- onDecember 20, 2017
- Vol.38 Winter 2017
- byJung Young Moon
- Vaseline Buddha
Tr. Jung Yewon 2016226pp.
That night, in a hotel in a small town in France, I thought for a long time about how you could spend your dying moments. Since dying moments could be important to anyone, or could be considered important, I could think about them for a very long time, and then maybe get a small live octopus and spend my dying moments with it, thinking that the only thing left for me to spend my dying moments with was an octopus, and feeling a certain gratitude toward it for that, and time it well and die at the same time with the octopus, which can’t live long out of water, or die thinking that I’m following the octopus which died before I did. Or I could go buy an octopus a little earlier, and spend my remaining hours, the rest of my life, with it, and die with the realization that there’s no difference whatsoever between the death of the octopus and my own. And I could realize anew, or not anew at all, the fact that death is what eliminates the difference between every living thing, which isn’t anything new, and that everything becomes one before death and extinction, as I share my fate with the octopus. And looking at the octopus, I could mutter, That really strange looking green cat looks like a pineapple somehow, and think, But even as a pineapple, it looks somewhat strange.
And looking at the octopus, and continuing to think about the octopus, and recalling the black pebbles I think I saw once, glistening with water on a pebbled beach, under a blazing summer sun, and the octopus wriggling among the pebbles, I could think about how the octopus wriggled, how many black pebbles there were on the beach, and how black they glistened, and how, looking at them, I felt a certain joy at the fact that they would glisten with water for a long time to come, perhaps even after mankind disappeared, and how absorbed in the joy I was, and wonder which beach it was where I thought I saw the countless pebbles glistening with water, or if the wet pebbles glistened incredibly under the bright moonlight because it was night, not midday, or if it was pitch dark night and I saw the pebbles glisten momentarily because of the light from a lighthouse, or if I heard, between the sound of foam constantly breaking, the comforting sound that pebbles make as they roll around, crashing somewhat uncomfortably into each other, the sound that makes you feel that your heart is being carelessly caressed, but not uncomfortably, and above all, if I had ever been to such a beach, and think that what I was trying to recall was not an octopus wriggling among pebbles, but black pebbles, glistening with water and reflecting some sort of a light, or the countless beams of light reflected by them, and wonder why I had recalled, of the many things I’d experienced or thought of in my life, black pebbles glistening with water, while at the same time breathing my last breath, feeling pleased that I had recalled them.
And in the hotel room where I was staying, there was a flowerpot with daffodils in it, and it didn’t seem like a bad idea to leave my will to the daffodils. So I said in the direction of the daffodils, as if leaving some kind of a will, The treadmill left behind by a squirrel that left on a search for a new path must meet more than three unfortunate ends, regardless of who takes it; in any case, the daffodils that were either in full blossom or were budding, had a shape that seemed fit to talk to.
And it occurred to me that in the act of talking to daffodils there was an element of an aside in a play, which is uttered with the assumption that someone is listening, different from a monologue, which is uttered when no one is listening, even though the daffodils couldn’t talk back, and I may have felt this way because I felt that the flowers, at least, listened to every word of what someone said.
In any case, daffodils were certainly better than shoes to talk to, feeling as if you were talking to each other, and if there was something else that was decent to talk to, it would be something like a fedora. I thought that I could blurt something out to daffodils before I died, and that the act would bring some kind of a pleasure.
I also thought about writers who, like Oscar Wilde, couldn’t stand their own countries, and tried to abandon them, such as Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, and I thought about the country in which I was born and raised and still living, and thought that the biggest thing I tried to accomplish in the country was to leave it permanently, even though there wasn’t really another place I wanted to settle in.
I fell asleep thinking such thoughts, and when I woke up the next morning I was able to think almost nothing at all about the girl I never ended up meeting. But while having breakfast at the restaurant on the third floor of the hotel, resenting the girl, who could have rejected me for a reason she couldn’t tell me, or explain herself—this because the waitress who brought me my food, who was around the same age as the girl, made me think of her—I saw, through a window whose curtains were drawn, two workmen who were replacing the round red roof tiles on the roof of a house across a little alley that was about the same in height as where I was sitting, and I was pleased beyond words. They worked very slowly, and I ate very slowly as if to keep some kind of a pace with them. And I was able to eat slowly because I was lost in thought, about an anecdote which I wasn’t sure was true or not, about Salvador Dali, who supposedly painted the droopy clock in the painting “The Persistence of Memory” not long after watching, as if in a trance, the camembert cheese that was melting on a dinner table. On the table before me was, in fact, a plate holding two pieces of cheese, which I placed deliberately where the sun was shining to make them melt slowly, and as I watched them melting and changing in shape, not as if I were in a trance but as if I couldn’t take my eyes off them, and tried to think of something other than what Dali must have been thinking of as he watched the camembert cheese melt, or in other words, what he must have been thinking of as he tried to see the camembert cheese before his eyes as something else, or, in other words, tried to see it as something that couldn’t be thought of as something else, and again, in other words, of something other than a droopy clock, but nothing else came to my mind other than a droopy clock.
But at that moment, I saw a crow that flew over to the roof where the workmen were, and through a process of association, I thought of van Gogh, who killed himself with a gun he claimed to have borrowed to shoot the crows that annoyed him, and suddenly wondered if he didn’t shoot himself, mistaking himself for a crow, and where exactly he killed himself with a gun. He could have done it while painting in his studio, while crows cawed loudly outside, or while standing absently before an easel with a brush in his hand, not being able to even think about painting because of the crows, but I fancied that he did it in a wheat or corn field while a flock of crows watched him. As he died, he could have thought, You win, but this isn’t your or anyone else’s victory, and if you must determine whose victory it is, it’s the victory of the corn field, where countless corn kernels are ripening. And as he slowly bled to death, the crows could have fled for a moment, startled by the gunfire, and then returned and spent the day eating grains, after which other painters could have come to the spot where van Gogh died, and painted the wheat or corn field where crows were flying around, cawing loudly, or sitting.
And I also thought about a gifted American cartoonist who mostly did sexually abnormal drawings, who said in a documentary film about himself that he always felt suicidal whether he was drawing or not, and whose life itself was more fascinating than the cartoons he drew, and his morbid younger brother who ended up killing himself, and about another younger brother of his who also drew cartoons when he was a child but became a drug addict, who in my opinion was even more gifted than his older brother who had become a famous cartoonist.
All through the meal, and after the meal, I was still hungry, not only because I ate little, but also because I ate very slowly, thinking about people who had committed suicide, which also pleased me. The breakfast, which I actually started eating somewhat late in the morning, came to an end at last at lunchtime. And picking up a yellow flower that was on the plate I had polished off, and picking out the petals and eating them one by one, I thought of crocuses, thinking that it looked like a crocus but was certainly not a crocus, and recalled the fact that crocuses that bloom in spring are called crocuses and ones that bloom in fall are called saffrons, and thought about how certain facts that were insignificant in reality pleased people at certain moments, and I was mostly pleased by such things.
And the fact that I was in a situation that was still obscure but no longer seemed so unpleasant, in which I had come to a strange little town to see a girl I didn’t know very well, whom I knew nearly nothing about and who knew nearly nothing about me, thinking of possibilities of one kind or another regarding her, then was turned away, made me feel so content and pleased that I had to smile, for it let me devour the yellow flower that made me think of crocuses, and think arbitrarily, after finishing the last of my coffee, and looking at the dregs, that my luck had run out.
And after a short while, when the workmen took a break even though they hadn’t done that much work, and lay sideways on the roof enjoying the warm rays of the sun, I too buried myself deep in my seat, and bathed in the peace of the little town that could be seen out the window. I heard the quiet murmur of people talking near the kitchen, but there was no one else at the restaurant. The town made you feel as if everything were passing slowly.
It looked as if the workmen had fallen asleep in the sun, and a very light breeze stirred up their hair and shirts and pants, taking them into pleasant dreams, and the breeze, which had come in through the open windows of the restaurant, was taking me into such a state as well. On the rooftop there was a weathercock in the shape of a rooster, which kept stirring very slightly and then stopping, for no other reason than that there was a very light, irregular breeze, and it seemed as if the rooster, too, were sleeping and dreaming, squirming lightly. The rooster, with a red comb on its head, was moving very minutely, and seemed to be quietly enjoying everything about the moment in its own way.
Anyway, there was a framed painting hanging by a window in the restaurant, which depicted a scene that was almost exactly the same as the scene out the window, seen from where I was. When I moved a little to the side, the painting looked the same as the scene, as if I were where the artist was when he was painting it. But there were no workmen in the painting, and there was a crow sitting on the top of the rooster-shaped weathercock, and when I moved my gaze from the painting to the scene outside, there was a crow sitting on the weathercock. The crow was at an angle slightly different from that of the crow in the painting, but it still looked like the crow in the painting. The scene seemed just perfect for looking at while passing time in leisure after breakfast.
I suddenly recalled that Napoleon kept “Mona Lisa” in his bedroom in the Tuileries Palace for some time. Perhaps he could feel, while looking at “Mona Lisa” before he fell asleep, that he really was an emperor who enjoyed all the privileges in the world, and felt that the greatest of all his privileges was having “Mona Lisa” in his bedroom and looking at it before falling asleep. Perhaps there was no painting like “Mona Lisa” to hang in someone’s bedroom. And perhaps Hitler tried to lay his hands on “The Art of Painting,” an enigmatic painting by Vermeer, for the same reason. Looking from the scene out the window to the painting depicting the scene, I felt that, in that moment at least, I was enjoying some kind of a privilege.
In that small town, there was a feeling of coziness found in all places where everything happens so slowly that time, too, seemed to pass slowly, and the feeling allowed me to stay lost in leisurely thoughts that rambled on because they were leisurely. I recalled my long-held belief that the roof, like the living room, should become a part of everyday life, and that people should spend more time on the roof, and also thought that the roof, indeed, was the most peaceful place in the house, that most quarrels take place in the living room or the kitchen, that people don’t go up to the roof to quarrel, and that the roof is a good place to calm yourself down when you’re angry. But soon it occurred to me that if the roof became a part of everyday life, a lot of quarrels could take place on the roof, which then could become even more dangerous than the inside of the house.
I came out of the hotel and went to the station that was at the hub of the town, and even when I was on my way to the station, I was thinking that I could go to the Lascaux Cave, which I knew was not too far from the station, and see the paintings there and think for a little while about how short the history of the present civilization was, and how it hasn’t been that long since humans came out of caves, or go a little further to the island of Mallorca, where Chopin wrote the “Raindrop Prelude,” and spend time in a room there listening to the sound of rain falling, or by a window where the sun shone through, feeling, to my heart’s content, an anxiety different from what Chopin felt, preferably of an unknown nature, or go to Turin, the city that Nietzsche, who planned from very young to write a little book of his own, and who in a way carried out the plan, said was the city he loved the most. Turin was also the city where Giorgio de Chirico, who saw countless riddles in the shadow of one human being, read Nietzsche, found “a strange, profound, mysterious, and infinitely lonely poem” in Nietzsche, painted “Melancholy in Turin” and “Spring in Turin,” and said that the city was the source of a series of his paintings, found melancholy. Perhaps in Turin, you could feel, as Chirico said, statues “come to life, talk, and even begin to walk, and come down from the pedestal and disappear.” Turin, where you could pass by countless statues depicting humans in squares and streets, as if passing by passersby, seemed to me like a city of statues, a city where the silence of statues ruled over noise. It seemed that in such a city, I might be able to dispel the gloom that always accompanied me, or at least feel differently about it. But it was certain that Turin was no longer the Turin that Nietzsche loved.
Translated by Jung Yewon
Excerpt from Vaseline Buddha. Copyright © 2010 by Jung Young Moon.
English translation copyright © 2016 by Yewon Jung.
Reprinted with the permission of Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas, Texas.
Jung Young Moon graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in psychology. He made his literary debut in 1996 with the novel A Man Who Barely Exists. Among his works, Vaseline Buddha, A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories, A Chain of Dark Tales, and A Contrived World have appeared in English. He has won the Dongsuh Literary Award, the HMS (Hahn Moo-Sook) Literary Award, the Dongin Literary Award, and the Daesan Literary Award. He has participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2005. Jung is also an accomplished translator who has translated more than fifty books from English into Korean, including works by John Fowles, Raymond Carver, and Germaine Greer.