The Gaze at Broad Daylight
- onNovember 16, 2014
- Vol.23 Spring 2014
- byLee Seung-U
- The Gaze at Broad Daylight
“Here, then, is where people come to live; I’d have thought it more a place to die in.” Malte Laurids Brigge begins his notebook with this sentence. This young man—sickly, lonely, impoverished, and hypersensitive to memories of the past— smells the air of anxiety and death in this alien city only three weeks after he arrives. That this city, where people came to die, was none other than Paris is a sentiment that is not easy to understand, even considering the fact that this writing dates back about a hundred years. After all, it is said that Paris is where the concept of “taking a walk” was invented. If it was a good place to go for a walk, one could also presume that it must have also been a good city to live in. I wonder if Rilke had heard of Varanasi, the place where pilgrims come to die.It is Varanasi, not Paris, where men come to die. As the saying goes, birds go to Peru to die and men, the Ganges.
Romaine Gary treated the suicidal phenomenon of a huge flock of birds flying to Peruvian seashores to die as a mystery. Gary wrote, “The birds whose blood was beginning to get cold and had just enough strength to fly, came to Peru and threw themselves at the seashore.” Here he was implicitly comparing Peruvian beaches to the Ganges River—as if birds had a yearning for a holy place. About forty years after his novel was published (Birds Go to Peru to Die was published in 1962), an author in Korea wrote a paper criticizing Romaine Gary's lack of meteorological knowledge. It was Han Seung- Won, the "writer of the ocean," who claimed that Romaine Gary wrote it that way because he did not know about the El Nino phenomenon, a phenomenon that occurs when ocean water warms up. According to Han, birds came to Peruvian seashores and died, not because it was a holy land for birds, i.e., a Varanasi for birds, so to speak, but rather, it was simply due to the lack of availability of plankton caused by El Nino, which prevented anchovies from coming to Peruvian sea. The birds flew to Peruvian seashores to live, to feed on anchovies, not to die. However, there weren’t any anchovies in the area, so they weren’t able to live and ended up starving to death.
If Malte had known about Han’s criticism of Romaine Gary (this is not possible as Rainer Maria Rilke, who used Malte as his voice, died in 1926 and Han Seung-Won was born in 1939), perhaps he may have revised the first sentence in his notebook. That is, people came to the city to live, but for various reasons—meteorological, sociological, or other reasons—they died because they just couldn’t survive.
Regardless, I believe that he would not have revised his first sentence anyway. In his notebook, Malte was not describing the city’s external landscape but projecting his inner world onto it. What we can read and understand from his notebook is not the physical landscape of the city but his inner universe. When you are depressed, the world loses light.
The depression inside you swallows up the light in the outside world. In this case, the inner depression is like a black and white photocopying machine. No painting—no matter how colorful and brilliant their colors are—can retain its original hue and brightness once they go through such a machine. It can only come out vague and drab. Malte sees the landscape of the city and its pedestrians through the “internal black and white photocopying machine” inside him. This is why I believe that Malte would not have changed his first sentence. He is not interested in meteorological science. On this, Malte is clearly on Romaine Gary’s side, not on the side of Han Seung-Won.
I arrived at midnight in this small city of thirty thousand people located near the cease-fire line. I arrived on the last bus to the city that day. The bus, which had been carrying passengers back and forth on the same road for the whole day, looked like an exhausted camel, and the driver, a hump on the camel’s back. It was hot inside the bus and the air, mixed with various unknown smells and giving off strangely repulsive odors, wasn’t circulating. There were six passengers on the bus, four of whom were soldiers. They were returning to the base after a brief vacation. They all had different ranks but the same grim expressions on their faces. The higher ranking soldier pushed the chair back low, flung himself against the chair, and closed his eyes as soon as he got on the bus; the private made rustling sounds while tearing open the plastic wrapping of a pastry. The two other soldiers kept gazing into the darkness outside the window. I became curious about what it was that they were staring at. I wondered if they were looking at anything at all. I have no doubt there was something worth looking at, even in the darkness. Darkness is always hiding something within itself. Darkness is dark because it has something to protect. However, it didn’t appear that the soldiers’ eyes were focused on anything specific. The grim and rigid expressions on their faces invoked an anxiety in me as I was heading in the same direction as they were. Invoke! I was startled by this word that I had invoked from my subconscious self. That I “invoked” it suggested that it had been crouching within me all along. That which is invoked had been waiting to be invoked, laying dormant until invoked by another. Because it has been waiting, it responds immediately, even to the slightest act of invocation. You could also say that anxiety stems from the anxiety of not being invoked by someone else. In order to suppress my anxiety, I called out to the soldiers on the other side and asked, "How long does it take?" The soldiers who were gazing outside the window did not respond. I thought about calling to them again, but feeling embarrassed, decided against it. A man with a tanned face sitting behind them answered instead, informing me that it would take about an hour and a half. The truth is that I already knew how long it would take. Before I got on the bus, I had searched the Internet and learned that it took anywhere from two hours and ten minutes to two hours and thirty minutes. The time between buses was an hour and thirty minutes, so if you missed a bus, you had to wait for an hour and thirty minutes. The last bus left at eight thirty. I had also read about local specialty foods and tourist spots and gleaned some more information, but could only remember that there were commercial passenger boats close by and many military posts around the area. Not far from them, there was also a secret military underground tunnel from North Korea that had been discovered.
A disconcerting silence pervaded the bus. Only the sound of the engine, like the groaning of a tired camel, stirred the surface of the silence. Exhaust, emitted from the bus as it ran up the hill, slipped inside the bus. The unexhausted carbon monoxide and nitrogen gas mixed with the stench in the air and made my stomach turn and made me feel nauseous. I didn't have anything to eat, but did not expect to get carsick. Trying to swallow the acid coming up from the stomach, I started pressing my head with my fingers. Then the first sentence from Malte's notebook flashed in my mind like an inauspicious omen. Was I going to this place to live or to die?
[ . . . ]
Unexpectedly, my days at the country house were surprisingly satisfying. I spent most of my time reading books in my room. Mother thought I might be bored and told me to visit Seoul once in a while and meet some friends, but her fear was unfounded. I did not much care to meet friends, not even P.
Sometimes I would spend the whole day going back and forth between my study and the living room, just lounging. I would start reading a book lying on my back on the floor, roll over and lie on my side, then after a while, turn around and sit down…and then lie on my back, roll over again, and so on.
I would travel across all the rooms in the house that way. If I felt like sleeping after reading for a while, I just went to sleep without hesitation. Once in a while, I went out for a walk. The scent of pine nut trees was mellow and balmy. The wind gently stroked the trees and grass like a large caressing hand and the birds sang in difference voices. The birds sang differently in the morning than at dusk. At sunset, I saw a grey rabbit that was hopping around, as if it were being careful not to scratch the grass. I crouched down low and stayed still so that I wouldn’t scare it away. The nervous rabbit pricked its ears and stared at the big animal with suspicion. Then he quickly ran away and disappeared into the forest.
Once in a while, I ventured a little deeper into the forest. The scent emanating from the forest and grass covering the mountain made my body feel infinitely light; I felt my weightless body floating in the air. When I was in the forest, I could really feel the connection between all of the organs of the human body. I was even beginning to think that if I were exposed to the spirit of the forest for a long time, I might even be able to perform magic.
Though she had promised, my mother did not visit often. She was busy and I also told her that she did not have to come around a lot. Then again, considering that she was not the kind of person who would listen to me, the truth is, it was probably more because she was busy. At first, the housekeeper came every day to cook meals and clean the house. Three days in, she starting coming just once every three days. For both cooking and cleaning, this was sufficient. Since I lived alone, there wasn't much dust to clean and the house remained tidy for several days without much effort. Also, it wasn’t really necessary to prepare food for one person every day.
P called me often though. She wanted to visit me, but I forbade her from visiting, on the grounds that my disease was contagious.
I also told her, “It would be prudent for you not to contact me for a while. That’s why I’m here to begin with. I’ve been quarantined. Do you think I’m here for vacation?”
Every time I said this to her, I felt guilty. Whatever the reason, I was feeling an inexplicable sense of happiness in this place. It was true that tuberculosis was contagious, so I wasn’t lying to her—at least not technically. I just didn’t want her to suddenly show up and disrupt this new peace I was experiencing, perhaps for the first time in my life. I even thought that it was good that tuberculosis was contagious. It was not like I was tired of her and didn’t want to see her any more. It was just that, for the first time in my life, I was alone with nature. Until then, I had never been completely alone; I had never not been surrounded by people. Until I came to the forest, I wasn’t even aware of the fact that I had never been alone. Perhaps, then, it was natural that I had never felt a need to be alone. In many cases, you do not want what you need because you do not know that you need it. Ironically, you realize that you actually needed it only when the unwanted need has been accidentally fulfilled. We live our lives not really understanding what it is that we truly need. This is absurd, of course. However, this is how it is with most people. For example, when your lover leaves you, you suddenly find yourself in need of something that you didn’t realize that you needed when she was with you. Sometimes you come to understand something that you did not when you were able to sleep only when you become unable to sleep. Sometimes you come to understand things in your old age that you did not understand in your youth. It is a contradiction, but unless you realize that you need it, you cannot really want it. That is what I mean when I say you can’t help it. In any case, for the first time in my life, I was absorbed in my inner world of silence and solitude, living in a strangely inexplicable happiness. For me, it was an exceptional experience.
However, this happiness did not last long. One day, a stranger knocked at my door. He lived in one of the other five identical-looking condominiums. He said he had noticed that my house lights were on. Since the house had previously been vacant, he realized that a new tenant had moved in and just came by to say hello. He also handed me a pack of toilet paper as a housewarming gift. Then, although I did not really intend to ask him in, since he had already entered the foyer, I offered him some coffee. I thought it would be rude of me to send away a neighbor who came to welcome me, especially when he went to the trouble of bringing me a housewarming gift.
He was a retired college professor. His field was psychology and he lived with his wife. He had moved here right after his retirement. He also told me that his wife was in bad health and had trouble moving around. He was taking care of his ailing wife, as she was essentially just waiting for her death. After introducing himself like this, he asked me why a young man like me was living here alone. I could’ve been offended, since he was basically implying that this was the kind of place where only old people came to live, but I didn’t mind. Also, his "I’ve told you my story so why don’t you tell me yours" attitude didn’t bother me, because I was familiar with this customary practice. We usually do not talk about ourselves unless we’re confident that the other is willing to talk about himself. In some cases, we tell our stories first, even if the other person doesn’t particularly want to hear it, in order to make the other person tell their story, which we want to hear. Like most things in our lives, the terms of trade govern our conversations. I told him that that I was a graduate student, but my health was in bad condition, so I was taking a leave of absence from school. I also told him that it was my mother who had bought the land, which was basically a wasteland before, built country homes on it, and then sold them for profit. The retired professor was nodding for some mysterious reason, but I didn’t care much to know why.
Then he asked me, “How about your father?” as if it were the next natural question to ask. Of course, there was no order for questions like these.
“I don’t have one,” I said immediately.
The conversation was supposed to go in a different direction from there. That’s what usually happened. When I told people that I did not have a father, they usually didn’t ask about him again. Although it wasn’t necessary, some would even say they were sorry to have asked the question. In any case, the conversation would stop there and a new conversation would begin. However, the retired professor was different than most people.
“When did he pass away?” he asked.
He assumed that my father was deceased and was asking me when he died. Smiling, I retorted that I had not said that he was dead; I said I didn’t have one. Then, looking straight into my eyes, the old professor said bluntly “If you say you don’t have a father, it must mean that he has passed away.”
Feeling defiant, I said “Isn’t it also possible that my parents could be divorced?”
“That is not the same thing as not having one,” he replied.
I had a feeling that the conversation would not go smoothly from here.
“If he isn’t around, it’s basically the same thing, isn’t it?” I blurted out, expecting an immediate objection.
As expected, he objected. “If you say you don’t have a father, it means he does not exist. It doesn’t matter if he is here or far away. It can still only mean that he does not exist. It’s illogical for you to say what exists does not exist. The principle that applies to physical distance also applies to human relationships. What is here exists. What is far away also exists. Furthermore, there is a truth that no one can deny, and cannot be denied under any circumstance, and that is the existence of a father. That is what a father is. Let me clarify again. A father does not cease to exist unless he dies. In certain cases, he continues to exist even after his death.”
The old professor’s logic seemed to make sense but I did not think he understood how I felt when I talked about my father. Then again, logic and feeling are two different mental activities. Should I have said I didn’t care whether he existed or not? I thought I might have expressed my feelings better that way. Actually, even that was not a satisfying answer either. I finally thought that it would be better to say, "It’s not that I don’t have a father, but I do not have a concept of one." So, after taking some time to think, that’s what I said, as if it were an excuse.
He stared at me with a pitiful look for a while and replied, “It is probably your father’s attention that you don’t have, not the concept.” Then he added, “If that were true, your father did not die. He was murdered in your mind.”
At that moment, I panicked. I realized that the old man was leading me astray in the conversation; I was being dragged along and led off track like a fool, though I didn’t know why he was doing this to me. I was suspicious of him for being so aggressive but I didn’t have the composure to confront him for his aggressiveness. I didn’t know how to express my feelings of discomfort and I was unsure whether it was better to express myself or not, and this made me angry.
The old neighbor must have also realized that our conversation had gone astray, or at least he sensed that he had finally managed to anger his host, so he laughed and said reproachfully, “This is why you shouldn’t stay at a teaching job too long. I can understand why they call it an occupational hazard.” Then he stood up to leave.
“Thanks for the coffee. Let’s talk again.” Then he left. He even waved as he was leaving. His visit was no ordinary event, but I tried to ignore it. But, as if my heart had been pricked by a needle, my conscience was feeling pained. This was proof that I wouldn’t be able to ignore this event, even if I tried.
The next morning I was taking a walk through the forest and realized that there was anxiety in my heart that was disrupting my peace. It was as if it was forcing my mind outwards, which was stepping backward in disbelief as if scolding, "You still don't understand this?" And then strange things started to happen.
That day, I saw a naked man walking in the forest. He strolled along, aglow with the reddish rays of the setting sun cascading through the long branches of trees. It was not dark enough yet in the forest to mistake him for a wild animal, and it was also very evident that he was walking upright. Although it was unusual, I didn’t pay too much attention to this at first, for I had run into people taking a walk in the forest before. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to face any unnecessary trouble and changed my usual course, but somehow I ended up seeing him again. This time, he was walking toward me from the opposite direction, swinging his arms. When I had seen him earlier, I had thought that he was just not wearing a shirt but that wasn’t the case. He was stark naked and had no clothes on. He had a beard that covered his face from his ears to his chin, giving the impression of a round face. He also had a hairy chest and legs, and although he wasn’t very tall, he was muscular. It wasn’t easy to guess his age from his appearance. He looked young in a way and old in another. Not knowing what to do, I stopped walking and stood still. I didn’t know where to rest my eyes. However, as if his nakedness was nothing unusual, he just walked past by me, swinging his arms as usual. He even raised a hand to greet me. Although I couldn’t see clearly, I thought he might have even smiled at me. Looking at him walking away from me, I asked myself if I were dreaming. Perhaps I saw a phantom. If he’s not a phantom, who is that man walking around in the forest naked? As if ypnotized, I stood still there for a while, completely frozen.
The vivid figure of the man walking past me slowly faded and suddenly turned into an image. It wasn’t exactly the same but I was engulfed with a strange feeling that a character in a movi e had torn his way out of the movie screen and jumped into reality before my eyes, or vice versa. In other words, it was a feeling of loitering at a crossroads of fantasy and reality. It was getting dark and bleak and I started feeling chilly. I was confused and dizzy. As if trying to escape from a movie, I hastened my pace to leave the forest. I was feeling nervous, as if at any moment someone might start chasing me and grab me by the neck. I wanted to turn around and look but I couldn’t— I was afraid of getting stuck. I started recollecting stories where the characters, just by looking back, got sucked into the underworld or turned into a pillar of salt. Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt when she turned around to look, curious about what was happening in Sodom and Gomorrah, which was being punished with the fire of sulfur. Eurydice lost her chance to escape the underworld when her husband Orpheus turned around to look back. The brilliant songs of Orpheus that had quieted Cerberus, the ferocious dog guarding the gate of hell, lost all of its brilliance with the one act of looking back. These stories remind us of the calamity that lurks behind the act of looking back. I could not understand how the forest that had offered me such blissful peace and happiness just moments ago could've changed so quickly, now planting fear in my mind. Just as I could not explain my peace, I could not explain my fear either. Without looking back, I walked hurriedly home.
However, the sense of fear grew stronger the next day as I was talking a walk in the forest. Unlike other days, I found myself turning my head to look around more often. But each time I turned around and looked, no one was there. Still, I could feel the presence of someone near me, even though I could not see anyone. At first, I didn’t realize that I was feeling nervous about my surroundings. Then it suddenly occurred to me that it was not simply a feeling of nervousness about my surroundings, but that I was anticipating an encounterwith someone and that was what was striking fear in me. At the core of my fear was that he was someone I knew. But here was another problem. I recognized him but did not know who he was—I did not know who he was but somehow I recognized him. It was a fear that was vague yet overwhelming. Completely perplexed, I walked hurriedly home again.
As I was taking a hot bath, it occurred to me that it wasn’t the first time I’d had this looming fear of a chance-encounter with someone I knew vaguely but whose identity I did not know. This vague memory, which had been pushed aside because I did not let it float to the surface of my consciousness, finally began to emerge.
In the past, there were times I had goose bumps all over my body and shrank in fear at the thought of someone attacking me by jumping out from around a corner or from the top or bottom of the staircase at midnight as I got off the elevator and was about to step toward the corridor in my apartment. When that happened, I would get off the elevator and, as if I were a secret agent, check all the corners to make sure there was no one there before taking another step. It didn’t always happen this way but I had these experiences often enough. Later I realized that just as I turned the corner, I became momentarily nervous at the thought of encountering someone that I knew but would rather avoid because I was uncomfortable meeting him. However, I could never figure out who he was, how I knew him, or why I felt so uncomfortable and wanted to avoid him.
At the time, I guessed that it was a side effect of Sudden Attack, an Internet game I had been addicted to. You had to shoot down enemies who moved between and hid behind buildings. I played that game for six straight months my junior year at college while hanging out with a friend who had a part-time job at an Internet cafe. The key to the game was to find enemies hiding behind the corners of buildings, or at the crossroads, and shoot them down first. For a few months when I was deeply into the game, I sometimes experienced seeing a projection of the computer game screen before my eyes, even when I was not playing. So it wasn’t too far fetched an idea to speculate that my suddenly heightened fear when turning a corner was due to the game, which had somehow infiltrated my sense of reality. There was one flaw in the hypothesis, though—I had had that experience once even before I became addicted to the game. So I couldn’t conclude positively that this fear had been caused by the game or rather that the game had merely reinforced an existing fear. Once in a while, and very intensely, I suffered from an anxiety that I might meet someone I wanted to avoid in a situation that I could not escape. When I stopped and thought about it, a person who could show up from around the corner in the game had to be your enemy, not someone you knew and were familiar with. That was also different. In the end, I realized that it wouldn’t make much sense to treat the fear as it was simply due to remnants of the images from the game. I was certain that it was a psychological phenomenon that was more profound and complex, rooted deeply in my personal history, rather than in external influences, and that went back much further than I had previously thought.
Perhaps I should have known that it was a fear that had been neglected and left alone in the back of my mind and was finally surfacing, as if confidently saying, "Look, here I am." I realized that I could not escape it and was also aware that even if I could, I did not know what I needed to do to escape it. I became afraid of taking walks in the forest. I no longer felt at peace.
Listening to my story, P burst into laughter. “Maybe you actually saw a wild beast? Like a deer or boar. Honey, you know you have poor vision. You also said you didn’t have your glasses on…" It was true that I had poor vision. It was also true that at the time, I had not been wearing my glasses, but it angered me to hear that she thought I’d mistaken a deer or boar for a man. I told her she was not taking me seriously and hung up. P called back and told me I was being overly sensitive and then chattered on for a while; I kept my mouth shut and didn’t respond. She said she wanted to visit me but I firmly refused. She didn’t seem to understand at all. To be frank, I couldn’t understand myself either. Even in my own opinion, I agreed that I was being overly sensitive.
[ . . . ]
Driven by a mysterious impulse, I called my uncle. The old professor, by telling me the story of the man who had murdered his uncle, had unknowingly reminded me that I too had an uncle. Of course my uncle was completely different than the uncle in the tragic story. My uncle had never insulted me nor interfered with my life. In fact, he had always kept his silence, not saying much when I was around. Instead, my memory of him was filled with images of his deep, loving gaze.
When I was young he used to gaze at my face for a long time with a faint smile on his face, and whenever he did this, I tried to avoid him. I was too young to understand the complexity of the emotions hidden behind his gaze. It was once on my mother's—his sister's—birthday that I finally really caught a glimpse of the hidden compassion and sympathy in his look. I was fifteen years old. My uncle was quietly looking at my mother, who had just blown out the candles on a birthday cake and was feeling a bit embarrassed about being a birthday girl. In his gaze, I could sense an inexplicable compassion, a kind of deep earnestness and sympathy toward her. Then I realized that he was gazing at my mother's face in the same way he gazed at mine, the gaze that I had tried to avoid, unable to understand what it meant. As time passed, I gradually began to realize that it was his sister he was looking at when he was looking at me. Even as he looked at me, he saw his sister in me. In other words, his gaze was not directed at me. To him, my existence was relevant only in terms of reminding him of his sister's circumstances, life, and fate. It had been like this long before and was the same even now.
I don't mean to say that I was excited to remember that I had an uncle, like Archimedes who, after discovering the law of volume and mass, jumped out of the bathtub and ran into the street proclaiming "Eureka!” I just felt as if a deep loving gaze was looking down on me from the sky and the thought that I too had an uncle suddenly came to mind.
I talked for some time about many different things with my uncle, even repeating things that I had already said. He just quietly listened. I talked about my dreams, about the old retired professor, and how I had become afraid of encountering someone showing up from around a corner. My stories were all jumbled up, but he stayed quiet regardless. My speech was like a rollercoaster, going up a hill before going back down a valley. I would become hesitant and then serious, then talk excitedly and then mutter. Even so, somehow, he understood exactly what I was trying to say. I even felt that he understood what I wanted to say better than I did. In a way, this was understandable because, although I called him driven by a strange impulse that I couldn’t quite comprehend, I really did not know precisely what it was that I wanted. I had been living entrapped in fear that one day I would encounter someone in a way I did not want. However, there was something suspiciously strange about that fear too. On the surface, I did not to want to meet him; but in truth, I wondered if I was panicking because I might not meet him. Did it make sense to say that I wanted to meet someone I did not want to meet? I was afraid that things would happen the way I wanted to even if I did not really want them to. Chaos—the earth was without form and void; darkness was upon the face of the deep.
My uncle opened his mouth after a long silence and said, "So you’re looking for your Father?" When I heard that, I felt numb, as if my forehead had been hit by shards of ice. Then I ca me to my senses. It was as if I had just heard a divine voice saying, "Let there be light."
He clarified precisely what it was that I wanted, but did not want at the same time. But the light cast on the darkness was too brilliant and too sudden so I was pushed myself back into the darkness again. I felt a little dizzy. Now I knew that the gaze I’d subconsciously felt was my father’s. But I didn’t dare say this out loud. Even in the middle of my confusion, I worried that my uncle would catch a hint of acting in my tone. A play delivers what a character understands through an actors' dialogue. One could say dialogue is always used to verify or communicate what characters know. If an actor on stage doesn’t deliver his lines, not only the audience, but also the other actors on stage, including the actor himself, will not understand what he knows. Sometimes they choose to willingly remain in a state of incomprehension. An actor uses his dialogue to communicate facts that are already obvious, clear, and well-understood, to liberate the audience and the characters on stage, who have decided to remain in a state of incomprehension or have been entrapped—or decided to be entrapped—by such a rule. One could say it is a form of regurgitation. This is the reason why an actor's dialogue tends to sound exaggerated on the stage. What transpired in my dialogue, “In other words, the gaze that I’d felt subconsciously was my father’s,” woke me up from my willful state of unknowing. I thought about other lines that I had to say.
"There’s no doubt that it was my father’s tombstone. I was definitely looking at his tombstone but I couldn’t read his name on the stone. It wasn’t that his name wasn’t written on it. If the name wasn’t written there, how could I have known that the tombstone was my father's? The reason I was convinced that the tombstone was my father's was because I did see his name on it. But what exactly had I read on the tombstone if I don’t even know his name? What exactly was written on it?”
I was curious what my uncle's deep loving eyes were gazing at then. He asked, "Do you want to find him?"
To me, his question sounded more like, “Will you be OK?” I nodded. He couldn’t have seen me nodding, but he let out a long sigh. It was a sound you make when you realize that you have to accept something even if you don’t want to. I could feel an air of tragic seriousness in the air. Perhaps it was due to the sound of my uncle sighing.
The inn where I was staying was inside the bar’s alley, which was narrow and smelly. At night, drunk soldiers urinate or vomit on the fence outside the inn. The wall had a rather big sign that read "No Urinating" in red paint, and even had a pair of scissors drawn beside it, but it was unlikely that drunk lads, especially at night, paid any attention to it. There was a street lamp fifty meters away and the acrylic billboard of the inn was blurred by dust and dirt. The lamp blinked regularly, indicating that it was probably about time to replace it. It was dark enough at the bottom of the wall for drunks leaving the bar, staggering and in good spirits, to unzip their flies and urinate there. In the morning, the inn's owner would throw water at the wall, cursing into the air. However, the smell didn’t dissipate that easily. On a cloudy day, sitting in the room inside the house, you could smell the stink of old piss carried by the wind, sneaking into the room through the door crack. Still, the inn owner couldn’t complain because the people who urinated against the wall usually ended up staying at the inn.
There was no special reason for me to choose that inn. I arrived late at night in this city of thirty thousand people, located as close as possible to the cease-fire line, and was strolling down the street, trying to get myself acquainted with the new place. But as soon as I took a few steps I realized that this was a bad idea. First, because the wind against my skin was much colder than I’d expected, which was maybe why I saw almost no one else on the street, and secondly, it had become dark. Most of the stores had their shutters down and their lights turned off. There were street lamps here and there, but they looked like they were shivering from the cold instead of generating light. It wasn’t just dark, but also chilly and desolate. I almost regretted having come here. Have I come here to live or to die? I recalled the sentence from Rilke's book. Trying to shake off that persistent question, I looked around and tried to find a place to spend the night. That’s when I saw the sign that read "Traveler's Inn" in the corner of the entrance to an alley. I later found out that there was another inn about a block away that was fairly new and much cleaner, and a few more not too far from there as well, but that night the Traveler's Inn was the only place I saw. A few days later, I also learned that Traveler's Inn was the oldest, the most decrepit, and the dirtiest of the lot, and therefore the cheapest place in town. But I didn’t think about moving elsewhere because I wasn’t sure how long I would be staying, and after becoming accustomed to the place, I didn’t want to bother moving again. To compensate for the small and smelly room, there was a large garden that had fruit trees, various flowers, and a vegetable garden that I could enjoy, perks that the other establishments didn’t offer. There was also the benefit of not having to look for a place to eat. The inn owner cooked and prepared meals using homegrown vegetables for her guests. She did charge for the meals but the price was next to nothing.
From the first day, she was curious about how long I would be staying. How long would I stay here? I asked the same question to myself. Uncertain of how long it would be, I scratched my head. Looking at me suspiciously, she asked me whether I had come to meet a friend doing military service on the base. "No," I replied. Then she asked me the purpose of my visit, inspecting my face up and down with her eyes halfclosed.
"Why are you here? You look like a normal person..." suggesting that, other than visiting friends who were completing their military service, there wasn’t much of a reason for a normal person to visit this area. I was offended by the way she talked, connecting my appearance and the purpose of a visit with some grand hypothesis, but I told her truthfully that I had come to find someone.
"Who?" She asked, showing interest. "I was born here, got married and gave birth to my children here. I’ve lived here for fifty-seven years. Fifty-seven. There’s no one here that I don’t know. This place is as small as my palm. If I don’t know the person, nobody does. Tell me." She stared at me intently with wide open eyes.
"Yeongwha Farm..." I said and she quickly interrupted.
"I know Yeongwha Farm. What about Yeongwha Farm?" I asked her if she knew the farm well. "I told you I’ve lived here for fifty-seven years. Ask me anything you want. Who’s at that farm that you’re looking for?" She dried her hands in her apron, looking keenly interested.
"The person I’m looking for is a man..." I squeaked this out as if I were a man who had committed a crime.
"A man. Who?" She asked again, as if she were interrogating me. I didn’t know why but I couldn't muster a response. When I hesitated, she started making gestures to urge me to speak. "What is his name? Give me his name."
My tongue was searching for his name in my mouth. If you move your tongue and let the air in, it makes a sound. A combination of several consonants and vowels. It won’t even take a second to pronounce those syllables. However, a name isn’t simply a collection of simple syllables. To say someone’s name isn’t just the basic operation of one’s tongue combined with air. A name is like the soul of our being. To say someone’s name is to acknowledge their existence and affirm it. When we say someone’s name, we experience our soul connecting to the soul of the being whose name is being spoken. For certain names, it’s enough for the name to simply reach your lips to get you excited and stirred. For other names, your muscles immediately start to repulse before bringing it to your lips. Certain names make you excited and others, depressed. There are names that you don’t dare say and there are names that you say reluctantly. This phenomenon occurs because of the contact between souls. I tried to place on my tongue the name that my uncle had told me, the name of my father, but my tongue was stiff and didn’t move. I realized that my vocal chords weren’t willing to pronounce that name. You could say that they found it awkward or uncomfortable to pronounce it. My soul hesitated to pronounce it, though I had no images that could be evoked by the name of my father—or perhaps it was due to the absence of such images. To acknowledge a father that hadn’t existed for twenty-nine years wasn’t an easy task.
"It was because your mother has been a complete and sufficient world for your well-being." As if my uncle had been anticipating the question, he gave me an immediate answer to my rhetorical question of how I could have been so indifferent to the existence of my father for the twenty-nine years that I’d been alive. I didn’t know he had prepared the answer, but I thought it was an answer I had no choice but accept. Mother never gave me the chance to feel needed. Since I was young, my mother provided me with whatever I needed the most, when I needed it the most, and in the most suitable way. My mother was warm, gentle and strong. She was always busy because she had to do many things at the same time but had never neglected any of her work, especially in raising her son, and she never showed any signs of frailty. Mother was to me both a fence and a garden. In my youth, I was much happier than any of my friends who grew up with both parents. Mother never did or said anything that would remind me of the existence of my father, she never made me feel the need for him. Even without a father, I was sufficiently provided for in order to grow into a responsible adult. Exactly why did one need a father?
Immediately, I wholly understood my uncle’s response. Then why do I feel so confused? I was happy with everything, didn’t feel inconvenienced or dissatisfied. I didn’t only not need a father, but I felt like I didn’t have one. It didn’t matter whether he existed or not, and I wasn’t even aware of his nonexistence, so why had I suddenly become conscious of his existence? How did it happen that out of nowhere I felt that I had to find my father? How am I to understand these two contradicting emotions? The anxiety within me answered the questions I asked myself. I never needed anything or had any complaints, but sometimes I felt an emptiness inside of me. The fence was strong but something was missing, the garden inside the fence was abundant but lonely. My unfounded fear of the alien—or all too familiar—gaze that I had felt turning around the corner was, in fact, based on something. Although my mother provided a world that was complete and sufficient for my well-being, it was not because I did not need a father, but that she had fulfilled her role as father very faithfully—a delicate difference that I came to understand. Mother, with her absolute dedication and perfectionism, had completely driven out the necessity of a father from my world. Any need for a father was nullified by the presence of my mother. The reason my mother alone was sufficient for my being was because she fulfilled the role of both mother and father. Mother was complete not only because she was my mother but also myfather as well. Paradoxically, in the end, this had the effect of creating the need for a father. The retired professor said a father was something that no one could deny and could not be denied under any circumstances. A father continues to exist even after his death.
"I’m curious, young man. Is it such a secret...?" The inn owner, impatient to learn my secret but not very sensitive to the confusion that was happening inside me, could not wait any longer and waved her hands impatiently to show me that she was giving up. I quickly swallowed the name that had been on the tip of my tongue all along. "You know, Sergeant Kim in Room 105 works there. Why don't you ask him? If you came here to look for a job, you can go with him to the farm," she said, and knocked on the door of Room 105. "Sergeant Kim, it's high noon already. Come out and have a meal. You need something to eat before you go to work!"
The door of Room 105 opened only after I had already finished my breakfast and was walking in the garden, lost in my thoughts.
He answered, "I worked last night. I can go to work a little late." A man in a black jacket came out of the room yawning. He finished off a whole rice bowl within seconds, without once looking at the inn’s new guest.
The inn owner pointed at me and introduced me to him, explaining that I wanted to go to Yeongwha Farm. From the way he talked and from his expression, he clearly thought that I was a day laborer who had come to look for a job at the ranch. I didn’t care as long as I wasn’t interrogated. He looked up and glanced at me and said rather bluntly, "Then, come with me to the farm later." I waved my hand and said I hadn’t come here looking for a job. He answered, "Yeah, I thought that would be strange too. You look like a tuberculosis patient or something. Are you from Seoul?" I nodded. I was surprised to find out that I looked like a tuberculosis patient to others, but that was a fleeting thought. More than that, I was a little irritated by his condescending manner of speech. But then if he had known that I was actually a tuberculosis patient, I didn’t think he would have said that. I didn’t want to embarrass him by confessing that I actually did have tuberculosis. I smiled at him, pretending to agree. He looked up at me as if to ask, "What is it then?"
"I’m looking for someone." As soon as I had finished speaking, the inn owner, who had come out of the kitchen to throw out the water, came out and interrupted us.
"So exactly who is it that you're looking for?
"Sergeant Kim also gazed at me quizzically. I tried once more to raise the name my uncle had told me to my tongue. I could hear my heart pounding and my face became red. I shook my head slowly. "No. I just have something that I have to find out. I don't think I need to visit Yeongwha Farm today." Avoiding their inquisitive eyes, I went back nto my room, still keenly feeling their curious gazes on the back of my head.
I admitted that I wasn’t ready. Do I have to prepare myself for this? I thought about it and though I didn’t know how I had to prepare, it seemed right to do so. What do I want to accomplish by just visiting? When I thought about it, I felt breathless, as if I’d been punched in the chest. Laughing at my lack of planning and my impulsive behavior, I clicked my tongue and slapped myself in the face. I left the inn and wandered around the street, thinking and whispering to myself; perhaps I should just leave. This was possible, of course.
It meant returning to the world of my mother's protection and love. What my mother had built for me was a house. If I could just turn around, I thought, going back wouldn't be too difficult. Going back to the coziness of home—it was not only possible, but it was also the easy thing to do. The difficult thing was getting out of my mother’s house. Other thoughts intervened and interrupted these thoughts. That house no longer offered me peace, at least not the way it had before. I had become conscious of the gaze around the corner and once I had found out to whom it belonged, I was summoned by that gaze, or to find that gaze. I had come out into the wilderness, so my mother's house no longer offered me peace. I could not go back. While walking in this city, population less than thirty thousand, and as close as one can get to the cease-fire line of the DMZ, I brooded over the idea of the house and the wilderness. If the house was my mother's space, the wilderness was the world of my father. My mother built a house, raised a family, and cultivated the land. My mother was trapped in responsibilities and my father was a free-spirited being. Heaven and earth, moral obligations and practical interests, centripetal and centrifugal force... At first, these thoughts were like chewing gum, soft and sweet, but they soon became as tough as rubber, to the point that I could no longer chew.
* Translated by Paul Jonghan Yoon.
Lee Seung-U, a former student of theology, made his literary debut in 1981 with the novella A Portrait of Erysichthon. Throughout his career, Lee has maintained an interest in theological and metaphysical issues, which is reflected in his writing style that meticulously depicts the inner workings of the human soul. His works deal with questions about morals arising in quotidian life as well as more universal issues concerning God, salvation, and guilt. In particular, Lee’s novels since 2000 have inquired into the meaning of reality and the everyday, thereby bringing together the sacred and the secular, and the mind and the body. Published translations of his books include The Reverse Side of Life (Peter Owen, 2005), La vie rêvée des plantes (Gallimard, 2009), Ici comme ailleurs (Gallimard, 2013), and The Private Life of Plants (Dalkey Archive, 2015).