The Disaster Tourist
- onMarch 25, 2021
- Vol.51 Spring 2021
- byYun Ko-eun
- The Disaster Tourist
Tr. Lizzie Buehler 2020
That evening, after Yona returned to the bungalow and showered, someone knocked on her door.
The woman standing on the step had a hat pulled over her eyes. She seemed to have come in secret. Yona didn’t recognise the visitor, but something about her was familiar. Yona let the woman inside her room. She held out a stack of paper: the writer’s screenplay. Did this stranger know something that Yona didn’t?
Yona tried to look at her face, but only, her lips were visible under the hat. An unusual smell came from her body. Yona had a bad feeling about her. She pushed the stack of paper away.
‘I’m sorry, but the screenplay is the writer’s responsibility. It’s not my job.’
The woman seemed to be scrutinising Yona’s expression. Thankfully, the room was quite dark, and the murky indirect lighting masked Yona’s appearance. Silence filled the room. The woman stared at Yona like she was drilling into her. Her eyes looked uneasy, and desperate.
‘If it’s not urgent, can we talk tomorrow?’ Yona asked. ‘I’m tired.’
As Yona turned away, the woman grabbed her elbow, snatching at her like the roots of the strangler fig tree.
‘Have you not read the entire screenplay?’ the woman asked urgently. ‘Here, look at it.’
Yona stared at the woman, and for a second, she caught a glimpse of her eyes. Eyelids without a fold, brown irises. They filled with tears.
‘You can’t tell anyone that I’m here,’ the woman pleaded. ‘But I had to come.’
‘What do you want to tell me?’
‘If you read this script, you’ll know: these plans aren’t normal. We have to stop them before they happen,’ the woman blurted out. ‘Massacre - isn’t that what you’re doing?’
‘Tell this to the manager,’ Yona replied flatly.
‘You need to know.’
‘Well, I don’t know who you are, so why should I listen to you?’
‘It’s a massacre. You’re planning a massacre.’
In that moment, Yona hurled the first thing she could get her hands on. It was just a bedside cushion, but it felt like a rock. The cushion fell to the floor without hitting the woman. Yona let out a shriek, unable to hold back the anger welling up inside her. She hated this unwelcome guest.
‘From what I know, people volunteered,’ Yona said after she calmed down. ‘They’re compensated, the volunteer performers. This is between those volunteers and the people who hired them. There’s nothing we can do.’
‘Me. There’s nothing I can do.’
Yona looked at the woman, and the woman laughed scornfully.
‘If you read the script,’ she said, ‘you’ll understand. There are people who were unwittingly given roles even though they didn’t apply. People who are carrying out this stupid performance that they don’t actually want to be part of. Here: everyone assigned the parts from Crocodile 70 to Crocodile 450 is going to die for nothing. These crocodiles don’t have lines. They’re not even practising; they’re just going to die. Most of the crocodiles, even if they’re alive now, have been given roles where they have to die. Do you really not understand what this means?’
‘They’re crocodiles. What kind of lines would a crocodile have?’
‘Don’t you know who the crocodiles are? Haven’t you figured it out what that word means?
Yona turned away. Of course she knew the crocodiles the woman was talking about. The people who lived in the crocodile caution zone by the red sand desert, the people who set Paul on edge. The manager had repeatedly told Yona that the crocodile caution zone needed to be ‘cleaned up’. Every rainy season, he said, the crocodiles came to shore and caused problems, and the baby crocodiles were increasing in number.
Yona recalled something else that the manager had told her. ‘Mui isn’t big enough to house these crocodiles, you know. They’re dangerous.’
‘Why are you saying these things to me?’ she asked.
‘You have to know. What the manager’s plan is, how the massacre will occur. We need to stop it.’
‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’
‘Listen to this line in the script: There were about three hundred of them. People who lived here during the dry season and left during the rainy season. Mui was their home, and what happened is sad - it’s horrible. I’ve seen the encampment from a distance several times. This is all unbelievable. I knew a really lovely boy who lived there.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘That’s one of the lines. Only after the crocodiles die are they treated like people. They’re being sacrificed for this awful tragedy. Do you not recognise this part?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who’s supposed to be saying that? And why should I trust you?’
‘That’s one of my lines. Now do you believe me?’
The crocodiles didn’t have any lines. That was all Yona knew. She wasn’t sure how they would be massacred. Honestly, she would rather not know.
‘I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.’
When Yona said that, the woman shook her head.
‘You can help,’ she said.
‘Please, just go.’
‘It took bravery for me come here, Yona Ko,’ the woman said from behind Yona’s back. ‘It pains me to think that I participated in the unfolding of this event. Of course, at the beginning I didn’t realise it would be such a big deal. The hole in front of me now is larger than I expected, and it’s growing out of control. I regret what I’ve done. But it’s not too late for you to do something. I don’t want you to regret doing nothing.’
Yona pushed the woman and they struggled with each other until Yona shoved her outside. Yona felt dizzy. She thought of Nam. And of the hole, bigger than planned and growing, unchecked.
The next morning, when Yona finally opened her eyes after failing to fall asleep all night, the ceiling fan looked several feet lower than before. She wanted to hurry up and go to breakfast, where all she had to worry about was how her eggs should be cooked. Recently, the writer had hardly been coming to meals. Yona ate alone, crossed the empty garden, and returned to her bungalow. Just as she was beginning to suspect that the woman’s visit last night had been a dream, the script on the table caught her eye. Yona picked it up and threw it in the bin. Yona had never seen the final plans for the sinkhole. She knew about the initial outline, of course, but clearly the plans had extended way beyond that now. As her confusion grew, so did the number of things she didn’t want to think about.
No one in the writer’s script was being told to stab someone with a knife, or push them into a hole. The people being sacrificed, though, didn’t know they would die. Ultimately, this event would bury hundreds of people in the holes. People who knew were staying silent about the future carnage. The woman was right: a massacre was being planned, but so cleverly that no one was directly responsible for it. Every part of the plans for Mui Sunday had been divided into the smallest possible components, so the workers making the sinkholes happen focused only on the assignments given to them. Yona was no different. She occasionally thought about the overall plot of this event, but those thoughts were always followed by the consolation, or perhaps excuse, that all she could do was plan the travel programme. If someone had ordered her to push people into the sinkholes, Yona would have said no and left instantly. But because her contribution wasn’t direct, Yona stayed silent, and as she got more used to her position, she grew insensitive to the effects of her work.
But she dreamed often. The dreams brought Yona into a new realm. They were dreams about an almost-complete world, a world that would collapse immediately after construction finished. Where a man with a forty-inch waist and his partner worked together, each painting the places their hands could reach; where an old dog drowsed under a hammock; where a child practised crying for money; where an old motorcycle drove on roads that weren’t really roads: that world.
The script was still in the bin. Yona wanted it to disappear, but eventually she fished it out. As she flipped through the pages, she came face to face with a story that she couldn’t have imagined. A story whose last scene showed Luck’s dead body in the first sinkhole, after Yona had returned to Korea. A last scene where Yona, without her lover, faced the sky and shrieked like she was being torn to pieces.
Yun Ko-eun was born in Seoul in 1980. Her short story “Piercing” won the 2004 Daesan Literary Award for College Students the year she graduated from university. She received the 2008 Hankyoreh Literature Award for her novel The Zero G Syndrome, the 2011 Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award for her short story “The Hippocampus, Fly,” and the 2015 Kim Yong-ik Novel Prize for her short story collection Aloha. The Disaster Tourist (Serpent’s Tail, 2020) is her first book to be translated into English.