Are You Sure You Know Who You Are?: The Testimony by Haïlji

  • onMarch 28, 2017
  • Vol.35 Spring 2017
  • bySeo Jinseok
Parodymai (The Testimony)
Tr. Martynas Šiaučiūnas-Kačinskas

Quietly / Very quietly / I walk toward the city to scout […] / The streets are quiet / The sidewalks are hushed / There’s no Mickiewicz […] / It’s grey, dirty, wintry cold / There’s no Slowacki […] / There are no cosmonauts / No popes […] / There’s nothing at all

This is an excerpt from a famous Polish song called “Cichosza,” co-written by poet Michał Zabłocki and singer-songwriter Grzegorz Turnau. As Cracow, one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in Poland, lies sunken in silence and darkness, a lonely pioneer in the city sets off on a journey only to find nothing really exists. Not counting the things we are already aware of, not a single new thing exists.

While reading The Testimony, the ninth novel of Haïlji, published recently in Lithuania, a country to which the author is deeply attached, we cannot help but be reminded of the scene of the encounter between Morpheus and Neo in The Matrix. As the novel builds to its denouement, we face a dilemma: What do we choose? The blue pill, which will make all our facts stay true for good, or the red pill, which will toss us into a bottomless slough of despair just like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland? The end of the novel apparently concerns all of us living in this era, not just the protagonist of the story.

If I were placed in a similar situation as Neo in The Matrix, I might choose the blue pill. No matter how great the ecstasy of recognizing truth and reality, I am not sure I could withstand the pain when everything around me collapses, or the stressful labor required to rebuild reality out of nothing. Furthermore, what if the collapsing involves not only the objects around me, like the walls or the roof, but also everything that concerns “me”?

The word “testimony” in the title of the book instead of “racetrack,” a motif the author never seems to tire of, might bemuse long-standing fans; however, the racetrack is mentioned several times in this novel, too, so fans need not be too worried. Although it is a pity that not a single book with this motif is yet translated into Lithuanian, we still have to point out the conception of racetracks here.

As far as I know, the author hasn’t yet clarified the meaning of the recurring motif of racetracks in his works. The stars of the racetracks might look to be the horses that race without any clear reason, but, in fact, the racetrack is nothing but a complex of regimes and orders arranged by the masses that don’t have anything to do with horses. The racing horses keep running back and forth on the tracks, as if floating on the wave of regime and system created by crowds and custom, which is nothing but a momentary aggregate, where all kinds of segregated existence with their own purpose and reasons of life are melted in. In that space, there are no protagonists, no audience, no tracks, no purpose. Nothing actually exists. The significant core might be something observing people beyond the worldly and mortal regime or order. Whatever it is, the kernel that controls the racetracks as a society is not found among the horses, riders, or audience.

Haïlji’s works always inscribe images of such racetracks in the minds of readers. The story of his imagined world is simple. The occurrences are a lack of probabilities and scarcely interconnected with each other. Only a few protagonists and events with some highlighted superficial images are repeated tediously. Haïlji seems to intentionally avoid his signature style in his novels such as The Republic of Užupis and The Testimony; however, in comparison with his earlier works, the composition of events and characteristics of protagonists are not much changed. We might believe we understand the book’s plot and story, but, in fact, we simply follow the current of cognition and recognition in the brain of the author himself. There are no protagonists, no occurrences, no time setting, nothing is there. There is only “you” and the author who controls your cognition. We finally realize that the professor of philosophy, the main character who leaves us perplexed throughout the story, reflects ourselves observing our own world collapsing, but much more sadly as we try to prevent the continuation of the collapse of that tiny world with our vulnerable arms in fear of losing our ego. That might be the reason why we fear to face the truth and stubbornly deny its existence.

Although The Testimony was published in Korea almost two decades ago, doubtlessly, the novel has had a resounding impact on Korean society, which is still going through a drastic bottom-up transformation. Do concepts such as nation, politics, and democracy exist in Korean society in the same way as we are aware of them? Is the Godot we are awaiting nothing but a feasible debris of images whose prototype has already been obliterated?

The Republic of Užupis created a sensation when it was published in Lithuania recently, where people are still experiencing self-reconstruction and identity crises following the collapse of the great history that once established the largest state in Central and Eastern Europe, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and, consequently, integration into the other great bloc of the European Union. Have Lithuanian readers validated their real position in The Republic of Užupis, which concerns the endless journey of Hal who goes through a turbulent confusion of identity? Then do Lithuanian readers dare to take this new pill offered by Haïlji in The Testimony? Be very cautious before turning over the first page if you are not sure you’re ready for it. 


by Seo Jinseok
Director, Center for Korean Studies University of Latvia