By Kim Dong-ni
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
Published in Koreana: Korean Culture & Arts (The Korea Foundation) Vol. 33, No. 4 Winter pages 90-103.
Once it had passed Busanjin, the train seemed to be holding back, as if it was afraid of falling into the sea. From Choryang Station to the main Busan station it dawdled along, seemingly counting every step.
Lee Jung-gu glanced at his wrist watch. Six twenty. He had boarded the train at a quarter to three the previous afternoon, so the journey had taken twenty-seven hours and thirty-five minutes. Twenty-seven hours and thirty-five minutes! During all that time, Jung-gu’s head had been filled with the idea of a Land’s End, the end of the earth. The end of the line, a dead end, with no possibility of making even one more step, a place where taking another step would mean dropping into a “futile void,” a “last point,” which had a complete grip on Jung-gu’s consciousness. It was not simply because almost all the passengers were going to Busan, the last stop. It was not just for the geographical reason that Busan was the end of the line, and at the same time the end of the land, the place where it touched the sea. It was not only because the train was the last train to set out from Freedom’s Capital, Seoul, with the port city of Busan as its destination. On top of all these reasons, there seemed to be another, more fundamental and more urgent reason.
But Jung-gu did not know what it was, did not even want to think about it. He merely got off the train, because getting off the train was not a difficult problem. It was an action that was already scheduled when he left Seoul, the reason why the train had gone crawling with such care, whistling itself hoarse, all the way from Busanjin, in order to avoid straying from the schedule or falling into the sea.
By the time he reached the platform, some two thousand fellow passengers were still there. At least they were fellow citizens of the same nation who had been guarding Freedom’s Capital until the last moment on January 3, 1951, then had made their way down to the same destination on the same train at the same time, sharing “a common destiny.” By their watchful eyes, their dignified postures, their faces fixed in obsequious smiles, they still were “comrades” while they moved along the platform.
However, the moment they emerged through the ticket gates onto the scrapyard-like station plaza, as if in response to a promise, the sense of being “comrades” died away from their faces. By passing through the gates, the “comrades” had been dispersed. And that dispersal also meant “a new freedom.”
Jung-gu, pushed through the ticket gates charged with this “new freedom,” watched blankly as all those people, who had been “comrades” a moment ago, set off as strangers.
Where were they all going like that? It seemed amazing to Jung-gu that they all seemed to be heading somewhere. He felt sure that they did not all have relatives in Busan. Besides, it went without saying that they were not all originally from Busan. So where were they all going? How was it that they all had somewhere to go as soon as they passed through the ticket gates? How could they cast off “comradeship” in a flash and practice freedom so bravely? Did they not realize that Busan was the “end of the end,” a “dead end”? Had they forgotten that if they took one step beyond the “end of the end,” the “dead end,” they would fall into the sea or drop into a “futile void”? If not, was Jung-gu the only person to reach this “end of the end,” this “dead end”? Even so, did every one of those more than one thousand and five hundred people really have a place to head for thus bravely, so that there was not one left lingering hesitantly like Jung-gu? It was a miracle, a tremendous miracle. Pondering these questions within himself, without further thought, Jung-gu unwittingly followed the thronging procession at a sluggish pace. “Unwittingly,” indeed. It might merely have been the inertia of “comradeship.”
Jung-gu, “unwittingly,” or borne along by “the inertia of comradeship,” was about to cross the tram lines, carried along in this “miraculous” procession, when he heard a voice in his left ear, “Do you have somewhere to go, Mr. Lee?” It was Yun, a reporter with the K News Agency, wearing a purple scarf and holding a briefcase, one that looked shinier and fuller than Jung-gu’s. Jung-gu covered his mouth with his left hand, in its khaki-colored woolen glove, as was his habit, showing that words failed him, then indicated his former comrades with his chin and asked in reply, “Where are they all going?” Yun kept his mouth shut, smiled a meaningful smile, and simply replied, “They all seem to be going somewhere.” They crossed the tram lines. Then Jung-gu asked, “So where are you going?” That was not just a formal greeting. When Yun had first addressed Jung-gu, it might have been a passing greeting between acquaintances, but now, Jung-gu having made it clear that his situation was as helpless as it was, his question was an implied request to go along with him. As before, Yun kept his mouth shut, and smiled as if he had a mouth full of salt, as he replied, “For people like us, what choice is there? I’m headed for the news agency’s local office, despite the shame involved.” This “despite the shame” might have been added to warn Jung-gu away. But it had the opposite effect on Jung-gu. That was because Jung-gu hoped to share the shame of being part of the plan, despite the shame involved. For the third time, Yun smiled his mouthful-of-salt smile. That was all. Neither accepting nor refusing. In that case, Jung-gu simply had to exercise his “freedom,” take it as acceptance, and quietly follow along behind him.
The K News Agency bureau was in Bosu-dong. With some help, Yun and Jung-gu found their way to the office, which occupied quite a wide room. Yun said, “There’s no choice. Suppose we sleep here?” Jung-gu agreed, “Right.” Then Yun asked if he didn’t want to go out and have some dinner but Jung-gu said he didn’t feel like it. Later, when he brought back a small bottle on returning from dinner, Yun asked if he would like a glass of soju, but again he refused.
After putting four tables together to form what looked like a ping-pong table, Jung-gu lay down on it, wearing his overcoat and a fur hat. He heard a sound like wind whistling through paper weather strips, or rather like a flute.
The bureau chief gave them a lit candle, saying, “Blow it out before you go to sleep.” In reply, Yun thanked him on their behalf.
Jung-gu, for his part, thought that a hole might form in that black ice cube, that space around the burning candle. He imagined the ice on the wall starting to melt a little, and turned to look up at the glass door. But the next moment, the black block of ice standing there in the dark turned into a black bear singing lullabies for Jung-gu.
Jung-gu repeatedly felt as though he was stuck on a cliff, without being clear whether it was a dream. He felt as though he was stuck on a towering cliff. They say that if you fall from a towering cliff, there’s a deep pool of water at the bottom. At the same time, without any connection or leap, it was a train. The train was speeding down a very steep incline. The train could not be stopped in any way. It was racing toward the sea at a speed more terrifying than a bicycle hurtling downhill with unresponsive brakes. But each time, before the train fell into the sea, Jung-gu’s consciousness and subconscious grew muddled and he had the impression that his body was about to fall either from a cliff or off the edge of the tables, he did not know which it was. This intermingling of consciousness and subconscious kept being repeated all night long.
In the gap between his muddled consciousness and his subconscious, Jung-gu was never once aware of the fact that he had reached Busan, that he was sleeping in the K News Agency’s bureau office, lying beside Yun. His mind and body were so exhausted.
At daybreak, as soon as he glimpsed early morning daylight through the uncurtained glass door, which was also the door leading into the office, his consciousness awakened to reality, in a flash. In a moment, he became conscious of Yun lying next to him, conscious of the K News Agency’s bureau office, of the tabletops. That was not all. At almost the same moment, the faces of his old mother, left alone in a cold room in a small old house on the fringes of Wonseo-dong, in Seoul, still coughing hoarsely from asthma, and of his wife, gone with their child to Nonsan in South Chungcheong Province, relying on relatives there, flashed before his eyes like a lamp being turned on. His mother, having gone without food for two days, might by now be lying wanly waiting for death, coughing constantly. Maybe his young daughter had died, rolling off that crowded truck, after being trampled on by people and knocked over by their luggage, while Jung-gu, who had been thinking of Busan as the “end of the end” and a “dead end,” suddenly realized that the office of the K News Agency did not seem so very cold or uncomfortable. Once again, he heard what seemed like the sound of the wind and at the same time the sound of a flute.
“Mr. Lee, you’re so well-known in literary circles, is there really no one you know in Busan?” Yun asked Jung-gu, tying his shoelaces. “Well, I can’t think of anyone on the spur of the moment … I’ll have to go to that coffee house, that Mildawon place, today….” Jung-gu replied as if talking to himself, only it wasn’t “on the spur of the moment,” it was what he had been thinking for several days past, then all the time he had been coming down. He was not very sociable by nature, and he had no connections or contacts in Busan. This morning, if he had not heard from the bureau chief that “all the cultural figures from Seoul are meeting at the Mildawon coffee shop,” he might not have been able to walk so briskly through the office door.
The Mildawon was an upstairs coffee house that lay a little way down toward City Hall from the Gwangbok-dong Rotary.
one side downstairs was a sign, “National Cultural
Association.” Pushing open
the door next to the signboard, he found Jo Hyeon-sik, a
critic, and, Heo Yun, the very opposite to Jo, being
much taller and with a
ruddy face, standing in front of a table. As soon as
they saw Jung-gu, they
held out their hands, looking pleased to see him.
He gave simple answers to the two men’s questions, as to where his luggage was, where his family was, what transportation he had used, where he had slept the previous night, then he pointed at his old briefcase holding a face towel, a toothbrush, a set of underwear, and a picture of his mother, and added that it was all he had.
Hyeon-sik led Jung-gu to the second-floor coffee shop. When they were halfway up the stairs, the voices of the people in the coffee shop rang in his ears like the sound of a swarm of bees. Jung-gu’s heart was pounding. He paused for a moment and thought about what was making him feel so cheerful and excited.
From inside, Hyeon-sik scolded him: “Why are you hesitating like a country bumpkin?” Jung-gu pretended to ward off his reproofs by once again covering his mouth with his left hand in its khaki-colored woolen glove.
It was bright inside the coffee shop since the southeast side was all windows, and there were no tall buildings on that side to block the sunlight. In the middle, a large drum stove was emitting heat, and evergreens stood in front of the counter and in the northeast corner. It only took a glance to realize that the bees swarming around the twenty or so tables were almost all familiar faces. Jung-gu was too shy to go greeting each one in turn, so he shook hands with the friends who were sitting close by, or those who rose and came across to welcome him, greeting the others with a nod or a short bow.
“You’ve become a real bumpkin. How come you’re just standing there looking around?” Hyeon-sik scolded him a second time.
finished shaking hands and sat down. At once the painter
Song Si-myeong and the
female writer Gil Seon-deuk came and sat down at the
table with him. The
questions began all over again: when did you come, where
is your family?
Jung-gu responded briefly as before. Coffee arrived.
Hyeon-sik took up the cup
of coffee in front of him without inviting Jung-gu to
drink too, and took a sip
first. Then he pulled a pack of cigarettes from this
overcoat pocket. It was
not simply that he knew nothing of ordinary social
conventions or formal
greetings, it seemed to be his habit and his personality
to ignore courtesy as
far as possible. Yet, surprisingly enough, his very
risky “habit” and “personality”
did not occasion many misunderstandings because his
little, yellowish face
showed not the least sign of any greed.
“Ah, it’s a hard life,” Gil Seon-deuk joked. She came from South Gyeongsang Province and spoke with such a strong accent that several people exclaimed and laughed aloud. “It’s no good, at this rate we’ll all starve to death,” she added, and ordered six more cups of coffee for them all. Jung-gu, urged by his friends to drink up “before it went cold,” brought the steaming yellowish coffee to his lips. The first in five days. He felt as though he was having his first taste of coffee after a decade of exile in Siberia. A single sip of coffee seemed to sweep away all the pain that had accumulated in his heart. Jung-gu could not help opening his mouth wide and allowing a stupid laugh to come bursting out. What is a man? He barely managed to prevent the words emerging from his mouth several times.
Six new cups of coffee arrived. Hyeon-sik silently moved the second cup of coffee, sitting before him, to the middle of the table, indicating that he did not want it. Jung-gu also tried to refuse because it was the second cup, but this time, Ms. Gil paid no attention to his refusal. “It’s too unfair to drink the coffee a critic pays for and then refuse the coffee I offer you.” As if agreeing with Ms. Gil’s protest, the artist Song also extended his palms and made a gesture meaning “drink up quickly.” Jung-gu responded to the gesture by bringing his hand to his mouth. This gesture of Jung-gu’s was already famous. Sometimes it meant something was difficult, sometimes that he felt awkward, sometimes that he was sorry, sometimes that he was apologetic, or else indicating that he felt shy, ill at ease, or wanted to brush aside thanks; it was his way of expressing all such kinds of delicate feelings.
“Until what day did the coffee shops stay open?” This time the coffee-crazy painter Song asked. It might have been the twenty-ninth, or was it the thirtieth? In any case, by the end of the month almost nobody could be seen out in the streets of Seoul. Finally, people loaded the sick and elderly onto stretchers and into handcarts, alas, and once again Jung-gu brought his hand to his mouth. At that moment, his heart was stabbed by the thought of his mother whom he had not been able to bring away, even in that way.
Just then, Heo Yun came up from the downstairs office. “Heo, come here,” Hyeon-sik shouted cheerfully. Grinning, Heo Yun came to his side without knowing what was up and Hyeon-sik said, “You two are a good pair.” What he meant was, “Heo lost his children along the way and came down alone, while Lee came leaving his mother alone in Seoul,” implying that they would be able to comfort each other, being in similar situations. The musician Ahn Jeong-ho and the artist Song, who were nearby, laughed a little, but Heo Yun and Jung-gu did not laugh. Ms. Gil simply raised her left hand to her mouth in imitation of Jung-gu. Ms. Gil, who was already over fifty and had made several journeys to the United States and Hawaii, was someone who did not hesitate to make clumsy gestures or sociable responses, even at her own expense, in order to avoid spoiling the atmosphere, hurting people’s feelings or self-respect. In this regard, she was virtually the direct opposite of Jo Hyeon-sik, who kept needling the pain of others, though without malicious intent, and even with feelings close to kindness.
Lunch time came. Ms. Gil said she would buy udon. The party was composed of Jung-gu as the main guest, Jo Hyeon-sik, Heo Yun, Song, Park Un-sam and Ms. Gil, six people in all. Ahn Jeong-ho had another engagement and excused himself, so Park Un-sam took his place. Park Un-sam was a poet. He had been sitting alone in a corner where he would not be noticed, like a mural painting, but he was a close acquaintance, and the way he was sitting there with a very glum expression had touched Jung-gu, so that he had deliberately brought him into the group.
From beginning to end, in the restaurant or when they had finished their udon, Park Un-sam remained completely silent. His character had always been rather melancholy, but prior to the outbreak of the war he had not been so taciturn. It seemed that there had to be some particular reason why he was sitting there silently like a man in despair. But no one was particularly interested in the reason, or tried to explain it.
That evening, Jung-gu went to sleep at Jo Hyeon-sik’s place. The house was in Nampo-dong. It was a Japanese-style building with a hospital signboard, “Harbor Clinic.” Hyeon-sik had a friend who was a teacher at Gyeongnam Girls’ Middle School, and thanks to that friend’s introduction, he had gained the use of part of the hospital’s second-floor ward. It was a four-and-a-half tatami room. In addition, closets were attached to the northern and eastern walls, making it a very useful room.
The northern closet held bedding, bundles of clothing, trunks, boxes of books and various other items of refugee life, and he was told that the closet on the eastern side was being used as a bedroom by the relatives.
The family consisted of Jo Hyeon-sik, his wife and their two children, his mother, a widowed sister with her child, as well as a cousin’s son, a total of eight people. And he added that his younger cousin sometimes came to sleep there, too.
When Jung-gu entered the room behind Hyeon-sik, he found a group of some ten people of all ages, including the son of the hospital’s doctor, sitting together, the grandmother entertaining her young grandchildren with old stories, and the young people noisily playing a yut board game.
As soon as they entered, the yut game was cleared away. He had known Hyeon-sik’s wife since they were in Seoul, but his sister, his cousin’s son and cousin were faces he was seeing for the first time. However, Hyeon-sik did not bother to introduce Jung-gu to them. Since they were from different fields, and had different reasons for being there, Hyeon-sik seemed to feel no need for any such formalities; that seemed to be an aspect of Jo Hyeon-sik’s incorrigible personality and habits.
“Go and buy a bottle of soju and some squid,” Hyeon-sik told his son, a primary school child, handing him a thousand won note.
“So where is your mother now?” Hyeon-sik’s wife asked Jung-gu, looking at the drinks table that was also their meal table. “She’s up in Seoul.” Jung-gu glanced briefly at Hyeon-sik’s mother. Sure enough, at Jung-gu’s words Hyeon-sik’s mother looked at him with a surprised air. Her face seemed to be asking if he meant he had abandoned his mother in coming down. Suddenly, Jung-gu realized that his throat was aching painfully. And what has become of your wife? Hyeon-sik’s wife asked. He replied that his wife had gone with their young daughter to her brother’s house in Chungcheong Province. To Jung-gu, the tone of her response, noting that it meant he had left his mother alone in Seoul, seemed to indicate that the interrogation was over and at the same time to declare him an unfilial son.
Jo Hyeon-sik was a poor drinker. His younger cousin, however, was a heavy drinker, so Jung-gu emptied almost the whole bottle of soju with him. The ache in his throat, that had been so painful, seemed to have been washed away after a couple of glasses. Instead, the following complaint came flowing from his lips, without his knowing for what motive or purpose: “If I had only had the money, of course I could have brought Mother down to Busan with me. We had been living day by day, hand to mouth, with the small payments I received for things I wrote, but then the war started in June, and although Seoul was recaptured in September, I was left completely broke. Actually, I thought of selling that shack in Wonseo-dong, but then, beginning in December, the communists started advancing south again, and how could I sell it then? Around December 20, my wife said she would take our daughter down to her brother’s place in Chungcheong, it’s her old home but they have no parents left, they are not normally on good terms, but we had no choice, it was do or die, but in such a situation, how could I send my mother along with them? If I did decide to send her, did I have enough money? As you know, she has been suffering from asthma for a long time now, totally unable to walk any distance, so in a crowded train or truck she’d be trampled on and wouldn’t last five minutes. I might have gotten hold of some kind of cart, loaded her onto it and set off pulling her, but finding something like that would have been like asking for the moon and besides, she only has to feel a cold breeze and she starts a fit of coughing so she can’t even breathe, she’d be almost sure to die at the roadside … Besides, Mother absolutely refused to move, she kept asking if I wanted to kill her by dragging her with me on the road. She said if she was going to die, surely wouldn’t it be far better for her to die lying comfortably under a blanket at home? Also, as there was still fuel and food left in the house, she could get up and cook something, so why invite death by leaving?….” So Jung-gu explained that, unable to abandon her, he had stayed on in Seoul until the very last day, joining the final retreat on January 3.
By the time the drinking was over, the eastern closet had already been transformed into a double-level bedroom. As soon as Hyeon-sik’s sister and her baby went into the lower space, his cousin’s son climbed into the upper closet, and the doors were slid shut.
Once Jung-gu was lying down and had closed his eyes, he heard what sounded like a boat’s horn that seemed to emit a kind of sad mist. At the same time, he thought that it was the same sound, like wind whistling through paper weather strips, or like a flute, that he had heard while lying on the tables in the bureau office of the K News Agency the night before.
Once breakfast was over the next day, Jung-gu went back to Mildawon with Hyeon-sik, carrying his old briefcase containing his towel and toothbrush. “Today, our friend Oh said he would be coming, so maybe we can find you a place to stay with him,” Jo said. “Who’s who among the writers in Busan?” Jung-gu asked.
Of course, he meant people who were well-known, even in Seoul. “Well, there are four or five, but none of them is any use,” Jo Hyeon-sik said. “There’s not one who will be glad to see me arrive like this.” Jung-gu seemed to be comforting Hyeon-sik. They were both refugees from Seoul, and if Hyeon-sik was acting as landlord and Jung-gu as guest, it was not just because Hyeon-sik had come down first and found a room. Hyeon-sik’s wife was from this region, and he also had many close comrades from each province because he was in charge of the National Cultural Association secretariat.
“You know Jeon Pil-eop?” Hyeon-sik asked. “The only people I know from here are Jeon Pil-eop and Oh Jeong-su.” As soon as he replied, Hyeon-sik asked, as if interrogating him, “I heard that you were extremely close to Jeon Pil-eop?” “As close as Oh Jeong-su.” At that, Hyeon-sik fell silent, drank down his coffee, lit a cigarette, and leaned back in his chair at an angle.
“So, have you met Jeon Pil-eop?” In reply to Jung-gu’s question, Hyeon-sik simply went on smoking for a while, then raised himself as he knocked off the ash, and said they had met here a week before. “Did he talk about me?” Jung-gu asked, to which Hyeon-sik made no direct reply. “That day, I was sitting here in this very seat when I happened to look up. He had already come in and was standing in front of the door over there, staring at me. At first, I thought he must be so glad to see me that he was at a loss what to do next, but he just stood there staring at me, you see? I raised my hand with a smile, and called his name, but he just stood there looking blank, without so much as a nod, so I let him be, thinking he was a weird guy, at which he went over to where some journalists I didn’t know were sitting, sat with them for a moment, then walked out. … So far so good, but what he said to Heo Yun when he met him a few days later takes the cake. Jeon said, ‘Listen. So far, the guys from Seoul have led the literary establishment, but now that Busan is the nation’s capital, the writers from here must seize the leadership of the literary world, so we’ve decided to wait until the major writers from Seoul come out with heads bowed to pay their respects.’” Jo Hyeon-sik ended the story in a calm voice, without any expression on his gaunt, yellow face, and stubbed out his cigarette.
“What does he mean by leadership?” Jung-gu asked. “I don’t know. He seems to be talking about the right to publish things in newspapers or magazines.” “Well, in that case, Jeon Pil-eop might need that, and as for us, we have nothing much to publish, so I think the leadership can go to those who need it.” “Nevertheless, if someone asks us to write, there’s no reason why we should refuse to write or delay writing for Jeon Pil-eop’s sake, is there?” “Of course not.” “But in that case the problem becomes more complicated. Because what happens when we write and Jeon Pil-eop writes, and most discerning readers prefer us?” “Surely there’s nothing to be done about that?” “But that’s where the problem will arise. When Jeon Pil-eop talks about taking over the leadership, he means that even if he and we write at the same time, he wants us to ensure that society prefers him rather than us.” “Who could ensure that, and how would you do it?” “If we don’t ensure it, he will make it happen.” “Make it happen? How?” “If you want to know, just take a look at the weekly newspaper called ‘Port Literature’ that Jeon Pil-eop is producing. How many good writers among those who have come down from Seoul have not been attacked? On top of that, regarding more powerful literary figures, he’s publishing personal attacks with lies I’m ashamed to repeat, accusing them of being freeloaders, saying that someone at the National Cultural Association is embezzling public funds.” The two men sat for a while as though struck dumb, simply staring at one another in shock.
“How many are there like him?” Jung-gu was the first to speak. “I don’t know. Besides Jeon Pil-eop there are some youngsters who follow him.” “If that’s all, surely there’s no great problem? Everywhere you find guys like this, guys like that.” “But it’s different. No matter if the world is made up of this kind of guys and that kind of guys, this kind of trouble-maker could never be tolerated, but now that we are at war, with buildings collapsing, people dying, there seems to be a general psychological tendency to want to get rid of all invisible authority and standards.” Jo Hyeon-sik stopped talking and continued to draw on his cigarette. Jung-gu, for his part, found himself repeating mentally to himself the phrases “the end of the end” and “a dead end,” that had not left his mind for several days past, while he gazed around the coffee shop buzzing like a swarm of bees in a thick cloud of smoke.
Oh Jeong-su was wearing a black serge overcoat of traditional style with a broad white collar trim, and he came walking toward Jung-gu with a gentle smile that kept twitching at the corners of his mouth, sitting rather far below his nose. “When did you arrive?” he asked, with a slight hint of regional dialect in his accent. He grabbed Jung-gu’s hand firmly and did not let go as he poured out a stream of greetings: You must have had a hard time getting here. Has your family come with you? Have you found a place to stay?
“Ah, now everything will be fine.” Jo Hyeon-sik grinned as he gave up his seat to Oh Jeong-su. “What?” Unable to understand what he meant, Oh Jeong-su looked at Jo Hyeon-sik. “Lee here has been desperately waiting for you to come.” “Why?” “Ask him.” Oh Jeong-su, with the same smile hovering around his mouth, looked at Jung-gu. Jung-gu covered his mouth with his left hand, indicating that he was sorry to be a nuisance. “Lee slept in this coffee shop last night,” Jo Hyeon-sik added. “Really?” Oh’s expression grew serious. “Ask that waitress over there,” Jo Hyeon-sik kept a straight face. “But why didn’t you come to me straight away?” “He wasn’t sure whether or not he would be welcome.” Finally, Oh Jeong-su understood that Jo was joking. “Hey, you’re a bad person!” he said, casting an askance glance at Jo in the way neighborhood women do in protest. Then he turned to Jung-gu and said, “Really, you must come to my house this evening.” “I’m sorry about this…” Jung-gu was about to scratch his head, when beside him Jo murmured, “That’s just great.”
“It’s really great,” the painter Song, who was nearby, concurred. Then Song added, “Mr. Oh has made one of his rare appearances today, so let’s go to a mung bean pancake place. I’ll lead the way.” That morning, he had been paid for some illustration work.
The group was originally composed of four people, Oh Jeong-su, Jo Hyeon-sik, Lee Jung-gu, and Song, then the composer Ahn Jeong-ho joined them, making five. The pancake place was on a dock at Nampo-dong called the prow. Directly in front of it, the blue sea’s waves were pounding. The distant, faintly visible shore between Yeongdo and Songdo, from where it’s said Tsushima Island can be seen on a clear day, was covered with a sea of mist-like clouds, and from the clouds a salty breeze came blowing, occasionally bearing flocks of seagulls flapping white wings.
As the drink took effect, the artist Song and Ahn Jeong-ho grew heated and started to give vent to their feelings. It was all about the claim that the Republic of Korea despised all artists. “Korea’s artists must all die! All!” Ahn screamed several times. “Where the hell has all that goddam money gone? Those billions, trillions, astronomical sums handed out, where’s it all gone? If you put all that goddam money together, it would make a pile bigger than Yeongdo over there, wouldn’t it? Where did all that damn money go, so that on the very day the war broke out we found ourselves empty-handed beggars? Even among those who’ve reached Busan, how many artists are able to eat properly with their wives and children? Where is all the money piled up, so that the Republic of Korea’s few artists have all become beggars, forced to fall into the goddam sea and die?” While Song’s eyes seemed to blaze fire as he vented his feelings, Ahn Jeong-ho’s voice cracked as he began, “You’re asking where those piles of money have all gone? Only take my wife’s uncle, he’s a businessman, and do you know how many ships he’s playing with now? In times of emergency, he only has to head for Jeju Island, Tsushima Island, Japan or the United States, and he’s free to choose, and you think he’s doing that all alone? The people with money team up with the people with power, those with power and those with money look out for each other, they’re hand in fist,” and tears came to his eyes. Judging by his cracked voice and the tears in his eyes, he seemed to have tried to get a piece of the action through his wife and to have been shamefully rebuffed. “So we should all just die and disappear, jump into the goddam sea quickly, die and disappear!” Song agreed.
“But why is Un-sam acting like that? He seems to have changed.” Jung-gu tried to change the subject by mentioning Park Un-sam, whom he had seen the previous day. “He doesn’t say a word, doesn’t smile, just sits there like an idiot, doesn’t he?” To which Song replied, “You ask why he’s like that? Why? Because he’s love-sick.” He spoke confidently. “Remember that woman who was always with him before the war started? A student at the Medical College for Women.” “So, did he break up with that girl?” “As good as.” “What do you mean, as good as broken up?” “They’re as good as broken up, and the result is that they have broken up, anyway.” Everyone laughed. Encouraged by their laughter, Song continued: “They didn’t break up because of their feelings or intentions, circumstances made it happen.” “Circumstances?” “The girl didn’t become a beggar following her boyfriend but went abroad following her parents.” “In which case her intentions played a role, surely?” “But it wasn’t like that, or at least Park Un-sam still reckons so.” Here, the conversation paused for a moment. “Is her father a diplomat?” Jung-gu asked. “Not a diplomat, but he seems to have a close relationship with the Korean mission in Japan, all the time traveling to and fro by plane.” Jung-gu and Song’s exchanges ended with that.
Jung-gu turns to look at the sea. Through his drunken haze, the blue sea shines. He can see a flock of swooping white gulls above it. At the same moment, inside his head, a train speeding downhill comes to mind. It’s the last train. Reaching the end of the land, it will fall into the sea. To avoid falling into the sea, the train keeps whistling hoarsely and stiffening its legs until the ankles are twisted. But the train racing downhill is bound to end up in the sea, carried along by its fearful speed. In Jung-gu’s eyes, the seagulls shine again. He reflects that perhaps he has already fallen into the sea. He reflects that he may already be part of a flock of seagulls. Oh, seagull, seagull! He calls to the seagulls with poetic emotion. In his head, a picture of the artists buzzing like bees in Mildawon emerges. They are all cheerful. The artist Song with his eyes blazing at the idea that every artist in this country had to fall into the sea and die; Ahn Jeong-ho, sad and reduced to tears by his wife’s uncle; the poet Park who has lost his sweetheart in all the turbulence and is sitting there at a loss; the poet Heo who has left his children scattered along the roadside and is prolonging his life with three rice cakes a day all alone; even Lee Jung-gu, himself, who has fled alone, leaving his old, sick mother to die, all are cheerful. In the coffee shop, they buzz like bees. In the sea, they flutter like seagulls. With deaths and farewells before and behind, wandering and starvation to left and right, yet cheerful because of a cup of coffee and familiar faces, cheerful nonetheless, what was there to be cheerful about? In order to put out the words rising in his throat, he gave another long sigh.
Oh Jeong-su’s house was in Beomil-dong. It was a single-story Japanese-style building. It had one ondol room and two tatami rooms. The ondol room was used by Oh Jeong-su’s wife and children, while one tatami room was his study. The other tatami room housed relatives who had arrived as refugees. The garden was not large, but there were garden trees, such as spindle tree, pine, and paulownia, as well as flowering bushes, such as lilacs. At one end of the house, there was a row of seven or eight pots holding orchids, cacti, palms, gardenias and magnolias.
“You don’t keep birds?” Jung-gu asked. Oh nodded, “Yes.” There was no knowing whether he meant that he did or did not keep birds. There was merely an empty birdcage hanging at one end of the eaves. It looked as though either he no longer kept birds or they had been moved to another cage. “You can live here all alone, taking care of these or looking out to sea when you’re bored,” Jung-gu said, imitating Oh’s way of speaking. Oh Jeong-su simply replied, “Yes, yes” and nodded as before.
In the evening, drinks were served and as Oh Jeong-su handed a glass to Jung-gu, he said, “Actually, I was thinking about both Jo and you, and kept one room ready for you.” Jung-gu said he had already heard as much from Jo. However, Oh continued, “It’s good, you’re on your own so you can stay here in this room with me,” looking at Jung-gu with a warm smile on his lips. “But I feel sorry,” Jung-gu said, offering his glass to Oh. It was a vague response.
Oh’s wife came in and greeted him. She was very tall and plump, with a dark complexion, and a husky voice. However, her squinting eyes seemed to have something girlish about them. “I’m sorry we have nothing much to offer, but I hope you enjoy the meal,” she said, bowed and went out. Then the dinner table was carried in. “Bring it a little bit later,” Oh said, and sent the table back. “We’re going to drink some more first,” he shouted toward the kitchen.
“This must be shepherd’s purse, it’s delicious,” Jung-gu said, putting on a Busan accent. The shepherd’s purse had been mixed with various seasonings and anchovy sauce. “Yes, eat a lot, there’s plenty of it,” Oh Jeong-su replied, picking up a piece with his chopsticks and putting it into his mouth. “It’s a shame you don’t drink much, you know,” Jung-gu joked, continuing to use dialect. “What do you mean? You’ve been making me drink non-stop.” Oh Jeong-su looked at him sideways with a smile on his face, as neighborhood women do. A sound like a boat’s horn kept echoing. It wasn’t the sound of a flute he had previously heard in Bosu-dong, neither was it the whistling sound he had heard at Jo Hyeon-sik’s place the night before. It was really a boat’s horn, a heartbroken cry as though something was leaving. “I can’t stand the sound of that wretched trumpet.” Jung-gu emptied his glass as he kept repeating this, like a drunkard. Oh Jeong-su didn’t seem to understand that he was referring to the horn. In fact, the sound of the horn they could hear from there did not fit the term “a wretched trumpet.” Rather, that was the sound only heard in Jung-gu’s intoxicated heart. “Don’t be like that. Have another drink.” Oh Jeong-su refilled Jung-gu’s empty glass. Jung-gu attempted to pick up the glass with a hand that was already numb from drinking. Suddenly, hot tears burst from his eyes, that seemed to reveal intense emotion despite his drunken face, and an uncontrolled sob came welling up. At that, despite his drunkenness, perhaps thinking that it was shameless, scandalous behavior, he sprang up, opened the door, and ran outside. As he tried to put a foot on the lower step, he slipped and fell, knocking a couple of flower pots off the step. Oh Jeong-su quickly followed him, carrying a lamp, and found Jung-gu sitting on the stone step, with one of the two pots holding orchids broken cleanly into three pieces.
The next morning, as soon as Jung-gu had finished breakfast he quickly made to go out, holding his old briefcase containing toothbrush and towel, claiming to have an appointment with Jo Hyeon-sik. “Why the hurry? Why don’t you rest for a few days?” Oh Jeong-su held him back. “I’ll come visit you every day, don’t worry,” Jung-gu said. “Yes, I hope you come every day, you can come even without warning, I’ll always be waiting for you.” “Don’t worry, I’ll come so often you’ll be sick of me.”
Jung-gu went running to the tram stop as if he had some urgent business. What was so urgent he himself could not say. He simply had to get to Mildawon. He would only be able to breathe properly when he could see Jo Hyeon-sik, Song, Ahn Jeong-ho, Heo Yun, Park Un-sam, and Ms. Gil. The tram stopped at every stop, and people dawdled to such a degree as they got on and off that he felt like stamping with impatience.
About halfway up the stairs leading to Mildawon, when he could hear the swarm of bees buzzing, Jung-gu realized that his heart was pounding as it had done a few days before. He could not figure out what was so urgent, or why he was so excited that his heart was pounding.
Jo Hyeon-sik was writing an article in a corner. He looked up at Jung-gu and asked, “Was Oh’s place comfortable?” “Comfortable, certainly,” Jung-gu stressed the word comfortable. There was nothing more he could say. Had he not just come racing away from that certainly comfortable house of Oh Jeong-su’s as if escaping from prison? What could he say to praise Oh Jeong-su’s true, upright, warm personality, his quiet, cozy, idyllic study, the clean bedding, the taste of fresh abalone and seaweed, shepherd’s purse, various kinds of salted fish, and express his gratitude?
That evening, as Jung-gu ate some toast with Jo Hyeon-sik, he said, “I’ll have to impose on you for a bed again this evening.…” At last he spoke the words which had refused to emerge since the morning. “Why, aren’t you going back to Oh’s place?” Jo Hyeon-sik looked at Jung-gu with a puzzled expression. Jung-gu hesitated for a while because he did not know what to say at first. “It’s too far away.” That was the first thing that emerged from his mouth. At the same time, he laughed as if to say he knew he was being pathetic. Then he continued, blurting out, “If I could have my way, I would sleep in a closet in your house, then come and spend the whole day sitting here in Mildawon. Above all, your place is not far from here.” Surprisingly enough, Jo Hyeon-sik seemed not to be taken aback by his words, but rather smiled as if it was all quite natural. Jung-gu continued, as if he was encouraged by Jo Hyeon-sik’s smile. “I reckon it would be much better to sleep in a corner of this coffee shop rather than in Oh’s house, I’m not afraid of the cold. It would certainly be better than sleeping on a table like the first evening in Bosu-dong.” “Surely it takes less than an hour to get here from Oh’s house?’’ “Even so, it feels like a great way off. I have the impression I’m all alone in Siberia, my heart burns so. I only have to take one step away from this Mildawon and I feel scared, anxious, my heart starts to burn, I can’t stand it if I’m not surrounded by refugees like myself. Where’s Beomil-dong? It feels as though it’s a thousand miles away.”
Jung-gu’s grumbling had to stop there because Park Un-sam, who had been dozing in a distant corner, came heading in their direction. Park Un-sam came to the table where Jung-gu and Jo Hyeon-sik were seated face-to-face, as if he had some business to discuss, and sat down, but said nothing. He simply sat there silently, just as he had sat in his corner, like a mural painting. Feeling sorry for him, Jo Hyeon-sik spoke first, “Mr. Park Un-sam, where are you staying these days?” But Park Un-sam did not move, simply went on staring at the wall. Jo Hyeon-sik repeated the same question, at which Park turned his head and asked, “Did you say something to me?” Jo Hyeon-sik laughed and asked the same question for a third time, to which finally Park replied, “I stayed at a friend’s, but he got married yesterday.” What he meant was far from clear. Then he returned to being a mural painting again.
An hour or so passed. In that time, Song and Heo Yun both came, sat there a while, then left. Ms. Gil also came by and chatted for a while. Ms. Gil was asking what they would do if the Chinese forces reached Busan. It was a problem that never left anyone’s mind for a moment. So no one felt inclined to reply. Finally, sunny-natured Song said in a loud voice, “We have all decided to jump into the sea and die before the Chinese get here.” He shouted so loudly that not only those who were sitting there, but the people at nearby tables all exclaimed and laughed. “I understand.” Ms. Gil simply brought her hands together, bowed, looking solemn, and went out. Once again Jung-gu, Jo Hyeon-sik and Park Un-sam were left alone together. Dusk came. Jo Hyeon-sik picked up his pack of cigarettes from the table and put it in his overcoat pocket. It was a sign that he was about to stand up. Just then the mural painting Park Un-sam suddenly turned his head and called out, “Mr. Jo.” He was in his twenty-ninth year, being seven or eight years younger than Jo Hyeon-sik or Jung-gu, and that explained why he was using the formal title “Mister.” Jo Hyeon-sik, who had begun to rise, sank back in his chair. The mural painting spoke again, “Could I go to your house with you this evening?” “Someone else applied first,” Jo Hyeon-sik said, pointing at Jung-gu with a smile. Immediately Park Un-sam, without saying anything further, turned his head back and once again became a mural painting. Jo Hyeon-sik stood up, hesitated for a moment, then said, “Mr. Park Un-sam, come along with us.” At that, the mural painting instantly stood up like a robot moved by an electric motor.
After finishing dinner at Jo Hyeon-sik’s house, Park Un-sam unfastened his bundle tied in a light blue cloth wrapper that he always carried. (It was his only possession, like Jung-gu’s old briefcase.) It held a rubber bag with toiletries and two notebooks. Park Un-sam handed the two notebooks to Jo Hyeon-sik, “Can I ask you to look after these?” Jo Hyeon-sik took them, handed them to his wife, saying, “Put these in my bag,” and then looked around at Jung-gu, and asked him, “Can you endure without drinking soju?” At that, Park Un-sam suddenly stood up as if something had stabbed him, saying that the friend who had got married the previous day had several bottles of Canadian whiskey, he had to go pay him a visit, and walked out. He did not return.
The next day, when Jung-gu and Jo Hyeon-sik arrived at Mildawon, Park Un-sam was already there, sitting quietly by the stove. When the two of them approached the stove, whether he saw them or not, he didn’t budge. Jo Hyeon-sik spoke first. “What happened last night?” He simply replied that it had been late, then got up and moved to his private seat in the corner where he always sat like a mural painting.
Around lunchtime, Ms. Gil came and asked Jung-gu and Jo Hyeon-sik to go out with her as she had something urgent to discuss with them. They went to the same udon house as a few days before. Once they had ordered, Ms. Gil began to talk. First, she asked about the situation, in terms similar to the previous day. “It looks as though the enemies are still advancing southward,” Jo Hyeon-sik answered lightly. Jung-gu added, “The Chinese have reached Osan and Wonju,” sharing information he had heard that morning when he ran into Yun from the K News Agency on the street. Ms. Gil closed her eyes and once again joined her hands as if in prayer. “After proclaiming loudly that the defenses of Seoul were impenetrable, they handed it over to the enemy, so there’s not much point in saying that they are sure to make a counterattack in any particular area,” Jo said in a gloomy voice. “Anyway, we can’t be optimistic, can we?” Ms. Gil responded. Jung-gu echoed her feelings. Jo’s silence meant that he agreed. Ms. Gil lowered her voice and asked if they had any alternatives. Everyone with money was preparing to cope with whatever might happen. But we’re just crowding a coffee shop without any plans. Consider what might happen. It’ll be dreadful. However, there was a boat leaving for Jeju Island on church-related business within five days. If she asked, another ten or so people could take it. If Jo Hyeon-sik and Jung-gu agreed she would move ahead with the plan. “Think carefully,” she concluded. After a short pause, Jo Hyeon-sik’s first response was, “If we go, what will we eat? How will we live?” “Survival comes first, eating comes second,” said Ms. Gil. “But with nothing to live on, it’s far too vague.” “Lots of other refugees have gone there, haven’t they?” While Ms. Gil and Jo Hyeon-sik continued to debate, Jung-gu was thinking in his usual manner of the dread of solitude he had experienced the day before at Oh Jeong-su’s house. He felt that he could not go far from Mildawon under any circumstances. He would act together with all the others who remained there to the bitter end. Even if it meant jumping into the sea, as Song had said. He had no courage left to act individually. Bees in swarms, gulls in flocks, he almost muttered aloud.
“Please, Mr. Lee Jung-gu the novelist, tell us your opinion too.” Ms. Gil did not lose her sense of humor, even at such a time. “I can’t do it, I’m too scared. I’m frightened to leave Mildawon.” Ms. Gil, hearing Jung-gu’s clear refusal, once again joined her hands before replying, “You should understand that there will not be another chance.” Jo Hyeon-sik, alarmed at these words, recalled how he had nearly been killed several times in Seoul by the puppet army at the start of the war and, inquiring about the details, asked, “How many days do we have left to decide?” When Ms. Gil replied that everything had to be finalized within five days at the latest, he said to stall, “Then give us five days, and we will consider the idea a little more.” Ms. Gil seemed to agree, saying, “Believe me, if you two comrades are opposed, I do not have the courage to act alone.” Then they rose.
The three of them went back to Mildawon. As they were about to climb the stairs, the musician Ahn Jeong-ho was coming down looking agitated. “Where have you been?” he asked in a flustered voice. When Jo Hyeon-sik replied that they had been eating udon, Ahn Jeong-ho pointed upstairs and said, “Park Un-sam has taken poison.” “Poison?” “Sleeping pills.” “Why sleeping pills?” “What do you mean, why? He’s unconscious.” Jo Hyeon-sik’s face turned pale. Ms. Gil’s lips trembled. “How many did he take?” Jung-gu asked. “A great quantity, it seems. It looks as if he’s taken sixty phenobarbital as well as five Secobarbital.” “Did nobody realize?” “What do you mean? We thought he was just dozing as usual in that corner where he’s always sitting alone.” He ran out, saying he was going to fetch a doctor.
When they entered the coffee shop, people were crowded together in the northwest corner. “You stupid kid! Wretched kid!” Song was holding Park’s overcoat sleeve and crying. “How on earth could you let him do it and not realize?” Ms. Gil scolded the woman in charge of the coffee shop. “He always sat there alone, didn’t he?” The woman replied. “Especially, today he was busy writing, it looked as if he was composing something so no one went near him. Later, he shut his eyes and leaned his head against the wall, as he always does.”
Heo Yun was blubbering as he approached and gave Jo Hyeon-sik a folded sheet of paper. The front bore the title “Farewell.”
I have taken sixty phenobarbital and five Secobarbital that I had prepared in advance.
I have truly gained clarity of consciousness at last. Now I am at peace.
Now I can see the face of my loved one smiling at me across the rolling waves. And now I can see almost all my dear friends gathered before me. I do not want to prolong my life at this time here as they are watching over me.
Farewell, dear people.
January 8, 1951
Park Un-sam’s suicide caused quite a few changes at Mildawon. The coffee shop was closed for many days, with a note fixed to the door saying, “Internal Repairs.” In addition, since the downstairs portion was to be repaired, the order came to remove the National Cultural Association office.
Driven out of Mildawon, everyone scattered to various other coffee shops near the Gwangbok-dong Rotary. From the roundabout at the center, some went to the Star coffee shop on the Nampo-dong side, and half to the Geumgang coffee shop on the Changseon-dong side.
Geumgang was not only much smaller than Mildawon, it was in a building resembling the waiting room of a simple rural railway station, with none of the facilities or equipment needed for a real coffee shop. Perhaps for that reason, if you stayed long sitting on the hard wooden chairs of Geumgang, you would soon hear the sound of a ship’s horn, even in broad daylight. Maybe because of his recent experience of death, whenever he heard that sound of a boat’s horn, Jung-gu would have a vision of his mother lying alone, a lifeless corpse, and instinctively shudder in horror. If they nevertheless kept going to Geumgang all the time, it was because of their friends working for the Hyeondae News directly across from the coffee shop.
Five days later was the thirteenth, the day Jo Hyeon-sik had promised to give Ms. Gil an answer. But by that time their minds were already made up, because the counterattack by the United Nations forces had begun on the eleventh. Thus, the issue of “plans” was abandoned.
Starting on the fifteenth, Jung-gu began to work as an editorial writer for the Hyeondae News, introduced by Yun of the K News Agency. Then on the sixteenth, thanks to Jung-gu, Jo Hyeon-sik was able to hang up the sign of the National Cultural Association on the door of a room in one corner of the second floor of the newspaper offices. At the same time, Wonju, Icheon and Osan were recaptured by the UN forces.
Three days after Jung-gu started work, the Hyeondae News’ culture page included Jo Hyeon-sik’s article headlined “Park Un-sam, the Man and his Art,’’ together with Park Un-sam’s last poem, “Lighthouse,” with a drawing by the artist Song.
alone on the beach
one evening when it seemed
there might be a tsunami.
Is the heart
in that blue wave
acting like a child?
a bride dressed in white
stands like a lighthouse.
Do I turn on the light
by burning myself?