Yi Sang was born Kim Hae-gyo※ng in Seoul in 1910 and was trained as an architect. During his short literary career he showed an interest first in poetry, turning out some highly idiosyncratic and experimental pieces, and then short fiction. In the fall of 1936 he journeyed to Tokyo, where he soon ran afoul of the authorities and was imprisoned. He died of tuberculosis in a Tokyo hospital in 1937.
His "Nalgae"(Wings, 1936) is one of the best-known modern Korean stories. Whether its read as an allegory of colonial oppression, an existential withdrawal from the absurdities of contemporary life, an extended suicide note, or simply the degradation of a kept man, it is strikingly imaginative.
Yi Sang was a writer ahead of his time. While his debt to French modernism is evident, recent scholarship has investigated the influence of traditional Korean literature on his work. Since the 1970s his critical reputation has soared. (For a provocative portfolio on this gifted artist, including translations of his poetry and fiction, see the 1995 issue of Muae.)
"Phantom Illusion" (Hwanshigi), one of several of his stories published posthumously, first appeared in Cho※ngsaekchi in 1938. Readers of "Nalgae" will recognize the antic, self-deprecating narrator, the internal monologues, and the staccato narration.
In the beginning there was an idiot who couldn't tell right from left,
And now, a hundred generations later,
Invalids cursed by heaven proliferate among his hapless descendants.
"Whichever way you look at her, the little woman's face seems a bit lopsided toward the left, you know?"
That's what Song said about a month after their marriage.
She wasn't a virgin, but she had a treasure even more precious-a set of Gorky's complete works, which she had read through, every last volume. That's what attracted Song, and I'm sure it's his secret pride and joy.
It was only natural that the newlyweds, Song and Miss Sun-yo※ng, should combine their books, and I saw Song's recently purchased Gorky set together with Miss Sun-yo※ng's time-worn set. (The sad fact of my having to add "Miss" to her name now that she's married is the motive, such as it is, for this story.)
Ultimately, about a month after their marriage, Song took his newly printed Gorky set and sold it.
"Let's spend half of it," he tells me.
"What about the other half?"
"I have to give it to the little woman. I blew last month's pay on booze, and I've had to go through hell this entire month."
"I thought you were going to spend the other half on cosmetics for her-"
"Cosmetics? You know, don't you get the feeling there's something a tiny bit lopsided about her face, whichever way you look at her? I understand you chased her for four years before we got married. Did you know about her face then? Or were you oblivious to the very end?"
I remember the first time I met her. It was early summer, four years past, a clear night with the stars sparkling. Sun-yo※ng was leaning against the old, crumbling rampart wall along the street leading over the hill to the radio station, waiting expectantly, her face as beautiful as if it were bathed in moonlight. From my rather limited perspective I was deeply troubled by the sensuousness of the wheat-colored breaths passing through the coarse texture of her linen summer jacket. "Hmm...what would be the most skillful and yet most natural way to violate those lips?" I wondered.
In a matter of minutes I had drawn up a plan. First of all, I would have to approach Sun-yo※ng and look at her head on.
When I did so, something struck me as very strange. Her face, as beautiful as if bathed in moonlight, looked for some reason slightly lopsided toward the left.
Like someone who had committed a crime, I promptly removed myself to her right. For I had to adjust my angle of sight, which was capable of such effrontery.
And then, owing to my disadvantageous position, I could no longer violate Sun-yo※ng's lips. (It really was starry, that early-summer night four years ago.) A policeman approached, I had no idea why. When I told Sun-yo※ng I was from way down south in Samch'o※np'o, she said she was from Hoeryo※ng, up on the northern border. Suddenly, with lightning speed, Sun-yo※ng and I were hundreds of miles apart on my mental map. In a moment the moonlight had vanished from her face.
My wife wrote me a letter from Samch'o※np'o. She said on the one hand she might return to me immediately, but on the other hand there might be a delay-she simply couldn't tell at a time like this.
My wife was AWOL. I had a good mind to call the junk dealer and sell off everything she owned, including the dirty socks she had left behind.
It seemed there was a fifty-fifty chance my wife would return, but in fact, even if I were to tell her to leave again, there was no place she was welcome. Oh well-I lay myself down and figured I'd wait and see if she came back.
Anyway, that was the general idea. In the evening, using young Yun as my cover, I'd hang out at the Morocco Bar, where Sun-yo※ng worked.
To a drinking man, one of the best excuses to drink is when your wife flies the coop-after all, it's a pretty sad situation. But you don't let on, no sir, not one iota, that there's a fifty-fifty chance she'll return. To the best of my ability I exaggerated my sorrow-which was anything but-in an attempt to tug at Sun-yo※ng's heartstrings. But in the end this sordid job of fakery had no effect on her.
Before long, Sun-yo※ng had gone south to Kwangju. The day she left, she had me in a drinking way. I felt like grabbing the hem of her skirt and ripping it. I cried. I told her that life is hollow and empty, blah blah blah. But Sun-yo※ng apparently took this as a sign that I needed more booze, because she ordered me another beer.
For the next six months I couldn't forget Sun-yo※ng. But in the meantime the fifty-fifty chance of my wife returning paid off. What could I do but take her back? I was able to make love to my unwanted wife with ten times my previous ardor, dumping onto her my festering love for the absent Sun-yo※ng.
My wife began to despise me.
Six months later Sun-yo※ng walked back into my life and spit in my face. The face of a man who had meekly taken back his wife after she'd been on the loose for half a year.
Four useless, wasted years passed. My wife left again, and the chances of her returning were fifty-fifty. I traded in my loneliness for a job that paid one wo※n, forty cho※n a day. In a dismal-looking print shop I stamped out identical todays, tomorrows, and day-afters as if I were a piece of movable type. And when Sun-yo※ng moved to a different place to work, I tagged along and made it my hangout. I had sold my life for a daily wage of one wo※n, forty cho※n, and if there were some halfway joyful hours to that life at all, they were the times I sat across from her fingering a drink. But ever since Sun-yo※ng had undergone a change of heart toward me-or perhaps I had never occupied a place in her heart-there was an icy distance between us, hundreds of miles apart, and she was on the far side. On the near side were me and Song, who was just as lonely as I, perpetually huddled together and shivering.
Appealing to Sun-yo※ng out of my own loneliness no longer worked. Instead, using Song's loneliness as a pretext, I sobbed and blubbered in front of her. This was after Song's job had vaporized his scruples. Song suffered mightily on that account. His complexion turned white as a sheet of paper. To prove my own sorrow by taking advantage of Song's plight, I wasted literally thousands of words. Sun-yo※ng seemed to warm up to me, judging from the glow that began to light up her face. But in the process I lost any influence I had. And just when I thought I had barely regained it through all sorts of desperate efforts, phone calls like this one began to arrive:
"Is this Mr. Song? Why don't you come over to the bar this evening-With Mr. Yi Sang?
Well, as you can guess, I was just extra baggage.
One day the phone call came and Song offered to buy the drinks with his midyear bonus.
We got drunk.
In my stupor I thought of leaving the country: I'm going far, far away to Tokyo, I'm going, I'm going-going for good, off to Tokyo.
"Come on, stay a little longer-you're not going to bed this early, are you, Mr. Song?"
Mr. Song must have consulted a fortune-teller. And the prognostication seemed to be: treat Yi Sang to some meat. And so Song got up first, suggesting we take a taxi. I did my best to talk him out of it. After considering his financial situation, I took him to his boardinghouse, ready to call it a night. When we got to his second-floor room, he puked all over. The only thing that came up was beer, clear beer. I had a hell of a time, but after an hour I had him cleaned up. After putting him to bed I went outside. On that June night a breeze redolent of acacias tickled my languid skin. Over a cup of coffee at the Mexico Tearoom I thought about Song throwing up and crying, throwing up and crying, then falling asleep.
Maybe I should give Sun-yo※ng a call.
"Sun-yo※ng? It's me, Sang. Song is safe at home now-just wanted to let you know. I don't know why, but I feel so gloomy I can't deal with it. I thought I'd go home and go to bed early, but maybe the Mexico-"
"Yes, come over. Besides, I've got something to talk with you about."
On Sun-yo※ng's face, looking calmly at mine, I could plainly see the traces of four years of fatigue. She appealed to me in a low voice, told me she hated her job.
"Well, then," I said in earnest, "Why don't you marry Song? Fact is, he's at the end of his rope. He's persecuted by mundane reality. It runs counter to his conscience, and he's all mixed up. It irks him so much he wants to kill himself, and no one realizes how he's suffered."
"I want to see Mr. Song-I can't wait " she said.
Ten minutes later Sun-yo※ng and I slid open the door to Song's room, and there with our own eyes we saw that his suicidal agony had materialized.
Next to an empty container of three dozen sleeping pills were two pieces of paper with my name and address and Sun-yo※ng's jotted on them. They had an icy feel, colder than that of a knifeblade, as if demanding something of us.
I ran around the late-night streets almost until my legs gave out. But the doctors at the hospitals held a human life cheaper than a mahjong piece or a glass of beer. After an hour's vain search I returned to the boardinghouse. Sun-yo※ng, lips tinged with blue, had prostrated herself upon the comatose Song, who was snoring loud enough to raise the roof.
In the event, I set the snoring corpse on my back and loaded it into a taxi. We made a beeline for the medical school annex hospital. There I found a watchdog along with two nurses and a doctor to receive us three "patients."
The drugs in the sleeping pills hadn't spread far beyond the stomach. Song's life was not in danger, but he needed an injection of a heart stimulant on the hour. At this time of night he might as well stay at the hosptal, and so he was admitted.
The doctor instructed me to stay at Song's side all night, watch in hand, holding the patients troubled wrist and taking his pulse. The reading fluctuated around 130, but sometimes took a nosedive. Sun-yo※ng volunteered to stay up with me, but I insisted she go home.
"Go get some sleep and come back early in the morning. Then I'll rest. It's no good if we both get worn out."
The eastern sky grew light. The footsteps of patients in the hallway sounded eerie. Rushing faucets, hacking coughs, mewling babies.... This place was an absolute living hell that reeked of disinfectant.
Song's pulse had gone down almost to a hundred.
As soon as the hospital gate opened, Sun-yo※ng came in. She had a small bundle with a fresh set of underwear for Song. My mouth tasted like bitters. I rinsed it at the faucet.
I had a meal and returned to find Song still comatose. At midmorning I left the sickroom to call his office and complete the hospitalization formalities, then called the print shop where I worked. It was two in the afternoon by the time I returned to the hospital. There they were, the two of them, holding hands in plain sight and talking intimately.
I was outraged. What a slap in the face! What was my role supposed to be in this farce? My hatred knew no bounds. How I wanted to kick myself, spit on myself, mock myself.
"Are you some crazy son of a bitch?!" I roared at Song. "An idiot?! A wicked, heartless fraud?! Or maybe you're the essence of Buddhahood!"
Apart from my outcries, was there anything I could do to salvage the situation? I felt like bursting into tears. My legs were still shaky from running around the previous night, and now they were trembling out of control.
I had thought the mountains would collapse when Song took those pills, and I felt I had aged ten years since. And what did I get in return? What had I done to deserve this?
Sun-yo※ng's pale face was lowered from view. Song looked up at me with a weepy expression.
I no longer felt obliged to remain there. Behind the sickroom, along the way to the building that had housed the Chongch'in Bureau back in the old days, was a luxuriant garden. I shuffled there in my slippers. Various exotic flowers whose names I didn't know bloomed in profusion beneath the June sun. All without scent, nothing but color. A few patients and some honeybees drifted fretfully about the garden, as if driven by a thirst spurred by the passion of those tropical flowers.
Why was it that everything I touched turned to dirt? But then again it seemed that the curtain was about to fall on this gut-splitting comedy.
I sat down on the grass and took in the sun. All at once, exhaustion flooded into me. My eyelids softly closed as fatigue entered my limbs.
This time I'm going away to Tokyo for sure, I told myself as I stretched out my legs.
Scraps of gauze and bandages littered the grass. A sudden feeling of extreme revulsion attacked my senses, like the feeling you get when youre about to puke. At the same time, the voluptuous petals of those flaming tropical flowers changed before my eyes into something frightening, wicked, sensual. A mere touch, and my fingers would putrefy, decompose, fall away in bits and chunks.
"If your wife's face looks lopsided toward the left, then why not sneak in a look from her right?" I suggested.
Song merely snorted.
"Do you think she's telling the truth when she says she was born in Hoeryo※ng?"
"These days it's Vladivostok-I can't figure out what kind of nonsense she's up to-so I told her I was born in Tokyo. Think I should have named a place farther off?"
"It's a hell of a long way from Vladivostok to Tokyo. Must be well over two thousand miles."
"I keep telling her she looks lopsided, but these days she flies off the handle so easily."
"You know, I wasn't serious when I said to sneak in a look from her right. Before you do that you've got to adjust your own angle of sight. So that even if everything else looks completely lopsided to the right, as long as your loving wife's face appears in balance, then your angle of sight has functioned properly. And if that's the case, then it's no longer a matter of Vladivostok to Tokyo-you'll be just one little smooch away from her."