and furtively muttering among themselves. As I turned into that same alley, they parted as if taken by surprise, casting anxious sideways glances at my face.
The house where Kim Ch'ol-Hun had rented a room stood at the very end of the alley, blocking it. It had probably originally been built by the Japanese to house railway officials. It was one of those old long wooden houses on two floors, now divided among a number of families and remodelled with a fence and gateway closing off each section; the whole building looked like a complicated maze. I checked once more the address from the back of the envelope that inspector Park had left behind and at last located Kim Ch'ol-Hun's room.
The staircase leading up to the second floor was a prolongation of the dark alley outside, slippery and sordid, with the dead and rotting bodies of rats. Each step in the worn wooden stairway groaned wearily as I trod on it on my way up. The old sliding door in Japanese style, its fretwork covered with white paper, was rattling so noisily in the wind that there was no point in knocking. This was the room he had rented. I was taken aback on opening the door. On the bed at the other side of the room was sitting an old woman wearing a winter bonnet, her eyes closed in meditation like a Buddhist saint, while at her feet, as if attending worship in a temple, I could see the back of a young woman with her head resting against the side of the bed. This was the room where Kim Ch'ol-Hun had died. Yet at the sight of them I found myself taken with a strong urge to laugh, that I had to struggle to control. Because of the way I had been reminded of a temple.
The old woman slowly opened her eyes. As soon as she saw a new face, tears came flooding into her eyes. Yet the wrinkles embedded in her cheeks gave her a smiling air. She began to speak in soft, hoarse tones, as if talking to herself, but gradually her voice trembled louder.
"It's not right, not right. Give me back my boy quickly. You mustn't cut him open; it's not right. You think I killed him... But why? That I made him suffer like that because while he was alive he had that scar on his brow? It's not right to think such things. I tell you, it's not right if someone goes sticking a knife into my boy's body. Even if he's dead; you'll only add to his mother's heartache."
The old woman calmed down again and closed her eyes. A Buddhist rosary was wrapped round her hand.
She seemed to have taken me for someone from the police. Meanwhile the young woman introduced herself as Ch'ol-Hun's sister and drew up a chair for me. Then she began to whisper.
"Mother means that it would be wrong to perform a post-mortem. Why not? She is all the more upset because of a strange kind of guilty conscience."
"A guilty conscience?"
I spoke out loudly at the unexpected words. The old woman blinked her eyes open for a moment, then began to recite words from the Scriptures while counting her beads.
"Mother is convinced that he was killed because of that scar on his forehead. It happened when he was still just a nursing baby. She was sewing late one evening. Her husband's old grandmother was living in the house, which made life with her in-laws worse than usual, even at her age. She was nursing her baby and ironing at the same time, but finally fatigue overcame her and she fell asleep. Then something dreadful happened. In her sleep, her iron slipped... on the baby's forehead..."
"Her iron? on his forehead?"
I recalled the scar branded vividly into his brow. Branded! I had simply assumed it was a wound he had got during the war. The old woman must still be marked with the scar of that burn too. That was why she was trying to prevent people from inflicting any more wounds on her dead son's body now.
"He never had any friends, not even as a child. He was always on his own. He used to spend hours shut up alone in the back room. Often we didn't even know he was there and would eat supper without him. Mother was always worrying that his character was warped like that on account of the brand on his forehead."
Suddenly the crazed old woman emitted a wail.
"No! No! Give me my boy back quickly!"
I went towards the bed. There I paused for a moment, unsure of how I should address her. "Mother" "Missus" "Granny" I tried each of the words on my tongue. At last, although it felt indecent, I called her "Mother". I told her that I wasn't from the police, that I had been Ch'ol-Hun's friend.
"Friend? You say his friend?"
Her response struck me as being exactly the opposite of inspector Park's.
She was shaking her head slowly from side to side, as if to say, 'You are someone completely unrelated with my son'.
I too felt perplexed at having called him my "friend". Had I not reacted strongly when Inspector Park simply asked me if I knew Kim Ch'ol-Hun?
Why had I denied him so violently? Yet it was true. I really had been unable to recall Kim Ch'ol-Hun's name. But there was nothing base about it.
Not at all. Peter denied Jesus three times, although he knew him very well. Surely it is only natural to deny it, when someone asks you if you know a complete stranger? Yet here I was now firmly calling him my friend. To put on a straight face and quite unnecessarily deny all knowledge of someone you can call your friend, that is base.
Given that we only met once, that he was someone whose name I could not recall, could I still really say that he meant nothing to me? In that case what had brought me to this place? Why was I so curious about his death? Why was I resolved to find out the reason he had died? Was it to obtain material for a novel, as inspector Park said? I was perplexed at the changes that had taken place, the way I called that old woman "mother" without the least embarrassment although it was the first time I set eyes on her, or the way I calmly gave the name of "friend" to the very Kim Ch'ol-Hun that I had stoutly denied knowing to inspector Park only the night before.
"Don't be offended; Mother's thinking of Ch'ol-Hun. There's only the two of us left now; mother is out of her mind. I used to lament having become a widow so young; but perhaps it was all for the best, seeing what's happened. It's hard for Mother."
I took care not to loose sight of my basic intention. I had come here to find out the cause of his death.
"Did Ch'ol-Hun really kill himself because of that scar? The other children used to make fun of it; then when he grew bigger he used to avoid company on account of it... that warped his personality... but he survived well enough until now, didn't he?"
The young woman adjusted the collar and fastenings of her dress. Can it be that people plunged in grief are not afraid of what others may think? The ribbons closing her dress had been hanging loose.
"Did Ch'ol-Hun never talk to you about his elder brother? If he killed himself, it might have been because of him. After what happened he never so much as mentioned his brother once. It's true that his scar isolated him from people, but having his brother taken from him like that was even more of a shock."
"Did he die?"
"He died in prison. Ch'ol-Hun was exceptionally fond of his brother, perhaps because he could never make any other friends; that brother was his only playmate. It was only after Liberation in 1945 that we found out he'd joined the Reds; it had been a mistake to send him to study in Japan. As soon as Liberation came, he kept on at Father about how he ought to redistribute his land to the landless peasants. It was awful. He used to get hold of Ch'ol-Hun too and tell him all sorts of strange things, though he was still only in primary school; in the end they were not allowed to meet inside the house at all. He got the kids of the tenant farmers together and set up a party cell; that got him kicked out of the house. Father threw him out."
The old woman was still counting her beads. The black grains of the rosary slipped noiselessly between her fingers, that were thin as bamboo leaves.
"That must have affected him a lot."
I tried to get her to agree with me, but she paid no attention; instead she continued in a kind of soliloquy.
"That happened much later. It was the evening; the rats had been skittering and slithering about up in the ceiling all day long. It was raining and the wind was blowing. After two years' absence, his brother came rushing into the house, soaked to the skin. He stood there shivering like an animal and scattering drops of rain. He begged us to hide him, and at the same time he kept railing at someone. 'It's all his fault I'm going to die,' he said. He went raving on about how he wasn't a Red now, or anything like it, or anything at all. Even now, we don't know what had happened. Although maybe Ch'ol-Hun knew. He had come back home for the vacation just then; he was already more or less grown up; besides, he was the only one his brother talked to at all."
"So did your father forgive him?"
I was curious about what had occurred. "Father..." she repeated after me.
His father no sooner set eyes on him than he dragged him outside. The older brother had knelt there on the ground in the pouring rain, pleading, but his father had not forgiven him.
"I can forgive you. But our ancestors will never forgive you."
With those words he ordered him to leave. Ch'ol-Hun had knelt beside his brother in the rain, imploring. He pointed out that they had lost all their ancestors' land in the reforms, so he should forgive his brother. That really put their father's back up. As soon as he heard the words 'land reform' he went mad. It was because there were people with their kind of ideas that the land reform had happened, he said. It was all the fault of louts like them, if he could no longer wield a sickle before his ancestors, and if the world had changed so much.
Then the police who had been pursuing him came and dragged him away.
"It was dreadful," the woman added. "After that, Ch'ol-Hun fell sick. Whenever it rained, he used to leap out of bed and go rushing out, saying that his brother was calling him. It was frightening, dreadful."
"I suppose his brother must have called out to Ch'ol-Hun as he was being carried off?"
"He kept on and on calling him. He said he had something to tell him; he tried to get near him. He said he was sorry about something, too. He was carted off, all the time shouting, while Ch'ol-Hun couldn't follow after him or weep for him. It was as if his lips were sealed and his ears stopped up. That night he developed a fever and grew scalding hot, as hot as a cauldron on a fire, that sick he was. He clenched his lips together so hard, they had bruises on them. I never saw Ch'ol-Hun cry after that. When Father died, he only wailed for him once."
"Mother... you ought to get some rest."
That was the word I used, exactly like a son addressing his mother, as I seized the hands of the old woman sitting there on the bed. I had grown close to Ch'ol-Hun now he was dead.
It had been a six-tatami room; the mats had been stripped from off its wooden floor, but it felt even larger, maybe because of the lack of furnishings. There was no fire in the coal-briquette stove. Some pictures were hanging on the wall above the writing-table. There was one, by Géricault I think, showing a tilting raft full of shipwrecked people, some of them gesturing towards the horizon. Amidst the storm and darkness, they are waving their clothes in a plea for help.
A writing-table and some bookshelves, a desk-lamp, a cabinet, and a cracked vase... there was one large window opening westward, it looked as though sunlight would only penetrate there just before sunset. The room was remarkably like a cavern.
"Don't let them cut him open. Don't let them wound him. You mustn't forget my merits."
The old woman started to cry, recalling the violence that would be done to the corpse during the autopsy. I promised that I would talk to inspector Park about it, although with no great conviction.
Finally, rummaging in his bookshelves, I was able to lay my hands on a number of his notebooks. Although the police had taken various things away, part of his diary had been left behind.
I took my leave of them, heedless of whether they could understand or not.
"To provide a brightly decorated bier and a warm grave is not the only thing the living can do for the dead. We must discover why he died. It's important. Someone's death brought the law and the police into being. Another's death provoked the creation of hospitals and of new medical studies. That's not all. By one person's death many other people can discover a new way of thinking, and writing, and living. Young Ch'ol-Hun's death is not simply the end either."
On returning to my room at the Savannah Hotel, I began to scrutinize his diary. He had starting keeping it some two years before his death. The dates were inserted at random, sometimes nearly a whole month was passed over. Most of the contents were merely factual memos or things briefly noted down.
A happy man's diary is an empty one.
Someone with an unwritten diary enjoys a satisfying life; such people replenish their daily words by action.
The thickness of the leaves and the thickness of the action are ever in inverse proportion. No animal keeps a diary. I suppose that the same is true of God.
In every respect I hope that some day I will be able to go beyond the pages of this diary and really live a life worth living.
That was the inscription set at the top of the first page, like a series of epigrams. The following page was marked with the day of his father's death. The exact date was not noted, which suggested that it had happened long before he started to keep his diary.
I intended at first merely to skim through, just getting the main gist, but once I reached the passage about his late father I found could not bear to skip a single letter. It reminded me sharply of what I had heard from his sister.
People frequently write about returning to their family home dressed in silks and laden with honours. But our country home is no place for someone wearing silk robes to return to. People robed in silks don't need a home, anyway. In our home village, there is far more talk about people intent on hiding their grief-filled, filthy, tattered clothes than there is about people coming to show off silk robes.
People return to their former homes in sorrow. Our bodies are not the only things that turn homewards. Anyone who recalls their home while living in the city is surely weary of city life. But being weary of city life is the same as being weary of life itself....
I went home to bury Father. Even when I got the telegram saying that he had suddenly died, I did not weep. Even when I was dressed in mourning clothes and standing before his coffin, no tears flowed. Was that because I felt too tense under the obligation to weep and keen?
For a son not to weep at his father's death is considered a sin against piety. Seeing the rest of the mourners, I made repeated attempts to weep. I wonder why I was unable to weep streams of tears like Mother?
I tried thinking of moving things so that tears might flow by association. I imagined the village school yard, empty except for the platform in front after school is over, our home's storage terrace in the rain, sparrows caught in a net, our village's desolate river bank, the bank where I used to read, draw pictures and sing, poplar trees with their branches bare.
It seemed that it was only in childhood that tears of emotion flow at the mere sight of branches high enough to touch the sky trembling in the breeze, at the very thought of silent high noon with the splendour of green foliage.
I still could not cry. Those things no longer made my heart sad. I tried thinking of the fate of our ancestral home as it gradually fell into ruins, of its tiled roof overgrown with weeds and its collapsing wall, its ravaged garden, and the rusting handles on the gate. Father who had bought me a tricycle. Father who used to give me coins from his pocket. Father who used to play paduk, twist cords, clear his throat... I tried imagining his various different faces. But I could feel no sorrow.
Just then I suddenly, quite abruptly, caught sight of a black chest looking rather like a coffin set beside the folding screen that concealed Father's body from view.
At that instant tears came welling up. It had been a long, long time since I had wept as I wept then. In a house of mourning, each and everyone is endowed with the freedom and the privilege to cry to their heart's content. It is because it a place where tears are authorized that people unexpectedly find a kind of cheerful sense of relief rising up in them during a funeral.
"No, no! Those scoundrels. Don't they know whose land it is?"
From inside that chest I heard an echo of Father's voice as he strode through the village, shouting in protest.
The chest had belonged to him, it was a kind of Pandora's Box. Right up until his death he would not let it leave his side for a moment but kept a firm hold of it. I had even heard that his dying wish was that it should be buried with him.
Inside the chest were land titles and survey maps. Ah! Land, property, fields, and the red earth of the hills--only now the prescription had expired and Father had closed his eyes clinging on to a box full of useless land titles that were now nothing more than scrap paper.
Land has been our destiny. Land got my brother thrown out, land drove my father mad. From the very moment of Liberation, we had been the victims of land.
Land has been our destiny. We were a landowner's sons, who had no idea of how to survive without land. We, and I myself belonged to the land. Now the land was taking its revenge on us. I spent my school days in terror and loneliness and gloom because I was "a son of the land". When I was dragged off by the children of the liberated tenants and whipped, I thought with sorrow of how much land Father owned.
"Now you aren't a yangban and this is not your land."
In order to test their new-found freedom, the tenants' children used to beat me up. The son of the ruined landowner came home every day with a bloody nose. The land divided me from my friends, it divided Father from my brother. It divided the village folk from our family. By the time the War came in 1950, we had already lost all our lands but still Father was put to hard labour.
I don't have the heart to write about my brother. Even after the land was all gone, we were unable to get free of it. People vanished together with the land. One by one, the familiar faces vanished from our front gate.
Father only succumbed after struggling with all his might to prevent the loss of the land. As the doors to the visitors' quarters were shut, and dust began to gather in the rooms where kisaeng girls used to come and play, while the calligraphy on the boards fixed to the pillars melted away, and the trees in the garden, no longer pruned, ran wild, the deeds in that chest that Father clung on to turned into so much useless scrap paper.
Ah, that Pandora's Box that Hope never emerged from! How many sleepless nights Father spent coughing as he guarded a chest where nothing remained but dust. In the end my brother too staked his youth on smashing that chest although what it contained was bound eventually to turn into waste paper without his lifting a finger. Whether it be the one intent on guarding, or the one intent on smashing, or the one just looking on, we were all of us forced to shoulder the same useless chest to the bitter end. We had nothing left except a chest full of expired titles and land registers. And now it was to be buried together with Father's body.
Mother asked me to read the inscriptions on the envelopes containing funeral contributions. Previously she had been weeping sadly, but now she was counting the money.
"From the family of Sok-Tol, one hundred Won."
"That scum, and we used to let them farm the best rice-fields too. How ungrateful can you get?"
"Here's two hundred Won from the family of Ok-Sun."
"To think that we helped set her up with a place to live in when she got married and now look how rich they are. How dare they!"
"One thousand Won from Chang-Pyo's folk!"
"A thousand? Chang-Pyo's father knew what was what. He was the only one able to recognize a kindness when he saw one. Naturally they still feel indebted to us, even the third generation."
I could not bear to read out any more of the names on the envelopes.
Mother! All those things are over now. Stop thinking about land. It's all over now Father's dead.
Mother was just like him, unable to escape from inside that chest full of dusty title deeds. She had no true sorrow capable of lifting her beyond those bitter sums of money. At the sight of Mother's face as she sat there counting money in her widow's garb, I once again tasted the salt of tears on my tongue.
Mother will never be able to get free. She will never be able to detach herself from the little patch of bald fields she inherited, and the memory of all that land. She's one of those people who can never leave home.
That was the end of the first section. I was incapable of going on to read anything more, the writing was so minute. I walked to the window in order to rest my weary eyes. It was already evening. Seen from this fifth floor room, Seoul lay grim and barren as if strewn with cinders. If you had thrown a stone down, the only result would have been a blurred cloud of dust.
The remains of some child's kite, the paper all torn away and the bamboo frame left like a skeleton, trembled in every puff of wind. The only thing I could distinguish clearly from this hotel window was the bathhouse on the edge of the hotel's front yard. The tall chimney rose like an extinct volcano, with not a trace of smoke issuing from it. The scars of machine-gun bullets from the war remained unrepaired. It would soon be demolished to make way for a car park. The window panes had all been smashed, so that the word "bath" originally written on them was nowhere fully legible. It looked as though it was being used as a temporary store. Piles of junk could be glimpsed through the windows.
The bathroom itself, where once naked bodies had loomed through billows of white vapour, was probably a mess of spider's webs and dust, broken bicycle wheels, desks, empty cans and beer bottles, and other trash. Out of the ruins one young fellow emerged. He was carrying a black wooden chest closed by a rusty padlock, issuing from the gloomy city's sticky alleys with their perpetual smell of rotting fish.
Perhaps he would never be able to free himself from the chest of bygone history. An inherited box that could never be removed from his shoulders: I was beholding Ch'ol-Hun's ghost, advancing laden like a snail with its house on its back.
Soon after I had turned on the lights in the room, inspector Park came to see me. We shook hands easily, with no sign of hostility.
"Are you still thinking about this Kim Ch'ol-Hun business?"
As he spoke, inspector Park tossed a college notebook on to the table. It must be the last section of Ch'ol-Hun's notebook, that he had promised to show me.
"Aha, I see you've already read another part of his diary."
Inspector Park riffled through Ch'ol-Hun's diary where it lay on the table. I had the impression that he was smiling a victor's smile.
"Now I must tell you about my investigations."
I spoke without any intonation, imitating inspector Park's way of talking.
"Have you discovered any reason why he might have committed suicide? At least there's one thing you ought to be careful about. In terms of seniority I'm above you, after all. You can't explicate the reasons for a suicide solely in terms of the event itself. Character as well as chance factors can call up the spirit of death. One person may kill himself for the price of a tram fare while another can loose billions and still not die. A widow can have her son die without being unduly affected, yet stuff herself with sleeping pills when her pet dog gets lost. Of course, I'm sure you know all about this kind of psychology. I'm just telling you some of my experiences for reference."
I answered, feeling increasingly confident that I could communicate with him.
"You're warning me that even if some kind of problem had come up, there's no proof it necessarily led him to kill himself. But..."
A call-boy came in, bringing a bottle of scotch and some glasses.
"But don't worry. So far my investigations are focussed not so much on the cause of his death as on the creative reasons that made him want to write a novel called "The General's Beard".
"On why that one man could not bring himself to grow a beard when everyone else was doing it? Surely that's very simple."
Inspector Park was drinking his Johnny Walker straight.
"His mother says it was because he had that scar. While his sister, and she's a widow too... the last surviving offspring. She says it was because the shock he got was too severe, when the brother he loved was arrested for political reasons. But if you look at his diary, he seems to suggest that it was because of his father's chest, where he kept all his title deeds."
"Novelists always complicate things. When you listen to them, the world seems wrapped in a thick fog. They turn the simplest things into riddles. That's why I always steered clear of literature."
What he said upset me, certainly, but my fingers did not shake like they had the day before, as they clasped the glass.
I defended my approach.
"It's not really a vague way of seeing things. I was simply speaking on the spur of the moment. At any rate, my investigation will continue."
This time it was inspector Park's turn to defend himself.
"It only underlines the fact that we see this incident in differing ways. It has nothing to do with the question as to which of us is capable of seeing reality more clearly. But I'm going to have to pursue the interrogation that you so much dislike. How is it that you are suddenly so interested in the reasons for the death of someone when you said that you couldn't even remember his name? And in 'hours that people have paid you for'? I mean to say, it's going to waste more time than asking a leading question."
I did not reply at once but instead, for no particular reason, clinked my glass against his in a kind of toast.
"I recall that you already said that our points of view were different... Why are the police so intent on finding reasons for his death? If someone killed him, you're going to have to find them. In order to repay the dead man's enemies? Surely not just that. You'll say it's in order to protect the legal order of things. For the sake of the people who are attached to the law with their every breath. Whereas if you say he killed himself, that's an end to your investigation. Only for us, and I suppose you're going to criticize that 'we' as being like a foggy day, for us that's the point at which our obligation to investigate the matter begins. The moment you say that the criminal isn't some precise individual wearing dark glasses, or carrying a 45-caliber revolver, or with a hideous scar on his face, it becomes all the more fascinating. We must capture and bring to justice that invisible criminal. For the sake of the people who are attached to life with their every breath. Whether it was a chest with the character for "happiness" stuck on it, the mark of an iron on a forehead, or the calls of someone being taken away to prison one rainy night... I feel convinced I have to find out who the criminal was that killed Kim Ch'ol-Hun. He was clearly deprived of his right to life by force."
I was drunk, doubtless from the effect of the whisky on an empty stomach. I mocked myself inwardly: You're getting to be quite a moralist.
From somewhere outside a patrol-car siren rose, continued, then died away. Yet another crime must have occurred.
I resolved to pursue my investigations calmly. Therefore I did not immediately start to read the final volume of Ch'ol-Hun's diary. The following morning I spent some time sitting in a coffee-shop, where the only records they played were popular hits like Paul Anka's "Crazy Love" and Elvis Presley's "Kiss me Quick", before returning to the hotel room. I at once opened the note book.
The diary entries written just before his death began in epistolary style but then continued in a monologue. The text began with the name of a girl, Hyei.
November 24, cloudy, first snowfall
I received a letter from Mother a few days ago. If you had been with me, I would have read it aloud, like I used to.
Whenever I read Mother's letters, you used to laugh but I like reading her letters. I like the way she writes, using the old system of spelling that is the only one she knows. I can't imagine Mother writing a letter with the same kind of grammar and modern spelling that we use. She still uses one of the archaic characters in her letters, as if she were living back in the times of Ch'un-Hyang, and it is one of my little pleasures that they show how wrong it is to think that the old character can be represented with modern writing.
I'm worried about this letter of hers. As far as the style of address or the old-fashioned spelling goes, nothing has changed in the slightest. What bothers me is what she says.
She writes that she can't live in the countryside any longer. Even Mother has realized that the days are over when people employed laborers and farmhands to work the fields. Still, for a long time I've been convinced that she could never leave the land and our old home.
Like I told you before: because of that, I could always say that if I got tired of life I would go back home and work in the fields with Mother. Of course, I'm sure you realized that my words were lies, mere escapism. But the simple fact that I could imagine such a thing constituted a last straw of hope for me.
And now she writes that she is arriving in Seoul tomorrow. It seems that Kim So-Im has come forward and offered to buy the house, together with the remaining land.
I know his daughter well enough. Kim So-Im was one of our tenants back in the old days, too. Now his daughter is living with a G.I.. It's as much as to say that our house, the house of Kim Chong-Taek of Chang-Dong, the great Kim clan, is going to become the home of a G.I.'s in-laws
Yet you know, Hyei, that's not the thing that has really upset me. That old house is too big and cumbersome, whether you look at it in terms of my unbearable memories or our widowed mother's life. The outer wing where the men used to receive visitors has already been turned into the village church, and the servants' quarters are being used as one political party's local offices.
It's a house that needs a new owner to take it over.
What I'm afraid of is that my last bastion of self-defence has disappeared, the possibility of saying, "Well, I can always go back to our village and farm with mother, can't I?" I'm not sure that saying I'm living here with mother will be the same thing at all. In mathematical terms, it makes no difference whether you say mother's coming to me or I'm going to mother. But in the light of what our lives have been like, I reckon that saying mother is coming to me and saying that I am going to mother mean something fundamentally different.
After that, for the space of about half a page, the writing had all been crossed out until nothing was legible. The diary entry continued on the following page.
I've done another stupid thing. Mother is going to come up by train tomorrow to talk about getting rid of the house. So just now I called the enquiries desk at Seoul station.
There I was, holding the telephone and explaining how Mother was coming up from the countryside to sell our land, and that I reckoned it would be hard for her to find where I lived on her own, so that I'd better go to meet her off the train.
At that point the girl on enquiries interrupted me in an angry voice, asking what on earth I was talking about. Get straight to the point... it's nothing to do with me whether it's your mother who's coming up or your grandmother, whether she's selling some land or a whole mountain. She sounded furious.
Hyei! Don't laugh at me. I've always been like that. She was right. They're busy people. The fact that Mother is selling the house our people have lived in for three generations and moving to the city can signify nothing to anyone except me.
Hyei! That wasn't the last of my mistakes. Hastily changing the topic, I enquired what time the train from Pusan would arrive at Seoul tomorrow. I would have to be there to meet her.
At that I heard the girl heave a sigh and mutter to herself something about how country people always made her sick. There were dozens of trains arriving from Pusan every day; which particular train was I asking about, for heaven's sake? Was I asking her to sit there reading out the whole day's list? And she hung up.
Hyei! What she said was perfectly correct. Not having indicated the time of the train may have been Mother's mistake or mine, it was clear that it was entirely our mistake.
I'll have to go out early to Seoul station tomorrow. I'm going to have to spend the whole day pressed against the barrier at the exit from the platforms, with all those people swarming around me.
There'll be any number of mothers coming up to Seoul from the countryside. I'm going to have to explore hundreds, thousands of mothers' faces as they come pouring out in procession. I'll have to distinguish Mother's face in all that mass.
I'll spend the whole day there tomorrow, the whole day standing there. I'll have to wait there all day long, exploring, among the footsteps of people dashing off in a hurry, the eyes of total strangers.
Only he had not waited, he had died. He was dead when his mother arrived. Could death have been what he had been waiting for all that time? Surely that was what he was waiting for, gazing at those mothers' faces, among the footsteps of people dashing off in a hurry, the eyes of total strangers!
In any case, on reading that I began to wonder if it might not have been suicide after all. Perhaps this girl that he had been writing to had understood Ch'ol-Hun's feelings? Hyei?
Could she be the girl that inspector Park said had been living with him for six months, whose alibi and background he said were clear? I felt a desire to meet her. For that, I would need inspector Park's help. I decided to phone him. I had the impression that since I had now read the very beginning and the very end of the diary, I would do well to meet people and get some more tangible information before continuing to read the remaining diary entries.
I got an urgent call from my publishers, demanding to know how their manuscript was coming along. Seeing that it was meant to be about the Christmas season, it was going to be late, even supposing I had almost finished writing. But I had done absolutely nothing about it. Nothing was written. It looked likely that today too I would not be able to write anything. As soon as I had eaten the "continental breakfast" supplied by the hotel, I set off for the office block where, following inspector Park's instructions, I hoped to find Miss Na Shin-Hyei.
The building in question stood in the main business area stretching along Chongno Street. It was a dark, old-fashioned cement construction that had not been redecorated for a long time. Even in broad daylight, all the lights were burning. In the lobby, an old porter, blind in one eye, was shaking his hands and quarrelling with a cleaning-woman about something. There was an elevator, but it was an antique model of a 1930s kind, with a sign stuck to the gates: "Power failure, not in use". Seeing that all the lights were on, despite the sign, it looked as if the elevator girl had got the sack, or the thing had broken down. Behind the elevator gates with their peeling paintwork, a cavernous dark space yawned like an abyss.
The girl worked in an estate agents' office on the fifth floor. I steeled myself to climb the exiguous stairway, where it looked as if I would have to be careful not to bang my head. At every landing as I climbed, my eyes encountered the dark cavern looming beyond the elevator gates with their sign "Power failure, not in use".
In the office, one solitary woman was sitting among empty desks. I had heard reports that there were many companies with just their administrative offices in the buildings in the region of Chongno. It looked as though this estate agents was one of them.
The woman was filing her nails and before I could ask anything informed me: "The chairman is out. He won't be back today." I had the impression that she was reading a speech from a prepared text.
Only her immense eyes, dark eyes in which black flames seemed to be flickering, held an ardour incapable of indifference about anything. Her makeup was not particularly elaborate. Perhaps that explained why her eyes were so conspicuous.
"I'm not interested in meeting the chairman; I want to meet Na Shin-Hyei. Is she around... could I perhaps see her?"
I asked in this indirect way although intuitively I felt sure that this woman must be Na Shin-Hyei herself.
"Are you from the police? Do I have to go with you now?"
She showed no trace of anxiety. Her voice sounded clear and young. She put her handbag and her desk in order. I said nothing in reply to her question as to whether I was from the police.
"Some coffee-shop nearby would be convenient; that is, if you can leave the office."
We were obliged to go down all those stairs. Naturally the sign "Power failure, not in use" was fixed to the gates of the elevator. The young woman went ahead of me. She wore her hair in a ponytail, like a student, tightly tied with a scarlet ribbon which made a vivid contrast with the black of the hair. It was a style favoured by younger students, and not really suitable for someone of her age.
"You and Kim Ch'ol-Hun lived together, so... um..."
As soon as we were in the coffee-shop, I began to question her like a real detective.
"You don't have to be embarrassed. I lived with him for six months. That's what I told them at the station."
I was completely taken by surprise. She spoke frankly, in open, unaffected tones. She seemed to be inviting me to ask whatever I liked. Most women avoid meeting a man's eyes when they are speaking. Usually while they are talking they look at their wrist-watch, or stare into the distance over their partner's shoulder, or something of that kind. But as this woman spoke, she was scrutinizing each portion of my face with those almond eyes in which black flames seemed to be flickering.
Normally a person who knows no shame has no authenticity either. But Shin-Hyei seemed to possess such purity that not even a devil could have made her fall. I reflected that you sometimes come across a mysterious kind of woman who remains a virgin even after loosing her virginity. I felt reassured as I interpreted her character. If she was like that, I would have to be completely open with her.
"I'm not an inspector from the police at all. But I'm someone who needs your testimony, yes, your testimony, much more than they do. I'm writing a novel."
Shin-Hyei seemed to smile slightly.
"Are you looking for materials? It seems that writing a novel with only the imagination is hard as well."
"As well? What do you mean?"
I quickly questioned her.
"Because there once was a man who thought he could love a woman with just his imagination."
"You're talking of Kim Ch'ol-Hun?"
"He only wanted to love me in his fantasies. He did all that he could to escape from the real me, the me that bleeds if I'm scratched, that snores when I sleep. The only things he cared about in life were his own dreams. When I was in front of him, I had the impression that I was vanishing into thin air like petrol evaporating. I reckon it takes more than imagination to write a novel, so do you think a man and a woman can go on loving one another deeply using only their imaginations?"
"I want to hear all the details of your story in their proper order. Don't you find this music rather loud?"
The waitress came over.
"I'll have tea."
"That gramophone music..."
"Leave it as it is. It's better loud."
Shin-Hyei looked at her watch. Then she began by explaining that she wanted to get everything off her chest. With the way the police asked questions, it was like having to explain the marks left by a cart-wheel without mentioning the cart or the wheel; whereas she really wanted at least once to be able to tell someone what their relationship had been like. She added that it would be better with a stranger like me.
"I had a wretched and strange... or rather, the fact that I had a very peculiar father and that before we met I lost my virginity in a rather melodramatic manner must have been what attracted him to me. I think I can draw that conclusion quite confidently."
She had lived an almost hopeless existence. At the time when she met Ch'ol-Hun, she was working as a dancer in a back-room dance-hall, depending entirely on the tips she got from the customers. It was one of those February days when you can feel the first signs of spring. Shin-Hyei had got off with a man claiming to be a company director and they were dancing together. Suddenly they heard the door being broken down and a group of about ten young men came bursting in. They were being raided by a plain-clothes police squad.
Shin-Hyei had not run away. She simply stood there laughing at the sight of the chasing, running, vases smashing, people being arrested, while all the while, from the gramophone that no one had bothered to stop, issued the strains of a tango, "La Cumparsita". She had finally been arrested too. But she had the impression that she was like the music that had gone on playing, indifferent to all around it, that she dwelt in the same world apart as music inhabited. The fat businessman she had been dancing with was trying to hide his terrified face with a towel. Cameramen from the press, given the tip-off in advance, were busily firing off their flash bulbs.
Once outside, Shin-Hyei began to worry about her father. He was at home, half-paralysed, waiting for his daughter to come back. He spent his life lying there like some insect, unable so much as to turn over on his own. If she didn't come home within a few days, only a few days, he would be starving, staring up at the ceiling and reciting the Lord's Prayer.
That was how it had been during the war, when Shin-Hyei had come back up to Seoul after it was liberated. Her father was lying prostrate on the wooden floor of his rectory. Pastor Na, the victim of a stroke, lay there like a corpse, simply staring up at the ceiling. He had been tortured by political security agents from the North.
As soon as she thought of her father, she began to tremble with apprehension. She opened her bag, took out her lipstick, and hastily scribbled something on a slip of paper. A sketch of where her house was, with the address. She quickly jotted down a few words: "Please, it's my father. I'll make it up to you when I get out." She thought how the little note was like a message thrown to the winds. She tossed the note to a photographer who was taking shots of her face.
"Please, I beg you."
She was already being dragged towards the police van as she spoke.
Returning home after three days in the cells, she found all the lights on, while her father and that journalist were engaged in friendly conversation.
"He was on very close terms with Father. They had obviously talked together a lot. He had even taken care of his bodily functions, something that normally only a son can do."
I sucked the last cold dregs of my coffee as I listened to Shin-Hyei's tale.
"I suppose that your father was preaching to Ch'ol-Hun?"
"Not at all. Father never used to try to preach to anyone once he was outside the church. That was not his way."
Shin-Hyei pulled down the neck of her sweater so that I could see her necklace. It was a copper cross.
"Father gave me this cross as he was dying, as a kind of last bequest. He was a clergyman, yet he never liked the idea of me attending Sunday school. Once I was a bit older he told me to stop going to church. He said that usually the more you know God, the further you go from him; that if people start to feel what God is like, they become unhappier and then, unable to overcome the resulting stress and anguish, they end up hating God. He told me that if you wanted to keep God from being cursed, the best way was for people to live without knowing him. He even said that blaspheming God was a much worse thing than not knowing him."
The little copper cross propped on her hands shone reflected in Shin-Hyei's eyes with their flickering black flames.
"Your father must have regretted becoming a pastor."
"Not at all. To his last breath he used to say quite peacefully that he breathed every breath quietly in company with God. Only he had to endure a tremendous struggle. 'Ah, Shin-Hyei!' he told me, 'There may not be one man in ten thousand capable of gaining the victory in my kind of battle and winning through to God. It's no easy thing for an innocent man to keep believing in God when he has lost a wife and children. Most Christians put on masks of falsehood and lies in order to escape such sufferings, and cause God to be cursed.' He had lost his wife and two sons. Besides which, he was quite exceptionally unlucky as well. That was the kind of father Ch'ol-Hun liked. Abandoned, paralysed, completely ignored by everyone, lying shut up in a tiny room like a corpse, that was the father he liked."
She told how at first she had felt revolted by Ch'ol-Hun's kindness.
"Why did you pay any attention to the unlikely request of someone like me, a dancer you'd never seen before, a loose woman being taken away by the police? Was it because the dancer said she'd make it up to you? Or do you make a vile hobby of dishing out pity to people?"
She admitted that instead of thanking him she began to pick a quarrel.
"No, it's nothing like that. I simply remembered what one human being shouted desperately as she was being carted off, dragged away like a dog by the police. I'd have done it for anyone, even if you'd been a murderer; I could hear those hastily scribbled words written in blood-red lipstick crying out like your voice in the rainy night. Now I have to thank you. I have never before been able to talk as open-heartedly as I have with Pastor Na. He needed my help. It was only a short period, just three days, but during that time, I always knew if he wanted a drink, or had to do his needs, or felt bored and wanted to talk, even without asking. Shin-Hyei! We talked so much! We talked and talked, like shipwrecked fishermen meeting on a desert island. Without the electric light, but using that oil lamp, hearing it hiss and give off a stink of paraffin. We talked far into the night. You know, Shin-Hyei, I had a terrible time finding this house with just the address. Your house lay high up on some hill, like Kafka's "Castle", and I couldn't find the path leading up to it. But now, after three days going up and down that path, I've found out where it leads."
Shin-Hyei forced herself to put on a smile.
"He used to exaggerate about everything."
She tried to make it sound unimportant, but I saw the black flames come flickering brightly into her eyes.
I told her to keep on talking, employing inspector Park's technique of interrogation.
"Could you understand what he was feeling?"
"I was thinking what a shame it was he had that scar on his forehead. Because I had the same kind of scar; I could sense that he wasn't one of those brash types who tell a girl straight out that they want to make love. He told me that he saw his scar as a "token of solitude", guaranteeing that he could never hurt anyone. Ours was a relationship that was doomed from the start not to become a real one."
"Did he often come visiting after that?"
"Almost every day. He came virtually every day, explaining that he had been intending to change his job anyway. He liked us; but it was impossible to tell if it was father or me that he liked more. Father used to be waiting for him, too. Of the three of us, I was the only one relatively indifferent towards him."
So Ch'ol-Hun had come almost every day to Shin-Hyei's house. To Shin-Hyei he said that he would be getting another job soon, and that she should take it easy in the meantime. He kept pestering the indifferent Shin-Hyei to keep her promise and "make it up" to him. When she asked him what he wanted in return, he asked her to reveal to him some secret that she had never told anyone, to show him something invisible like the scar on his forehead. He was suggesting they should play at being each other's father confessor.
Shin-Hyei asked him what kind of game he thought he was playing, that she considered telling your secrets to other people to be as disgusting as showing them your underwear. He insisted that it didn't have to be that kind of thing, but that they would grow closer by telling each other things that they had never before told a living soul. Ch'ol-Hun proposed that he should begin by telling her about the scar on his forehead.
Shin-Hyei paused and smiled shyly.
"It really was a droll kind of game. We kept playing similar games all the time we were together. The one listening would sit somewhere a bit higher up, on a chair or a table or a window-sill, while the person telling their secret would sit below and talk with their eyes closed. He would pester and badger me like a baby with his 'Right! let's play confessions'."
That first day, Shin-Hyei had sat astride a rock up on the hill while Ch'ol-Hun leaned against a young pine tree and spoke. On later inspection, it turned out that the entry in his diary for February 18 reproduced that first make-believe confession to Shin-Hyei in the form of a monologue.
Shin-Hyei! I had no friends. Ours was a yangban family and father was a landowner. The rest of the village kids were all the children of vulgar farm laborers, servants and serfs. The fact that I was the landowner's son, and the grandson of a high minister, was stamped on me even earlier than the brand from the hot iron on my brow, from the day of my birth.
I was born like that. When the other kids were out catching snakes, I would stand watching a good way off, all alone. I longed to join in with them, but I was not as good at those things as they were. The kids went wading through fields of mud, getting themselves bitten by leeches as they caught loaches. I merely watched them from my vantage-point, perched on a farmhand's back.
If mother ever asked, 'Why can't you join in and play with the other children?' I used to tell her it was because they said bad things about the scar on my forehead. There was that as well, of course. I had simply been born different from the children who went rolling in the muddy fields to their hearts' content.
Shin-Hyei, even when I tried to act like them, I couldn't. I did join with them and take part in stealing baby sparrows from their nests, but there was one boy, called Il-Pyo, who was an absolute demon at wheedling the baby sparrows out from their nests inside the straw thatch of the houses. He would climb a ladder and pull out the chicks one by one; then he would hand them down to the other children who were gazing up from below. One day I found myself holding one too.
Ah, Shin-Hyei! Why couldn't I? Why was I unable to keep hold of that baby sparrow, when everyone else was quite calmly holding theirs? I no sooner had hold of that clammy sparrow chick, with its feathers not yet sprouting, than I threw it to the ground, nearly fainting. The kids laughed at me and called me a coward, but it gave me the creeps to such an extent that I could not endure to touch it.
It wasn't only while I was small, Shin-Hyei!
The day my older brother was arrested--he taught me a lot, you know, drawing, singing, skating, taking photos, and that means my present job, too--from the time he was arrested I found it even more impossible to associate with other people. And something taught me there was a clear meaning in my being alone, in being alone with myself.
Shin-Hyei! It was--Shin-Hyei, just listen--it was one day when we were on a middle school outing. We went to visit Magok Temple. The other pupils in my class were forming little groups with their closest friends and having their pictures taken with the temple's main hall in the background. You paid your money and the school photographer took the pictures. Only you know, there was no group where I belonged. None wanted to fit me in and I couldn't find any kids worth fitting in with. I was alone, alone... standing blankly beside the photographer, I watched the other kids getting their pictures taken, baring their white teeth and pushing back their shoulders. There was not one that called me over to have my photo taken with them.
Shin-Hyei, that was the first time that a sense of shame overcame me. The sense that I could not fit into any group and had to walk alone, all by myself. I took off and hid in the valley behind the temple, where I lay with my feet in the stream. I stared up at the sky, listening to the sound of the other kids chattering in the distance. The sky was really high above. I thought that I was floating along like a cloud. And that tale by Anderson, my favorite one, about the swan that hatched among the ducks, I thought of that too. Then I fell asleep... Shin-Hyei! I only woke up when I heard all the children calling out my name in a kind of chorus: 'Ch'ol-Hun, where are you? Ch'ol-Hun, where are you?'
Fifty or sixty people were calling my name. It was already evening. Checking that all were present at the moment of setting off down the hill, they realized I had vanished and the other kids were scouring the hills in search of me. Hearing the entire class calling my name, I felt happy. But my happiness was very short-lived. I was duly thrashed by the sports teacher in front of the assembled pupils. They looked on with contemptuous expressions.
Shin-Hyei! What happened that day made me more miserable than ever. I may not have been with them, but I belonged among them. I mean, I was one of their number. After all, even if I wanted to get free, even if I tried to get as far away as possible from them, there was no escaping the fact that I was one of their total number.
Shin-Hyei! Can you imagine what it felt like? Because of me, my classmates were obliged to go home thirty minutes late and because of that I found myself further from them than ever. Just thinking of it makes me go nearly crazy. Besides, it all happened only two months after my brother was taken away, and I was in a sickly state. That incident has pursued me ever since, like the scar on my brow. People showed no interest in me, I was a complete outsider, and yet they could never be content simply to leave me alone.
Shin-Hyei! Be patient just a little bit longer. It must be boring but my confession is nearly over. It's nothing important, only you're the first person I've ever told it to. Suppose we abolish completely every last secret between us, do you suppose we can become utterly one? Ah! A single body. Can two people ever become completely one, do you think? I want to believe in such a miracle. Then I went to do my military service. There I could feel it clearly; I was separate from them, and at the same time I was part of them. It became obvious whenever the whole platoon got punished for my particular mistake, or I for someone else's mistake. They gave me the nickname "Councilor". Councilor... that's what they call people in the army who are outsiders, odd-men-out. I tried hard to make friends, to understand them, did all I could to get in among them, it was no good. Out on that wide parade ground, even when we were in line together, keeping step together, arm-in-arm as we did our training, I was alone just like when I stood at the water's edge while the kids caught loaches.
Still, Shin-Hyei! I did make just one friend. He was born into the royal clan, his name was Yi Jin. He spoke to me first. He remarked that it's people's weak points that bring them together. That friendships fostered by weaknesses like drinking or gambling or vice are stronger than any inspired by morality or shared birthplace. He told me he reckoned that society was all rotten; this generation had reached a point where they all lived like gangsters, so that especially in the army, the only way you could get close to them was by mastering the art of swearing. He was certainly a master at swearing richly in a most unroyal manner. He was right; if you wanted to become part of them, you had to start by changing your way of speaking.
You know, Shin-Hyei, I really tried. Don't laugh. I made a conscious effort to use the expressions that they were always using. Only the problem was, it wasn't natural for me as it was with them. When I tried to swear, for some reason everybody laughed. I was incapable of reeling off whole strings of oaths like them. Now Shin-Hyei, I'm going to end this last part of my confession with a really terrible, fateful incident.
It involves that friend who told me I ought to learn to swear. Yi Jin, I mean. He got himself killed because of me.
There had been a lull, there was no fighting. We were resting at the side of some paddy-fields. Suddenly a communist plane appeared, flying low and firing its machine guns. I took cover in the sluice pierced in the side of the rice-field, it was just large enough for one person. Only you see, Yi Jin couldn't find anywhere to run to, he was hovering in confusion up on the bank. He was in danger.
I was fond of Yi Jin. I felt he was like me. I dashed out, dragged him down, and forced him into the sluice where I had been hiding. Then I crouched down low on the bank nearby, although it was dangerous.
When the strafing was over, I went back to the sluice. Yi Jin! It's ok now, you can come out! I shouted as I went, so glad I was to be alive.
Ah, Shin-Hyei! You know how I found Yi Jin? He was bleeding. Inside that sluice where I had been kneeling, in that sluice that I had believed would be safer than anywhere else, he was dying. He was calling my name as he died. With eyes rolled up so that the whites showed, he kept asking for me. It's your fault I'm dying! he seemed to be saying. Shin-Hyei... that was the result of my self-sacrificing friendship. Because of me, he got the bullet aimed at me.
Shin-Hyei, that is my confession. Now it's your turn. I'll sit up on the rock.
Shin-Hyei raised her head. The flames had died out in her eyes and darkness was spreading over them. She was holding a sheet of silver paper from a pack of cigarettes that she kept crumpling up then smoothing out; she spoke as if she were in a dream.
"Aren't you tired? I've just been chattering on idly. I don't seem to have told you any of the things you want to know. That's how it always is when people speak."
I sensed that Shin-Hyei did not want to talk any more, but I was curious about how Ch'ol-Hun had been when they broke up.
"I want to know why he killed himself. I want to get to the bottom of the motives and reasons he had for doing it. All that I've heard so far does nothing more than explain why he was alone. There must have been something extra that had an effect on him. No bell rings by itself."
"Why, you belong to the same group as inspector Park. Will you be satisfied if I tell you it was because I left him?"
There was a sudden commotion at the coffee-shop counter. There seemed to be some bother between the waitress and a drunk.
"I say I paid for the phone call. Besides, it was only two Won."
"I said I didn't get it because I didn't, that's all."
The two of them continued to repeat the same words in increasingly loud tones.
"Let's get out of here. Next time... I'd rather we talked of important things next time. It's been too sudden; I've got a headache."
Shin-Hyei stood up. The cross at her breast shone brightly.
For the next few days, my head was full of thoughts of Kim Ch'ol-Hun.
Why did he suddenly die? If it wasn't suicide, was it homicide as Inspector Park had said? Should I meet Shin-Hyei again? I was curious as to why they had broken up, and what had been Kim Ch'ol-Hun's attitude at the time of their breakup. Yet I had the impression that if I went carefully through the notes in his diary, I would be able to get the overall picture. I was about to plunge into his notebooks again, when I received a phone call from Inspector Park. They had found Ch'ol-Hun's camera in a tiny second-hand store in the Eastgate Market. A woman had sold it to them for next to nothing a few days earlier. He joked that he was sorry, but it looked as though he was going to get to the bottom of the riddle of why he had died before I did.
That was how close we had been brought by Kim Ch'ol-Hun's death. I made a joke in return, to the effect that we would no doubt end up by getting a full picture of the criminal solitude that had killed him, but that he would never be able to arrest or charge it...
I turned to the February entries in his diary. The tale of his "confession game" was written under the date February 18. From the contents it became clear that the confession game had not been his own invention, that he had based it on a hint from a scene in Marcel Carnés film "Dangerous Turning". What was more interesting was the way that Shin-Hyei too had taken part in the game she said was so entertaining.
Thanks to what he wrote about their game, I was able to confirm the correctness of my previous surmise that what had attracted him to Shin-Hyei was the melodramatic manner in which she had lost her virginity. After describing what he had confessed, the notes went on to summarize the contents of her confession to him. Here and there he had inserted comments of his own in brackets. There was of course no way I could be sure if his record was exact.
Shin-Hyei sat where I had been, leaning against the pine tree, and gazed up at me.
"I represent humanity. I'm the priest representing humanity, here to receive your confession. But you can be sure that I'll keep your secret as safe as my own life."
I had the impression that I was about to grow dizzy at the sight of Shin-Hyei's mysterious eyes gazing up at me. She hesitated for a moment, then began to speak.
"There is just one fact that Father knows nothing about. And it's something so melodramatic that it's positively indecent. But I'll tell you. In fact, I wish you would explain it. Because really it was a completely meaningless incident."
"Come on, Shin-Hyei, tell me about it."
I felt prickly with anticipation; I had the impression I was developing a chill. She closed her eyes.
We kept walking further and further from Seoul. It was early in January 1951, during the retreat from Seoul, when my melodrama began. It was freezing. Father had told me to get away from the city. There will be persecutions, he said, and since that would include you, you must leave. I set out for Pusan with another student, a boy from next door who had just entered university. In Pusan there was a friend's house, a girl I had gone to school with, whose father was a pastor of the same denomination as my father.
I'll tell it very simply, without any frills. I was in love with that student and he was infatuated with me. It didn't feel like an evacuation, it was more like a merry picnic. Yet there was a war on, and it was bitterly cold. We were cold and lonely, yet I refused to let him come near me. It was often very inconvenient, because it meant we couldn't share the same room, but still...
And although I was extremely fond of him, I kept on exhorting him, more like an adult, explaining that I had to stay chaste. He used to reply that it was wartime and that bullets don't avoid the young. Father, you must treat all this as a joke. (Is she really laughing? Probably it's to avoid too much tension. I'm afraid that I spoke too plaintively during my confession.
Father! It's as if war is designed to make people jealous of young people's pure beautiful love. It's as if war only picks on youth. It was a kind of silent threat. What he was asking for was different from what some playboy might want; he told me plainly: before he died, before the god of war called him, he wanted to possess me. But Father, how old do you think I was? I was too young. At my age, just looking and smiling and talking was enough.
Don't smile now, Father. You see, his prophecy came true. And it all happened much too soon. He was grabbed as we were walking along, pulled up onto a military truck, and driven away; there I was, all alone. He wore glasses with thick lenses but war has no time to take account of things like the power of a person's glasses. I continued on in the column of unfamiliar refugees until I reached the town of Chochiwon, by which time my feet were so swollen with chilblains that I could not walk another step.
Father! What do you think I did then? (Poor Shin-Hyei...) I fell in with a group of women refugees from the factories of Yongdung-po, just south of Seoul. They said there was a possibility of getting to Pusan on board a military freight train. They told me to follow them and not ask any questions. They seemed to have struck up a relationship with the soldiers guarding the station. It was night. We crept into the station precincts and hid in a freight car with no locomotive attached. Would it really leave? Where was it headed? How long would we have to wait inside it?
Father! Ch'ol-Hun! (She suddenly began to tremble. I guessed that something terrible had happened to her there. Poor Shin-Hyei! War is no picnic. So much can be forgiven. I longed to embrace her. But as soon as I moved, she made a gesture as if pushing me away, warning me to stay where I was.)
My chilblains were itching so much I couldn't sleep. Unlit trains were rattling past, spouting smoke. Then we were discovered by some American soldiers. I was grabbed by a black soldier, who dragged me away to the fuel-yard where coal lay in mounds. It was already daybreak. In one corner of the coal-yard there was a kind of sentry-box with walls neatly made of straw sacking. I screamed and struggled but my youth was at an end.
In the pale dawn light, I gazed about me in search of help. There was no one in sight. All I could see, tied to one side of a shed not far from where I lay, was a mule loaded with what looked like military supplies, staring vacantly in my direction. A very scrawny mule. I made a sign with my hand in the direction of the mule, as if it were a human being. The mule was looking into my eyes. The eyes of that animal, completely ignorant of everything, were twinkling like the dawn stars against the pale grey of the sky.
I didn't cry. At the same time as I dusted off my skirt, stained black with the coal dust covering the yard, I brushed away for ever my youth, my love, my dreams. The black soldier was flashing white teeth and smiling. I was fainting, nearly unconscious.
When I opened my eyes, the train was moving. Beyond the barred windows I could see snow-covered barley fields. The women workers had come back too. They were rejoicing at their good luck, feeling that now everything would be alright. It turned out that they had known all along what would happen; it was an implicit condition that had only been kept concealed from me.
Some of them comforted me with the thought that it was better than freezing to death. I had given up my virginity in exchange for a train ticket, that's right, a ticket. I sat there in that freight train, inwardly making apologies to the student--to that student who maybe was dead by now.
That's all. That's all the secrets I've got.
I had become an adult, hardened; I heard a door closing. There was no one who would ever be able to open it again. The key had been thrown out of the train into the mounds of coal, back there in the coal-yard. Human eyes vanished from my sight; I could see nothing but the eyes of the mule, staring blankly at me as I pleaded and did my utmost to call for help. And the mule's breath steaming about its mouth.
Thank you, Ch'ol-Hun; the day when I wrote that letter with my lipstick and ventured to call for help, I seem to have encountered human eyes for the first time in many years. (Shin-Hyei! I embraced you wildly. You were trembling. There's nothing to be afraid of. There's two of us. We can't just look on like that mule. Not if we open human eyes. We've opened human eyes and we're watching over each other, aren't we? I hugged you until there was no space left between us anywhere. I was thirty and it was the first time I had ever been able to embrace a woman.
I had a feeling that I could understand why Ch'ol-Hun had come to like Shin-Hyei. In her eyes with their flickering black flames lay the entrance to a secret passage piercing the thick wall that separated him from other people, that was what it was. It must have seemed like an emergency exit--the passage he had been looking for.
The more I perused Ch'ol-Hun's diary, the more I had the impression that unclear points were sorting themselves out. The virginity that Shin-Hyei had lost so melodramatically must have seemed to him like a wound; he had pried that wound open, trying to delve down into her heart. Ch'ol-Hun must always have longed for someone else's wound to match with his own.
Under another date, he wrote something to just that effect.
Yi Jin knew something important. He taught me that if people want to blend closely, they must commit a crime together: drinking, or gambling, or vice... it's true, things like that have the power to unite people closely. Yet there was something he didn't know.
There was something important that he didn't know: that the unity based on evil is an ideal, and nothing more. Those bonds are like shadows that melt and vanish in the rays of the rising sun.
For someone to become truly one with another person, they must touch one another's aching wounds. I'll never be able to become a Christian like Pastor Na. But now I understand. If Jesus was able to become one with his disciples and all mankind, it's because of the wounds left in his hands by the nails. Jesus told Thomas, when he wouldn't believe in the Resurrection, to stretch out his hand and touch the print of the nails and the wound left by the spear in his side.
Just what is a wound, then? What is the wound gaping in the soul's inmost darkness? If you know that, you can become close friends even with total strangers. We are not special like Jesus. But we live with just the same kind of scars as he has. We can't show a miracle of resurrection like Jesus. But we have exactly the same proof of resurrection as Jesus, those fresh scars. Pastor Na taught me the meaning of my wound, and I enabled Shin-Hyei to touch that wound. I am no longer lonely.
Ch'ol-Hun had been alienated from other people and at the same time had himself turned his back on others. He was afraid of "people" and was reluctant to associate with them. Especially after seeing the way his attempt to help Yi Jin had caused his death, he seemed to have become more convinced than ever about just how little he should mix with people.
Naturally, it was not clear what difference it made that he had met Pastor Na before meeting his daughter. What psychological effect did Pastor Na have on him? It took some trouble, but I studied carefully the diary entries from the thirteenth of February until the eighteenth. That was the time when, at Shin-Hyei's request, he had met Pastor Na. But his notes were rather different from what I had expected. There was nothing noted about any direct psychological change in himself. All I found was a quite objective account of what Pastor Na told him, and of their conversations, written like the script for a play.
My head was heavy, but I felt that I had to read carefully what Pastor Na had told him. His handwriting was very small and in many places the ink had run. The first part dealt with his impressions of Pastor Na, the later part related what he had said.
How does Pastor Na manage to look so peaceful even when he's alone, as if he has company? Everything around him was bleak, yet he seemed to be out playing with baby angels in fragrant fields. It must really be true that physical sufferings can have no direct effect on the mind.
He cannot deny that he is alone. For years now he's done nothing but lie there like a corpse. Probably visitors, his faithful parishioners, used to come at first and sing hymns. But would anyone go on and on caring for that body slowly sinking into death? He must have realized that people were leaving him one by one and he must have felt solitude crowding into his breast in ever increasing quantity, as if eager to be present at his death.
But he makes his solitude serve him. He reckons that his solitude has a halo round it. Wouldn't I be happy too, if I could be strong like that when I'm on my on? Even though he's all alone, he looks like someone with a lot of friends.
Pastor Na spoke with a voice light as early morning sunlight, pure as that of a newborn babe. Anyone hearing him who claimed he was a fraud or a hypocrite could only be an agent of the devil.
When their physical tortures failed to work, they found a different method to torment me. It was really very intelligent of them. They turned to psychological torture. Using children. One five, the other nine, the sons of one of our church's deacons. They tied me to a chair in such a way that I could not turn my head away; and then, what do you think? they started to torture those children before my very eyes.
You can't imagine what it was like, their screams, the blood seeping from their infant bodies. Then they spoke to me:
We're going to torture these kids until you open your mouth and talk. You're a pastor: you're supposed to love people, to save innocent souls, help people. It's your fault these children are being hit. Then they told the children: Plead to the pastor, then maybe we'll stop hitting you. Don't plead to us, ask your pastor for pity; he's so fond of you.
Ah! Do you think I could endure it? If I spoke, I would be handing over to capture and death two of our church's young members who had trusted me and told me their secret. I had sworn to God not to tell a living soul where they were hiding. Yet if I remained silent, those completely innocent children were going to go on suffering torture before my very eyes.
I thought over every part of the scriptures. But it was nowhere written how we ought to act in that kind of situation. I came near to blaspheming against God then. I was repeating over and over, like Jesus on the cross: "Eli, eli, lama sabachtani? Why have you forsaken me?" The children could not stand the beating and were on their knees before me, pleading. "Pastor, save us. We won't play games in church again." Yet I ground my teeth and refused to speak. They had been able to tell me their hiding place because they trusted me. Don't you see? It was a trust so sacred that nobody, nobody I say, could touch it.
Then finally I spoke. Those children were there before me, desperately begging one last time, when I realized that the others were just as heartless as the men who were beating up the children. And then, would you believe it, there were those two brothers, dabbing away at one another's wounds, no doubt thinking there was no one they could rely on, except one another. The nine-year-old was wiping the blood from his little brother's cheeks and stroking his hair, while the five-year-old wiped away his brother's tears and hugged him. Oh, God! (Tears were pouring from Pastor Na's hitherto peaceful eyes. He paused for a moment, perhaps wanting to pray).
My friend! I broke my promise. I spoke. I am not sure I would have found peace if that had been the end of the matter. But when they arrived at the address I had given them, the young men weren't there. They had moved somewhere else as soon as they heard I had been arrested. They had not trusted my promise to them. They were safe because they trusted nobody. I knew they were only being sensible, that they had no choice, and after all, I had betrayed their trust; yet somehow I felt sad to think that they had not trusted me, and had gone somewhere else.
The men from the North thought I had lied to them, and laid into me for all they were worth, demanding to know the real address. Inwardly I was letting go of all my bitterness. Young friend! Don't think I'm being hypocritical. At the pain I felt as they beat me, my heart grew calm and instead I rejoiced. If they had not beaten me, I would have beaten myself. As a result I was crippled, but inside I'm at peace, my heart is completely at rest. God has forgiven me...
Ch'ol-Hun noted absolutely nothing about his own feelings on hearing that story, but I felt convinced that through what happened to Pastor Na he had been exposed to a powerful temptation urging him to mingle with people in the outside world, with people he did not know.
If that was so, had the Ch'ol-Hun who on February 18 became acquainted with both Pastor Na and Shin-Hyei cast off his shell of solitude? Had he struck up relationships with new friends at his work-place? And hadn't he felt obliged to change the subject of that "General's Beard" that he intended to write? Hadn't he changed it so that the main character grew a beard like everybody else, then began to fight the beards?
I was anxious to know just how that psychological transformation had expressed itself in action. I even had the sudden feeling that I had fallen into a trap. I had the feeling that I ought to meet the man who had first introduced me to him. According to his diary, it had been June when he resigned from his job with the newspaper. The passages where he wrote about things that had happened at work mostly dealt with events occurring before he met Pastor Na. From February onwards, almost every entry was either about Pastor Na or Shin-Hyei. I resolved to visit the newspaper offices on the following day.
It was my first visit to the newspaper since I finished the novel they had serialized. I thought they would have gone to press already but the editorial office was in an uproar. Telephones were ringing on all sides. The voices answering the phone all seemed to be yelling, pitched an octave higher than the surrounding din.
"Lee Ch'ong-Gil, twenty-two; Park Tok-Man, sixty; Kim Ok...Hee? What? Hui? H... u... i... ok; what did you say? just six? Six years old?"
They seemed to be receiving lists of names by long-distance telephone from somewhere in the provinces. It looked as though there had been some kind of big accident.
Mister Kim was in the electrotype room. While I was waiting for him I went over and sprawled in the visitor's chair beside the chief editor's desk.
"Has something serious happened?
"You can't have seen the special editions. People crushed in a stampede. Lots of people crowded into a cinema down south to see a visiting film-star and it seems someone had the bright idea of shouting "Fire!" to clear some of them out. In the panic that followed... about twelve people were trampled to death."
I suddenly had a vision of flocks of wild animals, herds of elephants racing through some African forest away from a forest fire.
"Trampled to death?"
The incident had no bearing on it, of course, but in some weird way it conjured up in my mind Kim Ch'ol-Hun's death... an image of Kim Ch'ol-Hun being trampled to death by a herd of wild elephants. A newspaper office is always a busy place. Their real workplace is not this building, it's out where things are happening. They can never foretell where they will be at any given time. Was he really able to endure that kind of work? Yet he had deliberately chosen the job, hadn't he? Still, wasn't there something in Ch'ol-Hun's diary about how being a newspaper photographer had made him still more lonely?
I thought about that passage as I smoked a cigarette.
I'm invariably standing behind the camera lens. There's no way I can dash out in front of the lens and enter the world that I'm photographing. I always have to be out of sight, keeping a proper distance from what's out in front.
I go running after events. I have to be out where the news is. But at the same time as I'm wherever the news is, I always have to stay out of the news. The camera reporter is not like the news reporter; he has no right to inquire about why something happened, or how it's turning out, or what the last word is. All he has to do is take the pictures, develop them, print them off, and hand them in at the desk. There are even times when it's only after reading the article accompanying some picture I took, that I understand clearly what was happening out there.
My place is behind the lens, not in front. I'm sorry I quarrelled with that reporter. He couldn't understand how I felt, and it was only natural. I couldn't stand the way he told me, "Just get your pictures taken and head straight back. I'm the one doing the reporting".
Of course my job was done, once I'd snapped that suspect's face. But I couldn't simply carry on and ignore the fact that as the police were taking him away he shouted out to his daughter: "Suny, tell dad I'm innocent". I've taken photos of a lot of faces. Yet for the most part I never knew who they were.
Given the atmosphere in the editorial office, I could understand how Ch'ol-Hun must have felt. The editor seemed to have asked me something but I hadn't heard him, so I just replied, "Yes," dragging out the end in an ambiguous manner. I felt that I ought to ask him something in return. People like to feel you're interested in them.
"Kim Ch'ol-Hun's dead?"
The editor scratched his nose with the tip of his pen and stared towards his office.
"That was a long time ago."
It looked as if he was waiting for the finished copy for the last edition. He probably felt that a death that at least got a mention on the local page was more important than the death of Kim Ch'ol-Hun. The editor's attitude betrayed a trace of resentment. Yet this was someone he had lived with for more than a year as a member of his staff.
"They seem to suspect murder..."
At that, the editor frowned slightly.
"Who would have wanted to kill him? He had no money, he was not someone anyone would notice particularly. He was out of a job and life must have been difficult."
He assumed that he had killed himself because life was difficult, since he was unemployed; at the same time, he showed no sympathy.
"Because he was out of a job..."
I was taken aback to realize that there could be yet another viewpoint, considering unemployment as the reason for his death. There were countless reasons. Now 'reason' may sound very scientific but I have discovered that in actual fact it is always employed as an ambiguous and subjective word. Mister Kim was coming towards me, wiping his glasses on his necktie.
"Why, what's up? It's good to see you again."
We exchanged the customary greetings, then went down to the company coffee-shop in the basement. Mister Kim is the younger brother of a friend of mine, we have known each other since he was in high school.
"You introduced Ch'ol-Hun to me, didn't you?"
"He's dead. Coal-gas poisoning."
"I know! Did you go to the house to pay your respects?"
"There was not one person in the whole office who knew where his house was. That's the kind of fellow he was."
"Surely there must be an address-list of employees?"
"He'd left the newspaper a long time before. What's up? Did he give you that, what was it? beard novel and ask you to get it published?"
Mr. Kim was using the same turn of phrase as when he was in high school. He looked rather weary as he spun an empty film spool round and round on one finger.
I started by asking why his colleagues had disliked Ch'ol-Hun; the reply proved to be very simple. He had the aloofness of a rural gentleman-scholar; he was hidebound in his activities; he was unsociable in his habits; and so on, one after another. To give you one example, he added, he was so selfish; there he'd be, using the darkroom at the busiest hours of the day and always taking his time, without a thought for anyone else.
Mister Kim too had been looking at Ch'ol-Hun from the other side of the wall. They had graduated from the same art college, they were both photographers, working for the same paper, yet he had been nothing more than just another human being for him. There had been something in his diary about his work in the darkroom. He used to like the darkroom.
Once I'm in the darkroom I feel perfectly safe, I'm completely alone. It's the middle of the day--outside, the sunlight will be pouring down, with people swimming through its glare like so many fish. And I'm all on my own standing here like this in the darkroom, cut off and isolated from the light and sound and air of the outside world. In the thick darkness the fluorescent screen is casting a livid glow like a full moon. It looks like a doorway opening onto the world beyond.
The sharp tang of the hypo, the darkness, the glow, the purr of the timer with its phosphorescent hand turning... Ah, this is Eternity! A Paradise of eternal sleep. Working in the darkroom liberates me.
"What's a fluorescent screen?"
Mister Kim laughed in a puzzled way at my sudden question.
"You're acting a bit oddly today, aren't you? Ah, I know! You're writing a novel and you've come in search of background. It must be hard, writing novels. The fluorescent screen is something we use in the darkroom when we want to see a film's level of exposure... we can't use just any kind of light in a darkroom. In Hell there may be places where you find 'darkness visible' but not in a darkroom. We need absolute darkness, which is why we use the fluorescent screen's special kind of luminosity--it's not really light at all. Just what it takes for us to see a film's degree of exposure...."
I did not want to take up too much time. Therefore I decided to ask just a few simple questions about some important points.
"From about February this year, wasn't there any change in his manner, especially in his attitude towards his friends?"
"Well, I don't know; I can't say exactly that it started in February, but in the time before he stopped working here, his attitude was certainly very odd."
He pointed his index finger towards his head and drew circles in the air; he meant to say he had lost his wits.
"What reason have you got to say that?"
I was furious. But Mister Kim said that he had been like that since college. While he was at art school, he had painted weird pictures, the kind of thing that are called abstracts now, and bewildered the professors.
"I want to paint realistic pictures too. But if you paint one thing, it means you're cutting off part of that thing; and to save the one subject of your painting, means eliminating many other objects all around it."
That was how Ch'ol-Hun stood up to his professors. According to Mister Kim, when they paint a landscape, it seems that artists cut off everything surrounding the view, in order to paint that scene and nothing more, just like the square frame surrounding the picture. Ch'ol-Hun said that he hated that. He said he was worried about the scenery left over that didn't fit into the picture.
Besides, he said, if they were painting trees or houses, there were all kinds of things scattered round about them, stones or earth, but usually in order to concentrate on the subject they were painting, they would exclude all the other things. Ch'ol-Hun considered the artists' aesthetic intentions to be a form of violence against things. He said that he reckoned that each and every stone and pebble had a right to be there.
Therefore the other students used to make fun of him.
"Try taking photos of the landscape. Then it will come out exactly as it is, without anything being sacrificed."
Sure enough, the very next day Ch'ol-Hun turned up at school carrying a camera.
Then Mister Kim wanted to talk about the time he fought with Ambassador Kim.
"That habit he had of abruptly turning on people for no reason, like he did with Ambassador Kim."
"I've heard all about that."
I stopped him.
It seemed that the story of his quarrel with Ambassador Kim had become common knowledge in the newspaper office. He had described the incident in detail in his diary.
It had happened a few weeks before he met Pastor Na and the record of it in his diary constituted a unique piece of narrative, making a different impression and showing another aspect of Ch'ol-Hun.
It would have been much better if I had refused when that reporter from the political desk asked me to go with him to Ambassador Kim's house to take the photos for his interview. Naturally I was not tempted by his remark that if we went, we'd get a good meal. Ambassador Kim had spent not more than three years in the United States, yet he virtually spoke to us in English and at the end of every phrase he would pause and repeat, "Now how do you say that in Korean?"
His facial type was distinctively oriental, he had something of the Mongol about him, yet he harboured a smile imitating Ike's and he kept on shrugging his shoulders like a westerner. His wife was all dressed up as if she was due to leave for a party in five minutes, and very excited. She was in such a state that if one of her ancestors of a century before had turned up in traditional dress and straw sandals, she would have killed herself in mortification. Still, I took it all in my stride.
"When I first came back to Korea, after taking my degree, that is... My dear, the kimchi's so hot, it quite scorches one's stomach. Luckily tastes in food are not absolute. We really ought to start our reforms by changing the way we eat."
"When you first went to America," I blurted out, "how was it? Surely the butter was so greasy it scorched your stomach too?"
The reporter shot a sideways glare at me. Actually, the ambassador was the newspaper chairman's younger brother and we had been sent to write what is known in the newspaper world as an "in-house" article. I nonetheless continued to keep myself under control. When the time came to take the pictures, he made a great fuss about the gifts he said he had received in the United States, and arranged for them all to be in the background; he pointed out a picture showing him shaking hands with a certain high American dignitary.
"What do you think of that? It was taken by a photographer from the Washington Post... doesn't it make me look rather unnatural?"
I still controlled myself. My colleague spoke enthusiastically about how well American photographers get their camera angles, and even went so far as to commandeer it, proposing to publish it in the paper. Everything was going just fine. It was when the time came for the family photo, when the ambassador's wife called "Mary! Jim!" in the direction of the inner room, that it finally happened. Hearing those names, I fully expected to see a couple of high class pedigree puppies emerge.
Then the door opened and I saw a pair of twins about four years old walk out. They were obviously not blond haired, but do you know, those kids were speaking English, calling out "Mummy, Mummy". The ambassador's wife (albeit as yet only a nominated ambassador's wife) perched one child on each knee and boasted proudly that so far they knew no Korean. Then mother and children began to chatter away ten to the dozen in an English from which the 'T' sound had vanished.
My young companion looked curious; first he established the kids' ages, names, and relative English-speaking skills in his own rough English, then gravely he proceeded to ask, "And do you like Mummy more, or Daddy?" as if he was reciting lines from one of Shakespeare's plays. Standing beside him, Ambassador Kim "translated" his English into his own fluent English for the children's benefit.
They replied that they liked their Daddy. Ambassador Kim glanced at me and explained, "That's the American way, you see. American kids generally prefer their father...." and again he flashed an Ike-like smile. I couldn't take any more. Why did I get upset? Why was I not strong enough to stomach something that everyone else seemed prepared to take no notice of? I addressed a double bow to his wife and addressed her with the utmost civility.
"Excuse me, but don't those children have Korean names? Even if they still can't understand their own country's language, surely they must be able to recognize their own names. You may perhaps be unaware of the situation here in Korea; in our country, people use foreign names like Mary or Jim for dogs, bar-girls in dance-halls, or for foreigners' whores. Western things are all very well, it's just western names that haven't been given a very high-class reception in our country so far. When I heard you calling your delightful offspring, I assumed you were calling your dogs. It's not the children's fault, of course, madame."
The reporter swore at me first; then the ambassador's wife, and finally the dignified ambassador himself began to shout. If I'd only let it go at that, things might not have been so bad but strangely enough I could not control my agitation.
I burst out violently: "I don't want to sound moralizing, but I reckon it would be better to take one of the totem poles from the entrance to a village and send that as our ambassador, rather than a man like you."
If only I had not seen the ambassador's children, that day would probably not have witnessed such a disgraceful scene. I felt sorry for the kids. With no Korean, and only dolls to play with, I reckoned that they could do nothing but watch other children playing from a distance, their hands behind their backs, like I used to when I was a child. I had the impression that they were undergoing my own sufferings. That was what I could not endure.
Since I knew all about the incident with Ambassador Kim, I told him to go on to what followed. Mister Kim expressed the opinion that it had not always been the case, but that at the time he left the newspaper he had definitely not been normal. He had put the empty film spool on the table and was rolling it about with the palm of his hand.
"That was surely the reason he left. He started to try to do things nobody had asked him to do. His eyes had a strange look about them, like someone haunted, and every time he saw any of us he would give us a broad smile. It was really weird. Then something happened. Do you know about that? There's this Yom Sang-Un, you see, the fellow who got last year's press-photography award... anyway, it involved Yom Sang-Un. His wife was dying of uterine cancer at the time. She would grasp hold of Yom Sang-Un's hand and refuse to let go. Yet at the same time, he couldn't spend every single minute stuck there with her... so he continued to go to work. Then one day he didn't go out to the scene on account of his wife, he just handed in a montage at the desk. A photo of the June monsoons, to go with an article revealing how the victims were sick and starving for lack of any proper policy towards them. Only the photo he used was not a shot of an actual scene but one manufactured to fit the story. It was no great crime, but the investigating authorities got wind of it and came along; low and behold Ch'ol-Hun started to swear blind that he was the one that had done it, instead of Yom Sang-Un. They arrested him. He made a simple problem into a complicated one, putting Yom Sang-Un and the newspaper in an awkward position. It was incomprehensible. There was that, and then he was asked to resign from the job."
"Did you think he was crazy?"
My face grew flushed. My voice grew louder, and Mister Kim looked surprised; his hand stopped rolling the spool about.
"It was certain. And when he was asked to resign, there was a report from the psychiatric hospital. He was out of his mind."
I could understand him. Why had Ch'ol-Hun taken the blame for Yom Sang-Un's action? He must have sensed what that young woman would feel as she lay there, desperately sick, pursued by the fear of death. If Yom Sang-Un was arrested, she would surely lie awake, open-eyed, alone all that long night. He had felt that. He had considered that you couldn't tear away Yom Sang-Un's hand from hers, clinging so to speak to the last thread holding a dying life as it dangled above the void.
He had written nothing about that. Because he must have been afraid. That time he had knelt with his brother on the muddy ground by night in the pouring rain, begging his father to forgive him, trying to help him; or when Yi Jin had panicked trying to avoid the bullets and he had given up the sluice where he had taken cover, trying to save him... every time he tried to do something for someone else, the result had been a monstrous failure.
He must have been eager to avoid going through that again. Human encounters were all mere chance, irrational, a thick layer of misunderstanding, and meaningless, like billiard balls freely rolling, bounding and rebounding: if he were forced to reach that conclusion once more, in the case of Yom Sang-Un, the pain would be very hard to endure.
For it happened after Kim Ch'ol-Hun's meeting with Pastor Na and Shin-Hyei. It was a time when he was advancing step by step towards self-confidence, towards a new self-confidence that involved plunging deep into the thick of humanity.
I had a feeling that I ought to get out of there before I began to hate Mister Kim. Outside the coffee-shop, the paper had just been rushed off the press and there was the sound of boy's voices shouting raucously. The uproar was spreading in waves, farther and farther afield.
Under pressure from my publishers, I did not go out for a few days. I was determined to start writing. Not that I had forgotten Kim Ch'ol-Hun. I kept reading his diaries in spare moments. He had written about the sparrows perched on the wire fence and about scraps of food in the sewers, the early morning wind, the monsoon rains, the sound of the radio drifting in from next door, about laborers hanging from ropes cleaning the windows of high buildings, about vegetable salesmen and handcart men from the countryside--insignificant details in the world about him. The subject matter was all about ordinary, common-or-garden things but they were not the kind of factual observations that you can easily find anywhere. Neither was it some kind of idealized fiction. Putting it briefly, it was reality grown abstract; I had the impression that I was reading a poem or looking at a picture by a surrealist.
What struck me was the way reality grew increasingly abstract with every page of the diary, so that by the time I reached his separation from Shin-Hyei I was finding it almost impossible to understand what he was writing. Occasionally, though very rarely, like when you wake from a dream or when fog lifts briefly, some vivid passages would occur, realistically treated, but they soon turned back into fantasy. Comparisons using "like" or "as" or "as if" faded into metaphor and finally even the metaphors were lost in a crowd of evocations that I could not interpret, they had become so utterly déformé.
There were innumerable riddle-like phrases such as "At the footbridge the wheels were falling off a horse cart," or "At my fingertips I could hear the sound of the wind sweeping through the forests of Sarawak," or "the porthole was smashed and salty sea water came pouring in so that it was impossible to go on listening to the music," "I wonder why icy water troubles me."
Things concerning Shin-Hyei were equally transformed into fantasy; there was even a phrase to the effect that "I could no longer stand the sound of Shin-Hyei hacking away at her flesh." Yet something even harder to understand was the way that, from the day he and Shin-Hyei broke up until directly before he died, for almost a week the diary was suddenly written in a perfectly ordinary, normal narrative style. My head was aching so badly that I could no longer go on reading his notes.
It was just then that I received an unexpected phone call from Shin-Hyei. She spoke warmly, as if to an old friend.
She said that in the meantime she had become the object of new suspicions because of the camera and inspector Park had been pestering her. Now everything had been cleared up and she wanted to talk with an untroubled heart, she was not even frightened that I might use it as the subject for a novel. That human voice, flowing from the receiver like a portion of Ch'ol-Hun's notes, made me aware of a wall. Shin-Hyei's voice flowing out from behind the wall....
I felt acutely the truth of the commonplace saying that "time is the best medicine". Shin-Hyei seemed to have cheered up. In order not to spoil her good humour, I agreed to meet her in the Sky-lounge of Bando Hotel. The evening would be best. It would be nice to talk looking down at the November city. We would meet at seven o'clock.
Shin-Hyei had arrived first and was sitting there. Dressed in a black leather jacket, Shin-Hyei looked fresh, like someone out hunting in the hills. Her warm eyes, flickering with black flames that looked as if they were about to melt something, were unchanged. Shin-Hyei dispensed with the usual formal opening greetings about the awful weather or my health and launched directly into what she wanted to say.
"Why are you so interested in someone dead? Aren't the living more important?"
"Certainly. You're alive, for a start. You're breathing; you can enjoy a drink; if you're bored you can yawn. So let's be interested in Shin-Hyei."
I nimbly eluded Shin-Hyei's question. She said she would have a Tom Collins. Because of the sky-lounge's blue-tinted windows, Seoul had a mysterious air, rather like a phosphorescent fish swimming in an aquarium. The evening was clear but chilly. One of those moments when the hiss of steam in the radiators makes you very snug.
"I feel as if I've known you a very long time. The first time we met, it was as if I was being reunited with someone I'd been separated from."
I felt a little uneasy, but I adopted a familiar style of address. I had the feeling that it would be alright.
"That's what he said too. Only today I've decided not to talk about him. It's a lovely evening. Sitting here with a drink, until a few minutes ago I could look down at Seoul, all squeezed into that space out there... isn't it lovely?"
As she spoke, Shin-Hyei boldly thrust her bosom forwards, as if she were practicing deep breathing. Cars' headlights cast great shadowy stains across the asphalt and vanished into the night.
"Shin-Hyei! We're not talking about Ch'ol-Hun. He's not here any more. When we talk about him, we're talking about ourselves. What you say is right, but this is for the sake of the living. We're drinking a toast in the glass that Ch'ol-Hun drank from and left behind. What I want to know is the reason why you and he separated, and whether he could really have died because of you?"
A shadow once more fell over Shin-Hyei's face. She laid a hand across her breast. She seemed to touch the copper cross hanging at her neck.
"You know, that's what I keep asking myself. At first I found him strange and likeable, with that dreamy air of his. It was a time when I was tired of being surrounded by all those men stinking of the tripe they'd been eating. Besides, father had just died. People who are sad become a little unreal, don't they? He just called it "inner light" and he was true to it. I made no secret of the fact that I liked him too."
"Immediately after your father died, then, you and he... in his lodgings..."
Shin-Hyei smiled sadly.
"You're having scruples again. Yes, that was the time we started to live together. I wonder why you have scruples about pronouncing the words 'live together'? Is it such a foul expression? Perhaps it is if you write the word in Chinese characters; on account of the character for "live" especially, it makes you think of two wild beasts mingling their fur in a cave. Only we were no wolves or foxes. A pair of little squirrels perhaps, if you like. Anyway, our cohabiting was a far cry from anything like the life of animals up in the hills. "In a cave" is right enough. It really was like being in a cave. But the animals in the cave were those mythical ones called muoh in the Chinese legends, that feed on people's dreams."
Waiters in white were carefully threading their way between the tables, as if passing down hospital corridors. The indoors temperature was agreeable.
"The sky-lounge gets dreary in autumn."
I was not going to let Shin-Hyei squirm her way out of trouble like that. I brought her attention back from the hairy fern she was staring at.
"Were you a muoh too?"
"At first. But from the start I had my mind firmly fixed on realities, those that smell of lard and dripping. That was where we differed. He was intent on beautifying his wounds and exchanging this world for an imaginary one; I was not. My wounds have made me more attentive to realities."
"From the moment you so melodramatically lost your virginity."
I felt awkward saying that, but I pretended to be drunk to reduce the effect.
"Don't ask about precise details. Yet I can't deny the truth of what you say. At first I thought I would die. As I lay in the train listening to the sound of the wheels, gazing out at the wintery barley-field furrows speckled with snow, I thought of falling out and dying. But just as I was about to throw myself out, I felt something like a hot ball of fire rise into my throat. My whole being was ablaze with a desire to live--it was quite different from regret at leaving life behind--with a feeling that I had to live. Every time I have experienced difficult moments, the same ball of fire that I wanted to extinguish comes rising again. I don't know what it is. I can't say for sure. It was as if I was mad, or like a great gale, I simply wanted to live, passionately, intensely. Inside of me there was a fire, but the doors were firmly shut. Shut and locked fast. It was on the verge of exploding, like underground lava in search of a volcanic vent. I was trying to find someone who had the key that would open those scalding doors. I felt sure that if once, just once, I could find someone who would insert and turn the key, life would erupt and come bursting out, that the fire imprisoned inside me would kindle everything around me as it flowed freely outward."
The dark flames were flickering brightly in her eyes.
"You mean that Ch'ol-Hun didn't have that key either? That instead he only locked the door more tightly shut and fanned the fires burning inside?"
Shin-Hyei looked surprised and glad. She clapped her hands.
"Yes, yes, you've got it exactly. That's exactly what it was. There came a moment when I couldn't endure it any more. I had the feeling that if I didn't get away from him, I was going to end up so badly burned that I would have no choice but to die of it."
"Right! Now, Shin-Hyei, won't you play the confession game with me?"
I sat silently, ready to listen to what Shin-Hyei would say. I combined Ch'ol-Hun's incomplete and blurred diary pages, full of enigmatic riddles, with Shin-Hyei's vivid story, and a full picture of the life they had lived together began to appear clearly, as a drawing appears on a piece of magic paper or rather, like a coloured photo emerging from a process printer.
Shin-Hyei's words gave bones to what was contained in Ch'ol-Hun's diary, while the contents of his diary fleshed out the bare bones of Shin-Hyei's tale. You might equally say that, if his diary was the negative film, Shin-Hyei's story was like a positive print. Once that unrecognizable negative was projected onto the print paper, the result seemed likely to be pretty close to the real picture. By combining both their viewpoints, I was able to weave together a single story in my mind.
Ch'ol-Hun termed his life together with Shin-Hyei "drifting" and called his upstairs rented room their cabin. He remarked to Shin-Hyei, "We're drifting endlessly onward. All the other passengers have already drowned; waking here in this shattered cabin, we're the only two left, drifting onwards." Sometimes he would remark, "We've been drifting for a month now," or if something good happened he would say, "For the first time since we've been adrift an island has appeared".
Ch'ol-Hun turned everything into fantasies of that kind when he spoke. Their activities together in bed he used to term "a purging of loneliness" or "a solitary assault" or "a fleshly dialogue" while his leaving for work at the newspaper office was called "going fishing".
"You just stay there and enjoy the sea breeze. I'll go and catch the fish we need for our supper. Won't you pass me my rod...?"
By his rod he meant, of course, his camera.
At first Shin-Hyei had enjoyed the game. She felt it was not like life at all, but like a play acted by little school-children. They would lean out of the "porthole" and feel utterly contented by a sunset or the spectacle of the filthy sea (the city landscape) with debris floating on it.
Their life's daily course was always the same. They played, not only "the confession game" but also "chieftains"; it was always Ch'ol-Hun who invented their pastimes.
He used to say that one day their drifting craft would reach a new continent not marked on any chart. He used to say that a phoenix would come flying up to them, or natives appear wearing nothing but banana leaves. He explained that they would be a primordial race, not recorded in the dictionary of human species, their thoughts and deeds quite unlike those of the human beings we were familiar with.
One morning, in bright weather with a rustling breeze blowing as on a May-time dawn, he declared that they were arriving at the new continent. Ch'ol-Hun and Shin-Hyei would become the "chieftains", the masters of the new kingdom. That was what he meant by playing "chieftains".
"Will the noble chieftain not go hunting?"
Shin-Hyei would ask and he would reply:
"Not at all. The people here do not destroy life by such things as hunting. This is what you must say: Will the noble chieftain not go and feed the wild animals?"
Ch'ol-Hun was exactly like a small child. When he played, is was not just a joke, it was for real. Once Shin-Hyei asked:
"Master, when shall we be going home again? This primitive life has grown boring. My head aches from all the perfumed essences these natives rub themselves with."
At which Ch'ol-Hun looked grave and gave vent to his anger.
"Shin-Hyei! Why, you're bored with playing chieftains. You think it's just a silly game. Why can't you understand? In this new continent we've discovered, the people know everything a person is thinking without a word being spoken. They live constantly hand in hand, like in a round dance. They practice no deceit or disguise, no plotting or suspicion. No fences, no posts, no prisons, and without ever reading anything like a newspaper they live in perfect knowledge of one another. That's why our natives don't need to rub themselves with spices. And in their land absolutely nothing ever happens to give anyone a headache."
They spent most of their days playing either the chieftain game or the confession game.
Gradually Shin-Hyei began to feel uneasy. Ch'ol-Hun looked like someone sleep-walking or caught in a daydream, and it frightened her. She didn't feel tense when they were playing chieftains, but as soon as the confession game started she always felt gloomy. The harder Ch'ol-Hun tried to be forgiving and reconciling, the more he tormented himself in self-mortification and a nearly pathological desire to justify himself.
"Shin-Hyei! Why on earth do I do such things? On my way back to the office today, I knew perfectly well that all I had in my wallet was a ten-Won note. Yet still, when it was time to pay the fare, I took out that ten-Won note and held it up to the light as if I was afraid I was taking out a hundred-Won note by mistake. I was just play-acting. It was all because I felt guilty and thought that the other passengers would laugh if they knew that I only had ten Won in my wallet. Shin-Hyei! It was such a wretched performance. There was no one paying the slightest attention to me; no one was going to laugh on realizing that I only had ten Won. Yet there I was, acting as if my wallet was stuffed full of banknotes. Why? I won't... Shin-Hyei. I won't do such a thing again."
As a general rule, all his confession games followed the same pattern. If ever Shin-Hyei claimed that she had nothing to confess, he would get cross and claim she was keeping some secret from him. That was the way they lived together. Then the summer rainy season came. There would be no sunlight for several days at a time. A sour mustiness filled the room while the ceiling and walls dripped with humidity. Heavy clouds, grey like rats' fur surged past the westward-looking window they had been calling their porthole. Shin-Hyei felt bored and listless.
She was listening to the splattering raindrops. She gazed down into the backyard, where as soon as one raindrop had flowed into the drain another followed it. Suddenly a mass of flames rose into her throat while her breast began to burn fiercely. It was the first time it had happened since she met Ch'ol-Hun. From that day onwards, Shin-Hyei was unable to quench the fire blazing inside her. The flames were licking across her crimson tongue in search of a volcanic vent. But the door was still firmly shut.
"Ah! I want to live. Not in some childish fantasy; I want to live in a proper reality, where blood comes flowing if I'm scratched."
Shin-Hyei examined the picture by Géricault hanging on Ch'ol-Hun's wall. It was the same picture she had always seen, yet somehow it looked quite different. It was a copy of the "Wreck of the Méduse", that showed seamen clinging to the stump of a broken mast and shouting. They were waving clothes they had stripped off towards the darkness and storm. The waves were towering high and the heavens were covered with clouds. In the face of those black waves that threatened to engulf their bronze-hued flesh, she beheld those shouting faces!
Shin-Hyei felt like throwing the window open and screaming into the rain-drenched space beyond:
"Rip open this door. I want to live. I really want to live, to live."
Ch'ol-Hun had stopped working. He never left her for a moment, but sat beside her all day long, like a shadow. For that reason she felt all the more like shouting something. She had tried to bring the fire to an eruption by "fleshly dialogue" but at those moments Ch'ol-Hun always looked at her with a fearful expression in his eyes. He would caress her physical body with a kind of animal's homing instinct, but then he would abruptly kick at the nest and go flying up into the empty expanses of sombre imagination.
That evening, rain was still pouring down. When their "purging of loneliness" was over she roused herself from her despondent lethargy. Ch'ol-Hun had fallen into a weary doze.
"It's raining again! Out in the soaking wet fields the mice must be shaking their fur... that's what I'm like now."
Shin-Hyei had nothing to do. She began to cut her toe-nails. Suddenly Ch'ol-Hun shouted aloud like someone crying for help:
"Ah! Don't make that sound. Stop cutting your nails."
He was blocking his ears with his hands. 'He's in torment again.' Shin-Hyei knew that it only had to rain for Ch'ol-Hun's sense of hearing to become extremely acute. She knew. She knew that his brother had kept shouting his name out into the rain-filled night as he was taken away. She stopped cutting her toenails. She tried to comfort Ch'ol-Hun, who was sitting up on the bed gazing at her face. She was thinking, 'He can hear his rain-soaked brother's voice, that's what it is.' But he spoke with a voice filled with regret as if he was playing confessions. It was not what she had thought.
"You must be bored. Listening to the rain and cutting your toenails... Only I beg you not to do that. Else I'll end up despising you. I always considered your body to be like a fish as you lay there beside me after we had purged our loneliness. I had the impression that you were a different person. Fish drawn up on to dry land open and close their gills in search of water, don't they? I felt there was something fish-like about the way your shoulders move up and down as you breath. I had been intending not to tell you this, Shin-Hyei; it was wrong of me to let myself be reminded of a fish's flesh with all the scales gone. Will you scold me? Seeing you cutting your nails only made the impression stronger. Nails are a part of a person's body too, you see. Of course, since they have no sense of feeling, a person can cut their nails without feeling any pain, as if they were sharpening a pencil. But when you cut your nails with that cracking sound, my mind feels pain as if bones were snapping, as if a nerve were being stabbed with a needle. I can't stand that sound. Is it because of the way the muggy night is fluttering lightly away? Forgive me, Shin-Hyei."
They both went out in search of work. Ch'ol-Hun said he would contribute nude photos to foreign photographic magazines, Shin-Hyei that she would go back to the dance studio she had once frequented and get a job. For the first time, she began to feel that she had been wrong to drop out of school, back in the days when she had been working her way through a college course in physical education.
Things went on like that until the autumn. Confession games and chieftain games grew infrequent. At the same time, Ch'ol-Hun said he was writing a novel and talked a lot about it with Shin-Hyei.
It had been "The General's Beard".
"What do you think? Suppose I finally let the main character grow a beard. No, it'll be better if he ends up not growing one..."
Shin-Hyei made up her mind to leave him any number of times.
The rainy season was long past and it was late autumn. Shin-Hyei received a call from the police, to the effect that Ch'ol-Hun was there and they had some questions to ask her. Ch'ol-Hun was sitting on an ancient creaky chair, staring at the posters on the police-station walls. Shin-Hyei reassured the officer in charge as to Ch'ol-Hun's identity and answered a few questions.
"I assure you that he's not mentally disturbed."
The officer knitted his brow, which was of that narrow kind frequently found in people devoid of imagination. Shin-Hyei felt like a primary school student's mother summoned to meet her offspring's form-master. Ch'ol-Hun had gone to the kindergarten. Shin-Hyei knew that sometimes, when he had nothing else to do, Ch'ol-un would go to the kindergarten near the local ward office and watch the children playing.
Only that day, Ch'ol-Hun had made trouble. The children were playing a game out in the yard. It was a game that you often see kindergarten children playing. The teacher stands in the middle, clapping, while the children circle round in time to the rhythm. Then One, Two, Three, Four... the teacher calls out a number and the children run to form groups with that number in them. If it's Five, five to a group; if its Three, three to a group; the children have to match off. It all has to be done very quickly, in the time it takes to count to three. No matter how quick they are, some of the children fail to match up in time and have to drop out. The last child left is the winner. Ch'ol-Hun had been watching them.
The children were shouting noisily as they ran about to form their groups. If a child tried to join a group that was already complete, the children chased it away. Otherwise the whole group would be "out". Ch'ol-Hun spotted one child that could not find a place anywhere, running about among the completed groups.
The teacher called out: "Anyone who can't fit in has to drop out. Off you go, now."
Ch'ol-Hun suddenly went rushing up to the teacher.
"Why are you making the children play that game?"
Ch'ol-Hun gave the teacher a push. The watchman came running up and took him to the police box.
"What normal person would ever do such a thing? Anyway, it looks as if he'll do dangerous things if he goes out; as his wife, you must take good care of him."
She had taken him back home.
I can't leave Ch'ol-Hun. He's a thirty-year-old child; he's sick and needs someone to look after him.
Shin-Hyei wavered in her resolve to escape from that cave, or rather from that aimlessly drifting ship's cabin.
It was true. He needed someone to look after him, a kind of substitute mother. Shin-Hyei had never believed him when he kept repeating that he would "be obliged to go down to the countryside and farm with Mother". "He'll just go on drifting. He'll keep on and on drifting, clinging to a drifting hull. He's clinging to me, after all." Shin-Hyei reflected that she could not let go of that clinging hand.
Thereupon the fateful day arrived. After a long interval, Ch'ol-Hun suggested they play the confession game. It was the evening before they split up. Winter was coming. The window was rattling and the wind was blowing with a whistling noise. They had for the first time done some shopping that day. Shin-Hyei had found a job in that estate agents office and on the first day had taken an advance on her wages, as they were going to have to buy a coal-briquette stove. It was only a vulgar stove, but since they had been living together it was the first purchase they had made.
They lit the stove, then basked in its warmth, feeling as if they were camping up in a wintery mountain refuge. They listened to the wind. Suddenly Ch'ol-Hun proposed that they play confessions. He took his turn first.
"Shin-Hyei, do you realize that my camera's gone? I gave it to the model who poses for my nude photos. I've decided not to take any more pictures."
For the first time, sitting there in front of him listening to his confession, Shin-Hyei was shocked.
"As she was leaving the studio she said she was going to have a cup of tea and I went with her. What she told me touched me deeply. She's originally from a wealthy family and until last year she had a private car to take her to school. Only then there was the coup, her father was put in prison for political reasons. She's an art student, that's why she took up nude modelling to earn her school fees. How do you think she felt when she first took off her clothes in front of people? You know how even a fallen woman hates letting any man see her body. And she had to take off her clothes and reveal her pale flesh in broad daylight. To think that she does it to earn a living; it's enough to make you weep. She told me, 'It was the reverse; for me it was the other way round. Before ever knowing a man, I lost all sense of shame about my body'. She clenched her teeth and spoke with conviction. Now I'm a corpse. A breathing corpse, or if not that, some kind of object. Because my hands, my breasts, my limbs, have all lost their original purpose. The mouth is for eating and talking; the breast for breathing; the legs for walking; the hands for smoothing the hair or carrying a handbag; but a model only uses those things for show, so much useless flesh, nothing but a faint shadow, a few curves, some bumps, a line, just an outline, a volume; it's with thoughts like those that she removed her clothing item by item and climbed up to pose on the modelling stand... The day we met, it was her mother's birthday. Her mother had been selling off her personal trinkets as if she had no other goal in life. Right on down to the last one, her wedding ring. On learning of that, she asked the jeweller not to sell it. She told me that she wanted to buy it back and take it home as her birthday present. Only she had no money..."
Ch'ol-Hun had given her his camera. He stopped and asked Shin-Hyei to confess something too. He always used to make an angry scene if she said she had nothing to confess. Shin-Hyei made up her mind; she began to confess. For the one and only time, she really felt disgusted with Ch'ol-Hun.
"I'm fed up with it. I'm making my last confession. If you think I'm jealous of what you did for that girl, you're making a big mistake. It's something I decided a long time back, right back in the summer rains. I'm sick and tired of chieftain games and confession games; even imagining that novel sickens me now. This is no "Doll's House" it's a "House of Fables" or a "Hollow Room". I've got to get out of here. You're all the time talking about wounds, wounds... wounds... but what about all the rest, the parts that haven't got wounded? There's a lot more of them, and they're more important. Even if your whole being is wounded, it's nothing compared with the whole of life. I've decided to move out of this room tomorrow."
Ch'ol-Hun took it for jealousy over the model. He simply kept begging her not to misunderstand.
"You're nothing but a ruined aristocrat."
Shin-Hyei said his sympathy was extravagant.
The next morning, Shin-Hyei was getting her things together. Ch'ol-Hun made no attempt to dissuade her; he just stood there blankly and watched her pack.
"Why don't you try to dissuade me?" Shin-Hyei asked.
"You really meant it... but I reckon you'd better go. I realized that while you were packing... that we're just like everybody else, I mean. I used to think that I was experiencing a miracle, two bodies becoming one. We spent a whole six months together. Yet watching you pack, I see that your things and my things are strictly and systematically distinct, that they have been here from the very start as different people's things. Watching you bundling up your luggage, I realized that your things and mine were perfectly unmingled and could be separated remarkably easily. Now this toothbrush is yours. This mirror, too. This sock is mine, and this book is mine, this fountain-pen is yours..."
Ch'ol-Hun spoke as if screaming in despair. Still watching, as Shin-Hyei put her seamless stockings into her suitcase, he went on:
"And those socks; from the very beginning, the unique things that I always saw as belonging to someone else were your socks. Do you know what I used to be looking at when you got into my bed? Those socks, fluttering down on the floor like a cast-off skin. Another person's things... that's what I used to murmur to myself as I looked at them."
Shin-Hyei did up her bag, sat on the bed and hugged Ch'ol-Hun.
"We're people who were destined to part some day. Write your novel. That way you can make your imaginary world come true; you'll be more at ease. I'm just one of those people with their too solid flesh, simply another mammal, nothing more; I don't know how to metamorphose like a silkworm. It's true, you have to write your novel. So I'll listen one last time. How does your novel end? I suppose the hero decides not to grow a beard?"
Ch'ol-Hun was gently biting his lip.
"Alright! I'll write my novel. This once I won't repeat the old tragedy where helping somebody results in their getting hurt. Because so far all the people I've liked have ended up getting done in! I can't possibly want you to end up like that. I've been sweating over the question of how "The General's Beard" ends for ages now. But watching you leave, I've got an idea that I think I can use."
"Won't you tell me?" Shin-Hyei listened eagerly.
Ch'ol-Hun began to speak: "'The General's Beard' ends one rainy summer's day..."
Drizzle was falling through the foggy air. He was crossing the road by an overpass. A beetle, a squashed black beetle was dying there, floating like a scrap of fluff. He walked on, avoiding the beetle. Beards, rain-soaked beards were pursuing him. He tried turning into a dark alley-way, escaping from the beards. But now a black jeep, a black jeep with its number-plates covered, had him in its headlights and was hurtling after him.
The driver's face was covered by a general's beard. He tried to escape. But the jeep followed him, making a sharp turn into the alley. He lifted a hand, trying to escape from the dazzling headlights. He heard a noise. There was a screaming of brakes. He was falling, struck by a mass of beards. It was raining. Thick fog. The jeep's headlights vanished into the night.
He turned his head towards the vanishing lights.
"I'm dying because of a beard. I've been murdered. Ah--the last man not to grow a beard is dying. I am the one person who did not change, the unique person to preserve intact the human face as it was before beards were worn. But they will say it was a traffic accident. A chance traffic accident."
He was dying. No one was watching over his body. He saw another layer of darkness covering the night. In that darkness kindergarten children were walking toward him; it was as if he was watching a silent film.
He could hear nothing, yet they seemed to be singing and playing some kind of game as they approached him. All the children were wearing beards, general's beards, as if they were acting in a school play. He could feel those children with their beards drawing closer, their gestures soundless as in an old silent film. He died.
After she had heard the end of the novel, Shin-Hyei stood up. Outside, winter was coming. Carrying her suitcase, she emerged from the narrow alley. She hurried out of the alley, littered with the frozen bodies of rats. Ch'ol-Hun must be looking out after me from the porthole. He's drifting on alone now.
Shin-Hyei laughed sadly. She walked on towards the city streets with their stench of tripe, footsteps clattering like so many typewriters, drunks staggering, cars racing.
"Do you think he died because of me?"
Shin-Hyei lifted the red cherry from her Tom Collins and placed it in her mouth, than stared into my face. She looked anxious.
"I told inspector Park that I would find out the cause of his death. And yet... I'm not sure. There's no easy explanation. There's something vaguely there but I can't explain it. Now it's all over."
I meant it. I could plainly call to mind the face of that person called Ch'ol-Hun; I could feel I had been his closest friend; but I had no right to speak about his death.
"A sky-lounge in winter is a gloomy place."
Shin-Hyei glanced around. It was time to go. We were the only people left, surrounded by empty chairs.
I finally managed to finish my manuscript for the publishers. It was later than promised, but at last I was free to leave Savannah Hotel. It was December 23rd, tomorrow would be Christmas Eve. I reflected that I ought to buy presents for my relatives down in the country. I had no further curiosity concerning Kim Ch'ol-Hun. My meeting a few days previously with the psychiatrist had been my last effort in the attempt to discover the reasons for Kim Ch'ol-Hun's death. Doctor Yun had spoken of "the Seventh Veil".
"There's the seventh veil. There was a film about it, you remember. Everyone is wearing seven different veils as they go about their lives surrounded by other people. We live solidly disguised. Then as we grow close to someone else, the veils are stripped off one after another. But we can never remove more than the fifth veil. There remains the veil that we can only remove when we are alone with ourselves, and the veil that we ourselves do not know. Removing the seventh veil, that veil of the heart, is the task of the psychoanalyst. You are making a big mistake if you think that you can uncover the reason for someone's death by reading their diary or listening to the things they say. To find out the reasons for a person's death, you have to look into their unconscious mind, the gulf of the unconscious that they too knew nothing of, the seventh veil; only then is an explanation possible."
According to Doctor Yun, Ch'ol-Hun was suffering from an Oedipus complex. That was clear just from his novel about "The General's Beard". Analyzed according to the psychology of the unconscious, the beard must represent the father, meaning authority. The fact that he was unable to weep when his father died should also be seen as a sign of the Oedipus Complex.
He explained how, once he was deprived of that controlling power, a split personality had developed; Shin-Hyei had been a substitute mother for him but when he heard that his real mother was coming up from the countryside, a conflict had arisen between the two images. He felt certain that in his unconscious Ch'ol-Hun had so to speak killed himself by fits and starts...
I felt no wish to hear anything more from Doctor Yun. It might be as he said. But could there really be a formula which allowed you to explain someone's death as easily as solving a mathematical problem? I felt sorry for Doctor Yun. His was yet another viewpoint, merely adding one more complication.
I went out into the street. Santa Claus and his reindeer and white snow made of cotton-wool had a soothing effect. Poinsettias and cyclamens were blossoming behind greenhouse-like shop windows. Wave after wave of people bearing armfuls of gaily wrapped Christmas presents came flooding by. From the record shops came bellowing the sound of Christmas carols.
I turned into the streets around Myong-dong. There I suddenly glimpsed inspector Park, wearing a ski-hat. He seemed glad to see me. He said that the Christmas season was always a busy one with the need for special anti-crime measures; yet he looked perfectly relaxed.
We went into a little curb-side grog-house, although it was still early.
"How's it going with the camera? Will you soon be arresting the criminal?"
I spoke with a pleasant sense of provocation. Inspector Park did not know what had happened to the camera, while I did. I felt the truly diabolical pleasure there can be in keeping a secret from another person.
"No problem. The time limit on prosecution has a long time to run yet. There's still almost five years. I'll get the criminal in the end; then I'll buy you another drink."
As time went by, the bar grew noisier. There were some who were already at the rowdy stage and were quarrelling in loud tones:
"No, hold on there... look... you've got it wrong, old friend. I ask you now: ish it posshible? Ol'pal... you've got it all wrong."
"And have you found the reason for his death? Have you caught the criminal responsible for his suicide? The one you said we would never be able to lock up? Why did he kill himself? For what reason? Why did he die? Because he'd been fired? Because he'd been jilted? Because he was tired of living? Because he was crazy? Or because he couldn't get his novel written?"
Inspector Park laughed. He was beginning to get drunk. I was not feeling intoxicated.
"Because you have this time limit on prosecution, at least once the date is past you can relax. Not that anyone ever keeps waiting that long anyway, surely? Whereas my investigation can never be complete, not until the day I die and not even then, not until my sons die and my sons' sons in the time to come. There is no time limit to the search for the reasons of a suicide."
Inspector Park flicked on his gas-lighter and applied the flame to my cigarette. The cigarette I was smoking had gone out.
"Because I don't know him. Why, I couldn't even remember his name. It was only when you said he had been a photographer for that newspaper that I recognized him! So how can I know anything about his death? He died his own death. After all, nobody can explain another person's death. Each one of us is the only person who knows about their own death. I was wrong to think that I could explain another person's death. I have no right to know. But now I think of it, isn't tomorrow the day Jesus was born? You have to rejoice. People have to lift their glasses high. Won't you drink a toast? Not to death but to life... to someone being born, to that Birth. Here. Cheers! to life being born... to the birth of Jesus and to our own kids' birth."
All of a sudden, drunkenness overwhelmed me. I wanted to go on and on chattering. I felt like talking about anything and everything with inspector Park for a long, long time. I was so drunk that I felt inclined to recite in a loud voice some lines from that poem by Bishop King:
Stay for me there; I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay;
I am already on the way.
Meanwhile the loudspeaker on the pavement in front of the bakery across the street was bellowing out a Christmas song:
"Tonight old Santa Claus
With his white hair, white beard,
Is coming on the wings of the wind."
Inside my head, other lines from from Bishop King's poem overlapped with that:
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.
Each minute is a short degree,
And every hour a step towards thee.
"Wearing his bright red hat,
His scarlet cloak wound round about him,
Through a cold land's snow he comes."
At night when I betake to rest,
Next morn I rise nearer my west
Of life, almost by eight hours' sail.
Than when sleep breathed his drowsy gale.
But hark! my pulse like a soft drum
Beats my approach...
I heard the sound of our glasses striking together, as I sank into the surrounding uproar.