Seoul International Writers’ Festival : Dreaming Seoul

  • onJanuary 3, 2017
  • Vol.34 Winter 2016
  • bySantiago Gamboa

As I crossed the world from one extreme to the other to arrive in Seoul from Colombia, I thought about Asia, about what got me interested in Asia, and then I remembered an author, Joseph Conrad, and his great novel Lord Jim, in which a young man flees guilt, a guilt obtained through inexperience and ambition, when he allows himself to be carried away by hardened and soulless sailors to commit a cowardly act. And where does Lord Jim flee? To the East, further and further east. First he goes to Singapore and later advances to the Malay peninsula. The name Lord Jim is a translation of “Tuang Jim,” as he is called by the indigenous people of the final region in which he seeks refuge. This book captivated me. The idea of escaping guilt by going east was a true discovery. Did I feel guilty? Later, in time, I discovered that Bogotá, with its 2,700 meters of altitude, provoked a strange reaction in me, and the lack of oxygen made me feel guilt.


Guilt. It was not by chance that the first city in Asia I got to know was Singapore, Lord Jim’s first stop on his journey toward oblivion. I walked around the streets of Singapore and felt free, forgotten by my world, distant and at the same time calm. A calm American. I believe the sensation of relief provoked in me euphoria. Shortly after, I traveled to Beijing and began what I could call “a Chinese period.” In three years I traveled five times for long visits from which arose three books. A travel narrative called October in Beijing (Octubre en Pekín), the novel The Imposters (Los Impostores) and, later on, a brief narrative called Hotel Beijing (Hotel Pekín). After, I visited Jakarta, where I encountered Café Batavia and the work of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who was in jail for almost his entire life for communist militancy and was a candidate for the Nobel Prize at least five times. Later, I traveled to Bangkok and got to know its rough underworld, and ended up writing about it in my novel Night Prayers.


For this reason, when the Literature Translation Institute of Korea invited me to Seoul, I didn’t hesitate an instant. It was one of the last great capitals I had left to visit, and I even felt indebted. A shame not to have visited before, I said to myself upon arriving, and I thought I was already a bit late. Perhaps I should pretend that I knew it already, and without so much as resting I went out for a walk, trying to make the passersby believe that I had also lived in Seoul for a number of years.