Fumbling, I Knew I'd End Up Like This
- onNovember 11, 2014
- Vol.22 Winter 2013
- byLee Kiho
- Fumbling, I Knew I'd End Up Like This
It hadn’t been two months since Su-young had gone to the abandoned house when something terrible happened in the South. Two nuclear reactors, one in the southeast, one in the southwest, exploded, two hours apart. As with every human catastrophe, this one came without warning, at random. Its cause was not the primary issue of concern. Rather, the real problem was that the damage was so great, it was beyond recovery.
As soon as the incident occurred, the majority of residents within a 40-kilometer radius of the reactors died instantly. The radiation spread more than 400 kilometers in every direction, the fallout covering 70 percent of the country. Taken by fear, people hid in basements. To escape the radioactivity, the flight North, North for refuge, began.
The government was unable to implement emergency measures in the face of the catastrophe. There were only empty statements. Do not fear. We will quickly assemble a special relief task force. Illegal actions will be sternly punished. But the government that once was, had already been completely erased from the people’s minds. By that point the only thing controlling them, the only thing commanding them, was the gray fallout.
One week after the incident the Military Demarcation Line was breeched. With no regard for fences, none for ideologies, people made their ways to Cheorwon, Paju, and Hwajinpo, traversing into the North. Countless people lost their lives when they trod on landmines, but those were the smaller sacrifices. A system of division that had lasted more than 50 years had been brought down all but naturally—nihilistically—by radioactivity. No one, not the government of the South, not the government of the North, could stop those fleeing in their paths.
Countermeasures from the UN came a month after the catastrophe. By that time, both the governments of the South and North had fallen into a state of turmoil and dissolved. First, the United Nations decided to dissolve the government of the South, sort its citizens, and relocate around the globe. Countries around the world made decisions regarding how many and whom to take with great speed China decided to take the largest number of refugees, and Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Australia followed. The UN immediately dispatched hundreds of examiners to sort the refugees.Those dispatched spent 17 hours a day interviewing examinees in the bunker below the Ministry of National Defense in Yongsan. After nearly nine months, close to 35 million South Koreans had been selected by countries around the globe according to profession, education, and sex to be scattered across the globe.
Each day at Incheon and Gimpo international airports and at Incheon and Pyeongtaek harbors, tens of thousands spat on a homeland to which they didn’t know if they would ever return and loaded themselves onto planes and transport vessels. Those who failed their examinations ran through the dilapidated city screaming, howling.
And then there was Su-young. He was completely unaware of all of this, sitting in an abandoned house halfway up Mt. Taegi. There, there were no people fleeing to be seen, no UN broadcasts to be heard, and no fallout covering the sky like spring pollen. (Although a fact he would only learn later, the reason the fallout did not reach Mt. Taegi was due to the peculiar Föhn phenomenon of the area around Daegwallyeong.)
Su-young would sit in front of his laptop day in and day out, thinking about writing. His plan: Let’s just write one, one novel and we can go back down. I’ll step out of reality for that long—just that long—then we can look for a job… He had no thoughts of earning money by writing. He didn’t think of making a living out of it. Instead, he swore to himself: Just one year, I’ve done so well over the past two, if I can just trudge through and manage for one more … With those thoughts he sat in front of his laptop day in and day out.
“So what is this amazing novel you’ve written?” The clerk spoke with one hand under his chin.
The examiner pulled a cigarette from his desk drawer. After lighting it, he switched on the air purifier atop his desk. The glow of the lighter lit the examiner’s face for a moment. He was a man in his early thirties, with gold-rimmed glasses.
“Ah, yes...” Su-young took an HD diskette from his bag and approached the clerk’s desk.
“Uh, well … it’s the novel I’ve written.”
The clerk looked at him blankly for a moment, then accepted the diskette. He took a good look at the front and back, then handed it back to Su-young. At a loss, Su-young took the disk back with one hand and stood in front of the clerk.
“Have a seat.”
“I said have a seat. We don’t have much time.”
Su-young returned to the steel chair and sat down. Rather than place the diskette back in his bag, he placed it on his knee.
“Good. So we understand your basic situation … Let’s start off by going over some of the other details,” said the clerk, looking at the monitor. “First off, I’d like you to keep in mind that due to your late registration for the examination process your range of options will not be as wide as others’. Also understand that this is according to the details of the international convention.”
Su-young nodded slightly.
“Okay. First: There’s a country looking for people who have a commercial driver’s licenses. It’s Chile. Does this apply to you?”
“No, I don’t have one.”
“Alright. The Republic of garamond-premier-pro is looking for a data processing specialist. Can you do that?”
“No, I can’t.”
“The Vatican is looking for someone with a small motor vehicle driver’s license. However, it’s restricted to baptized followers.”
“I’m not a believer.”
“Okay. The Ghanaian government is looking for five plumbing experts.”
“I can’t do that, either.”
“Hmm… The United Arab Emirates says that if you have a chicken sexing certificate they’ll help you settle in Dubai.”
Su-young didn’t speak, only shaking his head.
“Looks as though this may be difficult. In that case, let’s do it a different way: Why don’t you tell me what countries you’d like to go to and what kind of certifications you have, then we’ll try to figure something out. Let’s start there. Is there any country in particular you were hoping for?”
The clerk’s question gave Su-young pause. Then, he said in a low voice, “Um … is there any chance there might be a place in …
“France? Hm … France … France … Here it is. France has already staffed the positions it was looking to fill. And they’ve already taken 800 people extra.”
The clerk fiddled mechanically with the keyboard as he spoke. As he did, he let out a short yawn. Su-young’s head lowered and silence filled the examination room. The tapping of the clerk’s keyboard, the motor of the air purifier, and the generator were the only sounds.
“May I have a look at that novel?”
It was the examiner. He had a low, deep voice so perfect it brought Su-young to shrink further in his chair. Su-young, his head down, handed the examiner the diskette.
“Is there any particular reason you’d like to go to France? If there’s something they might find particularly appealing, we could put in a request.” He placed the diskette in his desk drawer as he spoke.
“I mean—There isn’t any particular reason, I don’t really care what country. It’s just …”
“If there were a place where I could keep writing … somewhere I could keep doing that … If it were that kind of place it would be nice.”
Su-young fumbled for words. He was being honest. After coming down from Mt. Taegi, despite having seen the grim aftermath of the catastrophe for himself, despite having experienced the weight of seeing the entirety of his country disappear with his own two eyes, the more he thought about it, the more entrenched he became in the novel he had spent the last eleven months writing. How could he get that out in a diskette? How could he put that into print, get others to read it? Those were the thoughts he had as he wandered the deserted streets of Seoul. How could this novel be made into a book…?
“Interesting. So even if you go abroad you’d like to keep writing novels?”
As Su-young said that, the corner of the clerk’s mouth turned up. The examiner put out the cigarette he had been smoking. The smoke wafted from him, lingered under the light of the lamp, then disappeared over Su-young’s shoulder. The examiner placed another cigarette in his mouth.
“Do you … speak French?” he asked.
“No, I don’t.”
“What about any other languages? English is fine, too.”
“So you’re saying that you’re going to keep writing novels in Korean … Won’t that be a bit … counterproductive?”
“No matter where I get placed, I’ll make the effort to learn the language as quickly as possible.”“Well, really it’s a question of who will take you—if there is a country that could offer such a possibility. Might that not be … a waste of an investment?”
Su-young rubbed his hands on his thighs.
“Well, that’s just it … Novels, they’re an art … I mean, what I’m saying is …”
“You’re saying that because novels are an art, even if the investment doesn’t pan out, there’s still some value there?”
“Is that so…?”
The examiner opened the drawer to the desk once more and took out Su-young’s diskette. Su-young felt uneasy. It seemed to him he’d said something wrong, as though he’d stirred the examiner’s temper. The clerk was absorbed in picking his earwax. “Isn’t that also a kind of invention?”
“I beg your pardon?” Su-young responded.
“What I mean is, this novel that you’re writing, if you think about it, isn’t it an invention, like a light bulb or a radio?”
“Nn … no, well, it’s a little different…”
“It is? Really?” He laughed. “Well you certainly think highly of your work. Still—” the examiner paused and put out his cigarette. Su-young stared down at the smoke coming out of the examiner’s mouth.
“This novel you’ve handed me … here, now, it has no meaning, does it not?”
“Why do you think that is?”
“It’s that it’s just a pipe dream, isn’t it?”
“Am I not correct? In a place with no work, novels are meaningless as well, aren’t they?”
There was nothing Su-young could say. The examiner’s words seemed steeped in logic. He wanted to get out. But he’d been hurt. He was unable to contemplate his situation, all he could think about was this hurt feeling. Whatever it would take, all he wanted to do was heal that wound.
“That’s not … completely the case.” Su-young opened his mouth with difficulty.
“Really? In what sense?” The examiner folded his arms as he asked.
“Well, because the novel that I already wrote is still in bookstores. It came out four years ago, and even though it didn’t sell all that well … Still, it’s at least still on the shelves … that’s something that would be unimaginable with other first inventions …”
“You’re saying that a novel that you wrote four years ago is still on the shelves? It didn’t sell very well but it’s still there? Are you certain?”
The examiner laughed. “Really? Alright, if that’s true, then I guess you do have a talent for novels.”
* Translated by Chris Dykas.
Lee Kiho (b. 1972) is the author of two novels, At Least We Can Apologize (2009) and A World History of Second Sons (2014), and six short story collections, including Choi Sun-duk: Filled with the Holy Spirit (2004) and Who’s Doctor Kim? (2013). At Least We Can Apologize was published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2013 and in Romanian by Editura Univers in 2017. Lee teaches creative writing at Gwangju University.