Swaying into the Darkness
- onDecember 2, 2019
- Vol.46 Winter 2019
- byBak Solmay
- The Eyes of Winter
Tr. Kari Schenk 2017248pp.
I saw more than a few people sketching Busan Tower even afterwards, and some taking pictures, too, and a couple shooting videos there. Many people left Busan or left Korea after the Kori Nuclear Power Plant accident, but others had to keep on living in the same place. I don’t know if tall buildings were required to dim their lights on a rotating basis or if they had an agreement in place, but at any rate, the lights were dim, and it felt a little odd. After the accident, when we saw the city lights shining at night, we thought, Oh, it was all for that. Oh, we asked and sighed, was it all for that? and we found it bittersweet and shook our heads. But others said, Yes, that’s exactly what it was for! It was great and nothing else compares. The more brightly the nightscape shone, the more we’d have given for it. It may not be appropriate to call it “doing,” it doesn’t exactly feel right to call it that, but for the night to shine like the day, some things were spilled, stopped, and laughed off, and this was just as viable a way as others were. The man who said this looked exhausted and cold and seemed to be putting his last ounce of energy into what he was saying. His lips were cracked and chapped white. The large companies and department stores had decided to scale back their light displays or light up on a rotating basis, and the news announcement said to dress in layers and conserve indoor heating. The electrical sign broadcasting this announcement would be turned off on Sundays. And whether it was because the tower was shining or the bright lights in the city were going out, or maybe because there was a budget shortfall, the city decided to close Busan Tower for the time being. I heard all of this not on the news but from the people sketching the tower, one of whom told me this wouldn’t be on the news. That is to say, as long as the tower wasn’t being demolished outright, it wasn’t going to make the news. We could only keep busy and exert ourselves.
After the accident, Busan Tower’s scope of operations was scaled down and it was closed indefinitely. I don’t know whether to say they appeared, or they came into being, but at any rate, for some reason many people were often out sketching the tower repeatedly, almost drawn to it compulsively. Not being able to draw it myself, I just sat wondering, How does the tower look? I was thinking about how Busan residents would visualize Busan Tower when the sketch artists came to mind again. They’d sit on the steps with a view of the tower, sketchbooks in laps, looking back and forth from the tower to their sketches, drawing lines, erasing them, and re-drawing them. At the top of the stairs, there were two buildings the size of shoe stalls, one that sold coffee or yuja tea in paper cups, and another where pocket editions of Japanese books (mostly used) were sold. A small sign above the coffee shop had a black, coffee cup- shaped sticker on it. I’ve never been on the streets of Europe or seen the Eiffel Tower, but the sketch artists of Busan Tower sat in a line of four or so artists and drew Busan tower repeatedly, like the artists stationed in front of the Eiffel Tower or a cathedral or art gallery drawing and selling their wares. And then they smoked cigarettes and drank coffee in paper cups from a shop the size of a shoe stall. Someone who was taking pictures would take shot after shot, from up close and far away. Some of the people drawn to Busan Tower in this way wanted it to be reopened. Others said, We do it for comfort. Busan Tower is one of the symbols of Busan, and Busan Tower give a little comfort to those who have lost hope. We are soothed and comforted by things that seem not to be of any help at all and are in fact damaging. Some people say that for this very reason we must turn off the lights on Busan Tower and the tall buildings near Haeundae Beach; on the 63 Building and Namsan Tower in Seoul, as well as on many other buildings. In fact, the electrical consumption of Busan Tower and all these buildings together doesn’t have much of an effect. But we shouldn’t forget that we are in a very bad situation. We mustn’t look upon the nightscape,exclaim at its beauty, and turn away from what has happened. We can’t hide the cracks in the glass under our feet. After all, we’re standing on it. Whether the people drawing the tower and drawn to it held either of these opinions, or indeed, none at all, they drew and re-drew the tower just the same. And they drew it again. Maybe it was only that I hadn’t noticed, but no one seemed to be using oils or watercolors so far. With pencils or sharpies, they drew the tower and drew it again. Black and grey towers appeared, big and small, on white paper, lined notebooks, torn receipts, and newspaper corners, and they piled up and were lost. And then they reappeared. Busan Tower—Busan Tower viewed from a distance; a small dot-sized Busan Tower between two large Busan Towers; Busan Tower from across the sea; tens, hundreds of Busan Tower overlapping, redrawn, disappearing and reappearing. They appeared, overlapped with each other, and even as they were turned over, the process was repeated.
Among those drawn to Busan Tower was the tower itself, and I’d become closer to it than to the sketch artists, but I was thinking, How do I address it? When I stopped cold. I’ve stopped thinking about many other things, but none have confounded me as much. I first became acquainted with the tower around the time that people were starting to come out and sketch it. It was around the time the building was closed indefinitely, but really, this didn’t matter, and whatever way you put it, it was a little strange, so let’s just say it was on a winter’s day.
Then, as usual, I was lying on the bed thinking various thoughts when the tower occurred to me again, and my cat, who’d been lying asleep next to me, surprised me by getting up, stretching his forelegs high in the air and then ducking back under the comforter, leaving a cat-sized Busan Tower in the air. I’m not saying that the actual building made of cement and whatnot appeared, but something stood in this shape. I lifted the comforter and called my cat’s name, but he kept still, and I ran my fingers along the outline of the Busan Tower in front of me. I started with my fingers at the top, and by the time I’d reached the ground, the shape was gone. After closing my eyes and pulling the comforter up, I thought, What’s this, what’s this? and then, again, gripping my fingers tightly, What was it just now? What was it? and then slowly getting my breath back, I tried to recall the image of the tower I’d traced. It seemed more vivid than before, but after conjuring it up two or three times it was back to being indistinct. Then suddenly the pillow I’d been resting on slipped from under my head to the spot where the cat had stretched out and took the form of a pillow- sized Busan Tower. The cat tower and the pillow tower were the same in that they were the shape rather than the actual thing, but very subtly, almost imperceptibly, the cat tower was more like a cat, and the pillow tower was more like a pillow. Afraid, I put my head under the comforter, and the pillow slipped back to its original place on the bed in the same way it had come, as if its mission were complete.
This was repeated a couple of times a week. Although books and dolls or saucepans and kettles also became the tower, most of the time it was the cat, and one day when the cat stretched out and became the tower, I seized his legs and said, “Not yet!” holding his paws braced on either side to stop him. But he pulled free in an instant and came and pushed against my leg, and the tower he’d made began speaking. The tower said a lot about itself but even though I’d watched it and listened to its story, many aspects faded once I lay down and pulled the covers up. Then the cat would stretch out its legs once more and I’d just observe the tower he made. Half the time I’d grab his legs and try to hold them but there was no winning against a kicking, thrashing cat, and so I’d let go. Some scratch marks appeared on my arms and hands. I’d lay down to sleep smelling of ointment.
Any time I lay down, the tower slowly faded, and I’d fall asleep trying to resuscitate the image in my mind.
When I walked along the streets, which were certainly darker than before the accident, I kind of thought it would be nice if there were something to light the way. The dark streets made people feel small. Sometimes trash cans by the side of the road also became Busan Tower. Busan Tower would change into a cat and slink along like a lion or tiger at the zoo and not a cat at all, and sometimes it would really change into a lion and walk down the alley at an eye level just below mine, and I’d think, What the heck is this? but just walk alongside. And strangely, time differed depending on the starting point, as sometimes the past that I’d been through seemed like the future, and the future yet to come felt like something all too obvious that was dragging on. Thirty or forty years ago, science fiction writers believed that things beyond one’s imagining would happen in years beginning with the numeral 2, and in their novels, marvelous things had already happened. For this reason, the years in the 2000s that had already gone by did not seem like the past, but the future. We could only look at them with dread or surprise, or with our eyes closed in pleasure. The accident had happened in Unit 1 of the Kori Nuclear Power Plant, built in 1977. The plant had already reached the end of its intended lifespan in 2007, and operations were briefly suspended, and this was neither science fiction nor news, but a fact or minor incident. Adapting the perspective of the times, the year 1977 is science. It’s the future. Energy. Growth. Development. It’s Developed Nation status. We are entranced by the bright energy produced, and this past isn’t anything like what we think of as those days. But it’s so dazzling that I can’t stay long. Maybe if I could hold hands with the people next to me and trust my body to the rhythm of the future, I’d burst out laughing in that dazzling place, and be able to live there, in 1977, with the bright future. The future is a little more realistic in 2007, but if they’d stopped operations for good then, I wouldn’t be walking in dark alleys with a lion, would I? Even though walking with a lion is not necessarily bad in itself. The future that lies before me in 2007 is just as it was before the accident. People don’t leave, and no one dies. It looks ordinary and not much different, but the future viewed from 2007 is very vivid and I want to steal it and put it in my pocket.
And by the way, the lion was not a male with a mane, but a female, and when it came time for me to enter the house, she was watching from a couple of paces back as I opened the gate to see that I got home safely. When I opened the door to my bedroom, the cat jumped from the bed as if he’d been waiting, and made the tallest tower yet, one for the annals. I guess he didn’t like me holding his paws.
I didn’t know why Busan Tower appeared in front of me. Was it because I often wondered how it looked, or was it going to appear anyway and I was just there by coincidence? After it had appeared once, it didn’t fade or go away, but sometimes even multiplied in number. Like the day it became a lioness, it sometimes transformed into something else and slunk along behind me. I wondered whether strange things were gradually emerging because the city was dark, or the darkness allowed things labelled strange to come out, and when I had this thought, I lowered the curtain, turned on the overhead light, and fell asleep. Whatever the case, it didn’t matter. If I walked down a dark alley at night, sure as can be, a lioness appeared and walked with me, and one day a dog ran out barking and waited for us at the end of the street before turning into Busan Tower. A bird I’d never seen before alighted on my shoulder and then flew away. It was a vivid blue, like a bird in a fairy tale. It wasn’t just Busan Tower and these animals that followed me, but also a pipe; a pipe, drum and piano; and a piano and a trumpet. I saw a bear in uniform playing the drum. As soon as the sun rose the following day, I walked the streets to seek out human contact, but I couldn’t see any faces, What, no one? So I walked until I was starving and returned home exhausted. To think, a bear playing a drum! A deep blue bird! Had I fabricated these things that I had seen? For a second, I didn’t know whether to mock my own unconscious or be thankful for it. Upon returning home, Busan Tower was standing tall, as before, and I washed up and went to lie down.
“How many are you?”
“One, only one.”
“How can that be?”
“I’m one, like the one standing there.”
“Yes, now I’m a picture. Like a photo.”
“Do you appear to other people too?”
And with that, it disappeared again.
Translator Kari Schenk
Bak Solmay debuted in 2009 with the novel Eul, which won Jaeum & Moeum’s New Writer’s Award. She has authored the novels Eul, I Want to Write a Hundred Lines, Time in the City, Slowly Head First, and the short story collections Then What Do We Sing, The Eyes of Winter, The Dog I Love, and International Night. She has received the Moonji Literary Award, Kim Seungok Literary Award, and Kim Hyeon Prize.