As I crossed the world from one extreme to the other to arrive in Seoul from Colombia, I thought about Asia, about what got me interested in Asia, and then I remembered an author, Joseph Conrad, and his great novel Lord Jim, in which a young man flees guilt, a guilt obtained through inexperience and ambition, when he allows himself to be carried away by hardened and soulless sailors to commit a cowardly act. And where does Lord Jim flee? To the East, further and further east. First he goes to Singapore and later advances to the Malay peninsula. The name Lord Jim is a translation of “Tuang Jim,” as he is called by the indigenous people of the final region in which he seeks refuge. This book captivated me. The idea of escaping guilt by going east was a true discovery. Did I feel guilty? Later, in time, I discovered that Bogotá, with its 2,700 meters of altitude, provoked a strange reaction in me, and the lack of oxygen made me feel guilt.
Guilt. It was not by chance that the first city in Asia I got to know was Singapore, Lord Jim’s first stop on his journey toward oblivion. I walked around the streets of Singapore and felt free, forgotten by my world, distant and at the same time calm. A calm American. I believe the sensation of relief provoked in me euphoria. Shortly after, I traveled to Beijing and began what I could call “a Chinese period.” In three years I traveled five times for long visits from which arose three books. A travel narrative called October in Beijing (Octubre en Pekín), the novel The Imposters (Los Impostores) and, later on, a brief narrative called Hotel Beijing (Hotel Pekín). After, I visited Jakarta, where I encountered Café Batavia and the work of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who was in jail for almost his entire life for communist militancy and was a candidate for the Nobel Prize at least five times. Later, I traveled to Bangkok and got to know its rough underworld, and ended up writing about it in my novel Night Prayers.
For this reason, when the Literature Translation Institute of Korea invited me to Seoul, I didn’t hesitate an instant. It was one of the last great capitals I had left to visit, and I even felt indebted. A shame not to have visited before, I said to myself upon arriving, and I thought I was already a bit late. Perhaps I should pretend that I knew it already, and without so much as resting I went out for a walk, trying to make the passersby believe that I had also lived in Seoul for a number of years.
Seoul. A city born of destruction, but above all of determination and hope and discipline. It lacks the arrogance of other cities that got rich quickly and are designed to surprise their visitors. Rather, Seoul seems made so that its inhabitants live comfortably and can aspire to be happy or at least harbor certain hopes. I had been reading a lot of the Korean philosopher Han Byung-Chul, above all The Burnout Society, and I already understood that if the twentieth century was bacterial and viral, the twenty-first had begun to be neuronal, since its great malady was depression. But in Seoul, people didn’t seem to be very depressed, though this is only an external view. Perhaps their ghosts are invisible, who knows? These ghosts must be in their literature, I said to myself. And that was what I did during the writers’ festival, try to find those revealing droplets that literature always showers on people who seem happy or who seek comfort. To this end, listening to the poet Pak Jeong-de was very revealing, since he said that each person is a strange planet, lost in the middle of their own solitary universe.
The writer who chose to be my Korean counterpart, the very celebrated Jeong You Jeong, was extremely friendly and enabled me to understand something more of the soul of this long-suffering Asian peninsula. In the fragment she chose for the anthology, from one of her very famous novels that was made into a movie, two adolescents who are in a correctional facility wish to escape toward liberty, in a dizzying and poetic race, since at the end one of them flies away. In another talk, the writer Ham Jeung Im defined love with a beautiful and enigmatic phrase: “There are people who simply walk.”
In this literature, I thought, is the true map to find the way back to Seoul.
by Santiago Gamboa
Author of Night Prayers