Han Mu-Suk was born into a progressive yet very traditional old Korean family. She had a strict early education, which emphasized propriety and knowledge of the East-Asian classics. Han, whose artistic talent was discovered and nurtured from her early childhood, first pursued the career of a painter. An extended illness in her young adult age and her marriage in 1940 to Kim Jin-Heung, a banker from an extremely conservative family, forced her to switch to writing to satisfy her artistic desires. In 1941, she won first prize in a contest sponsored by a leading monthly magazine, Sinsedae, for a novel titled Deungbul deuneun yeoin(A Woman with a Lantern). Soon afterwards, Han received first prizes in drama competitions with a one-act play, Maeum (Heart) in 1943 and a four-act play, "Seori kkot (Frost Flowers)" in 1944. In 1948, she received first prize with another full-length novel, Yeoksaneun heureunda(And So Flows History), in a competition sponsored by Kukche Sinbo, a daily newspaper. She won the Asia Foundation's Freedom Literature Award for a short story entitled "Gamjeongi inneun simyeon(Abyss)" (1957) and the Republic of Korea National Literature Award (Grand Prix) for her novel, Mannam (Encounter) (1986). The total literary work of Han Mu-Suk, collected in a ten-volume anthology (1992-1993), demonstrates the wide diversity of her literary activities, from novels and short stories to essays, criticism, public lectures, broadcasting, interviews, and travelogues. Her works in translation appear in five volumes, one of which is the much acclaimed Encounter (University of California Press, 1992).
Han Mu-Suk is known for her description of human dilemmas resulting from the conflicting worlds of consciousness and conventional reality. Critics have identified Han as a perceptive literary mediator, who sought harmony and balance between the contrasting forces, seeing human existence in terms of "dialectic interactions of seemingly binary opposites." Some others have noted how Han "accommodates the Western concept of sin within a dialectic binary opposites provided by Korean tradition," often with an "explicit presentation of the complementary nature and interchangeability of sin and sanctity."
One of the most traumatic experiences in Han's life was the tragic accident that killed her third child, a promising young medical doctor as well as a concert cellist whom everyone adored. Through this experience she met death in a most personal and intense way. She injured her back shortly after the funeral. Heart-broken, she lay paralyzed physically and mentally for a while. When she finally "came back to life," her literature seemed to show maturity that only such extreme experiences could bring. "Urisai modeun geosi (Everything Between Us)" (1971) is a heart-rending story told in a form of letter addressed to her departed son.
I still don't understand my brother-in-law's true motives, why he felt compelled to say such things to me. His relationship with his wife had been an inextricably twisted mixture of love and disgusto'not quite as bad as hateo'and of passion and coldness, all of which made her wither away. I don't know whether it was his regret over having destroyed his own love for her or his bitter cynicism about himself that made him talk that way. At any rate, his attitude as he told me about his wife he once loved so passionately seemed too unemotional to me. If it were a mere attempt at self-redemption, then it was too filled with excuses. As I absently listened to him talk, I stared out at the falling rain pattering on the window and smearing into streaks.
I'm the last of three siblings, so that sister had been more than ten years older than me. My sister was famous for being a beauty in school. He had passionately loved her, and eventually they married. He never was a good husband, though, so sadness eventually came to haunt her fading beauty. She went from being energetic and even haughty to languid and dejected. Because of all this I didn't feel very good about him. Still, with my sister gone forever, I couldn't help feeling sympathetic toward my brother-in-law, who still carried about him the fading warmth of my sister's presence.
It's true that love and hate occupy opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Pull on one of these ends, though, and the other naturally comes along with it.
My brother-in-law began speaking.
I think, Kwiran, it was the year your family gave me an introduction for a job in the countryside, during the so-called "Great Asia Pacific War," right after the Pearl Harbor attack. I had argued with my Japanese manager and lost my job, for the third time. The manager was my college junior by two years, and sort of what people these days would call a "pumpkin head." This guy was friendly to me because of our college connection, but that kind of patronizing always got on my nerves.
In fact, Nakamura's-my manager's-friendliness struck me as foul. I saw in his attitude the opposing reflection of Korean people's low self-esteem vis-a-vis the Japanese. It was the time of those Japanese slogans-"Same ancestors, same root," "Same body, same land."# (See endnote) Instead of treating me as myself, a person alive, thinking and acting like a human being, Nakamura saw me essentially as a Korean, to whom he was offering favors imbued with contempt, pity, and highhandedness. I shuddered at his repulsive friendliness. Of course, my hatred for Nakamura was not for Nakamura himself, but more for what he represented.
Ongnan hadn't completely recovered from giving birth to our daughter, Sorhi. When I told her about my decision to quit she went pale and stared at me with big, blank eyes. Ongnan never was talkative; she often talked with her eyes instead. Those eyes blamed me for the sudden burden and horror of poverty facing us now that I had lost my job. But more than that-I also read in her face something like the two conflicting attitudes I had seen in Nakamura's face; but they were reversed. To Ongnan, because of the overwhelming chances of getting drafted as one who was unemployed, the kind of humiliation I had suffered on the job did not justify quitting.
Feeling a sudden burst of anger, I slapped her before I could stop myself.
Ongnan loved me, but she didn't understand me. She just stood idly by, watching whatever I did. If she understood me, she wouldn't have had that expression on her face. If she didn't love me, would such a proud, beautiful woman have endured the indignity of being slapped? But that's ridiculous. I said she didn't know me, but who am I, anyway? Asking her to understand me is like asking her to be crazy-like me. Anyway, sometimes I thought that she endured humiliation because she was emotionally insensitive.
Ongnan's self-sacrificing behavior diminished my spirit. She was too perfect. She never nagged me about being a loser with a problematic personality, but on the other hand, the superiority she gained by being such a perfect martyr kept us from working together on our problems. Her only expression of resistance was to stare at me with those big beautiful expressive eyes. It's true that before our marriage, I was passionately in love with Ongnan. But as people say, there is nothing more selfish than love. And there's nothing like love which is cruelly capricious, turning into something heartless and cold. As our marriage wore on, Ongnan's love became merely a form of bondage for me.
Nowadays I understand her powerful will-a will for happiness which was so strong that she could endure anything without feeling her own pain. But at that time, I often thought she was a beautiful, emotionless doll with no personality. Whenever I looked at Ongnan I couldn't help feeling that I was looking at myself. But it was not a reflection of me in a normal mirror. It was a funhouse mirror, with my eyes and nose twisted into different places. Even though she had all the virtues of an Asian woman, I always had this vague complaint about her sitting in my chest. This polluted, foggy complaint hardened into impulsive cruelty and sharp cynicism.
Despite how little food we had, despite her having just given birth, her pale, paperish cheeks became flushed that afternoon. She quietly lowered her long eyelashes and pressed her nipple on the whining baby. She had a frightening will-I used to think she had no personality, but now I think about how strong and intimidating her will really was. It's strange, but I think love made Ongnan feel guilty. Her pride didn't want to accept the breaking apart of our marriage-she married me in spite of her guilt over love and the determination of her parents that we not marry. In fact, everybody who knew Ongnan praised her for being a thrifty, beautiful, graceful, and virtuous wife.
After I told her about losing my job, her lackluster reaction left me sprawled on the floor in our bedroom, still in my clothes. It wasn't until after I closed my eyes that I could hear her weeping softly. I couldn't help feeling outraged, disgusted with myself. I couldn't stop an unbearable stuffiness from filling my chest, and what stuck there the most was an unendurable self-hatred. This hopeless self-criticism brought to mind an image of Ongnan, who was sitting in front of me; poor Ongnan, beautiful Ongnan, divine Ongnan-suddenly love flowed out of me.
I opened my eyes. Ongnan was still quietly holding the baby, her eyes closed. A quietly anguished Madonna-but to my eyes, Ongnan's virtuous endurance was a kind of demonstration. Shall I call it a demonstration of anguish? Oh, why did she believe she had to act that way?
Beautiful Ongnan's manner brought on showers of praise from everyone except me, but it eventually extinguished her real self. It also closed my heart to her. Eventually, under the banner of this self-sacrifice, she crushed the real virtue of marital happiness. Her sacrifice made her miserable, but that didn't do anything for her husband, except make him dissatisfied and bored. But now, what I'm telling you today, Kwiran, isn't criticism of Ongnan's personality. It is about an episode between Ongnan and me that no one else knows about.
Ongnan suddenly threw down the freshly laundered jacket she was sewing a collar on and stormed outside. This was already the third time since she'd picked up her needle twenty minutes earlier. Three year-old Yo※hi, who had been sitting next to her mom, was playing with scissors, and baby Sorhi was sleeping next to me. I was lying down with a book over my face. After a while, Ongnan came back and picked up her needle. But less than three minutes later, she got up again.
"Is it that serious? I told you to go to the hospital last night!" I yelled as I flung the book from my face.
Sorhi woke up and started to cry. Ongnan hastily grabbed her and pressed a nipple into the mouth.
"Are you that much of a queen? Jeez," I spat out bitterly, throwing myself back onto the mat.
Ongnan had been having terrible diarrhea. Indeed, patient as she was, she even moaned and groaned with the pain. But however I pushed her to go to the hospital, she always found excuses: "My slip is too dirty," or "my jacket needs a new collar."
She fluttered around the room with much difficulty. I couldn't help myself from getting angry at her fussiness. A toddler and an infant-I knew that was a handful, and I knew that she had no time or energy leftover to go to the hospital, but I still couldn't stand her obsession with neatness. That was nothing but vanity. Jeez, so what if her slip was dirty-after all, we could barely put together a decent meal.
Anyway, she put on her carefully washed and ironed slip, all the while saying that at least she could make that gesture of politeness as a patient. Gasping for breath, she walked out the door, taking our older one, Sorhi, with her. She stopped at a neighbor's house to borrow their baby sitter, expecting to have to spend some time at the doctor's. The three of them, the baby sitter carrying So※rhi on her back, left for the hospital.
Noon came and went, and Ongnan still hadn't come back. I started to get anxious, and Yohi started whining with hunger. I knew that Ongnan's neatness had nothing to do with her illness, but still, I got mad at her for having tried to make herself even more ill with the extra work it had taken to get good clothes on. All the energy spent ironing and sewing... I think too that our misery made me callous.
I pretended to be asleep when I heard the gate opening about one o'clock. But it wasn't Ongnan coming home-it was the sitter from next door.
She thought I was sleeping, so she yelled out, "Ajo※ssi, Ajo※ssi!" calling me "uncle." I jumped up.
"Huh? Why did you come alone?"
"Your wife asked you to come to the hospital right away."
She stubbornly repeated the same words and added, "Just come right away."
My heart sank, and I hurriedly slung my jacket on my shoulder and ran to the hospital after getting directions from the sitter. It was a public hospital, which Ongnan had no doubt chosen to save money. To my surprise, I found out that she had not simply been hospitalized but she'd been locked up in quarantine. As they suspected she had contagious dysentery, I could stand before her only after the nurses made a big fuss out of scrubbing and sanitizing me. As soon as Ongnan saw me, she forced herself to smile.
"What's the matter?" I asked. "Is it serious, honey?"
"No, I feel much better than when I was at home."
I had nothing to say. To me, she didn't seem any better at all and in fact her condition looked critical. My chest tightened up.
"What are we going to do?" she said.
"You'll be better soon, I am certain."
"No, I mean, they say I have to be hospitalized."
"You should, then."
She quietly looked at me with eyes made even bigger and clearer by her illness. Self-conscious of the hypocrisy of my own words, I avoided her eyes.
"What's the matter?" I asked awkwardly.
"I'm to be hospitalized with a contagious disease. Even after I get over it, they still have to make sure that I'm not contagious. Then I can be discharged."
I had nothing to say.
"At least two weeks!"
"With just dysentery? When it may not even be dysentery?"
Ongnan was getting worked up.
"We should just follow the doctor's orders," I said, but a voice inside said to me, "You're lying! You're lying!" In fact, we had a three-year-old and an infant who would be without their mother for two weekso'-what an appalling prospect!
"Because the doctors are Japanese they're scared of dysentery, but we Koreans can take it," she said. "On top of that, the deposit for hospitalization is seventy won!"
Ongnan was starting to sputter uncontrollably, something really out of character for her.
"Seventy won, seventy won," I murmured. Seventy won was big money at that time. How could I get that kind of money so suddenly?
Ongnan stopped talking and stared at me, as if she were trying to read my face.
"Anyway, I just don't want to be here. I feel like if I stay here any longer I'll really get a serious disease. But they still won't let me go without evidence that I'm not contagious anymore."
She grimaced with frustration. She then lowered her voice and whispered to me with a sense of urgency, "I don't want to stay here. But there is a way to get out."
"Yes. The nurse left that thing over there." She pointed with her eyes at a small box on a nearby table. "They want to sample my stool."
"I don't think it's dysentery, but maybe it is-maybe."
I was silent.
"Honey," she said, "please bring your sample in the box by this evening. Please?"
My heart sank even deeper than when the sitter told me that Ongnan had asked for me to come right away. That such barbarous words could come out of gracious, fastidious Ongnan's mouth was absolutely shocking.
"What's the matter?" she said, almost whining like a child. "Are you going to leave me in this dark, miserable place?"
She worked her eyes at me. I hadn't seen her act this seductively for long time. I felt something crying out from my chest then and I passionately threw my arms around her.
"Don't worry, Ongnan, just rest here and be comfortable for two weeks."
She quivered in my arms and shook her head like a child. Tears made lines on her pale cheeks.
"I'll try to go get the money now, so don't worry, wait for me," I said softly, wiping her tears.
Her tears were mine too.
I walked out of the hospital, my feet heavy as lead. I had said that I would get the deposit, but the outlook was bleak. First the payment. . . and the baby. . . I ran home, thinking about where to go for the money. I gave the baby to the neighbors and the leftover rice to Yohi, then ran out to the street.
I went to see a grade-school classmate who had opened a fabric store in Chongno, a fancy downtown district of Seoul. I entered the store, feeling like a cow being pulled to the slaughterhouse. Already owing this man some money, I choked back my shame, as I braved into the store. There, I saw him having a drink with some friends.
"Oh, what brings you here? Come in, come in," he said as he took my hands and arms and pulled me over to the table. As a good businessman he was practiced in the art of greeting people. Aside from offering drinks during the daytime, he even had certain fancy side dishes, more precious during that wartime than gold. "Here,' he said, "have a drink."
That was no time for drinking, but I felt a hunger when I saw all the food.
"Damn these days, how can I have a good business in times like these?" the friend began to lament, as he got perceptibly inebriated. "For business I have to have material to sell. I have to close up shop tomorrow."
The way he complained and moaned and groaned didn't match his elaborate food and drink and his fine silk clothes. I grew more and more restless sitting there with him, and I took his complaints as a shield against my request for money. I only came there when I was having problems, so I couldn't really blame him. Even Buddha has a limit in granting favors; who can be happy to hear such recurring requests for favors?
When I had first gone to him for help, he literally forced the money on me before I'd even asked for it. I think he took some revenge in being a man with an elementary school education who was able to lend money to an educated person. As a businessman, it didn't make sense that he would genuinely care about another person's difficulties. He was much too shrewd for that.
If he hadn't been drinking when I arrived, I would have dared to ask for the money, without thinking of the consequences, as if jumping off a cliff with my eyes closed. But instead, I pushed him away and left.
"What's the rush? It's been such a long time!" his friend said, trying to hold me.
The street looked oddly, glaringly white, and the noises spun and echoed in my head. Sometimes I found myself standing still somewhere until I pushed myself to move again.
I had an aunt living in Insadong, an old residential quarter in Seoul. She was my only relative in Seoul, though she was off the legitimate line. Our family had once been one of Seoul's powerful and rich, and now she was the only member that was still well off. I hated to make a request of this house even more than I did of my friend in the fabric store. Being from the stubborn and proud authentic line of an aristocratic family contemptuous of any illegitimate line of the family, I would rather have died than humiliate myself to ask this relative for a favor. But then the thought of Ongnan's tearful face and the infant I'd left with our neighbor spurred me on.
Then I thought how funny life was. I reminisced about how I had spent money like water when I lived in Japan-hiking, skiing, dancing, and doing things that even most Japanese people couldn't do. But now... It suddenly seemed ridiculous to think and speak so sarcastically of Ongnan's ladylike insistence on changing into a clean slip to go to the hospital. You see, it was of course her rare beauty that drew me into her, but I was enchanted by the neat, snow-white collar that she always wore that seemed to wash away the impurities of my own heart.
Once again, I reproached and cursed myself.
My aunt was getting ready to go out when I arrived.
"Oh, what brings you here? Your visit surprises your auntie," she said, already sounding sarcastic. I say she was an aunt, but my grandfather had been near sixty when she was born, so she was only about ten years older than I was. She had obviously taken good care of her skin, and she and I looked about the same age. She had carefully put makeup on her plump face, and she was sitting on the floor squeezing her feet into prim, fancy little socks.
"So how is your fair wife?" she asked.
I jumped on the word "wife," quickly asking for one hundred won for Ongnan's problem. I don't know what thought crossed my aunt's mind when she suddenly opened her purse and showed it to me.
"Look, I do have some money here, but I'm leaving now to get some material cut for my daughter Yongae's wedding. I heard a fabric store in Chongno called 'Ihwa' or something like that has an especially fine Kyoto silk, God knows how they obtained it. It's black market, so it's overpriced, but what can I do?"
She was saying this while she held open her purse, which bulged with money. Ihwa Fabric Store in Chongno-that was the store I had just left. Well, I thought, if the business behind doors is better than the business which comes through them, then I guess he should close the doors-a cold flame of rage rose up inside me.
My aunt snapped her purse shut and started working on the other foot. I don't know if she had been trying to show off her money or trying to tantalize me. Why all the hurry to prepare for Yo※ngae's wedding, I thought, when the nine-year old girl was so absorbed in jumping rope in the backyard?
This aunt finally finished squeezing her feet into the socks and sneered, "Oh, these days people are so worried about diseases like dysentery. It's nothing for us Koreans. It's only scary for Japanese who don't eat spicy food."
My hand rose up to slap her whitish cheek, but instead I got up and left.
"Idiot!" I heard someone say in Japanese when I reached the street. I was jolted awake by the realization that I had almost been crushed by a car while crossing the road. People crowded around me. I got up and stumbled dizzily down the street without even looking back. I couldn't think, my head was so empty.
As I went into a small alley, my hand wandered aimlessly into my pocket and found something. What's this? I thought. I took it out, and it was a camphor injection box. Then I remembered that it was the box Ongnan had given me for my substitute sample.
At that moment, a flame went through my head, as if something had hit me-I suddenly realized that because of this box in my pocket, I had had the luxury of blaming these two people for being disgusting, the luxury of not having to beg for their help. As soon as I had put this box in my pocket, did I already have a haven? Had it been just a gesture of good form to go to the fabric store in Chongno and to my aunt-merely an empty form of conscientious behavior?
As I stood there blankly, holding the box, a surge of despair rose up inside me. I sobbed uncontrollably. A good while later, I found myself standing in the street, laughing crazily.
The next day Ongnan was discharged. Of course, there was nothing wrong with the sample. Ha! Like a miracle, her diarrhea was much better. In fact, who knows? Maybe it wasn't dysentery. The thing is, the illness itself wasn't a problem. My attitude was. I couldn't help thinking that Ongnan's relieved expression was a display of victory. Hadn't she perfected herself as a martyr?
Maybe Ongnan really did hate the hospital, and felt relieved that she could go home to take care of our children. But for me, after all, didn't I miss my last chance at being a good husband?
My brother-in-law suddenly fell silent. I realized the window that had been covered by raindrops was now blanketed by darkness.
Without realizing it, I sighed heavily. "She was formidable."
The waitress brought a lamp and quietly put it on the table.
# These slogans were created by the Japanese to justify the occupation of Korea; they were especially prevalent near the end of the Second World War, when Japanese forces perceived a desperate need for Korean men in their armed forces. The Japanese propagated the idea of the Japanese and Korean people as descendants of the same ancestors in an attempt to foster a supposed unity.
These slogans were created by the Japanese to justify the occupation of Korea; they were especially prevalent near the end of the Second World War, when Japanese forces perceived a desperate need for Korean men in their armed forces. The Japanese propagated the idea of the Japanese and Korean people as descendants of the same ancestors in an attempt to foster a supposed unity.