Rhapsody in Berlin

  • onSeptember 25, 2017
  • Vol.37 Autumn 2017
  • byKu Hyoseo
Rhapsody in Berlin
Tr. Kim Ji Yeun


“You know, Johann Sebastian Bach . . .” she said.

I nodded. I was about to pop a potato dumpling in my mouth.

“Would you believe it if I said he was from . . . Joseon?”

I raised my head and looked at her. Dry spit went down my empty throat.



G.Z.S.B. Restaurant next to Weimar City Hall. Tuesday, 1 p.m.

I wasn’t there for the potato dumplings or for the house beer. I wouldn’t have taken the train from Frankfurt to Weimar for something like that. I was there as an interpreter.

“The pay’s quite good,” P from the travel agency had told me on the phone the day before. “Just take the job, and don’t ask questions.”

I was a wanderer in Germany.



No way?! Bach was from Joseon? I’d sooner believe in the end-of-the-world prophecies of Nostradamus.

But I couldn’t treat the client like a friend. We had just met. I said in a small voice: “No way . . .?”

“Is that too farfetched?” she said.

“Yes, that’s a bit much.” I swallowed the dumpling.

“Then what about Johann Hintermeyer?”

“Johann Hintermeyer . . .?”

“So, not even someone who’s lived in Germany for six years knows who Hintermeyer is?”

P. He must have blabbed about me. It was natural for a client to be curious about their interpreter. But even so, when she said six years, I somehow felt like my secret had been exposed.

“Johann, Hintermeyer . . . They’re both common first and last names,” I said.

“I suppose. Like Ichiro, or Tanaka,” she said.


“But doesn’t everyone know the Major League Baseball player Ichiro?”

“This Johann Hintermeyer . . . is he also that famous?”


What was this? If my girlfriend back in Frankfurt had said something like that, I’d have yelled, What the hell, Annika!

“I told you, my name is Hanako,” she said.


“You can just call me by my name. Hanako. A common name, isn’t it?”



The square in front of City Hall was brimming with the lights of June. When I walked into the restaurant, it took me some time to get used to the darkness.

An Asian woman sitting by the window held up a hand. The sleeves of her white jacket swayed like a metronome. Slender arms, white hair, small frame.

That was when I learned that my new client was an old lady.

I approached her. I wasn’t what you might call a professional interpreter. P had always been strangely inattentive to me, and I had a habit of never asking for even the most basic information about the client. And this was the result.

“Hello. My name is Ninigawa Hanako.”

Jeez. What a low, husky voice. Only after I got over my initial shock did I realize that she was speaking in Japanese.

I often spent my vacations in Japan. P knew that. It must have been why he’d given me the job.

“I’m . . . Lee Geunho.”

Why had this old lady requested an interpreter from P’s travel agency instead of looking for a Japanese interpreter?

“What’s this about?” I called and asked P.

“I just accepted the client’s request. I don’t know the rest.”

“Why did you do this to me . . .?”

“Just do the job well. You don’t need to know more, do you? Client’s privacy. I’m hanging up.”

He hung up.



“He was a musician in Weimar in the 1770s. Left about 160 works of music. He was the secretary to the Weimar palace organist Andreas Aiblinger, and also a communal servant at Himmelburg, the palace church . . .” She stopped speaking.

A flower market had opened in the square in front of City Hall.

“This is about Johann Hintermeyer, right?” I said.


“So he was a communal servant at Himmelburg . . . And?”

“Mmm, I heard he was just an organ pumper at first, pumping air into organs. It’s astonishing that he then went on to play in the court orchestra and make a name for himself as a composer.”

“And . . .?”

“Well, that’s about all I know.”

“Should I know about him?”

A little rainbow hung over every flower sprayed with water.

“I was just asking if you knew him.”

“I don’t.”

“I already heard that, but I was just wondering . . .”


“If Koreans knew him.”

So Joseon had changed to Korea now.

“Well, everyone in Korea knows . . . Johann Sebastian Bach,” I said.

“Johann Sebastian Bach is not from Joseon.”

“So that discussion isn’t over yet, then?”

“He’s not 100 percent Korean, that Johann Hintermeyer, but I’m sure his ancestors were from Joseon.”

“That can’t be right. In the 1770s, Korea would have been under the reign of Kings Yeongjo and Jeongjo, and what Korean descendant could possibly have become a musician here in Weimar at that time? A court orchestra, no less. The Baroque period hadn’t even ended yet, right? A Korean musician at the time when German music was just beginning? Impossible.”

“Oh, good, good,” Hanako said. “Kings Yeongjo and Jeongjo . . . You’d never hear things like this from a Japanese interpreter. Iguno, I’m glad we met.”

“It’s Lee Geunho, ma’am.”

“Yes. Iguno.”



Last summer began like this. With Hanako placing a thick stack of copy paper in front of me.

I looked at her. She pointed at the stack of paper with her chin.

I meant to open the stack to the middle, but I opened it near the end. Neat handwriting, written in quill. The chapters weren’t long. A new chapter always began with the symbol ∠.


Andreas Aiblinger went into his bedroom.

His sister, Leah, followed him in. The candles in the corridor were all extinguished.

Blue moonlight illuminated the floor. Tell them there’s no need to stoke the fire. Johann Hintermeyer remembered what Andreas Aiblinger had said. He also remembered the look in Leahs eyes, as she followed him into the room.

Johann Hintermeyer stood still in the blue corridor. The door of the fireplace facing the corridor was firmly shut. Tell them there’s no need to stoke the fire. Johann Hintermeyer was mesmerized by those words. Andreas and Leah were born to the same parents. He meant that no one was to come near the room; and he said this to Johann Hintermeyer, not to a servant.

Johann Hintermeyer thought Andreas Aiblinger must have known that he would be held helpless by the blue moonlight.

It had all been planned, Johann Hintermeyer guessed, but he was trapped nonetheless. The way Leah looked at him sometimes. Andreas Aiblinger must have seen that, too.


The sentences annoyed me with the unnecessary repetition of first and last names.

“Is this a sort of . . . biography? Of this Johann Hintermeyer?” I said, not taking my eyes off the papers.

“Maybe . . .” Her voice was definitely too low and husky.

“Do I have to read this?”

“Well, I speak almost no German.”

“I was asking why I have to read it.”

“It’s from the Pyongyang Library. The only edition.”

“North Korea?” I asked because it sounded like Yangpyeong, which was in South Korea.

“Mm-hm. North Joseon.”



He tried to turn away but his feet would not budge. There was a chafing sound from the floorboards beneath him. Johann Hintermeyer froze, startled; he was caught up in a terrible premonition. He thought soon the sound would be coming from the room, too. His body seemed to have turned to stone.

It was as though he was caught in a trap. The kind that would saw off his ankle the moment he lifted his foot. He wanted to run anyway, even if it really did cut his foot off. He didnt want to hear anything coming out of the room. He thought that his soul would blacken and die the moment he heard anything.

Johann Hintermeyer could not move. He would rather have his foot cut off than die, but he was turning his face toward death. The most wretched death, he thought, might also bring some unknown, extreme pleasure. Frozen like stone, holding his breath, he listened to the sound of death that leaked out from inside the room.

Andreas Aiblingers three-story wooden house was like a ship. A sailboat, sailing on water that was at times raging with waves, at times serene. Wind and moonlight took turns swaying the sails. The tired sound of rowing, mingled into a sigh, made creaking noises. All of this was leaking out from the crack of the door. Johann Hintermeyer died and died again with those noises. He fell, spilled out on the cold floor like water, groaning, Leah, Leah . . . And he muttered, Dear God, I am in doubt. I truly doubt you.



“Alright, now, tell me who you are.” I put down the stack of paper and looked at her.

“I told you. Ninigawa Hanako.”

“And these papers?”

“I photocopied them at the Berlin Music College Library.”

“I thought you said it was the only edition from the Pyongyang Library?”

City Hall’s shadow was crossing the center of the square.

“So it’s a copy. A copy of a copy.”

“Who exactly is Johann Hintermeyer?”

“I don’t know much, except for what I told you earlier.”

“And this . . . why do you need it?”

“Someone made a trip to Pyongyang because of that. When he got back, he was imprisoned by the South Korean government, and was released only after seventeen years.”

A waiter brought her a Weissbier. It was a big glass.

“That someone must be Korean, then.”

“I suppose . . . technically.”


“He had Korean nationality, anyway.”

“A Korean . . . living in Japan? A Korean-Japanese?”

“You’re quick.”



She started on her second big-size glass of Weissbier. I wasn’t drinking.

“So, let me get this straight . . .”


“A second-generation Korean-Japanese came to Germany to study music. Discovered a musician he had never heard of, named Johann Hintermeyer, and his work. Found out that his biography was being kept in the Pyongyang Library. Went to Pyongyang to get the documents, and asked around for any information on Johann Hintermeyer. Came back, was questioned and imprisoned for espionage by the South Korean government. Was released after seventeen years and went back to Germany in 1989. And you heard all of this from a librarian at the Berlin Music College Library. Also that Johann Hintermeyer, who just disappeared from Weimer one day, ended up in Korea. That he left records of his life there, in his last years, and that his ancestors were Korean . . . is that right?”


“So this Johann Hintermeyer—not even a music major like that Korean-Japanese had heard of him. How could I have known?”

“Koreans remember their ancestry well, don’t they? So I thought you must know something. Seventeen years in prison was all he’d spent in South Korea. He couldn’t have had a chance to find out whether Johann Hintermeyer was well-known in Korea. That’s why I asked you, Iguno. For him.”

“Anyway, it’s all ancient stuff. Johann Hintermeyer, obviously, but also the story of the Korean-Japanese . . .”

“Yes, it’s an old story.”

“Looking at the year . . . it’s not part of the East Berlin Affair, when a group of Korean people living in Germany were prosecuted for espionage.”

“That’s good! A Japanese person wouldn’t have known about the East Berlin Affair.”

“So after the East Berlin Affair, there was a similar incident?”

“Five years later. It was buried, being an isolated incident and all. I actually only learned about it recently, too.”

“That Korean-Japanese—isn’t he alive somewhere? Now he must be a Korean-German. Shouldn’t you look for him first, if you’re curious about the documents?”

Draining the rest of her beer in one gulp, she said, “He’s dead.”

“Oh, I . . . see.”

City Hall’s shadow grew a little longer.

“Not too long ago. Suicide.”

“Oh, okay.”

“He was my first love.”



“You should have told me earlier.”

Hanako and I walked into the hotel lobby.

“This isn’t early enough?”

She was staying at the Elephant Hotel near the restaurant. Bach, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, she muttered. I thought she meant they had all stayed here.

“But I kept asking needless questions.”

I didn’t care if Hitler had stayed here. I wasn’t a tour guide.

“You didn’t give me a chance to tell you.”

She ordered another beer at the hotel bar. I was just an interpreter. How much of the client’s privacy could I invade?

“But can I ask you something else?”

“Whatever you want.”

“You don’t look too broken up . . . for someone who’s just lost her first love.”

Drops of water trickled down the surface of her beer glass.

“Apparently, his music was pretty well-appreciated. Johann Hintermeyer, I mean. Here, in the eighteenth century. Aren’t you astonished, Iguno, to learn that he was from Joseon?”

“Am I supposed to be astonished?”

“I don’t know . . .” Hanako gulped down her beer.

“I know too little to be astonished.”

“And I know too little to be sad.”

She collapsed.



She was in room 803. There was another room reserved in her name, room 804, where I would be staying.

I carried her on my back up to 803. She didn’t weigh much.

I laid her on the bed. The silence in the room was deafening. She was small like a child. Fine wrinkles covered her face, like silk cloth that had been rumpled up and then smoothed out again. Her white hair was lusterless.

Her face looked as if she were wavering between sleep and death. Asleep, she looked smaller, like an alien that had lost its way back home, or a newborn who’d lost her mother. In isolation far away from where she should have been, or maybe there never was a destination.

I pulled the sheet over her chest, and turned off all the lights save for a single stand lamp. I looked at her. She didn’t even fill one tenth of the bed. I don’t know this woman, I muttered. I came out of the room and went to the lobby. I ordered a beer at the bar.



The first love of some old Japanese lady had recently committed suicide. A Korean-Japanese. Released after seventeen years and came back to Germany in 1989, she’d said. So he must have died in Germany. Death had not been too long ago, but the imprisonment and the release had been thirty-seven and twenty years ago, respectively. An old story, like she’d admitted.

She didn’t seem to know why her first love had killed himself. I know too little to be sad, she said. It was reasonable to assume, from that remark, that they hadn’t kept in touch for a long time, before she heard the news of his suicide.

Her curiosity about her first love and his death didn’t seem to be casual. Case in point, she’d even gone all the way to the Berlin Music College Library. It must have taken quite a lot of time and effort even to learn, in the first place, that the documents were there. This was some serious interest. She had begun an exhausting journey all on her own. From that fact alone, I could guess that she hadn’t known anything about her first love’s recent life. She had only recently learned about the espionage charge, as well.

I was curious. What’s gone is gone. Love is no exception. What was it like to suddenly start searching, one day, for an old forgotten love? What was it that had drawn an old woman all the way to Germany?

I was curious. What was my job? The beer felt cool as it ran down my throat, almost painful. This was different from the exposition, business, or book fair interpreting jobs I’d had so far. An old Japanese lady as a client, mysterious eighteenth-century documents, Johann Hintermeyer and Andreas Aiblinger, a first love’s suicide, Korea, Pyongyang, and me—a Japanese-speaking Korean living in Germany.

I tried to connect the dots, but I couldn’t complete the picture. It did feel like it might be a special picture, though. Only a day had passed, after all. The beer tasted good. 

pp. 9-21


Translated by Kim Ji Yeun

Author's Profile

Ku Hyoseo debuted in 1987 with “Joints,” which won a prize at the JoongAng Ilbo’s annual contest. Ku is a prolific writer with more than thirty books over a career spanning thirty years. His best known works include Where the Clock Hung, Nagasaki Papa, Secret Door, How to Cross a Swamp, Rhapsody in Berlin, and A House with a Beautiful Sunset View and Other Stories. He has received the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award, Hwang Sun- won Literary Award, HMS (Hahn Moo-Sook) Literary Prize, and Daesan Literary Award. His books in translation include Rhapsody in Berlin (Yilin Press, 2013) in Chinese and Nagasaki Papa (CUON, 2012) in Japanese.