The Private Lives of Plants

  • onNovember 10, 2014
  • Vol.10 Winter 2010
  • byLee Seung-U
The Private Lives of Plants

The Private Lives of Plants depicts, through elegant storytelling, the private lives of people who live as “embodiments of failed love,” in a world where the law of the jungle prevails.


When she finished recounting her dream, I was struck by its familiar ending. I recalled my drive back to Seoul after the funeral in Namcheon when I was engrossed in wild imaginings related to the palm tree. I imagined the tree’s roots reaching the ocean and the ocean hugging the tree. And I remembered saying, no, it was the opposite-the tree hugged the ocean. And the tree was grand, its roots reaching across the waters. I imagined the tree’s deep and long roots crossing the Pacific and reaching the coasts of Brazil or Indonesia. I thought maybe the tree’s roots traveled across the ocean nightly. I also believed that it would be the most malicious prejudice to think that trees are immobile. I remember uttering to myself that if a tree can travel to Namcheon it should also be able to travel back. I concluded that trees move; they just don’t reveal it to us.

At that time, though, while imagining the tree’s ocean travel, I didn’t consider why the tree had to cross the ocean. My imagination didn’t include this, so it was incomplete. But I didn’t think that she had her dream to complete my imperfect imagination. It would be arbitrary to think that she had a dream for my sake. No, I didn’t want to be that egocentric.

“All trees are incarnations of frustrated love.” This sentence, as if it had been on standby, suddenly flashed across my mind. It came from nowhere. But as I uttered these words, I remembered their source. It was my brother who had written the line. I read this sentence in a notebook that I had taken from his room. The notebook came from a file that contained over two hundred pages of his writings. It was now all somewhat vague, but his writing contained something like the following:

“In myths fairies are often disguised as trees. They shed their appearance and mask themselves as trees in order to avoid the gods’ lust and greed. The gods are the ones who possess power, and those with power are always rapacious. Their cupidity is never impeded. The only way for fairies to escape from the absolute greed of the gods is to transform their appearance. Thus, fairies are compelled to become trees to protect their love from the greedy gods, the embodiment of power. And that’s why each tree has its own sad and unfulfilled love story.” Many other stories about the transformations of flowers and trees were in his file. Each page of his writings was filled with them.

I wondered then why my brother was writing about such things. Maybe he was just passing the time, but if that was the case then collecting myths didn’t make sense to me. If I hadn’t concluded that his ardor for something, anything, would be good for his mental health, I would’ve questioned him about doing something so seemingly pointless. By reading his writing, I confirmed my previous suspicion that he was obsessively infatuated with the pine and snowbell trees in the park, but I also felt that those trees roused him with a peculiar zeal, so I didn’t feel like asking him to stop writing.

But how can I explain Soon-mee’s dream that sounded as if it had come from my brother’s file? She said that her dream was very realistic and detailed, but in actuality, it was nothing but a myth. But I noticed that my usual way of thinking had also changed and had become more mythical, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I then suspected that maybe my brother wanted to be a tree. He might’ve projected his wish into her dream. But how? Is her dream my brother’s projection? Has she read his writing? I know she hasn't. What is it then? Was my brother the master of her dream? Does this mean that he entered her dream while I just roamed about outside it? Does he still control her dream? Thinking this, I felt like a rag in front of their deep soul connection. He directs her dream and I interpret it. This is the reason for my existence, I mumbled, as a way of tormenting myself.

“Did you say something?” she asked, having probably overheard my mutterings. “Was it a palm tree? I suddenly asked her. “I’m sorry, what did you say?” she asked. But for a moment, I hesitated to answer her, not knowing what to say, but I soon managed to tell her, “I was thinking about your dream.” The sun was in her eyes. And her clear beautiful eyes reflected the sunlight. At that moment my emotions suddenly surged, but I held back tears. In an attempt to stem my tears, I squinted.

“I mean the tree in your dream, was it a palm tree?” I asked her again, cautiously, like I was investigating something. “How did you know that?” she asked, surprised, her eyes wide open. It was only a guess, but this confirmed my place in relation to Soon-mee, making me feel wretched. This confirmation cleared away all my lingering doubts; I was now resigned to the role given to me. My perception that I was guided by an unknown power helped me surrender to it. I didn’t think the power came from my brother, though. But, at the same time, I wasn’t absolutely sure that it didn’t. I realized what my role was-to take Soon-mee to the house on top of the cliff in Namcheon where the palm tree stood.

I blankly gazed at the dayflies, all still stuck to the windshield, with what was left of their bodies, but soon I stepped out of the car. With my hands, I tried to wipe away the insects. But they didn’t come off easily. I took out a rag from the trunk and began to rub them away. “We need to find out where we are and where we can get some gas,” I told her, while vigorously rubbing the windshield. “Are you saying that you don’t even know where we are now?” she asked, while stepping out of the car. “Well...not yet. Last night I just drove without any sense of direction,” I explained. Suddenly, I again smelled sea water in the air. While putting the rag back into the trunk, I cried out, “Ah...okay!” I had a premonition and hurriedly lifted up my head and closely examined the snaking road, a road drenched in bright sunlight. The far end of it was skirting the foot of the mountain. “I knew it was familiar...,” I muttered out. I thought I had driven mindlessly, without thinking of the direction or a destination, but the fact that I ended up there after a hectic nightlong drive didn’t seem like a random happening. Was my reckless driving fated? For sure, it wasn’t an accident. I knew that the ocean and the palm tree would appear if we walked around the foot of the mountain. We were in Namcheon. 



* Translated by Inrae You Vinciguerra and Louis Vinciguerra.

Author's Profile

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).