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  • onApril 3, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byKim Bong-gon
Summer, Speed
Tr. Park Kyoung-lee
2018
280pp.

This happened in May of last year.

After he ended it with me, time in all forms became unbearable. I waited for sleep, for sleep to come. In the city I lived in as a child, people more often said that sleep was coming, not that they were sleepy. As much as I waited for him to come back, for him to call, I waited for sleep. Sleep comes, I can’t go to sleep. Well, I could, but it wouldn’t be as natural. If only I could go to sleep right away. Resting my arm on my forehead while lying down, I wait desperately for sleep to come. Because no dreams are dull, all I needed to endure time was sleep.

I am standing in a vast field. The dream is awash in yellow hues. An outdoor space that stretches on like a track, seemingly endless yet with distinct boundaries. It gave the impression of an open space, but there was a mountain made of rocks on the other side. To my right was a wall, one I couldn’t see but was well aware of. Instinctively, I knew this was the terminal. I was certain it was the old terminal at three o’clock from the roundabout, where the green Cheil Transit intercity buses came in and out of, but it materialized in a form I had not imagined, I could not even imagine, and was beyond my perceptive abilities. I was clearly at the terminal, though it felt absurdly unfamiliar. The terminal I was seeing was how it was in the days before I was born.

Awake, I kept turning over the inexplicable dream in my mind. It wasn’t something I had dreamed up after going to a modern photography exhibition of the city. Neither was it a primal fantasy or genetic memory. The only way of explaining it was that it was a memory that had been passed down. Could it be that I inherited what Mom had seen, imagined, or brought to mind.

You are my dream, I am Mom’s dream.

If so, couldn’t I have inherited at least one of Mom’s memories?

Imagination → Image → Ultimately, to see → To see well and imagine → Or, to see one’s imagination → To imagine and see something that cannot be seen

Across the terminal is a mountain, topped with a tower. The mountain, where a tower awaits at the end of 365 stairs, is officially named Jehwangsan Park. It used to be home to a monument commemorating the Russo-Japanese War. From the top of the tower, shaped like a Korean naval warship, the entire city including the roundabout comes into view. Since I’m at three o’clock, my house is somewhere around eleven o’clock. As the city’s name disappeared, so did the central clock tower at the roundabout. The clock tower, which was also a water fountain, and its surrounding windmill palms have been replaced with a plain, empty plaza.

Just like it was in my younger days, there aren’t many people or cars on the roads. The cars run slowly in an anti-clockwise direction before slipping out at some o’clock. I keep watch, like a ghost.

The passing down of memory may come across as nonsense or gibberish, but at the very least, it enlightened me of the overlap existing within. (I still think of it as Mom’s memory, but don’t feel the need to prove it.)

It was impossible for me to have witnessed the scene I would have seen in my early teenage years—that rainy summer morning—because it was after I left my old house. During my first summer vacation in middle school, I locked the door while keeping the windows open. Outside, all I saw were dirty pieces of lumber and worn iron sheets lying between our place and the neighbor’s. Mom and I had not been talking for a week. I don’t know why, but that’s how it was. I wanted to surprise Mom. I could play dead. When she goes out, I’ll lie down with a kitchen knife by my side, and my arms covered in poster paint. I’ll close my eyes.

Just then, Mom’s voice came from outside. She was calling me by the middle character in my name, which I hated. I caught a glimpse of the summer sky, and at the moment when Mom was calling out to me in a weak voice, I was looking at the yard in my old house from childhood. Was it real, or a dream? Now, I am looking at the garden from my childhood through my teenage eyes. How can it be that it’s so possible? (But, at that time, why was I looking at the garden/yard from my childhood?)

terminal

1. situated at the end (of an object); the last (of a series); final; ultimate

2. an end point

3. placed at a boundary

4. the last stage (of a disease); leading to death

 

The belief that there’s something more to the meaning and origin of words may be regarded naïve and foolish, and looked down upon as completely groundless. Come to think of it, it doesn’t make sense to explain words using words. I feel embarrassed, as though I’ve stupidly declared that words mean words. But it is through this near-superstitious act that I always gain courage.

Setting aside the belief that there’s something worth noting in the origin of words, there’s no denying that words take us to the past, to our memories. Along with images, scents, and music, they deliver me to the past.

Aren’t words almost literature? Believe it or not.

Then, are words nostalgia?

I am lost between the two extremes of visions opened up by pure memory and words.

4/16/2015

That evening, I attended the funeral of my teacher’s father. At the news of a mass memorial gathering, we headed to Seodaemun Station by subway instead of taking the bus. After some back-and-forth at the entrance, the group sent me as a representative to light the incense sticks. Because I had never met my teacher’s father, I prayed for my teacher’s well-being while bowing. At the visitors’ room, kept separate from the funeral hall, I was pleased to see my old writing teachers, and went up to greet them.

At the hospital entrance, we met a senior who had rushed here after work. He went to pay his respects, and we left for the Gwanghwamun branch of Kyobo Book Centre, still undecided as to whether we should part, have a drink, go home, or get some writing done. While waiting for him, I flipped through a literary magazine featuring my teacher’s work, took a peek at some fountain pens, and headed to the literature section. The senior joined us, and we decided to have beer in Hapjeong, which was convenient for everyone.

As I stepped out of the Kyobo underpass, I heard the blaring of horns. I saw yellow lights, the ground flooded with lights from billboards, police officers making hand signals, and people crowding the pavement at the crossing. There, in front of the Kyobo Building, the strong scent of lilac hit my nose. It smelt exactly like chrysanthemum. Huh? Huh? Before I had time to grasp the faint wisp of thought, we were making our way towards City Hall to transfer to Line 2. Outside the old city hall building was a line of high school students, holding pickets that read “Please hug me” instead of “Free hugs.” Chattering in pairs, we headed to one of the subway entrances. Perhaps they were restricting traffic, or perhaps because it was too crowded, we couldn’t get in.

As I turned to look for another entrance, I saw—between the two city hall buildings, between the cars speeding past the Plaza Hotel, and through the crowd that had filled up Seoul Plaza—the desolate roundabout from my childhood. I ended up seeing it. I almost froze to the spot. But that moment couldn’t have lasted more than a second, and I would have passed through the crowd, joking and laughing as usual.

And so, it was at that moment, that very moment, that I felt alive for the first time since February. It could have been an emotion, or vividness, derived from the crossroads of a literary death and life. That emotion was: I can write, I think this can be turned into writing, and I want to write. More than anything else, I had reconnected with “I.” I had a feeling that this would be the ending to “People of the Past.”

A palimpsest of time

A palimpsest of memory

A time and memory reduced to tatters/the birth of a new time and memory

That night, I

I die. The only thing obvious to me was that I cannot become a stranger.

People die. There is no tomorrow. There is no tomorrow to wake up to. To put it more narrowly, no next time, next hour, next minute, next second . . . Splitting up this second to get no next mo-ment. What does it mean to have no next moment? If it simply means there’s no next moment, I imagined that it might be possible to enjoy a momentary eternal life if a moment was something I could have.

At the base of the cone of time, is there no way to live infinitely within that moment. Like a time of ennui. Is there no way to stretch that time to eternity. Is there no way to go beyond the base, for my time to meet someone else’s time to create a new time and past. Why is it that I’m me, why can’t I be anything other than me, why am I just me, and why can I only recall me.

I would rather have me, no, I(?), or what used to be me, die than have you die. I form in my mind the phrase “have you die.” I can think it, but have no desire to do it, so the natural conclusion I draw is that it’s something I can never bring myself to do. The moment someone else intervenes, I feel an unbearable embarrassment that stops me from thinking further. Just before my delusional logic turned into delusional ethics, I quit thinking out of embarrassment. That could have been an excuse for “Auto,” or perhaps, I was adhering strictly to my code.

Last spring, the present disappeared, and only the past remained. If anything, it was the present that was unexpected.

Those that disappeared seemed closest to the present.

The clouds disappeared, and the raindrops remained. The smoke disappeared, and the ashes remained. Music disappeared, and only emotions remained. So, what is that remains when I disappear.

The first record that nearly became the last.

The rain stopped. Spring did not come. It’s spring, but I’m waiting for spring. This is meant only to state that it is not winter, and I’m not trying to be lyrical. Half past four, the sun is starting to sink. Soon, it will be the golden hour for photos. The scenery stood out more as the clouds lifted. Light overtook the shadows that had diagonally cloaked the village. Like a garden that had been dug up and left in a mess, my heart was drying itself in the sun.

I saw a hill in the distance. As always, embedded in the hill is at least seven pieces of different colors, like a mosaic that appears green from afar, like a stencil colored in with a sponge. Is it spring.

I am looking at the hill in the distance. It is half past four on April 16, 2015.

 

The second record that could have been the last.

Once again, I am looking at the hill in the distance. As always, it is green. It is six o’clock on May 23.

In that void of time, I had completely given up on the dull-as-dishwater man. I couldn’t find the old me, who had been anxious to win his heart. I did not lack money. The only thing I didn’t have was time. To my surprise, I did not dream of being anywhere but here. My life did not feel fake. Strangely enough, it was the first year that felt real. I did not wish for anything other than writing.

No one had turned into nostalgia yet. That was the most important.

There was an “I” unusable for writing, but that’s precisely what I must write about.

 

The end of the end. What I thought was a fan-shaped fan had spread to become round, allowing ring and revelation to meet.

It’s summer again. Wait, is it my first summer?

The start of a summer even I find hard to believe.

It’s three in the afternoon on May 25, but it’s in fact seven. No, it’s some random hour.

I’m seeing a hill that has turned into a forest, a mountain with a tower, a terminal, a roundabout . . . All from that rainy morning in summer. No, I’m writing it. And so, I’m seeing it.

(Excerpt from pp. 240-250.)

Translated by Park Kyoung-lee
 
For publication inquiries, contact: koreanlitnow@klti.or.kr
 
 The author's interview video is coming soon (during July)!

 

Author's Profile

Kim Bong-gon has authored the short story collection, Summer, Speed. He attended the Korea National University of Arts, graduating from the film academy and then the graduate program in creative writing. His career began in 2016 after he won the Dong-A Ilbo New Writer’s Contest for “Auto.” He was a finalist for the Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award and Munhakdongne Young Writer' s Award.