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FICTION

Stranger than Paradise

  • onJune 25, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byLee Jangwook
Stranger than Paradise
Tr. Helen Cho
2017
276pp.
 
Chapter 1 : Jeong’s Story
Fear Eats the Soul
 

I create a tiny room in my head. There, I put away emotions like fear, loneliness, and gloom. Every time I leave the house, I make sure the room is securely locked. I’m on my way out after all. When I go outside, an adequate amount of sunshine, noise, and a destination are all I need.

Back home, I unlock the door and enter the room alone. It still brims with things like fear, loneliness and gloom. I fall asleep squeezed in among them. I wake up. I fall asleep again. Then I wake up. I pass a few days this way inside the room.

One morning, I find myself lying alone in an empty room. There’s nothing else. The wallpaper looks clean, and there are windows that I can open to let a fresh, crisp breeze blow in. After a little while, I step out of my mind’s room. When 
I come outside . . . I can start everything all over again.

I’m fond of the small room inside my head. It’s long been a habit of mine to go in there to fall asleep. There were times when I got help from prescription drugs. I started off with some sort of mild antihistamine, but later resorted to taking Aktivan occasionally. Gim caught me popping pills at home several times. Yet, he never asked what they were for. He must have thought I was getting my daily dose of vitamins.

 

Rain falls outside the dark-tinted car windows. Each raindrop falls in its own way. The same goes for people on the streets opening their umbrellas. They open them with different postures, different facial expressions, and at different angles. That’s how scenes from everyday life unfold themselves to me. I like that, I think. I saw a passer-by run with his hand covering his head and bump his shoulder against a middle-aged man. The man, who had been standing absentmindedly, smoking a cigarette, quickly shouted after the runner. Was it an insult or a cry? His voice scattered into thin air. Seemingly oblivious to the shouting, the passer-by vanished into the darkness. ‘That’s a scene for sure’, I muttered to myself.

I’m not particularly well-disposed towards the word ‘life’. Even so, there’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that no life deserves contempt, and each is worthy of respect in its own way. If life is worth respecting, then so is the end of it. Therefore, we must express our condolences for the dead with courtesy. It’s a task we cannot avoid after having gone through the same passage of time together. I fully understand that such an act in itself is one of the formalities of civilisation.

Besides, she’d had an unforgettable presence in the life of both Gim, who was now driving the car, and Choi in the back seat, as well as in my own life of course. Paying life all the respect it was due; as far as I was concerned, it meant sitting in the car dressed in black for the time being. I tried my best to suppress the weird sensations filling up my heart.

Gim, our driver for the day, turned on the car stereo, which brought forth a melody sung by a familiar voice. Susie Suh. I’m not exactly averse to her music either. There was something gloomy yet mellow, mellow yet rich in the rhythm of this Korean American singer-songwriter. But then we were in the middle of driving to a friend’s funeral. I was starting to realise that, having raised the volume, Gim was slowly sinking into languor.

As long as an emotion is only tolerably intense, music helps us overcome it. However, had that been all that music could do, my aversion would have been just as acceptable as the raindrops falling outside the car windows. That’s right. There are some tragedies that even rhythm cannot soothe. 
I know it’s not rhythm’s fault. But nor are those tragedies to blame. In the back of the car, Choi stared out the window in silence.

I reached over to turn the music down. Since it would be impolite to switch it off completely, I chose to turn it all the way down instead. Right away, I sensed Gim casting a sideways glance at me. I remained still with my eyes looking straight ahead. The moment Gim let out a grunt of disapproval, 
I leaned over slightly towards the driver’s seat and whispered in the quietest voice possible:

‘This is no time for music.’

I knew he would be displeased, but I also knew he would never openly express his feelings. Lately, I’d been taken aback by moments when I realised I could read his mind. We’d begun dating towards the end of our final year at university and had been married for three years, so maybe that was only to be expected.

I first met Gim through the university film society, and our graduation was soon followed by talk of marriage. I joked that Gim just happened to be the guy standing next to me at the altar, which pretty much summed up how I felt about the marriage. Our friends were unanimous in congratulating us, and I thanked them politely. The whole time I couldn’t help but think that something strange was happening to me. I felt as if I’d been dropped into an unfamiliar world somewhere, where I was now looking around for a way out.

There was nothing wrong with Gim. He was obviously a friendly, hard-working and well-built man. His handsome face with its fine features attracted the attention of girls. Sometimes he looked like Gregory Peck from Roman Holiday, or Clark Gable from Gone with the Wind. Often, when my eyes fell on his face contoured with longing and regret, I felt as though there were a camera observing us from somewhere.

Actually, as his wife I wasn’t drawn to his physical features. My attraction to Gim had nothing to do with his rueful expression or handsome face. Whenever we had a group discussion or made a short film during a holiday, I got the impression that he was somewhat empty. One day, we decided to shoot a short parody of Fritz Lang’s M in black and white. We borrowed a camcorder from the university and secured enough money to just about cover our food budget. Just like Lang, whose work conveyed the anxieties of post-war Germany, our aim was to capture the fears haunting our contemporaries using expressionist cinema. Choi was the one who’d suggested it. Bright ideas seemed to sprout inside his mind all the time.

As for the script, A was put in charge. She was always writing something. Naturally, everyone looked at her the moment the question of scriptwriting came up. I was no exception. Once, in the university computer room, I had watched her gently typing away with her long, slender fingers as they glided effortlessly across the keyboard. I kept staring, unable to take my eyes away. I’m not sure whether it was the angle at which she held her fingers or their rhythmic movements that I found so enchanting. Poems, novels and scripts poured forth from her fingertips. I think I convinced myself back then that I was more attracted to her fingers than her writing.

Her script was passed around to everyone in the film society. It was succinct and had little dialogue. Still, our film was likely to turn into a black comedy. We were all amateurs. Instinctively, we all understood that the more seriously we applied ourselves to acting, the more comical the film would become. Gim was the clumsiest actor among us. He couldn’t lose himself in his character at all, not even for a single scene. To act means to enter another world. To escape from the world in which we live. To become a soul that belongs to an entirely different world - a parallel universe perhaps. For that to happen, a kind of immersion was required.

Since we had become far too immersed in our characters, we ended up looking comical. On the other hand, Gim’s acting was comical precisely because he couldn’t let go of himself. We were all comical, but Gim was comical in his own way. His lines were hollow and seemed to come from outside the world the rest of us were immersed in.

He kept bursting into laughter, frequently delaying the shooting as a result. Gim would smile awkwardly and explain that he was an economics major and that English literature was only his minor. He enjoyed reading Shakespeare, but his taste in literature by no means guaranteed good acting. Above all, he was not a big fan of expressionist films. He claimed they were irresponsible works that took advantage of our fears and anxieties, creating nothing better than a vague ambience. His argument was stilted. Our project manager Choi and scriptwriter A regarded him in silence. I was probably the only one who found the look on Gim’s face attractive.

Things were no different when we studied complicated film theory. Though Gim did all the reading diligently before each meeting, he wasn’t half as glib as Choi. Without even finishing the assigned books, Choi used his effortless eloquence to explain the theory of Andre Bazin, whereas Gim would often misinterpret the essays he’d read just the night before. When Choi gave a passionate speech about the conflict between Bazin’s realism and Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory, Gim assumed an expression of surprise and said, ‘Oh, so these two theories oppose each other, do they?’

Whenever we ran into a situation like that, Gim would give a good-natured chuckle and readily admit, ‘Ha-ha! I got it completely wrong.’ There was something oddly infectious about his laugh that made everyone else burst out laughing. He didn’t seem at all bothered by our laughter.

 

 

I liked that about him. ‘There must be quite a few empty rooms inside this man’, I concluded. Empty rooms deep within. It’s the kind of thing I fall head over heels for. If I had one such room, I would invite a lonely, taciturn guest to come inside. I would spend some quiet time with that stranger. I would expect nothing in return and ask no questions about his future plans or past experiences. Because the sole purpose of the room would be for us to exist amidst the air of calm and hours of peace. Because the room would be devoid of colour, with only the fragrance of freshly washed blankets floating inside.

I imagined a place where kind-hearted strangers of few words would spend the night in silence. As the rooms increase, the place might turn into a big hotel. I would welcome a string of silent guests and pass my days in peace. Then one day at dawn, I would walk out of the hotel’s dilapidated hallway and hit the road again. Taking nothing but a small suitcase, without looking back, I’d set off to build another small, shabby room.

There must be many spacious rooms inside Gim, filled with an air of optimism and diligence. I would take in the air with small, shallow breaths and let the hours flow past me. Instead of being a host, I would become a silent guest and spend night after night there. That was pretty much all that I hoped for. When it comes to hope, the humbler the better. That kind of hope doesn’t lead to despair, leave us shaken by a sense of betrayal, or kill us.

I hope my life runs its course with a degree of optimism. Whenever it strikes me that the world I belong to has a sharp air of hostility, I yearn to slip into another world, far away in a parallel universe. Perhaps I’ve begun writing because that universe doesn’t exist, because my pessimism has led me to conclude that it doesn’t exist. An effort to cling to my last thread of hope. Yet, even within the walls of my own sentences, pessimism often seizes me by the collar and drags me around. To me, pessimism is not a state of mind. It is closer to a physical force that grabs my throat before hurling me down.

The quality of the air in my world felt different from that of Gim’s. The latter, if I may put it this way, seemed to consist of the serene and conscientious ether. A world where fear did not eat the soul. A world that knew nothing of and was thus curious about fear and pessimism . . .

Perhaps it was a matter of course; not long after our wedding, I came to believe I was mistaken about everything. That gut feeling came to me out of the blue. It was the day when our Infiniti, which we’d bought despite the hefty price tag, had a minor malfunction. An old friend of ours had sold us the foreign car on a long-term instalment plan. Barely a month after we had congratulated ourselves on making this worthwhile expense, we started to notice mysterious noises and vibrations. Gim opened the car bonnet and took a long, hard look inside. His face fell. ‘Ah, it’s no big deal’, he said at last, as if trying to put my mind at ease. It was a perfectly trivial, everyday remark. Yet, strangely enough, I was immediately seized with a conviction. The odd conviction that Gim did not have any empty rooms typically found in those who truly accepted their fate. This conviction, born out of nowhere, etched itself in my soul in the most undeniable way. Sitting in the passenger seat I mumbled absently, ‘That’s right. No big deal.’ I wasn’t sure whether I was answering him or reassuring myself.

After university, Gim faced some challenges but soon landed a job at a securities firm and began rising in the world. The expression ‘rising in the world’ came from him of course. In any case, it was quite possible that he’d finally discovered where his talents lay. As he continued ‘rising in the world’, however, the number of times he said ‘Ah, it’s no big deal’ increased noticeably. Though I couldn’t put my finger on it, his face began to show subtle changes. Even then, I detected no sign of an empty room in his face. I frequently found myself wallowing in familiar sadness. I knew I would eventually be overcome by pessimism that I’d never be able to escape that sorrow. I left him behind and spent more and more time alone in my cramped room.

 

When A’s name popped up on my phone I was in the middle of dinner, chewing on rice as if I were checking every single grain in my mouth. I stared at the screen flashing ‘A’, and pressed the answer button, thinking how inappropriate it would be to discuss anything in depth on the phone.

But the voice on the other end of the line was not A’s. An unfamiliar male voice spoke to me. Without mincing words, he asked me directly if I knew A.

‘Sure. Why do you ask?’

‘She’s dead.’

I stopped chewing. The voice continued talking. It was some time before I got my head around what he’d just said. I only managed to decipher his words long after they’d been spoken. He added he was A’s cousin and that he was calling everyone on the ‘friends’ list on her phone. According to him, she died in a car accident while driving through a tunnel in the middle of the night. Her body was now in City K, where visitors could go to give their condolences. From his brisk and hurried tone, I could tell he must have made several calls already. He explained that he was late in passing around the news because things had been so hectic. The funeral service was scheduled for the following day, which meant today was the last day available for visitors to pay respects. Once he’d said all that, he hung up, muttering under his breath that he had to call a few more people.

I put my phone down on the table. Across from me, Gim was enjoying a can of beer, his eyes fixed on the television. As he wiped the foam off his lips, his face looked perfectly ordinary, fittingly so for a peaceful evening. I remained silent and stared into the air. There’s nothing to be said about the void inside a three-bedroom apartment under a long-term lease located in a new commuter town. It’s the kind of void that anyone living in the same town can easily see through.

A long time passed before it occurred to me that I should share the news of A’s death with Gim. I was about to open my mouth when his phone coughed up the all-too-familiar ringtone. I sat still and watched him check the name of the caller. I quietly observed how he stopped chewing, stole a quick glance in my direction and went into the big bedroom with the phone held against his ear. I knew the call was from A, or, precisely speaking, from a man claiming to be her cousin. I could hear the weather forecast on TV: ‘Expect mostly clear skies tonight . . .’

(Excerpt from pp. 9–21.)

Translated by Helen Cho

 

Author's Profile


Lee Jangwook has authored two novels, Stranger than Paradise and Delightful Devils of Callot; two short story collections, King of Confessions and Everything But a Giraffe; four volumes of poetry, including The Mountain of Sand in My Sleep; and a volume of critical essays, Revolution and Modernism. Request Line at Noon was published by Codhill Press in 2016.