Born in 1921 in North Hamkyeong Province in what is now North Korea, Jang Yong-hak was able to study for a time at Waseda University in Japan before he was drafted into the Japanese army during the Second World War. After the end of the war he returned to Korea and became a secondary-school teacher. At this time he began to publish short stories in a variety of reviews.
The work translated here, "Poems of John the Baptist," won him wide critical recognition when it was first published in 1955. The author has admitted to being deeply influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre's novella La Naus‚e in writing this work. He went on to publish one novel, a number of middle-length tales, and a dozen or so short stories. Many of them provoked considerable critical controversy, which may well be seen as a token of their high quality. In 1970 he abruptly ceased to write and has offered no explanation for his decision, a great disappointment to his many admirers.
Jang Yong-hak is a novellist of ideas, a very rare breed
in Korea. He was an avid reader of philosophy both oriental and western,
and he packed his works with abstract ideas of considerable philosophical
complexity. The strange effect this produces, and the fragmented nature
of his mysterious tales, bring his work far closer to certain forms of
European narrative than to the customary climate of general Korean fiction
with its strong preference for realism.
Poems of John the Baptist
Once upon a time there was a little cave in deep mountain valley. The sole inhabitant of the cave was a hare. The walls of the cave were resplendent with the colors of the rainbow but the hare was ignorant of their beauty. The walls were delicate white marble slabs whose intricate arrangement reflected the sun's rays into the seven colors of the prism. The hare did not know misery;the beautiful colors were all the he knew.
But then something strange happened to the hare. For no reason at all he began to feel an urge. He began to yearn for something, although he did not know what is was. The ray of light seeping in the cave marked the visitation of adolescence to this nether world and made him ponder:"The outside world that emits such beautiful lights must be paradise."It was eye opening. The stone house that had seemed so beautiful to him till now suddenly turned into a shabby den. It might be said that owls started to screech in the Garden of Eden.
But he searched for an exit in vain. He beat the walls in despair, he hurled his body against them in tears of anger, but still nothing happened¦¡they were as solid as rock walls could be. They were the cold walls of a prison and he was the prisoner.
How had he come to live in a place like this?He did not know. He had never before given thought to the question. He could trace nothing but the seven colors in the depths of his memory. He thought there might be another world, an infinite world, beyond the muddled depths of the memory, but that might well be an illusion arising from his vision of an outer world, a world reflecting that which he had not yet seen.
"I could not have been born here," was his conclusion. "I must have come in from outside just as the light does now."The hare mournfully reiterated the same thing on that eventful day. But all of a sudden his ears stiffened as if in alarm. It was his birthday, but he had been sitting mutely, gazing at the cracklike window without the usual jay or gaiety associated with a birthday. But now an alarming idea hit him and his ears stood upright.
He rose carefully, his heart pounding. He tiptoed over to the small opening. He extended his arm toward it.
Noting touched his hand. He put it out further. Still nothing stood in his way. By now the pounding of his heart was enough to shake the cave.
With his paw still extended out to the opening he turned toward the room. But he was terrified at the sight. The room was dark; gone were the seven beautiful colors. He fell to the floor in a faint.
For days and nights he could not raise himself from the spot. He ran a high fever. He was paying such a high price for the idea that hit him on his birthday. He had thought he might be able to go out through the opening. What an original and fantastic idea! How ingenious he was to think of crawling out of the opening¦¡an opening that had no apparent connection with the outside world except that light came in through it! Compare him to hares that inhabit the outer world who cannot even appreciate the value of air while they are breathing it every day. It was an astounding discovery. No, it was an invention.
But it was equally a hazardous idea. Did not his mere paw make the world disappear?The fever was finally gone. He started to crawl through the opening, then into the passage. The passage was quite wide in parts but for most of the way it was a narrow crack through jagged rock and he had to wriggle along like a worm. His white fur became bloody from scratches and cuts.
It was like being chased by darkness. Time and again he thought he should turn back. At times going forward seemed to remove him farther from his goal. He was now caught in that world of sophistry where Achilles could not overtake the turtle. He was not advancing but sinking, he was unaware how long he had struggled in that fashion and then suddenly he stopped. His ears began to itch; he could hear something. It was the first time he had heard a sound. He started to tremble with joy as though he were shedding his old skin. The low spirits of fatigue and despair were gone; new blood began to race through his veins.
But his limbs did not move as fast as his impatient heart wished. Somehow the foreboding that the outside world might not be the paradise he had imagined also began to set in. He would regret many times that he had not turned back at this point and returned to his old dwelling, but those moments were to come much later. If someone had suggested at that moment that he turn back he would have struck a noble posture and said, "Give me liberty, or give me death."He finally reached the end of the passage.
The exciting outside world with its rhythmic sounds and magnificent colors would spread its panoramic view before his eyes in a second. Giving his whole body to the thrill of life, he craned his neck around the entrance to the hole to take his first look at the world. Then, just then, a terrible thing happened.
Th-u-n-k! Something hit him between the eyes as though it had been waiting hundreds of years just for this moment. He fell down on the spot.
He came to himself some time later, but he saw nothing. He was blind. The intense sunlight of the outer world was too harsh for tender eyes accustomed to the soft light of seven colors.
The hare, it is said, did not move from that spot till the day he died. He was afraid that by leaving he might lose the entrance leading back to his old home.
A mushroom grew on the spot where he died. For some unknown reason his descendants called it " the mushroom of liberty." Whenever they faced a problem they gathered there to perform rites. They were later joined by squirrels, deer, foxes, bears, and even by tigers. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it did not¦¡this paying respect to the mushroom. But they say it was the most consoling act in times of difficulty.
They felt, it seemed, that the world would follow suit
if the mushroom were to perish.
The sun hung over the roof.
From this angle it appeared to be quite high still, although from back there, where he had seen it before, it looked as if it were about to slip behind the mountain; with it the encroaching dusk also seemed to recede with a sudden brightening of the sky. Sense of time seemed to depend much on where one stands : which was the correct time?Clock time and the time constituted by where one stands. There is a vacant clearing between these two different times. One feels free when one plays in the clearing however expansive it may be. And I must now admit that it was this very clearing with its two different time borders that paved the way for the splitting in two of my "self."It is not at all clear whether time flows through space or space oozes out of time, but at this angle, with the sun over the rooftop, time seemed to be locked in space. On this time-space relationship seemed to exist the order of the present.
What would happen if space-locked time were to break through the wall on the other side to free itself?They say that it is possible for us to recapture a once-vanished sound by taking an airplane going faster that the speed of sound, theoretically at least, and catching up with its waves. If, as the laws of physics have it, the process of seeing some object is really a stimulus on the retina created by light reflected by that same object, then it must be possible for us to recapture the past on an airplane of a sort that flies faster than the speed of light. The time plane soars high; one sees time flying backward; time flies back into the past.
In this new order cooked rice would turn into grain; the spoonful of rice would travel back from the mouth to the bowl, then to the pot where it was originally cooked. The rice would soon become grain and put on husks. It would travel through the rice dealer's store, the rice-cleaning machine, then back to the rice paddy. After a few months it would revert back to seed.
Of course there is a certain creative formation in that backward process, too; there is a world created, history made.
Which is the maturing formation. rice transformed into cooked rice, or cooked rice into grain?Which world is the land of production, the dusk turning into dawn, or the dusk turning into night?Which history is creative and which destructive?What is creation and what is destruction?Which flow is toward the past and which toward the future?I jumped as I came out of my reverie. I looked up and saw a large transport plane flying southward in the evening sky of early summer. Though I instinctively looked for shade or shelter, I was aware that my fright was not severs. My heart was pounding a little, but that was all. The shock I received on that frightful day from an air raid was great, but in the time that had since elapsed my nerves seemed to have settled down. I took another look at the roof and the hut. It was a dilapidated frame shack.
I moved a step or two closer to it. Although it had taken me several days since my return from the island to locate the hut, I was now afraid to go up to the door and face the owner. To think that such a ramshackle hut, a cardboard house that might well collapse under a strong kick, should also have an owner like other houses was depressing. On the other hand, I thought there was all the more reason for a house like that to have an owner; without an owner such a house would have tumbled down long ago.
But the fact that the castlelike mansion yonder, at the foot of the hill, also had an owner contrasted so strikingly with the frame house that it somehow did not seem right. What sort of a game are we playing in this society of ours?On the way here I had seen an old man sitting in front of a house picking something out of a plateful of rice, barley, and beans. If someone were to paint this scene of the old man working in the twilight, the title "White Hair Picking Out Primary Colors" would have been adequate. Now the descendants of the Renaissance are busy peeling the pigment from the canvases of modern paintings. They are indulging in the alchemy of picking out primary colors. But hasn't the age of geographical discovery passed long ago?I heard the wailing cries of boys craving to sell tomorrow's paper coming up from the street below. Is that the reason a crow laments the wasteful twentieth century while perched upon a tree yonder in the dusk?Caw... Caw...
I started to take the few steps up the knoll toward the tree, bypassing the shack. I picked up a stone. The crow did not seem to be perturbed but if flew off nevertheless. I threw the stone at the branch where the crow had been sitting a moment ago. The crow flew off to the other side of the knoll and I sat down under the tree.
The horizon is always accompanied by a nothingness that yearns for something beyond.
What lies beyond the horizon? Are there rolling plains and hills like here? Someone there must be yearning to see what we are doing here. Two absurdities are sharing the same sky. Can we raise the horizon to break down the barrier? Or should we build a high wall and seal it off completely? This rolling plain is the only place where we can compose ourselves and attain self-possession. We have no guarantee that there will be a tomorrow, but should we treat today as a complete entity? We must live today sincerely.
Sincerity is what counts most. We cannot live under the pretext of searching for truth. Giving up the truth itself is much better. How foul the air has become from the smell of pretention! To measure the degree of its pollution would discourage us so much that none of us would want to continue to live.
I yearn for a spot under this tree. A while ago, from the other side of the shack, this lone tree with branches extended like tired arms, looking so pathetic-almost moved me to tears. But now I was already yearning for what was beyond the horizon. I'm no fickle harlot. If neccessary, I could go back to where I had been and watch the tree again and be in tears. I couldn't care less if you called all this sentimentalism¦¡a nostalgic feeling similar to the desire to hear the hooting of owls on a wet night.
The owl must still be hooting. In my home town of K¦¡there was a long straw-thatched house at the foot of a hill. That hill could be seen from the ruined stone wall that bordered the town on its northeastern limits. Spending the greater part of my boyhood and adolescence around the ruined wall gave me vivid memories associated with the ruins. Strangely enough, though, the scene around the straw-thatched house, where birds had hovered and sung in spring, had never entered my mind's eye. Then all of a sudden I was watching the tree from yonder, the image of the lone straw-thatched house emerged out of the dense fog of oblivion. The spot under the tree, then, might well be called my other home.
"Tongho..." I called out my own name.
But there was no voice to answer my call. Only quiet ruled the gentle slope in twilight. I was uneasy. I felt like leaving the place. I glanced at my own shadow. Grudgingly docile, it did not seen like my shadow. It seemed to be an imaginary person sitting near me. "Tongho!"
I was startled by the voice calling my name. It did not sound at all like my voice; it was really a pathetic shriek with none of the zest I had expected. Taken by surprise, I was ready to call out, "Who's there?" when my lips were locked by another intruder in my memory.
Was Grandfather's grave here?It was incredible, but I should guess that the distance from the tree to the ramshackle hut was about the same as that from the straw-thatched house to the old pinetree under which my grandfather had been buried. Well then, what had I been doing in the meantime? Where had I been placing Grandfather's grave? I had completely forgotten about his grave, although the memory of my father's scoldings for picking azalea blossoms from the bush behind the grave had always remained with me. I was not even aware that I had forgotten about it. Otherwise, I would not have been so shocked to hear my name called.
That means I am living only a part of myself. A shadow. Am I still Tongho? Am I still myself? Just a while ago I could answer to my own name. Was that the reason¦¡the fact that I was not wholly myself?But that was not all. There was an apple tree right by the west gate. The chimney of my house stood close by the apple tree under whose shade Grandfather had lounged all his life, sitting on a straw mat with one leg stretched out, and with his hand rubbing his stomach.
Not even God can now transplant the apple tree back by the chimney. No. God cannot do that. He won't do that. I can believe that much. But what if it stands by the chimney some day in some flurry of confusion? To whom shall I appeal?The apple tree might some day stand by the chimney and my toes on my knees. Ah! who can vouchsafe that this world of ours is not so rank and festering?I found myself clutching a stone. I shivered. I was afraid of touching my knees.
Impossible do you say? Of course you have reason to say that. But that if it actually happens to you one of these days? It can happen like any other thing that is happening every day. Then it becomes a fact. A fact can correct a truth, but a thousand truths cannot redress a fact¦¡that is the way of the world in which we live nowadays. The world is huge and solid like a gigantic rock, but it is fragile as an agg at the same time.
I clutched the stone tighter in my hand. I remembered someone mentioning that it is impossible to break an egg in your clenched palm however fragile it seems. What if it breaks? Then must we admit the possibility of having our cheeks, our toes under our ears?I clenched the stone in my fist with all my might.
Give up! You bastard of an egg!My brow became wet with sweat. I released my fingers. The egg did not break.
But this might be because I was really afraid that the egg might break. For the breaking of the egg would signify the breaking up of the world itself.
Thus I compromised. Something within me had betrayed my fear.
That an egg cannot be broken by mere clenching is founded on this betrayal. For on one has ever exerted all his might in his clench. It is quite natural that no one tries. To live in the world breathing air is the same as living in "the Word." Words not only existed in the beginning but they are also the only things that persist to the end. Human being are merely their mouthpieces. Movement as a speech organ¦¡this is the whole of the human machine.
It did not break this time, but no one can guarantee that it will not break the next time. What guarantee do you have? The present? But the next instant is not the present.
There isn't anything one can depend on when you come down to it. That's why I merely follow others. Had I ever been my own master, leading myself alone the road of my own choice? No! Not even once. I have always followed the telephone poles or waited for he train to leave. But I have never traveled on one of those trains. Still I waited; I followed. Why? For the simple reason that there are telephone poles alone roads and waiting rooms in stations.
Life is futile and miserable. Why do we still keep on saying that life is better than death?Let's stop thinking. There's no end to it. Let's just keep on putting things off, following others, and waiting for what? Life may well be something we have interited on the understanding that we can put off everything indefinitely. When one dies, he dies with everything pending, everything put off.
I started down to the shack, dropping the stone I still clutched in my hand. On closer examination I found that the shack was made of flattened-out cardboard boxes. Under its cardboard roof lived Nuhye's mother.
A battle field with C ration cartons scattered over it spread before my mind's eye.
It was a Sunday.
North Korean troops swarmed into the positions held by an American outfit which was faithfully observing the Sabbath. Here and there among the empty C ration boxes one could note leftover turkey drumsticks. The officer from the politburo called them "the Sunday present." They had a habit of simplifying everything, connecting everything to a single idea that struck their fancy at the time. Thus they distorted the original meaning the idea once possessed.
"The Sunday victory." "The Sunday retreat,"Thus words like people, freedom, and even Marxism had been distorted to mean something else.
And so, we the orphans of the Communist volunteer troops had repeatedly made banzai attacks on "the capitalism of fifty years ago" with a turkey leg in one hand and a grenade in the other.
It happened just as I was about to run down the slope along a ridgo where a huge pear tree, looking no less than three hundred years old, stood. Thud! Black flames. Bang! The world was torn apart. My fragile breath stopped at that moment, for I didn't know where to escape. My body with its aching stomach rose up toward the sky where bombers were flying high. Just before I went to hide among the thick foliage of the old tree I noticed it too was uprooted and making a parabolic trajectory in the air.
Sometime later I found Tongho a "Sunday prisoner," still clutching the turkey leg in one hand and blood trickling from his wounds.
How often Tongho cried as he looked at the label around his neck saying "P.O.W." Invariably followed in the wake of these sobs came the memory of his infancy, when he went about wearing a bib.
He was an infant. He was an infant with a bib. He was an alien infant last in the world.
I had no reason to think that self, this self, was one and the same self. I could not call myself "I" without hesitation. My feet, my hands, even my job did not seem to belong to me. I merely assumed that they were mine because they were part of me. Thus I became my own guest. I was not really myself. I was wearing a disguise. Someone else was being me.
I don't think I was insane. Whenever I was shocked, especially when I heard the drone of an airplane, I went sprawling on the ground with an aching stomach and foaming mouth. Sometimes I attacked an automobile with a club or a stick. But I still regard those states of mind as healthy and normal. For being calm in the face of the abnormal can only indicate a paralyzed nervous system and an ailing mind. There is nothing abnormal in trying to destroy an automobile that can kill a man by running him down.
The pain others suffered brought about actual physical pain in me. When I saw a worm drop from a tree, I writhed in pain. Sometimes I laughed out loud and sometimes I sobbed, but I always had justfiable reasons for doing so.
It was after we were moved to the island that I met Nuhye. We slept side by side and he was the only one who didn't laugh at me. Following our removal to the island my nerves began to calm down, but it was also at this time that I became indifferent to and apathetic toward almost everything. In contrast, Nuhye seemed to be contented with everything. He was willing to do all the dirty work around the camp. Strangely, however, no one could actually order him around. The truth was that it was he who ran everybody. In spite of this he sometimes looked moody and gloomy and that puzzled me. After his death, I sat alone under an overhanging rock and waited for the arrival of the boat that was to take us back to the mainland. It didn't come. It had not arrived when spring passed, and it did not show up when the summer waves dashed ashore. Fall...winter...another spring...then when the island was turning green for the second time, I boarded the boat.
But I was not happy at all when the harbor basin on the mainland finally embraced the boat. I felt as though I had left something precious back on the islnad.
Looking back, I saw the island as though it were a hunter's game bag thrown over the shoulders of the horizon. It was a weather-beaten skeleton of lave without a breath of peace. It was a grindstone of modern history where a cold curreat and a warm current churned in the blue sea. The dust of human beings was pulverized by its rocks. It was the chaos in which the miscalculation of history was spinning in blood! Ah¦¡did green grow when spring visited those rocks, too?The sad cries of seagulls lamenting the shoreline...What kind of cradle was the island?A footstep drawing near. The island from which a new shadow is to emerge out of fog! It's high time it appeared. Today is passing away forever. The sky is so near. The sky looks so far away because it is so near. It too, is near!Turning around. I felt the pressure of the mainland closing in around me.
Freedom we heavy. It was an apprehensive expectation. It was but the doorway to another island, to another prison camp.
I was standing in front of still another door¦¡the door of the cardboard box shack. I knocked two or three times without getting an answer. I hesitated for a moment deciding whether to push or pull. I pulled as one usually does even though the door seemed to be hinged inward. Squeak¦¡it was meant to be pushed open after all. Even so, it pulled open without much effort. I changed my mind, however, and when I was about to push it open a black streak flashed by me from inside.
The next instant it was crouching upon the roof of another shack, looking down at me. A black cat. The sun was down and the world was turning into haven of the cat. I was now forced to realize my existence in that world.
I pushed the door open. The inside was draped with cobwebs.
"Nuh...Nuh...," I was stoped short by a voice that groaned from the sandy floor. The owner of the incredulous voice must have thought I was Nuhye back home alive. The emaciated form, by now half out of a bed of old blankets, did seem like human being. At least it was alive. But it was merely a form in the past tense. It bore the mark of life simply because it had never been declared dead. The cat had, it seemed, snatched away "the present" from the old woman but a moment ago.
I pushed the panting and exhausted form back onto bed by its bony shoulders. She was as light as a bundle of straw.
She had the palsy and could not speak. She was paralyzed
down one side. One half of her body was resting in forlorn solitude as
though she were living on the interest with the principal frozen.
A hand that did not seem strong enough to lift even a pair of chopsticks lay limply on my knee. Her expressionless face did not betray whether she realized that I was not her own son or whether she simply did not have the strength to show her emotion. a lone tear, oozing out of an inflamed eye, ran down her lined face toward her ear. At any rate, the look of the worst famine in sixty years was clearly on her face. I felt I should say something tender, something tearful, of only for the sake of departed Nuhye, but I could not bring myself to do so.
My embarrassed eyes fell upon the brown, blood stained blankets. Then I noticed the spots on her hand were blood stains. Had she hurt herself? Had she coughed up blood? It was no use trying to find out now. She was dying.
Looking about the room, my eyes fell on an army mess kit. The sight reminded me that I was hungry. Just then the thought struck me that the old woman might have had practically nothing to eat for the past sixty days.
"Can I get you anything ot eat?" The words brought instand animation to her eyes and a gurgle to her throat. The hand that had been placed on my knee slid off. I felt her whole frame shiver. She was dying of starvation.
So this was another island. The worst. I arose for my sorrow was overpowering. I had to go out and find food above all else.
I pushed the door, forgetting that I should have pulled it. The cat casually walked in through the opening. As I was going through the door, I heard a squeak; the cat clenched a mouse between its teeth.
It went around the old woman once and stopped by her head with the half-dead mouse on the mess plate, at the same time pressing the plate against the woman. It stepped back a little and cocked its head.
The woman's hand was now extended toward the plate. Startled by the movement of the hand, the mouse hoddled off in the direction of her feet. Maddened, the cat ruthlessly assaulted its victim. It held the victim in its mouth again and jerked its head, sending the mouse against the wall with a thump. The cat caught the falling mouse in midair and gave it another shake. The mouse tried t escape but the cat flew at it.
The cat seemed to have forgotten that people were around. It seemed to be absorbed in its own game. It seemed to enjoy the sport immensely. It repeated the same act over and over until the mouse finally became motionless. Then the cat coaxed the mouse to escape by giving a few gentle shoves with its nose. The mouse staggered a little as if it had no other choice, but it was no use. The cat possessed an excess of vigor. I finally got tired of the cat's cruelty.
I stopped short just as I was leaving. Somehow the mouse had landed on the woman's stomach and it was now completely motionless¦¡probably dead.
I held my breath. Her hand approached the rodent. It approached the victim as stealthily as a spider approaches a fly. It gripped the victim.
An indefinable foreboding possessed me. The cat was proudly watching the woman.
The next instant I dashed¦¡threw my body¦¡toward her hand with a shriek. I did not know where she had the brute strength in her thin body. She would not let the mouse go. Even while I was trying to loosen the mouse from her grip I was conscious of the infuriated glare of her maddened accomplice behind me.
She was going to eat the mouse-actually eat the mouse! I grabbed the mouse from her and threw it at the cat.
"Mother!"But to call her mother must have been either a mistake or make-belive. Actually, my immediate impulse was to throttle her and finish her off then and there¦¡to kill a woman who had so sullied the human race. In order to make the owner of the castlelike mansion fatter, the people were eating mice. The old woman had been living on mice caught by the cat! That explained the bloodstains on the blankets. While even the watchdog was eating beef at the mansion, this crummy, lousy old woman was¡¦
A furious impulse to spit on her gripped me. Once I had experienced similar nausea and rage. It was back on the island. I was in the latrine and, thinking I saw someone beckoning me from below, I looked down and nearly fainted from shock and fright. It was a real hand. A human hand sticking out obliquely from a heap of human excrement as if trying to reach my ankle. It belonged to Nuhye who had died the day before.
"Mother! I am your Nuhye!" A torrent of enraged tears flowed. I buried my head in the bosom of the woman that now seemed to be at the end of despair with her mouse meal taken away from her.
Squeak!The cat was devouring the mouse. In front of me the old woman was nailed to the cross of death. I was sandwiched in beteen two deaths. In order not to slip from the precarious pinnacle, I clung to her wrists like a child, repeating "Mother!" The sound of my voice seemed to make me her son, to make Tongho Nuhye. Just because there is a world in which one equal two, there is no reason why there should not be another world in which one plue one equals three.
"Mother, Let's go and live in the city!"Where I me had such sorrow been stored? Compared with that sorrow I was as small as a grain of wheat, a handful of dust in the wind. I felt a hand truning cold I tried to remove it as if to wake up from my sleep. But my fingers were tightly locked in hers. At last I was trapped; the had in the latrine had finally caught up with me.
I felt a shiver run down my spine. The chilling blood of the old woman seemed to have tricked into my veins. The face seemed to recover a faint trace of animation at one point¦¡was it merely my fancy? The numbing cold of death was creeping upward, up, up, into me.
Was it not I who was in fact dying? How else could one explain the gradual drop in my body temperature? My hand was getting cold like a piece of steel... then my arm. The cold would soon creep toward my heart. My nostalgia traveled back to the cave era, to the ago of bronze¦¡the glacial epoch¦¡I had been caught by a comrade buying myself an ice candy on the sly. How pitiful had I looked then. But I wondered why the face of the comrade was covered with dreadful pimples. It was all pimples. Southward, southward, we had been marching every night, hand grenades hanging from our belts. Frogs were all around. Why do frogs crak so much? Charge! Thump! Bang The pear tree drew a parabolic line through the air. Then I was a prisoner of war. Was it a southern island where seagulls were said to sing? The hand in the latrine. Nuhye with his eyes plucked out. The cry, "Long live freedom!" had still to come forth from the clearing and the bloodshot eyes were watching.
I was shoved aside. I stumbled. The old woman was in her death throes. It was as if the chains binding her to life had at last been broken. What amazing brute strength had been hidden in her! She screamed as she writhed. I fell back several times as she shoved me.
An old donkey running helter-skelter downhill in the twilight¦¡it might get caught under the wheels of its own cart any minute.
With a last heave her breast collaped. Bleary eyes without any focus.
From a corner of her half-open mouth a thin line of salive flowed and trickled down onto the bed¦¡life was draining from her body drop by drop.
Her breathing came harder and harder. It seemed as though she would not be able to stand the everincreasing speed of its rhythm much longer. Death was enjoying its dance of victory in her throat.
It was an agony even to watch her die. I stared at her intently, breathing hard, with my eyes swollen. For awhile I was under the illusion that I too would cease to live when her breathing stopped, when the last maelstrom of her life subsided.
The approaching footsteps of death began to ring in my ears. Death began to wail in my ears. The noise of its wailing made me giddy. I began to give way to fancies and visions.
Visions whirled round in my head. They cried. The room cried. The sky cired. The clearing uner the sky cried. The world was full of cries and shrieks. Wait, they are the shrieks of swine. Oink, oink! Black, white, red, blue, and all other possible colored pigs were grunting. On the top of the hill, down in the valley, across from the river, swine were grunting.
A great horde of swine breaking loose from the slaughterhouse now covered the entire earth.
Oink, oink! They covered streets. They plundered. They devoured filth. They loosened pillars. Buildings collapsed. A city boasting one million turned into a ruin in a matter of minutes. Civilization lay dead with its white belly gazing at the heavens. Nothing stood upright. Dead. Death inhabited metropolises.
The horde moved on in search of its next victim beyond the horizon, giving meaning to the meaningless.
A silent march emerged on the ravaged scene¦¡a march of trees. Pines, oaks, elms, dates, paulownias, cherries, zelkovas, all possible kinds of tree released from the dictionary marched onto the scene. Disregarding alphabetical order, each stood where it chose. All was quiet. It was paradise. It was the quietude and the sadness of paradise. Once I experienced the same kind of sadness. It was when a dogcatcher with a sharp hook gaffed Mary, my pet poodle, and dragged her away. Mary had lost her license tag. I was nine then. After a good long cry, I turned to the shade of the acacia tress. Not a sound except the singing of cicadas on that quiet summer afternoon could be heard. The scene was quite like this. It was deep. One's native place is deep, It may even be deeper.
But the world cannot remain quiet forever. Bustling began to ripple from one corner. Paradise, after all, stands on shaky foundations. Owls flutter off one by one. Men always heal blind birds.
Ape-men invaded the scene swinging from tree to tree. What were they carrying? Their backs characteristically bent, stone axes; around their waists, they were carrying torches. The same old story. Can't they ever learn?These offensive fellows will soon talk about benus and erect an altar in her honor. Utter a few incantations, the earth will move and self will awake. Factories will be built and the smoke will gine birth to two-story houses. The Republic will hand out licenses guaranteeing liberty to its jubilant citizens.
It is snowing quietly outside. Must we repeat this dreadful history?It is snowing, large and fluffy flakes. It seems as though the whole sky is falling on us. It is snowing. The snow piles up on the ground. The whole world becomes white. The snow is like a quilt. But the snow still piles up. It reaches the caves. It reaches the rooftop. It reaches the sky. No more air, no more wind. We must rewrite biology textbooks. A new type of man breathing snow is born. Being forgetful, they will soon forget that they have lived breathing air.
It that is the case, what did man breathe before he began to breathe air?A dark figure emerges from the snow. With his horsehair hat pulled down over the eyes, this young mendicant monk is blind. He advances, feeling his way with his hands. Without a staff, without eyes, he has come a long way. He stops a little way off and tears stream from his blind eyes.
Is not this ragged monk the very person who broke open the slaughterhouse gates and who tore up the dictionary of trees?"Nuhye," groaned the old woman, and that brought me out of my reverie. I thought I heard a gurgling sound in her throat.
The room was now all but dark. This was how Nuhye's mother died.
The ghostly glimmer of the cat was glaring at me from
where the wandering monk of my fancy had been standing. My blood boiled;
I could swear they were Nuhye's eyes.
Nuhye hanged himself on the barbed wire fence.
Everybody in the prison camp called him Silkworm.1) Thus when not being able to grasp the true significance of his new status as a prisoner, everybody was still in a state of despondency, some thoughtless fellows teased Nuhye, who was always looking up at the sky.
"Nulberry, mulberry, mulberry leaves are falling from the sky.""Tigers leave fur behind when they die; silkworms leave silk behind when they die. Ha, ha."But it wasn't silk he wanted to leave behind. He wanted to be a phoenix or a dragon and fly off into the blue sky.
He was not a member of the Volunteer Crops, which was made up of recruits from occupied South Korea. He was regular in the Puppet Army of North Korea. But even when the camp was in a turmoil due to communist agitation, he did not sing "the Red Flag" but was content to look at the blue sky as he lay on the ground.
In the eyes of the guards the camp was merely a place in which thousands of filthy crows cawed; but inside, underneath, was a vigilant whirlpool of undercurrents that had lost all direction. They were of a race that had not had a war their own for centuries. Napalm, along with such novel ideas as "a democratic stronghold" "the East and the West," or "the World Peace Appeal Movement," baptized a country which had known nothing in the way of modernization except perhaps shovels and field sneakers. Those country hillbillies were merely bewildered beings covered with cuts and bruises. Sometimes they thought they might turn into city slickers. Sometimes they thought they thought they might be marionettes. At other times they felt they were hypnotized. But they had charged to the sound of the trumpet. When they stopped running to look aruond, they found themselves in the middle of carnage. Their homes, their schools lay in ruins like match boxes crushed by an iron hammer. What little they had accumulated since the beginning of the Enlightenment Party was now destroyed. They were naked;they had become the beggars of the world.
But they grew in the camp. Just as petty thieves grow into bold criminals while serving their time in a penitentiary, they learned to quote from the "Geneva Convention" to talk of "humane treatment." "This war in which my flesh has been torn and my blood spilled¦¡was this war really mine?" they often wondered to themselves. But they teetered between this and that until they came face to face with their clinging attachment to life. It was an attachment to the life that had so far been treated as a mere screw in a huge machine. They wanted to live. They had to live. So they started to kill others. Another war had begun. Killing others seemed to be a reasonable means to their own survival. In this southern island the red flag and the blue flag again fluttered in the sea breeze to soothe the fears of the world Underthese two flags they bathed each other in blood in order to survive. The second war within the barbed wire encampment was strictly their own. It was their war to preserve their lives. Therefore, not to take part in that war was to give up one's right to live.
It was a struggle beyond humon attributes. In no other war had people killed each other so viciously. The utmost punishment one can impose upon his worst enemy is death. Nothing more. A human cannot receive wores punishment than death however vile and evil he may be. That is what the name human stands for. That is the last belief humans can have in humaniry. In death rests the entire weight of life. One's crime cannot be greater than one's life, and death is the end of everything. Sorrow, joy, ticklishness, pain, blood, sweat, good, evil and all the conventions on earth end with death. It is consolation, rest, forgiveness.
But in the camp they cut off limbs, gouged out eyes, and lopped off the ears and noses of corpses. Then they dumped them in the latrines. In the name of ideology, the classes, the people!They regarded life as a plaything. They considered humans worms!What could one do about that?You could do nothing. You could do nothing except call it an episode that happened outside the human compass. Under these circumstances Nuhye still lived on, the blue sky his fortitude. Before I knew how and when, I got into the habit of crouching beside him. They did not bother me because they had decided I was a half-wit, but they could use that attitude to ignore. One day Nuhye was summoned to the shade of a persimmon tree.
"Comrade! We do not wish to brand you as an enemy of the people and a henchman of American imperialism, of the warmongers. How about it? Comrade!... Say something!"Then they would turn form threatening to begging. It was natural because Nuhye had been a hero of the people, receiving the medal for the highest bravery during the war.
"Comrade! Don't you mind being called a traitor against the people?""¡¦¡¦"
Dangerous looks began to well up in their eyes. "Answer us! You are a reactionary!""¡¦¡¦"
Still there was no answer. The respones had to be one of two anwers but he seemed to regard both as inadequate.
Clubs danced on his head and shoulders as they screamed phrases like "corrupter," "traitor," or "enemy of the people!" I had not realized he was as stolid as an ox. he was standing upright like a fence post. he sank down with a particularly strong blow to his head. Then the feet surrounding him kicked him all at once.
I went up to him after they had left. There he was still looking up at the sky. Two thin tearful lines creased his face.
Looking up at the summer sky I saw clouds coming in fast off the sea.
I lay down beside him and raised my eyes toward the sky. It was a peaceful sky mirroring none of the dark shadows that inhabited the earth.
"How about trying to raise something up there?" I said to console him. "It's so wide and it doesn't even have mountains. Won't it yield a good crop? Wouldn't peace rule there?""People would only build fences there if anything grew.""Really?"
"You had better live long.""Why? Do you mean you are going to die?""No, I have an old mother. You can cut all bonds except the umbilical cord. If only you could cut it off.""You can leave silk behind, is that it?""Become a phoenix or a dragon and fly off into the sky."Several days passed.
"Silkworm has killed himself!" The cry that ripped the dawn seemed to be the signal that Nuhye had finally been able to metamorphose himself into a phoenix or a dragon to accomplish his coveted ascent to the heavens.
Nuhye's body was dangling from the barbed wire fence.
But for what had happened the night before, I would not have been shocked by his death. The night before, he had tried to hug me tightly, to crawl into my bed.
"How warm your flesh is."His breath, hot and sensual, tickled my ear and gave me goose pimples. To tell the truth, relations between us up to that time had not been close enough to warrant this. I thought there had been an understanding between us; that our dialogue was nothing but romanticism at best or mere nonsense at worst. But now he was forcing me to give ex post facto consent that all had been real with not even a single minute detail to be altered.
"In my dreams last night a beautiful woman hugged me very tight. Like this¡¦""¡¦¡¦"
I lay motionless as if I were paralyzed.
"On that very moment I realized that Mother was mortal like any other person. To realize such at this late date... Oh, there are so many things that one should realize.""¡¦¡¦"
"Do you know who the woman was? Your flesh is so soft."His embrace was nothing short of homosexual. Of course, such activities had been open secrets in out tent.
"I'll tell you who she was. But don't let the others know, because I am not sure at all."He held his breath. He seemed to be quite embarrassed even in his excitement. I think he had reason to be.
"Salome. You know of her, don't you? The woman who wanted to have the head of Jone. It was she who hugged me!" Saying this he pushed me away. Then he panted. "My fruit has ripened, but I am not ripe to match the fruit. I won't be ripe forever! I have no wings," he said.
My body trembled like that of a raped woman.
Immediate retaliation was taken against the corpse of the traitor. The only two reasons that warranted such vicious and cruel acts were that he had been a hero of the people and that they had not been able to persecute him as much as they had wished while he was alive.
They ordered me, of all things, to hold his gouged-out eyeballs and to stand till the sun rose in the east over the sea. I could have feigned a weak heart, but were they not Nuhye's eyeballs?I had Nyhye's eyeballs in my hand waiting for the sun to rise, while a guard whistled a nostalgic melody far off on the other side of the barbed wire fence. In what way were the eyeballs related to the whistling? Miscalculation, that's the word. We were all living a miscalculation. It was not the old home in Kentucky but those eyeballs that the whistling should have yearned for.
I did not understand why he had chosen the barbed wire fence as the instrument of his death until I read the testament he had left behind. The two different worlds¦¡the inside world in which I had to stand holding his eyeballs and the outside world where the whistling of the guard was soothing his homesickness¦¡were the only two things I knew. I had not really seen, and therefore had not realized, the meaning of the barbed wire fence separating us and therefore, in a paradoxical way, bridging these two worlds. And finally on that early morning a breakthrough was made by the dangling corpse on the fence.
Although he had mentioned that his mother was then living in South Korea and that she had moved from North Korea with the retreating army after hearing her son had been captured, the letter was not addressed to her. In fact it was more a memoir than a letter.
The letter:They said I was one year old at birth, as is customary in this country.
Five days passed before I was christened, and these five days may be the only true life I ever had. Since the world consists entirely of names, I would never have existed at all if I had died during those five days.
My name was entered on the family register as soon as I was christened. Being thus confined to a corner of a page in the thick register, I became an entity that could never be removed from the book except by an official notification of death.
I stopped suckling at the age of four and rice has been my staple food ever since. Of course, I did not realize that this was the beginning of a collective responsibility. Since I began to articulate myself at about this time, you might say that the process of assimilation was well on its way. I entered school when I was eight years old. Thus I was preparing myself to be an atom in society before I knew what I was doing.
The school was a home of sin and crime. I learned about sin and crime through the punishments I earned. Things went well for the school if it could maintain a standard of discipline whereby a student could be made to lie down thirty minutes for each one-minute tardiness. While I was undergoing such torture, I had to watch other students who had arrived about ten seconds before I did march into the classroom proudly and jovially. Then I realized the cold fact that being late fifty seconds is all right while being ldate sixty seconds constitutes a crime. The same principle seemed to explain how my family became so rich in an amazingly short time while my early childhood was spent in poverty.
It is still vivid in my memory, that pitiable scene standing holding a bucket full of water in the hollway for breaking a window pane. All the children had gone home and the sun was setting. Nothing stirred in the empty school building except my teacher's eyeglasses peeking out once in a while from his office door at the end of the corridor just to see if I was doing what I was supposed to do. How long was I to go through that torture? I could see a dog chasing something on the deserted playground. I cursed my arms. If I hadn't had any arms, I wouldn't have had to go through the torture. My arms were all numb and they didn't feel like they were mine. I let the bucket go in spite of myself. I cried aloud, flopping down in the middle of the puddle. I feared the still newer punishment that I was sure to get and the sense of aloneness that there wouldn't be any one around to help me.
Somehow I grew up to be a middle school boy. We were supposed to wear two white lines on both our caps and uniform sleeves. To me those two lines symbolized the limits beyone which we were not to step. But at the same time it could mean that we could do anything we pleased within those limits.
One morning, while the whole student body and the faculty gathered for the morning ceremonies, I nearly went out of my mind. I discovered that every student's jacket had exactly five buttons. It was fearful. Then as I grew I learned that there were more and more of the same fearful things surrounding us. Every house had windows and every pencil looked about the same. All eyes were under eyebrows. I saluted most eagerly everyone in the upper class as I was supposed to, and they all returned my salute most casually. That in turn made me salute them all the more enthusiastically. At school I was a model student. One day when I was seventeen, a snake cut acrooss my shadow. Grabbing a pick, I tore after it. It was an act intended to free myself and to find the open road; I was getting tired of the narrow and shadowy confines that the name "model student" offered me.
At last wrote the word autonomy on a sheet of paper and tacked it on the wall in front of my desk. Of course I had not realized that it was only an estuary in the sea of heteronomy, and soon I became a college student.
I left my hometown to study in a foreign land. One afternoon while I was at the window of my second-floor room, absentmindedly thinking about home, my eyes caught something moving. Then, realizing what was happening, I nearly broke down. The pine trees of Myoshin Temple on the far-off hill were marching toward me. Gasping, I ducked behind the wall. The Revolution had finally been set in motion. Which side should I support? Which side should I join? Should I dash out crying "Long live the pine tress!" If so, my date with Kuniko, a Japanese girl, to see a Tarzan movie that evening would be broken. I was much troubled¦¡caught between two choices, the Revolution and a foreign girl. Deeply troubled by the dilemma, I decided I would first have a look at how the Revolution was going. I peeked out. Again I was shocked; the Revolution had apparently been called off. The pine trees had retreated back to Myoshin Temple. I let out a deep sigh of relief and decided the whole affair had been an illusion. I thought I would feel much more at ease if such irregularities would never happen again.
I graduated from college with some knowledge of evolution and other theories. But still I had not realized that accident is the true raler of the world, and that therefore existence itself is sin; I merely saw the image of myself in the mirror, divided into two cells.
I returned to the backcountry where I was born. The bells
that chimed in the quiet dawn air from faraway temples led me to a life
of complete inactivity. sometimes I played with deer or chased hares, but
I was mainly a poet who produced nothing. I was merely content scribbling
poetry that would never be published.
I wish I were a bell,A bell that breaks the stillness of dawn.
I wish this bony skeleton were a bell,A lank frame devoid
of flesh and blood.
The blue autumn sky,The sound of falling leaves, red and gold.
One leaf, then anotherFrom eternity to temporal burden,Pulse engraves solitude.
The glistening dewdrops on the canonical robe...
Are they the rhythms that life left behind?
I wish I were a bellIn this season of shadowy glen.
Neither desire nor Buddha I aspire,Let me only be a simple
Then World War ¥±ended.
I attempted a rebirth by becoming a friend of the people. I joined the Communist party. I soon found that there were no people in the Party. They were busy creating a people by killing off the enemies of the people. Creating and killing and an unbridgeable gap between them. It meant the isolation of life, too. The fire of life goes out just as we become conscious of it. And we call the remaining ashes life. In this distorted mode of life goodness can only exist where an awareness of goodness exists. It is an abyss. It is the same difference, a gap of ten seconds, which had shocked me when I was a small school boy; it is a barrier that blocks the way to freedom.
In order to break the barrier I threw myself into the war.
But I became a prisoner. I was still as lonely as I had been in th north. I drew up a new mode of life in the loneliness and despair.
A slave. The new type of free man was a slave. I felt free being a slave. Finally I came to realize that this third type of slave, who freely accepted shackles and fetters, was the true hero of the modern ago. This realization was a great relief to me. For the first time since I was given a name I breathed freely and enjoyed liberation.
But, alas! That also was a deception of a brief moment. It had merly been a temporary agitation. To look back, the history of mankind had been a series of alternations between agitation and cooling off; we were agitated by the Copernican theory, the Bastille, the survival of the fittest, Red Square, and so on down the line. Each time one bitter disillusionment followed closely on the heels of the other.
The modern slave is not a free man but a slave of freedom. Man has to be a slave as long as freedom exist! Freedom, too, was another numerical figure. Freedom was restraint and coercion. It was something to be overcome. Freedom was something created post factum!God, eternity. It was a sacrilege to deal with the life hereafter when these explications had been created afterwards. Life is not an explication but a right, not a superstition but a desire! The only way to make life really alive was to annihilate God, eternity, and all other things connected with freedom.
Freedom should really be something that opens the way to true being, a being to follow, a prophet¦¡a Johe who will stoop to tie his shoelaces and finally lie down, slain by the wayside.
Now I am lonely again in the wilderness. The moon has already set, but the sun won't rise in the east. I can neither follow my shadow nor linger here in inactivity.
This is the end as well as the beginning of the land. This is the joint where time that has passed and time that will come meet. This place is not broad enough to stand even a pin point on. This is the borderline itself.
But how broad a world this is, this fertile land of production. This is the chaos from which time and space flow. There is no dilemma in this world. Innumerable laws illuminate the still night of poesy without violating each other. Meanwhile, constellations inlay the vault of the night sky. Here there are no kings, no slaves¦¡no anxiety and therefore no compromise. No custom, therefore no depravity. The cause of everything is sufficient unto itself, and is measured against its own scale. Here there is no reason why the sun should always rise in the east. It's always new, always morning, always spring. Ah! the young continent¡¦When will we wake up from the nightmare of Gulliver who drifted to the island of dwarfs? When will we be able to break loose? It's not the Bastille but the shoreline surrounding these islands that should have been breached!I can wait no longer. I must find myself at once. I reserve one last right to find myself.
I can really see myself, escape from myself, and watch the true world emerge out of the fog only when I am totally liberated from the eyes that have been surrounding me.
Suicide is that attempt; my last chance for hope. If I
fail again to see my true self there, it will be a futile act. But then,
if life awaits such a fatile death, I might as well undergo the metamorphosis
as soon as possible.
The letter was watching me with two phosphorescent eyes. Those two eyes, the eyes of the cat, kept glaring at me like a petrified curse in the pitch-black darkness. A cold sweat broke out on my forehead. It was a struggle in which the odds were heavily against me. I could see only its eyes while it could see my eyelashes as well. What sin had I committed, what sin other than that I was alive? Those two eyes seemed to condemn anything that moved or was alive.
I wondered if there was any way to extinguish those eyes. The glare of the eyes seemed to pierce my body. I was helplessly sleepy. The fatigue which I had brought from the island now seemed to overpower me.
The fear and the sleepiness, and the strong tension which they wove. Infinite number of possibilities existed there.
An the tension broke with a cry of "Meow!", the shoreline would break also and the branches of a dead tree on the hilltop yonder might bloom with red flowers. Possibilities were always possible and the number of possibilities was limitless. Existence is what is left behind after all the possibilities are obliterated by accident. Therefore, existence is by definition sin or guit. Existence is a crime. The whole list of crimes makes up the criminal.
To live is to commit crimes. They can not sit there because I am occupying the place. The act of sitting down automatically displaces other people. Therefore, I am liable to be displaced by them. Each moment an infinite number of possibilities are making their claims. Each existence is shuddering before the possibility that might be realized the next moment. They call that shuddering liberty in this world. Should we wake up or keep on sleeping? The cat was still glaring at me in the darkness. I had killed its mistress. I had killed the old woman. I would be a murderer as long as those two eyes were gleaming side by side in the darkness.
Suddenly the distance between the two phosphorescent spot shortened. I saw my chance; the cat had looked away. The next instant, my fist flew toward it but it arched in the empty air. Those eyes had already slipped under my arm and out through the open door.
I chased it. It gave me a backward glance and fled toward the hill.
I ran up the hill after it, but it had vanished.
"Meow!"Looking up, I saw the eyes shining down at me from the branches of the tree where crows had cawed in the twilight. Throwing rocks at it did not extinguish the fire. It did not have wings, and I had lost the tree-climbing talent of the ape.
The moon elbowed its way out from among the clouds. The area around the cat seemed to disintegrate, as the glared of revenge and its curse. The crouching silhouette of the cat perched among the branches like a dark fairy.
"Meow!"The dark, ghostly, and revengeful glare of the eyes was still breathing in that cold, shuddering cry that could have frozen the distant shorelines.
The fire will be extinguished when the sun rises in the morning. I am sleepy and having a hard time watching the eyes.
Wearing Nuhye's silk garments, as it were, I am standing under the tree as the night wears away silently.
Will the sun really rise over the eastern hills when morning