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FICTION

Flames

  • onJune 18, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • bySunwoo Hwi
The Legend of Clovervale
Tr. Charles La Shure
2000
456pp.

He was on a vast, empty plain. Hyeon was distressed, desperately trying to find the gun he had lost. His leg was stuck in the ground and would not move. Friendly and enemy forces were intermingled, crying out in chaos. In that chaos he saw Aoyagi and Professor Hidaka as well. Chinese forces, Japanese forces . . . they all looked like enemies. A shell exploded. My gun, my gun is gone! My gun! I had a gun. Ah, now I have no bayonet and no ammunition. The surging enemy forces, the booming of cannons, augh, augh!

 

 

Hyeon woke up. He heard a boom. The day had not yet dawned.

All day long the cannonade could be heard, and then a transport carrying the wounded raced frantically past P Station on its way south.

Another sleepless night, and the next morning the people’s army was filing past the village with the rumble of tracked vehicles. Bodies stretched out, a demonstration with red flags.

What on earth are they doing? But if they want to do this, let them do as they wish. Whatever the case, I know nothing about it, and it has no relation to me in the slightest. You all live your own lives and Ill live mine.

Doubt, endless loathing.

The sky, the mountains, and the fields, everything that met his eye—even the flowers looked gray. A few days later, his old friend Yeonho, who was said to have gone off to the North, returned to P Town with long hair and came to see Hyeon as soon as he arrived.

“So, things have been pretty rough, eh?”

“No, not particularly.”

“There must have been a lot of suffering. But those bandit bastards have now gone . . .”

“. . .”

“But, say, what are you doing here?”

“What do you mean?”

“Shouldn’t you be rushing forward to do your part in the work?”

“Work?”

“Really, now! Haven’t you endured until now because you were waiting for just such a moment as this?

“Waiting for a moment?” Hyeon stared at him with a look of bewilderment on his face.

“Of course, this was all so unexpected! But there’s no need to be puzzled.”

“Well, it’s true that I was shocked, but I’m no more than a mundane man.”

“So, you plan to just go on like this?”

“This is good enough for me.”

“What? You mean you’re just going to watch the performance and have a snack?”

“The snack can come later, but I have no interest in watching the performance.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Yeonho looked surprised.

“What do you mean? This is the kind of guy I’ve always been. Please, just leave me alone.”

“Leave you alone? Aren’t you, more than anyone else, the one who should work enthusiastically?”

“There will be plenty of people to do the work. There’s no need for me to join in. Everything seems to be such a bother. Before you entered the village, I saw the body of a young soldier lying by the road on my way out to the fields. His eyelashes were long, and his black hair framed a youthful face. He was a young boy who looked to be at least ten years younger than me. Only a few days ago, he might have sent his family a letter, or been longing for a young maiden from his neighborhood. When I think of that, I wonder why he had to lose his life by the road like this. A human being who should have lived was killed by the hands of man. For what? Whose fault was it?”

“Of course it’s unpleasant that people die. But can we expect to achieve the revolution without paying the price of blood?”

“Whose blood? Who has to shed this blood?”

“The blood of the foes who stand in the way of the revolution, and the noble blood of the people’s warriors that is offered up to the revolution. But the blood of even more foes is demanded.”

“Have you ever thought about what it means for a person to die? About the death of human beings who are struggling just to survive? About suffering and fear? About the fact that, to a dying human being, in that moment of death everything that is him—no, everything in the entire world—is lost?”

“But the new hope, the proletariat, must advance over his body.”

“Advance? Toward what? At first it all sounds very moving. But that’s precisely the problem.”

“This is all the unavoidable first stage of the revolution.”

“And what on earth is the goal of this revolution that has to step over so many dead bodies?”

“The construction of a society without exploitation and without classes.” Yeonho looked at him as if he had asked a childish question.

“I desperately hope that such a society will come. But the process of getting to that goal, what sort of process is this, and how long will the process last? Even during that process, human beings have to live, and aren’t human beings always living in the process of something? The goal of human life is for human beings to live; is not life itself the goal? There’s no such thing as a final goal. If we must, we could say that there are smaller, intermediate goals.”

“Then you do not fully recognize this revolution.”

“No matter what is gained by this revolution, it cannot be more precious than human life.”

“Then you are denying history itself.”

“This talk of revolution is appealing, no doubt. After all, most historians believe that revolutions are important opportunities necessary for historical change.”

“Not even you can deny that, I see.”

“No, I’m just saying that it is little more than fodder for the historians. If by some stroke of good fortune they’re dealt a good hand, human beings may just sit calmly on the sofa and carry on about ‘the lives sacrificed by the few, etc.,’ but even if those countless revolutions had never taken place, the world would probably not be worse off than it is now.”

“Well, this is a surprise.”

“At any rate, I don’t have the courage to cast hateful glances at others or sacrifice my life for a goal that isn’t even clear.”

“So that’s how you see the struggle of the people.”

“Struggle? Why do you want to fight so badly? If you do want to fight, why don’t you just form a club for those who want to fight and then fight amongst yourselves? But the reality is that you’re dragging in even those who don’t want to fight and making them fight. Look at Iksu.”

“Iksu, now that is one astounding fighter.”

“Do you think he’s in his right mind now? When it comes to someone in Iksu’s position having to free himself from poverty and live like a real human being, well, no one will debate that. But Iksu now . . .”

“What about him now?”

“Look at his eyes. It must be great to be so devoted to something. But his eyes are filled with malice. His little eyes, once so sweet and lovable, are now filled with nothing but hatred and murder. When I saw him I wondered why it was that a human being should have such a look in his eyes. And I pitied him. Of course, you’ll probably pity me for thinking this.”

“Do you have any idea what sort of time we’re living in?”

The frustration was evident on Yeonho’s face.

“A time seething with baseless hatred.”

“Baseless hatred?!”

“Well then, against whom do you harbor such a bitter resentment, and who is it that you curse and despise?” Hyeon looked at Yeonho with no guile in his eyes.

“How could you ask something like that now?”

“Capitalists, landowners, pro-Japanese, reactionaries, is that right?”

“And opportunists!” Yeonho spat.

“I’m not an opportunist. What I hate is not anyone you can point a finger at. When human beings hate each other, it only brings about a vicious cycle where hate breeds hate.”

“And so?”

“What we should hate is the foolishness of humanity. The toxin of the human psyche hidden deep within your heart and mind. The tyranny that would oppress others. The heartlessness that would extort. The arrogance of believing we’re better than others. The cheap, heroic meddling of one who takes it upon himself to get involved. The insolence to believe that one can kill others or let them live. Those sorts of things.”

“Since when have you been a reverend?”

“I’m not a believer, but in the two thousand years less fifty since he told us to love our neighbor and to turn the other cheek if someone should strike one, we’ve barely managed this. Of course, you’d never strike my cheek, and I’m not tolerant enough to turn my right cheek when struck on my left cheek.”

“So?”

“I hate fighting. I’ll run away before things come to that. Now, I’ve come to believe that the very fact I was born a human being is something to be ashamed of. I dislike myself, and I dislike humanity—I don’t need to name individuals. But that doesn’t mean I’ve felt any great despair and wanted to die, so I’m just living my life as it comes.”

 

 

Yeonho looked at Hyeon with a mixture of contempt and sympathy in his eyes. The backwardness of the “petit bourgeoisie” flailing about, having lost his way in the corruption of capitalist society. He wanted to tell Hyeon about the heroic tribulations and self-sacrifice of the revolutionaries. “Think about the self-sacrifice of the revolutionaries.”

“How is that self-sacrifice? Did anyone ask them to do that? How is the price paid to narcissism and vanity a sacrifice? It just cost them a great deal, that’s all. The plight of the common people is a much more pitiful sight. It is a calamity born of injustice and a sheer indignity.”

“Indignity?”

“Yes, indignity. What greater indignity could there be? What have they received? Those who have for so long now prevented them from receiving what they deserve are none other than those contractors that no one asked for.”

“Contractors?”

“They’re so full of themselves that they’re excited and indignant, and sometimes they laugh and sometimes they cry. Within those roars of anger, laughing, and tears lies the sacrifice of innocent human beings. They demand to be admired and applauded. Human beings are each born with their own lives, and no matter how humble those lives may be, they each have their own world. No one can take this away from them. They’re not just extras who’ve been brought along for the contractors’ performance, you know.

“This is what I think. Any human being who thinks that there will surely come some new world or another, and so wants to quickly get involved and play a part in it, such a human being is no different from a businessman who realizes that some waste is being disposed of and rushes in to place a successful bid on it. The impudence of someone believing that only he can come forth and save this society is no different from the nonsense spouted by that businessman who sells that waste for the consumers to use at a cheap price. Actually, it’s different, in that you could say this is worse. The businessman covets only a profit, but they demand admiration and domination. They’ve taken on a contract that no one even asked them to and made people even more miserable.”

“Do you believe that such an opinion will be shared by others?”

“I’m just telling you my own thoughts, since the subject came up. I’ve lived my own life, and I was even dragged off as a soldier during the Japanese colonial period. Even after liberation I continued to live my own life. And from here on out I want to live my own life as well. No matter how much of a fuss we may make of it, it is a small thing for a human being to live, so I just want to live my own life in peace and quiet. That’s all.”

“That’ll be difficult. The revolution doesn’t tolerate a single idler. We must awaken paralyzed human beings from their sleep and instill their minds with a new human consciousness.”

After Yeonho left, Hyeon sat on the wooden floor and struggled within himself. He had nothing to be sorry for. There was just something in his heart that couldn’t bear it to say nothing. He stared blankly at the flowerbed. The individual characters of the flowers, which he hadn’t been able to perceive for several days now, were revealed—human beings gave a variety of meanings to flowers. Passion, unease, grief, nobility, sin, rage, ambiguity, meekness, madness. But flowers were just beautiful, nothing more. They bloomed in season and faded wordlessly in season. And yet human beings still gave whatever meaning they liked to flowers. Not only that, but they divided themselves up by color as well, taking sides and pointing knives at each other’s chests.

Hyeon had always held fast to his creed, his inversion of the Golden Rule: Just as I dont want to be bothered by others, I wont bother others. But now, after all this time, Hyeon began to feel waves of menace approach.

The contractors this time did not seem to be of a kind with those who had come before. Skilled and ruthless operators who were determined to lay their hands on everyone, without missing a single person. Tenacious and meticulously calculating individuals who would search every last corner. Hyeon felt that even his shell as he crouched there would not be able to escape their sharp gaze.

Yeonho clucked his tongue as he walked away. Can you believe that guy?

Being given his mission as an agent provocateur and deployed to P Town, his hometown, was more than enough to make up for the hardships he’d experienced over the course of over three years. He was quite pleased with the looks he received from the villagers. Looks of admiration and wonder, of awe and envy, that victors received. Either that or venomous looks of rage and hatred. Whatever the looks, there were within them signs of some reaction. Only Hyeon’s eyes were different. Within them was no reaction whatsoever. There was no sign of fear; rather he saw in those eyes filled with indifference, weariness, and loathing something that might have even been pity and sympathy. That he could look so lightly on this tower they’d struggled so hard to build in the midst of fear, in the midst of this vicious organization. And the logic of his rambling and empty words.

Contractors?

As he thought of how he had let Hyeon’s words slip in one ear and out the other with the ease and magnanimity of a victor, he thought himself more foolish than praiseworthy. In a corner of his heart there grew an emptiness like cotton candy. Yeonho filled that emptiness with a flame of hatred.

Some ten days later. On the sweltering land beneath the July sky, the contractors held a celebration of sorts. The blazing sun was a far too powerful light for such an appalling celebration. Through the slaughter of living sacrifices, they had to wet their hands with human blood and plant the fertile seeds of fear and hatred in the hearts of those “people” who still milled about, having not adopted a clear position. They had to share the shards of sin.

To this kangaroo court held at the intersection at the heart of P Town, Yeonho called Hyeon. He wanted to show Hyeon blood and see his reaction. As the prearranged condemnation and planned outcry of the crowd poured forth, stoking the crucible of a cruel, inhuman passion, Yeonho stared only at Hyeon’s face as he stood next to him.

There will certainly be some change. Unless you, who say that you alone will remain aloof and above the fray, do not have a heart of stone, there will most certainly be some disturbance in your heart. Fear, confusion, shock, pleading . . . then Ill hold you in the palm of my hand. That will be your surrender. And your speech no more than some ideological game.

When the first victim, the local chairman of the Korean National Association, received his sentence, an inexplicable roar went up from the crowd and the thick cudgels in the hands of the executioners rained down on the ashen-faced, gray-haired head. The sound of bones shattering. The dull sound of flesh falling from bone.

What do you think?

Yeonho stared piercingly at Hyeon. But he couldn’t find even the slightest trace of fear on Hyeon’s face. On Hyeon’s hardened face there were only rivulets of sweat.

How could this be?

But this was an error in judgment on Yeonho’s part. The sweat trickling down Hyeon’s face was not due to the heat but to the rage that burned inside him. When the second victim was dragged out, the sweat running down Hyeon’s face was not sweat but blood oozing out from every vein in his body.

The victim was none other than Ms. Jo’s father. He was little more than a powerless old man who had never plotted any rebellion other than to reject a lifestyle that did not suit him and who had come South. In that instant, Ms. Jo’s face flashed before Hyeon’s eyes.

Hyeon turned his sweat-drenched face and looked at Yeonho. That strange look in his eyes and the incomprehensible smile that curled at the corners of his lips. That this was the face of a friend he had grown up with—the face of a human being.

For a moment, Hyeon imagined that Yeonho’s face was magnified before his eyes, and a cry tore from his lips: “Murder!”

(Excerpt from pp. 424-435.)

 

Translated by Charles La Shure

Illustration ⓒ Amy Shin

Author's Profile

Sunwoo Hwi (1922–1986) came down from the north to the south in 1946 and worked as a journalist and teacher before enlisting in the South Korean army. He won the Dongin Literary Award in 1957 for his first short story, “Flames,” excerpted here. He was a prolific writer, publishing eighty books, including Flagman without a Flag (1959) and The Legend of Clovervale (1963), and nearly 1,000 essays.