The Storyteller’s Tale

Lee Seung-U

Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé

Published in Koreana: Korean Art & Culture (The Korea Foundation) Vol. 23, No.3 Autumn 2010  pages 85 - 95 (See Introduction)


What happens is always the same, or at least similar. Such is life. In what ways is someone different really different? In those days, carefully scrutinizing some five free ad-magazines and two free newspapers, circling or underlining things then phoning to check whether the information published there was correct, was my main daily job. Not an ideal job, for sure, but it’s tough to find a job that suits you. A series of experiences soon taught me that the more enticing something looks at first glance, the more careful you should be. Most available jobs were salesmen and low-level salesclerks who are obliged to get rid of hard-to-sell products using whatever feeble methods they can find. For example, you have to ignore any ad that promises five million a month. Likewise anything inviting applications as director-general or joint-investor. Mornings I would spend operating the vacuum cleaner and the washing machine; I don’t know where all the dust comes from, despite sweeping and dusting every day, and since you can’t spend a whole day like that, in the afternoon I was obliged to go shopping for something to eat that evening. The wife usually came in after seven. Twice a week on average she would work overtime. On those days she came home after midnight, usually stinking of drink, and out of some kind of mean-spiritedness she never warned me so I could make less effort preparing supper. Perhaps she never told me because I never asked, that’s true, but I had no way of knowing if that was the real reason why she never told me. Just like most working men who come home in the evening after a day at work, I would relax, after a day spent bustling about at home, and watch television. My evening hours were rich and diversified like a well-filled meal table, with drama and news and comedy shows. I sometimes got the impression that I spent the whole day washing and cleaning and preparing food just in order to watch the dramas and the comedy shows.
    That kind of daily routine can be a bit boring but, once you get used to it, you can create a sort of rhythm in the monotony (by reading the magazines in a certain order, for example, or deciding just when to go shopping), once you have learned how to enjoy such things quietly. If I spend several hours with my eyes fixed on the small print of the magazines, I vaguely begin to sense that my mind has been tamed by them and is moving automatically; at such times I feel a bit befuddled, rather like after taking some strong cold-cure, and my nerves gradually relax, I long to let my consciousness go slipping away stealthily; a bit odd, at least, not too bad, I reckon. I might say it’s as though, while things are being used, they draw the user into their own order. Strange, isn’t it? I lived like that for fifteen months. What does that figure of fifteen suggest? Do you wonder? You can guess, I reckon, you’d probably be right. It means that until fifteen months previously I too used to go out to work. It’s no simple matter, losing your job, as anyone knows who’s been through it. You may pretend it doesn’t matter, explain one way or another why it doesn't matter, but in the end you can’t say it doesn’t matter. And even if you do, so what? A sentimental poet of the 1950s once said, “Human life is not lonely, and it’s as vulgar as a magazine cover.” I think he also realized that life isn't vulgar because it’s like a magazine cover, but that rather a magazine cover is vulgar because it’s like life. I have just begun to understand that a little . . . . that life in the midst of loneliness can never be vulgar. Just as a magazine cover cannot be lonely, so life cannot not be vulgar.
    I got accustomed to it, and it quickly became part of my daily life, but then something happened, something that obliged me to interrupt my dull-as-ditchwater routine. I’m going to tell you about it, so just listen. It must have been about three in the afternoon. A phone call suddenly came from my wife, who had gone out early that morning. By that time my nerves had grown quite flabby from the hormones emanating from the words in the magazines. A woman's voice said I must come out quickly, at once. I’m sorry to say that at first I did not recognize it as my wife’s voice. I reckoned it was either a wrong number or a crank call, and quietly hung up without saying a word. It was a method my wife had taught me. If you’re home during the daytime, as anyone who has been there knows, you get all kinds of odd telephones calls. The most common is from real estate agencies, saying they have reliable news of a redevelopment area so I should trust them and invest. Sometimes a youthful sounding woman’s voice says she wants to be my sweetheart. Nowadays telephone companies keep calling, insisting I should transfer my number. My wife recommended that if I got any such calls I should say nothing and simply replace the receiver quietly. Among her friends there were people who had replied in the wrong way, and after that had been pestered day and night until they changed their phone number or even moved house. It was not so much on account of my wife’s advice as because I did not want the ordered, dull routine of my daily life to be disturbed that I tended to hang up immediately on any caller I did not recognize. That was usually the end of the matter. But this time it was different. The telephone rang again. I thought that the same person as before had dialed the same wrong number or was playing the same game and just let it ring while I concentrated on scrutinizing the innumerable, amazingly simple combinations of words in the magazines spread out over the floor. But the phone did not seem inclined to stop as it normally did, rather it seemed to be becoming more insistent. Thinking that it sounded like the cicadas whose cries made midsummer days feel even hotter and more irksome, I moved lazily and brought the receiver to my ear. It’s rather childish but I was about to whisper in a low voice, This is the crematorium. But even before the receiver had reached my ear, the same voice as before came shooting out like bullets flying: “What are you doing? Why did you hang up without saying anything?” The voice was so determined and full of conviction that I let drop the joke I had prepared. I could not simply put the phone down again, either. I racked my brains, wondering who on earth this woman might be, with her rather rapid, husky, nervy voice. It was no good, I could not put a face to it. I had no choice but to cautiously ask who she was. “You mean you don’t recognize the voice of the wife you share a house with? For goodness’ sake!” Now it sounded like her voice. “Is that you, dear?” I asked in a slightly dispirited voice. She went yacking on and on: “How could you possibly forget the voice of your wife? I only went out this morning? For heaven’s sake, it’s living proof of how rarely you think of me; really, it’s too bad.” I cannot really say if I rarely think of her or not, not straight off, but I could not agree that the fact of failing to instantly recognize her voice on the phone was in itself living proof of how rarely I think of her. If you’re going to quibble, it wasn’t even my fault. In all that time she had never once phoned me during the daytime hours I spent at home, so from the start she was eliminated from the list of people who might possibly be calling. Using a tone suggesting that she would have a lot more to say about the topic but since the matter was urgent she was putting that off for later, she urged me to come out at once. I did not know what was the matter, but it seemed to be really urgent. In a slightly intimidated voice I asked, “Where? Why?” “Where? My office, of course. No, wait, there’s no need for you to come here, you can go straight there. Note down the address.” What was she talking about, I asked, annoyed on seeing the tidy order of my dull-as-ditchwater daily life beginning to twist out of shape. “Look, it’s a very important client of ours. We have to keep him happy. The usual narrator’s sick. She still meant to come out but she really can’t, she’s got a raging fever, she says. Taking medicine has had no effect. There’s a really bad cold going around, you know. None of the other narrators is available. I would go if I could but I have an appointment at the same time. I’ve arranged to meet the person in charge of Silvertown, we might be going to sign the contract, I can’t not go. Anyway, you’ll have to take over as narrator just for today. It’s not difficult. I’ll send you the materials in a file, together with the customer profile and a map. Open your email now. There’s still an hour and a half, so you can do it if you hurry. You’ll have to dress neatly. You’d best wear a suit with a tie. Comb your hair and shave, too. OK?”


My wife’s declaration that she was going to start working came some three years after she began attending lectures about writing fiction organized by a literary association, and at that time I had been loafing around for fifteen months after losing my job overnight when the team I was in was abolished during a restructuring at the office undertaken, they said, in response to the economic downturn and changes in industrial structures. She gave as the reason that, even if she went on attending, she had no hope of ever becoming a novelist, but I have no way of knowing if that was true, and it’s hard for me to express any opinion since I never had a chance of seeing anything she had written. It was not that I did not ask her to show me her work. I expressed that degree of interest. But my wife always put it off: Later, later. It was not a matter of, “What does someone like you know about novels?” But still it made me feel sad inside. It is certainly true that, even if I had read what she had written, I was not qualified to judge whether or not she had any hope of becoming a novelist. It does not really matter whether she had any such hopes or not. It might perhaps have been the reason why she decided to stop studying novel-writing, but it could never explain why she made up her mind to go out to work. Every time she looked at our credit-line bank book and sighed, saying, “Somebody will have to earn some money,” there was nothing I could say.
    At first I thought she was uttering some kind of complaint, simply because it’s hard living like that. But it was not that. There was no pondering over where to set up an office, she never went out to ask anyone’s advice, nothing upset the usual atmosphere. I felt anxious, ignored, until at last, feeling sad, I finally asked, “What kind of work are you doing.” At which she replied in a flash, as though she had been waiting for the question, that she had an idea. After a slight pause, she asked, “Have you ever heard of ‘jeon-gi-su’?” Supper had been cleared away and we were vacantly watching the evening news. “Jeon-gi-su? What’s that? An abbreviation of something to do with electricity (jeon-gi)?” I replied casually and at once my wife, smiling brightly with an “I knew it” expression, started to explain the word. She spoke smoothly and without hesitation as though she had been preparing for my question and had memorized everything. She seemed enthusiastic. “In the Joseon era, there used to be people who would read aloud professionally from story books at the roadside where many people passed. There’s a record of it in a book called the Autumn Room Anthology written by a scholar, Jo Su-sam, early in the 19th century. Around the time of the Japanese invasion of the 1590s, Chinese romances such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin or Outlaws of the Marsh reached Korea, and their influence provoked an increased interest in novels and stories. As a result, in the later Joseon period professional story-readers appeared on the streets of Seoul; they received a regular income to read aloud from novels or tell ancient stories. Those people were called Jeon-gi-su  (Storytellers).” Such was her explanation. Those people would set themselves up in a place where there were many people passing, and mostly read from ancient Korean story books such as The Tale of So Dae-seong, The Tale of Sukhyang, The Tale of Simcheong, or The Tale of Seol In-gui. All of that came, of course, from the Autumn Room Anthology. Beginning with the start of the month, performances were held on the first day beneath the First Bridge, on the second day beneath the Second Bridge, on the third day in front of Inhyeon Palace, on the fourth day at the entrance to Gyo-dong, on the fifth day at the entrance to Daesa-dong, on the sixth day in front of the Bell Pavilion, then on the seventh day the order would be reversed, up and down, throughout the month, starting again the following month. “In those days, you might call it a kind of new profession. There were no proper pastimes and the simple folk of those times had no way of enjoying any leisure, so that listening to the storytellers must have been one of their rare moments of pleasure. So of course they were immensely popular. They mostly lived outside the eastern gate, and earned a meager living from the coins tossed to them by the audience, but that was not all, of course. Playboys from rich families, or older women with nothing to do, as well as girls from gisaeng houses must surely have provided extra support. What do you think? Fun, isn’t it?” This was the first time I had heard that people with such a job had existed in the Joseon period, but since I could not begin to see what she found so thrilling about it, suspicion and stress mixing half and half. I simply asked, “So what?” “Presumably people like that vanished once literacy rates rose and book distribution increased. Instead of listening they just read. But what about today? Is there nobody in need of a story-teller?” “What, are you saying you’re going to read to people as a job?” I asked, displaying some surprise. I also think I wanted to express in that way my disappointment to my wife, who had told me it was what she called a new business idea. My wife’s notions of business were less than satisfactory, but I was unhappy with myself for not being worried by that. I tried not to provoke complicated emotions by adding, “I understand what you are saying, but surely there’s too great a difference between the Joseon era when the storytellers were active and today? First of all, in those time only a limited number of people could read, and there were very few things available to read. And as you mentioned, there were no proper pastimes and people had no way of enjoying any leisure. Story-tellers were bound to be popular in such a context. Everything is so completely different now. There’s nobody who’s unable to read, we’re flooded with books, and despite that, since we’re flooded with so many even more amusing and entertaining things, we’re in a situation where nobody pays any attention to them. Of course, there must be people who are unable to read books even though they would like to. I’m not sure how many they might be, but so far as I know lots of audio-books have come onto the market for people like that.”
    Although she agreed in part with my opinion, my wife did not change her mind. She reckoned that either I was taking no notice of my contemporaries’ profound solitude and alienation or I was underestimating them. “The number of people living isolated in their own little inner space is surely greater than the number of illiterate people in the Joseon era, or at least it’s no less. I mean all those poor souls who confine themselves in a dark emptiness, like a black hole, unable to expose their faces to the world’s bright light because of fear and anxiety. Inside, they long desperately to communicate, but they are incapable of expressing that desire outwardly, that is another characteristic of such people. They hope that their isolation and emptiness will be dissolved in some hitherto unseen way, through some kind of extremely private, secret process in which their isolation and emptiness are not advertised. They do not want the fact they they are isolated individuals to be revealed, let alone the fact that they are yearning for communication.” If I did not go on quarreling, it was not because I agreed with her. Rather, for some reason, I was feeling reluctant to hear anything more and it was only after a little more time had passed that I realized that my reluctance was somehow related to the liking for my inner state of isolation that had begun to grow within me. In fact, my dull-as-ditchwater, well-ordered daily life was no different from a black hole-like emptiness.
    My wife got together with an old university friend who had earned a fair amount tutoring students for the university entrance exam, set up a site with the appropriate name of “Seoul, 21st-century Storytellers,” and went into the story-telling business in earnest. When she handed me her business card, “Seoul, 21st-century Storytellers, Lee Yeong-nan, Head of Planning,” her expression was a mixture of excitement and pride. This storytelling business, that proclaimed itself to be a visiting program with home-study materials, began, as you may know, with a membership system, recruiting and educating people known as narrators who would read books or tell stories, and sending them out to members. It’s still the same now, the principle being that a suitable book should be chosen in consultation. But there were people who decided on a title for themselves. There were those who asked for a digested version of a specific book, while others asked to be read a newspaper or magazine, or to be told an entertaining story. Occasionally there was a request to be read to over the telephone instead of visiting. For myself, it was rather unexpected to discover just how many people wanted other people’s help to read a book or hear a story. As I saw how, slowly but surely, the number of members increased, I was forced to accept that my wife’s judgment had been correct. There were a lot of people who offered to be narrators, perhaps because they had trouble finding a job. The clients’ levels and tastes varied from person to person so that the books to be read were very varied, requiring a considerable intellectual capacity, besides which the voice had to be sufficiently effective. Of course, selecting narrators was particularly complicated. Perhaps because it was important to choose a text that corresponded to the character of the job, the role of the narrator and the disposition of the client, training sessions and meetings often seemed to be required. As time passed, my wife came home increasingly late and it seemed inevitable that she no longer bothered with housework. My wife never actually said as much, but I had the impression that she hoped I would stop looking for a job. From the start she indicated that she took it for granted that I would stay home and look after the housework. That was simply the way things were, I’m not saying I was dissatisfied.


Male, 59. Character: reserved and meditative. Music-lover (almost always wears earphones). Prefers aphoristic essays or works of a religious nature. Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” Max Picard’s “The World of Silence,” Aurelius’s “Meditations,” the Bible’s “Proverbs” or “Ecclesiastes.” Sometimes asks to go walking together.

My first client, summed up in a few words, seemed to be someone of rather reclusive tastes. Even considering that a reclusive character is inherent in this manner of providing information, still the contents were sufficient to make me feel curious, surely? As my wife had requested, I washed, shaved, combed my hair and put on a suit. I read the materials my wife had sent while I was in the subway. Together with the basic information on the client, whose name was Han Sang-cheol, there was a file with the text I was to read. It contained an extract from Tolstoy’s “On Life” typed in a 12-point font. I skimmed through it absent-mindedly, thinking it was not very interesting. The thought that the person who wanted this boring piece of writing might well prove to be not very interesting made me feel depressed. That it was boring emerged clearly from the table of contents to the recommended book. I thought about phoning to bother my wife by asking how long I had to spend with this fellow but then I felt I was being pathetic and gave up the idea.
The man was living in a rural villa not far outside Seoul, surrounded by poplars and willows so that it was not easy to find the entrance. Unable to find the way in, I passed by it several times. The tall, leafy trees looked like guardsmen. But of course there was no way of knowing what it was the trees were guarding. It simply served to confirm a little more my previous image of a man with reclusive tastes. I was welcomed by a solidly-built woman in her mid-fifties, her face pale, her attitude restrained. Yet she did not look like the owner of the house. You find people like that. A face gentle yet expressionless. A warm yet dull voice . . . . someone who has been working in a house so long that she seems to have become part of it. Someone who seems to know precisely about every aspect of the house. Owners are not like that. An owner does not look like part of the house, neither do they look as though they know precisely about every aspect of the house. Even when in fact they do. As I pointed at the file and introduced myself as the narrator sent by “Seoul, 21st-century Storytellers,” I felt rather tense, although I was not lying. I suppose it was a kind of inferiority complex. “The regular narrator is sick and so I’ve come instead, I don’t know if you’ve been informed.” I mumbled on, scratching the back of my head as if embarrassed. My hand kept rising toward the unaccustomed tie I had put on. The woman, seemingly not interested in any such feelings of mine, led me to a chair in the middle of the garden and told me to wait there.
    I stood awkwardly in front of the chair and examined the house. Broad-leaved trees surrounded it almost entirely, giving the impression it was cut off from the world outside. The building seemed to be quite old, I could see cracks here and there and places where the paint had flaked off. The garden was quite spacious but it did not give the impression of being well maintained. Overgrown branches and irregular patches in the lawn spoiled the effect. A rectangular wooden table and five wooden chairs had been set up and I had just sat down when I heard someone approaching. I quickly rose again. The woman who had welcomed me before had come out pushing a wheelchair. My eyes turned naturally to the person sitting in the wheelchair. It held an elderly man whose skinny frame and small stature contrasted with those of the woman. Deep wrinkles and unfocussed eyes, a lack of expression suggesting a complete loss of interest in the world, reminded me of a mask while his thin body with no sign of vitality left me with the feeling that it was like a dry log. If this man was indeed the music lover with a taciturn, meditative personality whom I was supposed to read to, his age ought to be fifty-nine. That was what was written down. But leaving aside the taciturn, meditative personality, the term music-lover did not appear to suit him at all. Even more impossible to believe was the age of fifty-nine. On his ravaged, old face the shadow of death lay more thickly than shades of life. As for his expression, there was one, of course, but there was no guessing what his vacant stare was directed at, and it made my flesh creep. You might even go so far as to imagine he had emerged from a graveyard. I doubted if this man was a fifty-nine year old music lover with a taciturn, meditative personality, but I had no reason to suppose he was not Han Sang-cheol.
    The woman brought the man to me, bowed her head in greeting and withdrew, and at that moment I had the impression that she was being relieved of an impossible load. Feeling burdened by the unaccustomed role that had been thrust upon me, I again muttered that I had come instead because the usual narrator was unwell. I saw the old man’s eyelids slowly open then equally slowly close again. Perhaps on account of the speed, he looked extremely bored. I also saw his fingers twitch slightly as they lay on the armrests of the wheelchair. For some reason I felt that looking at his fingers would be impolite and averted my gaze. He had earphones in his ears (at first I had thought it was a hearing aid) that seemed to be connected to the small cassette player he had on his lap. Music after asking someone to come and read? The thought struck me that it would not do, but I felt no desire to ask him to remove the earphones. I was thinking that as far as I was concerned, all I had to do was read Tolstoy’s “On Life,” whether he was listening or not. Besides, I found myself expecting him to understand better if he listened with music in the background. In which case there was no reason for me to complain that it wouldn’t do. I wished he would say something, but he gave no instructions. After fumbling with my tie and clearing my throat, I sat down on the chair facing him. Then I began to read the prepared text from “On Life.”

Man lives only for his own happiness, for his own good. If he does not feel a desire for his own welfare he no longer feels himself to be alive. Man cannot think of life without a wish for his own welfare.

As I read, from time time to time I observed the old man. There was no change in his expression. There was no knowing if he was listening attentively or not, and I felt worried. At a given moment I even began to wonder if he could hear my voice. Not whether he was listening to my voice but whether he might not be so deaf that he could not hear anything. If that was the case, what on earth did I think I was doing? His persistent lack of response made me feel awkward, puzzled, apprehensive, mortified, and finally reduced me to self-pity. It was the pointlessness of having to keep on and on saying something to someone incapable of understanding. Thanks to the myth of Sisyphus, surely everyone knows what a dreadful punishment it is to be obliged to keep repeating a meaningless gesture. Being obliged to keep rolling a rock up a hill that constantly rolls back down again is a dreadful punishment, not because it is physically arduous but because it gives humiliation and boredom.
    “Shall I stop reading?” I asked. If the old man simply nodded, there would be no need for him to speak, and suppose he showed no reaction at all, I intended to take that as meaning I should stop reading, and do so. If he nodded, that indicated consent and I could stop; I had decided that if he showed no response at all, that would prove that he was deaf and could hear nothing, so there was no need to go on reading. But my expectations proved wrong. Not that he expressed himself. He neither nodded nor shook his head. He simply slowly opened his eyelids and silently looked at my face. That’s a response, isn’t it? I tried to read some message in his face, but failed. I could read nothing, but the fact was he had shown a response; by showing any response at all, the fact was he had shown that he was not deaf and I could not ignore that. That meant I could not put an end to my assigned task. What was I to do? I had to keep on acting as narrator. I tried to control my irritation. Frankly speaking, I had for some time been feeling intensely frustrated and humiliated on account of the way my meaningless action had failed to provoke interest in my audience. My feelings of frustration and humiliation were similar to the discomfort felt on having one’s inner feelings observed unilaterally by someone wearing dark glasses. Dark glasses are an excellent means for observing without being observed. While I was reading Tolstoy’s “On Life” the idea kept pursuing me that my audience was deciphering the flimsy, conventional and feeble text entitled “Myself.” And by some kind of association, a forgotten memory of something that had happened fifteen months before came into my mind. For a long while after I had left the company in the wake of the wave of restructuring, I kept wondering why I had been the only member of our section to be forced into early retirement. Finding the answer was difficult and painful. I reflected belatedly on how uneasy I had felt all the time I was working there. Once I realized that sensing the atmosphere in the office or reading the boss's mind had always been the most difficult things for me, I quickly understood why I had felt uneasy. I had found it hard to laugh when the boss laughed without knowing the reason. There had also been several occasions when I had provoked an icy atmosphere in the office by a single phrase spoken in jest. Now I finally realized, as I stood scrutinizing the expression of an immobile old man sitting in front of me while I read Tolstoy, that while people could easily read me, I could hardly or not at all read other people. I felt that it was an important realization. Immediately I grew anxious and found myself unable to continue my meaningless reading.  I could not read Tolstoy.
     Still, it was less than fifteen minutes since I had entered the house, there could be no question of my simply leaving already. I felt sorry that I had not asked my wife how long I would have to act as narrator. But what was I to do? I was going to be obliged to decide and act for myself. I was being paid, I thought, so surely I would have to stay there for an hour at least. It was dreadful to imagine spending the remaining forty minutes imitating a poor radio actor. At the thought that I was not so much like a poor actor as a broken-down radio, I felt as though I was crawling across mudflats. I grew impatient to see the old man lower his eyes once again; in that case I would be forced to go on being a poor actor and a broken-down radio, something I disliked intensely. I just had to catch another glimpse of his eyes before his eyelids covered them again, even if they looked like black holes. I felt convinced that for that to happen I had to stop reading and talk to him.
    “Have you heard?” As I spoke freely my voice naturally grew faster. “It seems there's a tribe somewhere in Asia that worships turtles as gods.  When a turtle lays eggs, someone is designated to take care of them carefully, serving as a nursemaid. Turtles are herbivores, but if they only eat grass they grow weak so from time time they are fed tonics. I wondered what those tonics might be made of . . .” I gave up reading like a poor actor and adopted the tone of someone making conversation. It seemed that would be the only way of awakening his interest. I really had no wish to go on pointlessly pushing a rock uphill. Neither did I want to be seen through. Of course, I had no other text ready beside Tolstoy's “On Life.” I was impatient because I had no idea of what to talk about.  Luckily, you might say, just then I recalled a program about a strange tribe that I had seen on television one morning. My wife had already left for her work and I was feeling relaxed as I drank my coffee and enjoyed the morning,  while strange tales emerged from the television, that was on out of habit. I was simply watching, without any particular pleasure, but seeing the way in which that came to mind just when I needed something to talk about, I suppose I must have been feeling some degree of interest. The old man's eyelids had been drooping occasionally but now he looked up. Success.  It was not clear what he was focusing on, but once I could look him in the eye I grew more confident. I continued talking. I probably made up things when my memory failed me. “Lizards.  The villagers catch lizards and press the juice out of them. That's the tonic they give the turtles, to help them have many children.  Those villagers believe that if a turtle is hurt, even by accident, they will fall very ill. They claim that there have been several cases where people have injured a turtle and died before the day was out.  Stories like that being handed down would explain how turtles came to be vested with divine powers. The people believe they are under the curse of the turtle god. It does not  matter if turtles really have such powers or not. People simply believe it. Who knows, after all, some regime needing to keep control by the spread of such myths might fabricate something of the kind. That's the way things generally are. The outside appearance is not the whole story . . . .” The old man was concentrating on me. His gaze was still as vacant as ever But I could sense it. How hard he was panting, deep inside . . . . At least, I had been able to stop being a broken-down radio. Fortunately.

My wife smiled brightly as she questioned me: “How did you do it? How on earth did you do it? That difficult old man . . . .” Behind her incredulous expression I could read indications that she found it wonderful that I had such talent, but I decided not to let it affect me. What did it matter? As a matter of fact, I was equally incredulous. What had I done, finally?  In place of Tolstoy's “On Life” I had talked about adopting turtles as gods, after which I talked about a movie called “Village” I had seen thanks to a borrowed video about a year before.  Because I had to keep on talking, no matter what I said.  It was about an isolated mountain village that invented a myth according to which a monster was living in the forest, in order to keep villagers from going outside.  Like the tale of the turtle, that too was not part of the program. It would be hard to claim that there was any clear similarity between the two stories. I suppose that some kind of association brought both tales to mind but I am incapable of explaining the process. And what was I going to say next? It did not take very long to tell those two stories, and then I had to start on something new but I had nothing ready, so perhaps that was why I began to talk about the landlord of the place I was renting. Maybe because the apartment-block had been built nearly thirty years ago, every time we opened a tap a stream of rusty brown water came pouring out. Then from a few days back there had been a tap from which water continued to drip, even though it was closed completely, enough to half fill the bathtub overnight. Surely that's a serious matter? I called the owner and asked him to have it repaired but, well, he shouted back in a loud voice that it was up to the person living there to mend it. How dare he? Was it my property? I protested. It was not as though it was my fault if it was dripping, it was because the building was so old, so why should the tenant have to mend it? At that he asked sarcastically where I would ever find an apartment that large at so low a rate, which drove me up the wall. He seemed to be saying that if I was dissatisfied I should get out and it really upset me. It was true that the rental for that old apartment was cheap but surely that was no reason for replying as if I was complaining for the mere sake of doing so. Was it? Then, as I went on arguing, the fellow hung up as though he was fed up with listening. It was really weird. I told the old man all that. “There are so many occasions when common sense fails to get across. Surely, even if a cheap rental's cheap, what needs repairing has to be repaired. I was so angry . . .  I felt like rushing out and planting a fist in the fellow's goddam face. That bastard!” As I spoke, I grew increasingly worked up. I sensed that the man's hand resting on the arm of the wheelchair was trembling a little more violently, but I had no idea what emotion that was meant to indicate. The more I denounced my landlord, the more my agitation turned into an odd kind of pleasure, so I went on at some length. That was all. You couldn't say that I had played my role of narrator well. But so what? What had I done, after all?
    When I left the house after filling up a whole hour, I was feeling very hungry, and at the same time I wanted to go somewhere where I could lean back and relax. It was in part a sign that I had done some hard work for the first time in months, but also a result of the fatigue that came over me as the tension wore off. I undid my tie and removed my jacket. My shirt was soaked. I had not realized that talking to someone consumes so much energy. The stories in our heads exist as a mass of images. Unraveling them as stories involves giving them bodies.  A chain of trivial details forms a story because they form a body. After the mass of images has been divided carefully into details, each has to be joined to the others in a chain. That is what happens inside us whenever we talk to anybody. The details have mainly to be summoned up by the memory but when that fails to happen, when the memory does not function, they need to be invented. That was when I discovered that not only making things up but even simply recovering memories is really hard work. I was nearly exhausted. As I gazed up at the poplars and willows that surrounded the house like a fence, I murmured to myself that I was really not cut out for this kind of work. Whether or not people blamed me for still not having found a job, I had no wish to do that a second time.
    But, perhaps as a kind of strange provocation, that difficult client kept asking for me to come again. “What do you mean? You're asking me to go back there? To that grim old man?” At first I suspected my wife of wanting to turn me into one of her employees. I thought she might be saying that the client wanted me as a way of expressing it that would appeal to her husband's self-respect. Because I had left the house not at all convinced that I had satisfied him. To the very end, his mask-like lack of expression had not varied. Having to pour out an unending stream of some kind of words toward his unfocussed, inanimate eyes had been equally grim. Moreover, I had begun to wonder, although I could not be sure, if the old man was not simply taciturn but  actually incapable of speech. There was no telling if he could hear,  but perhaps he could not speak . . . which was why I asked her whether the old man had expressed that wish himself. “The gentleman didn't tell me himself. It's always that woman who contacts me. You must have seen her at the house.” My wife was sitting in front of her mirror, removing her makeup. “She doesn't seem to be his wife,” I said, “Is she some kind of relative?” “She's been working in his house for a long time past,” my wife explained. I remarked that there seemed to be too great a difference in their ages for her to be his wife, which reminded me that on the client-description form his age had been given as fifty-nine, and I asked if they hadn't got his age wrong? When I said that he looked too old to be only fifty-nine, she vaguely agreed but then added indifferently, “Maybe he's not well.” “Even if he's not been well, I still don't believe it. And that fellow is more than taciturn; he can't talk, can he? He never said a word for a whole hour. Have you ever heard him speak?” My sharp-witted wife immediately understood my meaning. “You think I'm making it up, don't you? Why would I say what wasn't true? So what if he said nothing for an hour? It shows he's taciturn.” Then she put on a serious expression and added, “I'm running a business, not a spare-time activity.” Well, that put me to shame. There are times like that, aren't there, when you kill a conversation by trying to check a viewpoint or a position . . . I felt wretched and decided to shut up. My wife turned her face, that was shiny with the cold-cream she had applied, toward me and went on: “I think he just refuses to talk, really, that client; he's twice sent away narrators we've sent, he seems rather hard to please. Of course the narrators find him grim, too. But he likes you, doesn't he? It's never been like this before. Why would I say something untrue? You're really remarkable.” That was what she said, but I did not think I was remarkable at all. I could agree that he was grim, but not that I was remarkable. Moreover, I had not entirely freed myself of the suspicion that that 'remarkable' might be no different from a hand intent on pushing me into that grimness. I kept reminding myself of my decision never to go back to that house.
    In the end, I was unable to keep to my decision. Not on account of my wife's stubbornness (though she certainly is more stubborn than I am) but because my resolve was not firm enough to sustain the decision I had made. My wife kept repeating, “The client wants you, you know.”  No doubt it was my victim mentality, but her words sounded to me like a voice saying, “There's nobody else asking for you, is there?” I'm not sure if my wife was really harboring that intention or not, but I had no other choice, apart from the image of my paltry figure spending the best part of every day with job ads spread in front of me.
    I suggested that for this client we should choose story-telling or even conversation, rather than reading. It was not that I had any particular basis for it, only a thought to that effect had struck me. I said that I had no idea why that old man wanted me but it might be on account of the way I had talked about things seen on television and criticized my landlord instead of reading Tolstoy's “On Life” and my wife agreed that it might be so. “That's the hardest part, deciding on a selection of texts corresponding to a client's tastes. Some of them make up their own lists, but not the majority. Choosing texts that correspond to their taste, level and situation is the most important thing. The way you speak matters too, of course.” I asked the reason why Aurelius, Tolstoy and Ecclesiastes had been chosen as texts for me to read to the old man.  My wife recalled that the woman who looked after him had said that he wanted religious, meditative texts. Hers had been the first call “Seoul, 21st-century Storytellers” had received. That suggested a high probability that the woman had taken the initiative in choosing the texts. I suspected that whether or not it was the woman's decision, they were not to the old man's personal taste. She might have chosen at random, but even if she hadn't, even if they reflected the old man's wishes to some extent, as was certainly also possible, I said, even so, he clearly does not know what he really likes.  I also think I insisted strongly that the manner of speaking was more important than the contents. My wife looked quite moved as she praised me: “You're a born narrator.” I wished she would stop making such statements to encourage me. I was on the point of telling her that, while it might be alright for her to talk to the others in that way, she should not treat me just as she did the other narrators, but stopped myself because I reckoned that such a request would naturally imply that I was a narrator.
    Despite such feelings, I found myself obliged to act as narrator twice a week and obviously could not go chattering on aimlessly as before. My wife, who according to her business card was “Head of Planning, Seoul, 21st-century Storytellers,” said she would leave the choice of texts to me, as if she was doing me a special favor. I concentrated on finding stories. Of course, I consulted various books. But instead of taking books along and simply reading from them, I chose a method that would be more like storytelling. I had quickly discovered on the first visit that in that way I could avoid sounding like a broken-down radio. If my wife's evaluation of me as wonderful was based on that, I had no reason to deny it.
    As a narrator, it was pointless for me to organize the tales I would tell in a systematic order. Enough to say that I had discovered that variety was the very essence of storytelling. For example, I drew on myths and legends, television dramas,  fables, comedies, newspaper articles, even Buddhist and Christian sermons. I introduced my personal experiences here and there as well. It would not be difficult to make a list of the different stories later. Instead, I changed my mind, seeing that that was not particularly important. On the first occasion, I had had difficulty filling an hour with this and that story, but now I would be capable of expanding a single story to fill any amount of time. Should I say I was a veteran now? That was what I had meant by saying that the manner of speaking was more important than the contents.
    Not that there was any visible change in the way the old man listened. The change was in me. Becoming able to accept the old man's mask-like expression, his inanimate dryness and dark emptiness as time passed, I think that can be termed a change in me.  The times I spent at his house grew longer,  at first it was a matter of a cup of tea but later they happened to coincide with mealtimes and I started eating with him. “I'll just add another spoon,” the distant relative who looked after him spoke in a kind though toneless voice, almost like a whisper, then added, “The gentleman doesn't usually eat with other people.” It sounded as though she expected me to express my gratitude for a special welcome, a request I found it hard to respond to. While I waited for the old man, she used to make tea and bring it out to me, at which moments we would make slight conversation, usually about the day's weather or mood. One day I happened to ask who the old man was. She stared at me for a while as though it was an unexpected question, if not a forbidden one. In order to show that I had not asked out of real curiosity, I shrugged my shoulders and lightly waved a hand. To which she replied, “If you knew what kind of person he is, you might be surprised.” Thereupon I grew curious and asked again what kind of person he was.  She did not reply at once and I did not press her. I felt it would be wrong. She sat there in silence for a while then, having checked that my tea cup was empty, as she stood up holding the tray she spoke in a kind of mutter. “A man who has spent thirty years of his life in hiding, waiting to be called for, that's who he is. Pretending to be deaf, then dumb. I don't know how it's possible. All the time believing in one vague promise . . . .  until his body is in its present state. Now he'd be no use even if he were to be called for, yet he lives waiting for that one message. When you think of it, you can't help but feel sorry for him . . . .” I had already guessed that there must be some kind of story so I was not surprised, and hearing that much only made me more curious to know the full story, but I could not interrogate her directly. She went into the house carrying the cup and after that made no further reference to the story.
    On a few occasions I took the old man on a stroll, pushing his wheelchair, but we never went beyond the fence of poplars and willows. Far off between the trees a railway-line was visible; we used to stop there and silently watch the trains passing. I stood behind the wheelchair holding it steady and told him a short story by some writer about the fuss when a venomous snake being kept in a plastic bottle on the veranda of someone's apartment somehow vanished, or the happenings that ensued after an elephant broke through the wall surrounding a zoo and escaped. After a few things like that, I told him at length about how I had come to be a narrator. I likewise explained the reasons and process by which my wife had come to start her work. Then at a given moment I told him how I had been fired. From a given moment, I mean, I mainly talked about myself. The department head deceived me to the very last moment. Although he had already put my name on the list of those qualified for voluntary early retirement, even when we were out drinking together in the evenings he expressed exaggerated trust in me until the very day before I was notified. I had not been capable of reading his inner thoughts. Indeed, I had never so much as thought that I ought to be reading them. How he must have been laughing inside himself. Even now my face flushes and I grow angry when I think of it. As I told the story, I became agitated, my voice rose, I may even have sworn a few times. I always feel better after that .
    He seemed to hear what I was saying and at the same time not to hear. I did not care if he was listening or not, I just went on talking. I no longer even worried about the old man's earphones, that had previously worried me so much.  Nor his vacant eyes like black holes.  Turning into a broken-down radio and telling stories to the unresponsive old man had been very burdensome but now I felt it didn't matter, so it didn't; I wonder how that came about, sometimes I surprise myself. Is it true, as my wife said, that I'm a born narrator? Anyway, from a certain moment I, the narrator, no longer paid any attention to the preferences or opinions of the old man, the client, but simply selected and told this or that story as I wished. As I went on expanding my stories,  it finally dawned on me that perhaps I was not telling stories for him to listen to but rather he was listening so that I could tell stories. If the benefit I got from talking was greater than that which he received from listening, who is dependent on whom? Surely human nature is closer to being “a speaking being” than “a listening being” . . . . and suddenly I wondered if the reason why high-class ladies from the women's quarters or girls from the  gisaeng houses or playboys who had lost their official positions all called in the old-time storytellers might simply have been so that they could hear stories.

    That kind of strange, symbiotic relationship between Han Sang-cheol and myself continued for a while. Without acknowledging it to one another, we were using each other. Indeed, after a while I even began to look forward to the times when I went to meet him. Meeting him had become part of my dull, boring everyday life so that the dull boredom gained in stability. It was like a comfortable sofa. I had the feeling that once I was on a comfortable sofa, I could spend a long time lounging there. But my time on the sofa was not to last long.
    The incident happened when the old man finally opened the mouth he had kept shut for so long. I am really obliged to call it an incident, for the old man opened the mouth he had never once opened since I first began to visit the house. The wind was blowing hard that day.  Occasional raindrops had been falling since early morning. To avoid the wind and rain we had moved into the living room. As always, the old man was sitting in the wheelchair, his earphones were in his ears, his arms were neatly laid on the armrests. I was sitting opposite him telling some kind of story. I don't recall exactly what. Occasionally it was something serious, mostly it was something light. The old man was looking in some other direction. I used to talk without looking at his eyes. It was more comfortable. Worse still, I sometimes talked while thinking about something else. Of course, he probably thought about other things as he listened, too. It had all become so natural that nothing was a problem any more.
     At a given moment, the old man suddenly raised a hand, pointed at something, gasped out a cry, and fell forward. I don't know why, but he seemed to try to stand up too quickly, lost his balance and fell, at the same time as a mental shock made him lose consciousness. That was my guess. It all happened so quickly that it was hard to grasp the situation. I called for the woman urgently then looked in the direction the old man had pointed. But I could not tell what he had seen there. Wind coming in through the slightly opened window was making the curtains shake, there was a framed picture of the lake at the summit of Baekdu-san Mountain, a television set and two orchids in pots, I could discover nothing particular.  The television was not on. Had he observed some ghostly eyes that I could not see?  As I was thinking, the woman who cared for him came rushing in.  “What happened?”  She asked as she raised the fallen old man. I said I did not know and shook my head. I was rather preoccupied in case she thought I had given him some kind of shock. I helped her put the old man back in his wheelchair, and he gave a groan as though he had recovered consciousness. The voice sounded hoarse, divided, disagreeable. “You'd better go and rest. Come along, let's go and rest.” The woman pushed the wheelchair into the  next room. Confused, I could only stay standing there uncertainly. I still did not realize that, although it was only a cry, I had heard the old man make a sound with his vocal cords for the very first time.
    “It looks as though you'll have to go back home for today.” The woman did not emerge for a long time after taking the old man into the other room and I had been wavering as to whether I should simply go; finally she came out and indicated that I should go. I too thought it would be better. Yet there was some kind of uneasy feeling that kept me from leaving at once. It was rather as though I felt I would be leaving the scene of an accident and sneaking away. At least, I reckoned it would be cowardly. Surely it was only natural that I should think that the woman would know the reason for what had happened, while I did not. This was not the moment to quibble as whether it was natural or not. Nourishing the hope that she might be able to satisfy at least a little of my curiosity, I asked, “What happened? For goodness sake, what happened?” The woman glanced toward the room where the old man was and sighed deeply. She showed signs of hesitating briefly, then gently closed her eyes and spoke.
    “It's all over. The long wait to which he sacrificed his whole life is finally at an end.” Her words sounded to me like a Zen riddle. I was bewildered. I could not help asking her what was over. “I told you that you would be surprised if you knew who that old man was, didn't I? I don't know if you will remember. A long time ago, a powerful former high-ranking official met a suspicious end. It provoked a great uproar for a long time. The truth about the incident was never made public and a long time went by. A lot of people have forgotten all about it. But that old man has lived on, never forgetting. He spent half his life hidden and silent. Waiting for the day when he would be called for. If he never spoke, it was not because he had forgotten but because he had not forgotten. Because he could not forget. He was not permitted to forget. The highest-ranking official over him had said that if he hid and kept quiet for a little while, he would call for him. It has been thirty years now. Too long for a little while . . . yet . . .” How to understand that the old man had never lost hope in the promise of his former chief to call for him, even though his body was overshadowed by death? Life is not a lonely thing, surely, it's just as vulgar as a magazine cover. But probably that wait had ended up by becoming less urgent, nothing much more than a habit. Why did he not understand that a magazine cover is vulgar because it's like life? Just as a magazine cover can never be lonely, a human life cannot not be vulgar.  That day, on the radio that he was always listening to through his earphones, the news came of that chief's death. That was why he had been shocked, cried out, collapsed, she said. Just see how vulgar a human life can be.  No matter how lonely it may look, life is bound to be vulgar. It was the woman who told me, but later I was able to verify the facts from the lips of the person most directly involved, Han Sang-Cheol. Yes, the old man told his own story. Of course, at the time I thought that day would be the last. But about a month later, the old man called for me again. I felt rather uncertain but I couldn't not go. Indeed, there was no reason for not going. What stories should I tell? I was a bit worried. I thought I knew him a little, but in fact I hardly knew him at all, so that choosing stories was difficult.  I went with a few tales ready: the man who passed through walls; the man who sold his shadow, the man who sold real estate in the stars.
     The poplars and willows surrounding the house were the same as before. The untended garden, too. But the man had changed. The emptiness gaping like a black hole, the shadow of death as if he had just emerged from a graveyard had vanished completely.
    On entering the house, I found the old man in much better health than before, even declaring that he'd soon be up out of his wheelchair. “Today, I'll be the narrator. Today, I want you to listen to me.” With that, he launched straight into his own story. He related without pausing to rest. His story was long and dark, amazing and passionate. He told his story with such passion that as I listened I wondered how he had been able to live until now without telling it. Then, once he had finished telling his story, another thought struck me. Maybe what he had been waiting for had not been someone else's voice calling for him, but his own voice. Maybe he had been waiting for a time to come when he would not have to wait any longer. Maybe he had been waiting for an end to waiting. Maybe that was why he had been listening to the radio without ever for a second removing the earphones . . .  Of course, he did not say as much himself. Those are just my conjectures. Who can know what lies beyond things said? We should never forget that, as someone once said, under the surface of our lives flow long and dark, amazing and passionate stories that there is no way of knowing unless they are told. The old man died not long after telling me his story, so it might be considered a form of sacramental confession. Of course, I could tell the long and dark, amazing and passionate story I heard from him. A long time has passed but I still remember it almost word for word. But that's enough for today. I'm too tired. I've told too many stories today. I need to rest a while. Be careful as you go out.