- onNovember 11, 2014
- Vol.20 Summer 2013
- byChoi Suchol
There was a troubled region of the world that was once one people, one nation, but became divided in two and waged in a fierce warfare. This is a story about something that happened in a prison camp there. Outside the camp, the war was coming to an end. But sporadic battles were going on, more intensely than ever. Rumor was going around that soon, a ceasefire would be called, so both sides were fighting desperately to be at an advantage at the ceasefire agreement.
As a result, the prison camp was full of tension. The prisoners were largely grouped into two camps as to which position they would take after the ceasefire. They could choose either of the divided nations, the south or the north. They were to be given the right to choose a third nation, but it was expected that not too many would do so.
The head of the prison camp was a field grade officer belonging to the peacekeeping force dispatched from abroad. The head, who from the beginning had upheld the cause of mediating a war between the same people, tried to take as neutral a stance as possible. But to that very degree, he failed to get an accurate picture of what was going on. It was too much to expect him to be thoroughly prepared for something that could happen at any moment.
The more time passed, the greater became the division and conflict among the prisoners, and things were strained to the breaking point. The head of the camp was aware of this. At first, he had the lights go out and the prisoners in bed at an early hour to limit their time and actions. Forced sleep, however, stirred up nightmares. The nightmares became reality in the darkness of the camp. Reckless killings took place during the night, and many died on their beds in the barracks. Night came early in the camp, but no one went to sleep. Night required clarity of mind, more so than during the day. In order to survive, no one could sleep.
There I was, an old and shabby bed near the entrance of the central barracks. I was separate from the other beds, so the head of the barracks had claim on me. He was called Jang Gang, but no one knew if that was his real name, or a nickname. His soldiers whispered that he had once been in a circus, and did not rank very high, either. It was undeniable, however, that he had incredible strength, as well as leadership, so no one dared challenge his authority.
He had spent more than a month on me. But he rarely ever opened up to me. Jang Gang was a person who kept a tight grip on himself, both within and without, even while sleeping. But he knew better than anyone that the worst was soon to come, and fell deeper and deeper into anguish and despair. He had no intention of siding with either camp. He only wished desperately that the violent antagonism would come to a stop and that they would be able to coexist. He was horrified that his fellow soldiers went to bed early to make plans to kill their old comrades in the other camp, and that the bed, which should be a place of comfort and rest, though old and shabby, had become a place for conspiracy to kill. I was even more horrified, being a bed myself.
One day, he asked to meet with the head of the prison camp, with the permission of the leadership of the camp. The head of the camp was also aware of what was going on within the camp, so he willingly met with him. The head had received a report that people were getting injured one after another during their tasks, some even to the point of death, and had been agonizing over what measures should be taken. On top of that, patients suffering from fever and stomach flu were dying and black smoke was rising everywhere with corpses burning, making the camp no different from Auschwitz.
While talking to the head of the prison camp about this and that, Jang Gang suddenly requested that the lights be turned out later, and that they be allowed to dance instead.
“Dance instead of sleep.”
The head of the prison camp was surprised at the unexpected words. But Jang Gang must have been just as mystified. It was my idea to propose that they be allowed to dance. Wouldn’t it be better to dance than to think of ways to kill each other without being able to sleep? While Jang Gang lay on top of me, confused with anguish, I had made my way into his heart and planted the thought there.
Jang Gang went on to say, “Dreams are like eggs laid by beds. The beds can no longer lay eggs, shocked into a state of sterility and infertility by the sound of cannonballs, so we should dance instead of dream. The beds will come back to life if we do. Then we can stop the war.”
There was silence for some time between the two. Jang Gang himself was deep in thought over what he had just said.
Then the head of the prison camp, who had an unusually prominent crown, slapped the table with his hand and said, “Good, good, that’s a great idea.”
He felt that it would be good to let go of the past by having everyone dance together, for the time had come to put an end to the long-standing conflict. The head of the prison camp added that there would be time set aside after dinner for dancing, after which the prisoners would have some time to enjoy themselves, and that drinks would be provided as long as they didn’t make a fuss. It was decided on the spot that the kind of dance of choice would be the waltz.
From the next day on, the entire prison camp grew as bright as day when night deepened, and everyone had to come out to the empty lot to dance. As it happened, there was a good dancer among the prisoners, and he volunteered as an instructor. Lively, colorful music from abroad came flowing out of the loudspeakers every day, and the prisoners waltzed to the sound of the music. And when everyone began to relax and grow tired, the guards sent them back into their barracks.
The leadership was divided as to Jang Gang’s dogmatic behavior. But it was decided that he could serve as a kind of spy, and that they should wait and see what happened.
The prisoners had to dance every day, so dancing became labor at times, and drudgery at times. Still, the prisoners became better and better at dancing. They could do many things while dancing with ease. They talked to each other, smoked cigarettes together, discussed what they would do the next day, and at times, still whisper conspiracies. Sometimes, they couldn’t tell if they were dancing, or sleeping and dreaming that they were dancing.
But more than anything, they could, while dancing, get the sleep that they so lacked. They no longer had to tremble with fear that they might die in their sleep. While they danced and slept, they also dreamed. As dance and sleep and dream came to them all at once, the tension among the prisoners subsided somewhat. They looked less fierce, and they spoke with more courtesy. Witnessing the changes, the head of the prison camp felt great satisfaction. Jang Gang brightened up as well. He didn’t let himself relax, though. I felt uneasy, but I, too, enjoyed the different feeling that had come upon the prison camp.
Oh, but I had been foolish. Sleep substituted by dance, though it wasn’t sleep forced through darkness, held within it an unexpected, fatal danger. Within the sleep of dance, which required movements of perfect order, they once again began to harbor seeds of collective behavior towards slaughter.
One day, an order came down from the leadership to Jang Gang. A dance would be held the next day, with all the prisoners participating to show what they had mastered, so Jang Gang was to invite the head of the prison camp. Jang Gang conveyed the message to a guard, and the head of the prison camp relayed that he would watch the dance at the front gate, since he couldn’t go inside the camp itself.
The next day, most of the prisoners lined up in the empty lot, and the head of the prison camp, dressed in formal attire, appeared and began to walk towards the gate. At that moment, the prisoners suddenly moved. They pushed down the gate with a pole and at once took the head of the prison camp hostage, and pushed forward with great force, shouting. The prisoners took in their hands anything that would serve as weapons. It all happened in an instant, and the head of the prison camp served as a shield, so the guards at the second guard post drew back, unable to stop the prisoners.
Everyone was swept up in the vortex of the riot. Jang Gang could not believe what was happening before his eyes. It shocked him that he alone had not known about the revolt that everyone else was in on. At that moment, a man raised a club and struck down on the head of the prisoner who had been in charge of dance instruction. At the same time, someone thrust a pickax at Jang Gang’s back with all his might. Only then did Jang Gang realize that he and the dance instructor had been sentenced to death by the people’s court for being reactionaries. He had been thoroughly used.
His spine broke with a snap. In that state he crawled over to me. Soon his body, a big lump of flesh and bones, collapsed down onto me. Thus the history of a man, who had lived as a human bed, doing all kinds of unpleasant tasks, came to an end. The human bed that had tried to hold up the world like Atlas, not fearing cannonballs and bullets, finally broke. But he felt a degree of satisfaction at his end. He thought that maybe with this, atonement had been made. Life and war, it was all a circus. Before breathing his last, he saw fractured human bones flying up into the air, crashing into each other, making noises and dancing. It was the very dance of death he would now have to dance.
* Translated by Jung Yewon.
Choi Suchol was born in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, in 1958. He completed a BA and MA in French Language and Literature at Seoul National University. He made his debut in 1981 when his short story “Blind Spot” won the Chosun Ilbo New Writer’s Contest. He is the author of several short story collections including A Castle in the Air; Montage; and Short Nap by the Roadside, and the novels including In the Stomach of a Whale; An Anarchist’s Love; Cicada; Pest; and Bed. He is also the recipient of the Yun Dong-ju Literary Award and Yi Sang Literary Award. Currently, he is a professor of creative writing at Hanshin University.