- onJuly 21, 2017
- Vol.36 Summer 2017
- byChoi In-hun
- The Square
Tr. Kim Seong-Kon 2014158pp.
“Mankind cannot live in a closed room. Mankind belongs to the Square. Politics is the most unredeemed place in the Square of mankind. In Western countries, Christian churches assume a role like holy water purifying politics, absolving it of its sins. No matter how much political filth and scum pours out, Christianity swallows it up and carries it off. Metaphorically speaking, the political arena of Western countries has an excellent sewage system. In human society, man cannot live without processing daily excrement. That is why we build purifying tanks. The same thing goes for politics. However, there are neither purifying tanks nor sewage systems to lap the garbage up. Especially in Korea’s political Square, excrement and garbage have just piled up. Things that should be everyone’s are selfishly taken for personal benefit. Roadside flowers are picked from the ground and put in flowerpots at home, public faucets are extracted only to be put in the bathroom of a private home, or a pavement is dug up to be used as a kitchen floor. When Korean politicians come into the political Square, they bring a sack, a hatchet, a shovel, and a mask to hide their faces. Without a doubt, their intent is sinister. If a good person tries to dissuade them from doing this, wicked gangs who were watching from afar will emerge from their sunken alleys and finish him off with one stab. In return, they receive their share from the thief. With these wages, they buy the company of women until their money runs out. Once that happens, they’ll again come to the Square, wielding daggers. They do this because it is their job, and work always awaits them there. This is how the dark sun rises and sets in the deprived and bloodstained desolate Square. It’s the Square of foul nights—the Square of greed, betrayal, and murder. Is this not the predicament of the Korean political Square?
“A virtuous citizen will lock his door and close his windows. With no other way to escape starvation, he then must open his door and go to the market. He goes to buy a handful of rice and bunch of dried radish leaves. This market is the Square of economics. But this place is overflowing with stolen goods. There is a bag of potatoes, which was taken from a farmer who had his thin wrist cut off with a hatchet when he refused to give the bag up. There is a head of cabbage stained with blood on the bottom. There hangs a dress, torn and stained with semen, which was stripped from the body of a raped woman. No one believes in the myth that if you work hard and save pennies, you will be rich some day. Even capitalists’ cunning ethics, which claim to control greed on the basis of conscience, do not exist there. The sellers intimidate the buyers. In the Korean economic Square, one can see fireworks of threats and intimidation amidst the thick fog of fraud. On the horizon, one can also spy the advertising balloon of vanity floating in the sky.
“And the cultural Square? There, the deadly poisonous flowers are in full blossom and people are intoxicated by their opium-like effect. Men secretly and brashly indulge in their sexual fantasies with their female dancing partners at the cabarets. There are two ways of learning the technique of seducing through dance: private lessons and popular training courses. Those who growl at one another in the political Square offer each other drinks, like accomplices in bars and cabarets located in seedy alleys. Dishonestly obtained money is scattered indiscreetly, and bundles of paper money are thrown in the face of a servile artist playing his violin in the doorway. Female dancers grab the money thrown at them each time they lift their skirts and carefully put the money away in their handbags. The weight of the handbag is the barometer of the dancer’s popularity. They have forgotten their shame long ago because they know they have no other choice.
“Poets abuse their words to the extreme, almost sadistically, to feel catharsis. They do that because they are so poor that they cannot buy women, the real object of this catharsis. The critics ask writers, ‘Do you really claim to have gone through the same experience as Kafka? You’re telling lies, so you are a fake.’ With this, they harass and condemn the Korean Kafka until he is completely ruined. A critic is merely a nickname for a madman obsessed with the delusion that he is superior to writers. The only feeling people have toward these kinds of Squares is distrust.
“Therefore, the most valued thing to them is their own private chamber. They want to at least have this personal space, their last shelter, in which they can take refuge. While people take sanctuary here, there is still the matter of the public Square. There is a riddle that is told: There was the daughter of a corrupt politician who appropriated national funds. However, she has always said how kind he has been to her. Is the man a good father or a bad representative of the people? There is only the selfish individual, no public figure. Only private chambers abound and the Square has died. Each room is set up according to its owner’s social status because, like ants, the owners carry materials in their mouth to furnish them.
“The good father who sent you to France to study! The evil school superintendent who fired a hard-working teacher! The answer to the riddle is a paradox. It is that the good father and the bad public figure are the same person. No one remains in the Square. When the necessary plundering and fraud end, the Square is empty. The Square is dead. Is this not South Korea?”
Chung was listening quietly. He did not agree or retort the entire time Myong-jun had worked himself to a steady fervor. He understood.
He took a cigarette from his silver case, placed it in his mouth, and then offered one to Myong-jun. As he leaned forward to light his cigarette, Myong-jun couldn’t help but notice Chung’s hand holding the lighter. It was trembling slightly.
Geoje Island, which was located in the south of the peninsula, was also like a coffin. It was the coffin where dead soldiers labeled as prisoners of war lay down and fell asleep every night, like sardines in a can. In the prison camp on Geoje Island, Myong-jun was simply one of the helpless fish tied up in a pack. Inside his body, lay coffins within coffins. Nestled in the infinite depths was the mummy’s coffin he saw at Chung’s house. Beyond the emptiness of the mummy’s coffin was yet another coffin—the one in the deepest place in his mind. Suddenly, he realized the empty casing was his. Was this bleak coffin the final destination of my life? He wondered.
This was not a nightmare. This was not a dream, either. Rather, this was a dream from which one could not awake. But was there any difference between a man who was dreaming and a man who was recollecting his dream? Wasn’t it true that when you recollected your dream, you were already floating into the dream itself? In a coffin tied up with barbed wire that floated in the southern sea, Myong-jun tried to piece his life together through a desperate search for his friends in empty houses in desolate Seoul. In his memory, he met his friends and conversed with them. Was the dialogue real or was it the invention of his imagination? He was not so sure. Clinging to his dreams and his memories of dreams, Myong-jun gazed at the southern sea as it bobbed his coffin in the steady current. Every day, he saw a cargo ship gliding on the sea, which resembled blue oil, and embarked at the pier where supply warehouses were located.
Lying flat on his back at the POW camp, Myong-jun was thinking again. He was trying to reach out for his memories of his dreams in his mind’s eye. He remembered flinging one door open after another, from one empty house to the next. The sense of abandonment was rife in communist-occupied Seoul, he recalled. Even as dreams and reality blurred together in his mind, at least his feelings remained steadfastly the same. Yet when he tried to assume responsibility for what happened in his dreams, it was like trying to catch sand in his fingers. It was like the moment when he encountered Eun-hye at the Nakdong River War Front Headquarters. It was like the moment of waking up from his dream—the moment of confusion, disillusionment, and nihilism. He knew what happened at the S police station with Tae-sik and Yun-ae was nothing but his dream. Remembering how vivid the experience was, he was not proud of what he had done. Knowing that he cheated responsibility because it was a dream, he felt relieved and a little guilty. He was a prisoner of his memories. In the POW camp located by the southern sea, he suddenly felt dizzy. He dreamed a dream from which he could not wake.
On the captain’s desk was a rolled-up chart and the compass. The captain himself was not there.
As the ship drew closer to Macau each day, the released POWs once again urged Myong-jun to persuade the captain to let them go ashore. This time, he completely ignored them. He was not shaken at all, even by the discontent and hostility appearing on their faces. He was so fed up from the accumulated stress that he did not want to talk to anyone.
It was at that moment that he remembered the day when the release of the POWs abruptly began. When he heard he could choose a third country, he thought it surely was the right path for him. He didn’t realize at the time how the road would be littered with so many potholes and rocks.
When he heard of the armistice, he felt like falling into a deep quagmire. He did not want to go back to the North. He did not know of his father’s whereabouts during the war. Even when he discovered that his father was alive and well in the North, it was not enough reason for him to go. His father would have had his own way to survive, and the reality was too gloomy and bleak to think of filial piety. It was of no consequence, for the term “family” did not mean much in North Korea. For Myong-jun, there was nobody in North Korea. Even Eun-hye was no longer there. When one belonged to a society, one had a relationship with someone in that society. If there was no one to relate to, that person did not belong in the society anymore. Even worse, Myong-jun had lost faith in North Korean society and thus was afraid of standing in that political Square. The communists he met in the North were not the idealists he had imagined them to be before leaving South Korea. He once thought that communists were miraculous beings and the last guardians of idealism at a time when nothing was left to believe. In his standard-issue notebook, he scribbled down the juxtaposition of Stalinism and Christianity, particularly Catholicism.
The Garden of Eden
Humans in Original Sin
History of Humans in the Old Testament