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FICTION

Jo Jung-gyun’s World

  • onJune 25, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byKim Keum Hee
Too Bright Outside for Love
Tr. Sophie Bowman
2016
288pp.

 

Jo Jung-gyun had four days to finish his proofreading of the history book for reprinting, but four days stretched into a whole week, and then ten days. I could feel my whole face swelling with the stress of the delay. As though it was slowly ballooning like a helium sphere. I was worried it might pop. The old professor phoned at least once a day asking whether the new copies of his book would be ready in time. The uncertainty must have been upsetting his everyday life; he called at all hours, in the middle of eating breakfast, while having acupuncture at a clinic, while out practicing traditional archery, or at worst, he even phoned from a hike in the mountains. His hearing wasn’t great, so it was already hard enough communicating by phone, but the call from somewhere deep in Bukhan Mountain kept getting cut off. When I explained, “Work on the proofs is taking a little longer than expected,” he’d say, “The proofs don’t need any work. What do you lot know about Korean history anyway?” and come out with a strict command: “Don’t get all smart, just fire up the printer.”

But Jo Jung-gyun didn’t listen. Books he’d brought in from who knows where kept piling up around his desk; he had various dissertations and titles like Dictionary of Historical Terms, Complete Dictionary of Korean Folk Terms, Companion to the Joseon Sillok, and a Korean-Japanese dictionary. Seeing the errors that he’d put right, they were things that really did need to be fixed. So it was hard to justify getting angry with him about it all the time. Jo Jung-gyun stayed late in the office every day. Since I only got six or seven pages of edited manuscript from him to check over each day, I was able to get off work on time. When I left the office, saying “See you tomorrow,” Jo Jung-gyun would get up and turn off all the lights except the one above his desk. Cloaked in that darkness like an extra warm blanket, he’d immerse himself in the world of the manuscript.

*

Brimming with rage, the old professor came to the office. He’d called up through the company intercom, saying, “I’m at the main entrance” and then ascended all those flights of stairs to the office in the blink of an eye. Because our work had been delayed for two whole weeks, my senses had already blown far away on the southeast wind. I’d heard that the southeast wind blows things all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Like a wild polar bear at the North Pole, I wanted to thrash my claws around to catch and devour things like salmon or seals. After the old professor left, the department director tasked me with checking on Jo Jung-gyun’s progress hour to hour. I then delegated the task to Haeran. From some point or other, the department director had stopped summoning both of us for briefings—not just for the book we were working on at the time; without Haeran there, he would consult with me about tasks coming up in autumn and winter. And so Haeran and I were no longer rivals, and I just naturally became her senior. Haeran brought the document I’d instructed her to put together over to my desk. It was divided into columns headed: DATE, TIME, WORK COMPLETED, and CHECKED. “Looks good.” I okayed it, but before going back to her desk Haeran wavered for a moment, as though she had something more to say.

When the afternoon came around, Jo Jung-gyun walked slowly to my desk. Whether because of stomach troubles, or all the overtime he was doing, he looked even more gaunt and pale. His shoulders were stooped low, making him look almost like a giant question mark.

“Let’s keep check between the two of us, you and me. Not anyone else.”

His voice was so quiet that I rolled my office chair a little closer to where he stood.

“What did you say?”

Jo Jung-gyun swept his hand over his crisp, dried out face, and took a note pad out of his shirt pocket. Two 10,000 won bills that had been between its pages fluttered down onto my lap. Jo Jung-gyun placed his note pad in his palm and after writing something in it, held it out to me. In brackets beside the date he’d written “14:20” and then next to that: “I was not idle.” Jo Jung-gyun tapped on the space left blank for a signature. He gave no explanation, as if to say, you must know what this is for. Of course, I knew what I was supposed to write. I just had to sign my name. But I couldn’t, I didn’t want to.

“Why won’t you sign it?” Jo Jung-gyun asked, without any hint of reproach or blame, just complete exhaustion.

“I don’t want to.”

“Why won’t you sign it?”

I didn’t want to write my name there. Because I was undoubtedly a different type of person to the HQ director who’d made a hungry employee stand by the water fountain for an hour. Because I’m someone unrelated to that kind of thing. When I didn’t respond in any way, Jo Jung-gyun just stood there, staring down at the tips of his shoes, and then went back to his desk. I felt a sense of relief. But then one hour later, he came back over and held out his notepad again. Why can’t he just get angry? I thought to myself. It would be better for everyone if he would just curse, call me arrogant, ask, “Don’t you know how much older than you I am?” Was he trying to make me miserable? Written on the second line of the page in his note pad was “I was not idle.”

“Why are you doing this? Are you making a protest against me?”

“I’m not protesting.”

“Then what is it?”

“I want confirmation.”

This time Jo Jung-gyun didn’t back away and stood there holding a pen out to me. As I waved him away to say, “I won’t do it, I won’t,” the ball pen was knocked out of his hand. Whether from anger or embarrassment, my face grew hot. Manager Seo broke the tension in the office by speaking right to the point, “What’s going on over there? That team sure is tricky.” The department director stood up from his chair, “Again with the note pad! What’s going on? What’s the problem this time?” he began, as though he was about to start giving a speech.

Haeran picked up the pen and hobbled over to my desk. “I’ll do it. It’s fine if I do it, isn’t it?” After glancing at the statement “I was not idle” she wrote “Kang Haeran” beside it.

*

“This here is a guy who went to ruin because of his name and survived by it too. He’s someone with real drama, not like those TV shows.”

I couldn’t believe someone as quiet and tranquil as Jo Jung-gyun could have drama in his life. Hyungsu grilled a dried fish to go with our beer and came to put it on the table, saying, “Shall I tell you the story?” Although it was Jo Jung-gyun’s story, Jo Jung-gyun himself sat there without a word, while Hyungsu got worked up like the narrator of a silent film.

Hyungsu and Jo Jung-gyun had gone to the same university, and apparently back then there had been an incredibly unpopular history professor. He was completely out of step with his students and dedicated more than half of his lecture time to mouthing off about the opposition party and “demo gangs.” Jo Jung-gyun had signed up for his class because it was compulsory, but he hardly ever went to the lectures. The problem was that he didn’t want to be held back a year. Not passing the year was unthinkable because he was poor and dreaded going to the army. But if he flunked the year, all that tuition money would be wasted and he’d be summoned right away for military service. Luckily there was a rumor that everyone who sat for the class exam got a pass just for turning up. Wondering what it was all about, whether it could really be true, he and all his classmates stampeded off to sit for the exam. Among them were some who’d gotten swept up in the crowd and gone without even knowing which class the exam was for, then left lamenting their bad luck when they found out it wasn’t a class they were enrolled in.

When they got into the lecture hall, the exam proctor gave each student a blank sheet of paper. Just like the rumors that had spread, there was no exam question on the chalkboard. The proctor told them all to write their names on the paper but explained that they couldn’t leave until the allotted time for the exam was over. There was still a whole hour remaining once the students had written their names. But they’d been told not to leave, so they had to spend the time there one way or another. One student put their head down on the desk and slept; another idly spun a pen between his fingers; and there was someone who hummed a song and someone else who tore off the corner of the sheet of paper and chewed it like gum. And then there was Jo Jung-gyun, who sat in front of his blank sheet of paper thinking. He wondered, Why was there no question?

Jo Jung-gyun thought about the meaning of an exam where you don’t need to write anything. He thought about what grades received in that way represented. The early summer campus grounds echoed with the high pitched ta-dang-ta-dang-ta-dang of the kkwaenggwari gong. For some reason, it sounded to Jo Jung-gyun’s ears like, “Go out go out go out.” He could hear the kung-kung-dok-kung-dok kung-kung-dok-kung-dok of the janggu drum. For some reason, it sounded to Jo Jung-gyun’s ears like cuc-cuc-cuc-cu-koo cuc-cuc-cuc-cu-koo.

“Why is there no question?” Jo Jung-gyun asked aloud.

“The test is to write your name. That’s all you have to do.” The proctor gave Jo Jung-gyun a tap on the shoulder as he walked past him.

To not write anything, to just write your name, was something shameful. We never wanted something that could be gained by doing nothing. Jo Jung-gyun felt ashamed. He thought he understood the professor’s intent, having them write their names like that and then wait around doing nothing. Jo Jung-gyun didn’t write his name, and instead started scrawling something down on his sheet of paper. The proctor came over and knocked on Jo Jung-gyun’s desk with his fist.

“Look at this kid. I told you just to write your name.”

Another sheet of plain paper was put on his desk.

“Look here kid, you can’t write anything else, just your name. You’ve been told already, all you have to do is write your name and you’ll pass.”

He gave Jo Jung-gyun yet another sheet of paper. Jo Jung-gyun picked up his pen again. Later on, even his friends were chiming in to try to stop him. “Jo Jung-gyun! Just write your name. If you flunk the year you’ll have to go to the army.” But he kept writing until the very end of the exam period, and even at the last moment he didn’t write his name.

 

“That’s what a cool dude he is, this guy. He was born special. A guy who doesn’t write his name to the very last.”

Although it had all happened years ago, it still seemed to get Hyungsu excited, and he hugged Jo Jung-gyun, saying, “He’s that kind of guy, this guy.” Embracing his friend, Hyungsu’s wrist bent to a strange angle, and it was only then that I realized he had a prosthetic arm.

“What was it that you wrote?” I asked.

“It was a poem.” Jo Jung-gyun lifted his glass of beer, and as he set it back down again, he smiled for just a moment. Like a flower falling to the ground, his small lips spread and then contracted.

“So what happened?” Haeran asked.

Hyungsu responded in a heard-it-all-before tone, just like earlier on when he’d been talking about all those TV drama plots. “It all went wrong of course. He flunked, he went to the army, there was an accident.” When I asked, “But you said he also survived on his name too?” Hyungsu exclaimed, “Ah, sweet success!” and smacked the wall with a fly swatter.

The title of the poem Jo Jung-gyun had written in the exam hall was “Bygone World.” Hyungsu said that back then it was recited more often than any other poem at rallies and social gatherings and in school society rooms. Those kinds of “leaflet poems” had apparently been effective in stirring people up, and so, be it a demonstration or whatever, if there was no poem recited, the mood would just fizzle out. Jo Jung-gyun’s “Bygone World” perfectly performed that role of getting the crowd all fired up.

“Ah, so you became famous.” I hastened to draw a conclusion since the subway was about to stop running for the night.

“No, I didn’t.” Jo Jung-gyun looked over at me with a face flushed with drink. A piece of dried pollock was stuck to his lip, threatening to fall off at any moment.

He said that he might have been the one who had written the poem but it didn’t belong to him. Anyone who wanted to, whoever they were, could put their name on it and recite it on stage, in the plaza, in the streets, as though they’d composed it themselves.

“I read it too. If I got agitated, I’d recite it in tears, and I recited it drunk, and recited it cheerfully too. There must still be plenty of people who think I wrote it myself,” Hyungsu said.

“How awful. That’s plagiarism.” I made a throwaway remark.

Hyungsu got worked up. “Did you hear that? But it wasn’t like that in our world! Poetry wasn’t that kind of thing. Hey Jung-gyun, they don’t know, they don’t know our world.”

“We do know!” Haeran protested.

“What do you know? You lot know nothing, nothing.”

“Haeran, do you know?” With his head bowed low, Jo Jung-gyun asked in a voice that seemed somehow a little submerged.

“Yes, I know. I’m telling you I do.”

But Hyungsu only half pretended to listen before saying, “You two go home now. We have to get some sleep.”

What? So Jo Jung-gyun and Hyungsu were living here together? I looked around the bar. I couldn’t tell if it was for a storeroom or a bedroom, but there was one small door. I took Haeran and got up from the table. Maybe because he was drunk, or it could have been something else, but Jo Jung-gyun sat still with his eyes closed.

“We’ll be off then.”

Hyungsu gave no response. Perhaps he really was angry. How did someone whose mood changes in an instant like that become such close friends with someone whose facial expression hardly ever changed at all?

We got in a taxi and I dropped Haeran off by her place. With a whimper, Haeran said that she didn’t know what it was, but something was truly sad.

“You said you’d worked in every part-time job around. How can you still be so emotional?”

“I was never like this at home, but since coming up to Seoul I’ve turned into a real crybaby.”

“Where did you say your hometown was again?”

“Okcheon. Oh, that’s a first.”

“What’s a first?”

“It’s the first time you’ve ever asked me that kind of thing.”

“What kind of thing?”

“Personal stuff.”

I had nothing to say to that. “But Haeran, just now, didn’t you say you knew? What is it that you know?”

“What I know? Ah, well . . . I can’t really explain it, but I thought I could understand.”

“What?”

“Well . . . their world, I guess.”

I watched Haeran as she got out of the taxi and began walking up towards her building on her crutches. After going a little way, she stopped, got out her phone, and with it she took a photograph. There wasn’t a single flower or cat in sight, why was she taking a picture? I looked in the direction of the darkness she had photographed and then said, “Go on, driver” and got the taxi to drive away.

(Excerpt from pp. 55–56; 58–61; 64–68.)

Translated by Sophie Bowman

 

Author's Profile

Kim Keum Hee debuted in 2009 with the short story “Your Document,” which won the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award. She has published one novel, Kyung-ae’s Heart, and two short story collections, Sentimentality Only Lasts So Long and Too Bright Outside for Love. She has won the Sin Dong-yup Prize for Literature, the Munhakdongne Young Writers’ Award, and the Hyundae Literary Award. The Japanese translation of Too Bright Outside for Love was published by Shobunsha in 2018.