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FICTION

[Turkish] Gazing upon the Trembling Statue: Badem (Almond) by Sohn Won-pyung

  • onJuly 2, 2021
  • Vol.52 Summer 2021
  • bySema Kaygusuz
Badem (Almond)
Tr. Tayfun Kartav
2021
256pp.

 

now i’ve found the great wall of china

that everyone sensed encircled madly

now everyone’s irked insensibly

so now i get myself into deep water.

Turgut Uyar

 

A few years ago, as I wandered the Ephesus Archaeological Museum where the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus are on display, I saw a little boy standing stock-still, his eyes fixed on the eyes of the statue of Antinous. Though his mother persistently kept calling him to her side, the boy couldn’t pull himself away from Antinous’s attentive gaze, the statue’s neck turned to the side. He gazed upon Antinous as though he could, just by looking, fill in the missing parts of that familiar object. At the time, I’d thought of the boy’s frozen stance in front of the statue as a kind of admiration, but now when I envision the scene, a different possibility comes to mind. The boy, his fresh ego filled to the brim with curiosity and wonder, was waiting for Antinous, who hadn’t budged for approximately 1,900 years, to blink. Waiting for that inveterate statue, filled with emotion, to tremble.

Dwelling on the gaze of that boy as he tried to overcome the sharp border between human and human-statue, dwelling on his insistent, staring, expectant focus, I think now about the borders of the object in his focus, about how the border is itself bounded by everything else, about how every border in our world of perceptions is boundless. And indeed, although we cannot comprehend the bounds of the universe, even the universe itself has a border. Just as we can’t comprehend the boundlessness of so many emotions whose names we don’t yet know.

Last year, a Korean novel titled Badem (Almond) was released in Turkish. A “silent” novel in Turkish for the moment, it hasn’t yet been noticed by readers. And yet, the novel’s senses are open, even as the protagonist begins his life utterly lacking in emotion due to the insufficient development of the amygdala in his brain. This is the border that leaves him outside of culture. He describes emotions by following the traces they leave in the body, trying to recognize them by describing each one. Like a written text, he attempts to take on each emotion by rationalizing it. The ego, shaped by anger, trauma, and relationships, is, in his ghostliness, a perpetually blank page. If what we call the ego is an orb of consciousness endlessly pulsing and bleeding in the tower of childhood, then the protagonist of Almond is shrewd but sans ego. He is a freak of nature. As a consequence, we might name him directly by his illness—Alexithymia, the inability to recognize emotions. The organic, pathological border of Alexithymia makes the protagonist brave, for he knows no fear; tranquil, for he knows no joy; calm, for he knows no rush. In these times when we are trying to hear our inner selves, when we are learning to grapple with our egos through different kinds of meditation, Alexithymia appears as a freak of nature, as a real phenomenon in the face of the modern person imprisoned by emotions. Though his basic senses are highly developed, he lacks the intuition, instincts, and faculties to turn whatever he touches into individual images or figures of speech, and he remains stuck in the realm of description. Because the reason the protagonist has been so successful in the realm of description is his lack of poetry. Or, more figuratively, his lack of a heart. It is remarkable that the habitat that Alexithymia narrates over the course of the story, purged as it is of emotion and thus of soul, is girded with such towering description. Life exists but its sensuous trace is missing. While the past becomes absolute in material forms, the mind cannot escape from its chronological ordering in an album. The past, instrumentalized by Chronos, comes to resemble a vacant landscape, completely disconnected from Cosmos’s involuted, polysemous perceptions. In this novel about a person who is nothing more than a rationalized body, the story’s tragic weight is left entirely to the reader. We find ourselves taking on all the emotions in this poignant story.

It’s almost as though the statue might tremble, isn’t it? At any moment it might tremble: it is about to tremble.

We might read Almond as a novel that rather strikingly demonstrates the possibility of a past without memory. In order to survive and to adapt to society, the protagonist has to cast off the appearance of having a heart of stone by learning the common behaviors that emotions elicit. But that does not suffice. Because adapting to one’s environment isn’t what makes a human human, but the oikos that forges him into something incomparable. A person in pursuit of the descriptions, figures of speech, and images that abstract the world, from the crudest to the most refined, finds his ego.

Every ego is of course transitory. Every ego takes on new forms alongside new experiences; for the ego is not a sturdy, unchanging, fixed entity. As for Almond’s
Alexithymia, that blank page in the mind is simultaneously a ballad of possibilities. But what I really want to touch on here, beyond the inherent potential of the ego, is the process in which the protagonist, living on the dark side of its sensuous border, begins to come undone, which is to say, begins to transform. Following all the horrible things he undergoes, our protagonist feels neither grief nor solitude nor guilt nor sorrow, but he begins to discover the oikos where he remains in intractable contact with a peer who experiences his emotions to an excessive degree. Only a freak can heal another freak. The passage of our protagonist into humanity scintillates in the relationship he forges with another person who also could never have been a “normal” human.

This novel maps out an unexpected route for thinking about the connections between borders, passages, and transformations; it reverses the usual path that emotions take from the heart to the brain, starting its adventure instead in the brain and coming to an end in the heart. One of the most striking insights that the novel offers the reader through its wayward references is this: that the well of morality is the heart, while the brain is simply a living abode where moral law is governed. Another significant insight is that counterparts never become one another. When it comes to the ego, every dissimilarity that approaches another, that collides in approach, that bleeds in collision, serves as a sacred text to the outcast. Just as Antinous has stood for 1,900 years, about to tremble in the eyes of a boy, so the boy there, too, is a prospective poet, ready to be sculpted by Antinous.

 

 

Translated by Nicholas Glastonbury

 

Sema Kaygusuz

Author, Every Fire You Tend (Tilted Axis Press, 2019)

The Well of Trapped Words (Comma Press, 2015)