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The Old Diary

  • onSeptember 16, 2019
  • byLee Seung-U
The Old Diary
Tr. Helen Cho
2008

 

It was Gyu’s wife who gave me the news that he was in such a critical condition that there was nothing the hospital could do for him. Having lost contact for God knows how long, I failed to recognise her voice straightaway when she said, ‘This is Jun-young’s mum.’ Besides, it was embarrassing that I did not immediately think of Gyu on hearing his son’s name, ‘Jun-young’. Although the fault was not entirely mine, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed. In a lifeless voice, she asked me to drop by the hospital before the worst happened. She wasn’t sure how much longer Gyu would hold out. Puzzled, I asked, ‘What do you mean?’ She was surprisingly calm as she explained the situation.

After suffering from indigestion and having a bloated stomach for some time, Gyu had gone to the hospital, only to be told there was nothing the doctor could do. The cancer in his liver had already spread into his blood. It was too late. How could he have let things become so serious before he finally thought of seeing a doctor? To be fair though, the symptoms of his disease must have only surfaced in the more advanced stage. Still, as far as the doctor was concerned, Gyu’s carelessness made no sense, for his body must have sent quite a few warning signs given the state it was now in. Since all that the hospital could provide him with was a prescription for painkillers, Gyu and his wife decided to seek some peace and quiet in the countryside, but in the end their plan never worked out. With only one day left till his discharge, his internal organs suddenly ruptured, causing massive bleeding. Gyu had an emergency surgery and was transferred to the ICU. He regained consciousness after a few days, but now no one could be sure what else might happen.

‘He may last another month. There’s no guarantee though’, said Gyu’s wife in a voice so calm it almost sounded serene. Perhaps she could not get her head round to it yet, or perhaps she had already given up on him.

She spoke with nonchalance, but I was instantly swept up in a whirlpool of emotions. Memory is not flat. It consists of high mountains and deep gorges. The whirlpool spins around a hollow spot. To me, that’s where guilt lurks. Surely, we have all been subject to agitation caused by the fear of being punished for a mistake or a misdeed. In some cases, the fear reaches an extreme pitch, as when a child grows up in a household that is particularly strict about rules and morality, either due to religious influence or something else. Whatever the truth may be, I remember that in my youth I was extremely sensitive about my mistakes or misdeeds, not to mention the punishment I would receive for them. In other words, my fear of punishment far exceeded the ordinary, but back in those days, it didn’t occur to me that I was already being punished by that very fear. Such extreme fear and anxiety often took on a new form: I began wishing that my punishers would vanish into thin air. If only those who had the authority to deal out punishment would kindly disappear, I could get off scot-free. With them gone, nobody would find out about my mistakes or misdeeds. I would no longer be burdened by the pressure to confess or come up with excuses, thereby avoiding all sorts of criticism. Whenever these thoughts entered my head, my heart swelled with excitement and started beating a little faster. 

One morning, when I realised I had not done my homework, I fantasised that my teacher would call in sick or get transferred to a different school out of the blue. I turned to similar fantasies that time when I happened to lock gazes with a classmate while stealing a few marbles from the shop in front of the school. ‘Our class captain is a thief!’ he would say to everyone in the imaginary scene that played in my head over and over again, driving me insane. For some reason, however, he chose not to breathe a word. Yet, my mind was not at ease. Convinced people would start calling me a thief any moment, I grew even more frightened and restless. I began wishing for my classmate to disappear with all my heart. It didn’t matter how. He could either fall sick or simply die.

 

‘My God! How could this be?’ I could almost hear the lamentations. However, I don’t think the devil resided only in my mind. Truth be told, we must not lay all the blame on the devil after all. The common faith in children’s innocence is a misconception with which grown-ups knowingly fool themselves. Well, even if they are innocent, that does not change anything. Sometimes innocence takes on the role of a devil precisely because it is innocent and thus unaware of what is evil. What difference is there between a devil with an innocent demeanour and innocence with a devil’s heart? Desperately hoping he would disappear in one way or another, I even chanted a spell. Of course, my spell did not work, nor was my wish granted. But that was not always the case.

One summer’s day, I stole a 1,000-won bill from my father’s wallet to buy myself an ice lolly. At first, I had no doubt that he would never find out. It wasn’t like there was only one 1,000-won bill. There were five after all. How could he notice one missing out of five? My father was not that meticulous, was he? So I took the money, ran to the store, and at last put a sweet, cold ice lolly in my mouth. The whole time I was fully convinced my crime would go unnoticed. That firm conviction had sprung from my desire. I had been longing to taste a sweet, cold ice lolly in my mouth so desperately that my desire had overpowered all other concerns. As the ice lolly got smaller, revealing the stick hidden within, my fear and anxiety slowly returned. In no time, my confidence melted away like an ice lolly.

I was soon overwhelmed by the thought that my father was bound to realise what was going on. The presence of five bills, which had thus far been a source of comfort, now pointed to the opposite. There had only been five of them. How could he not notice one missing out of five? My father was not that careless, was he? By the time the melting ice lolly had run down my hand and the stick hidden inside had become almost entirely visible, my mouth felt numb and I couldn’t even taste the ice lolly. The fear that I had forgotten about began creeping back. When a cousin of mine spotted me licking the ice lolly and asked me where I had found the money for it, I turned deadly pale with fright. I was sure she would tell on me. It would only be a matter of time before my father realised some money was missing from his wallet. The ice lolly stick I held in my hand now felt like a cudgel, so I quickly chucked it to the ground.

Naturally, the wish that I had previously harboured against my teacher and my classmate came back to me. Don’t let Father come home. Please make him disappear. My prayer was almost subconscious. I didn’t even know exactly what it was that I wanted. All I could think about was breaking free from the fear of the rod that would come down on my calves and buttocks. What happened next was difficult to believe. My secret wish that had never once come true was granted this time – of all occasions! My father did not come back. To be more precise, he did make it back home but in a state that made it impossible for him to reprimand me. Apparently, the neighbour’s truck he was riding in tumbled down a hill. He was drunk and so was the neighbour behind the steering wheel. It was alright for my father to be drunk but the same could not be said for the driver. At the hospital, my father remained in a coma for a week before disappearing into a place where he would not and could not ask about the missing 1000-won bill.

My father’s unexpected death stunned and upset our relatives as well as others who knew him, but was nothing compared to the shock I received. He had ended his life so prematurely, as if he couldn’t help but grant the wish of his only son! The notion that he died only because I wanted him gone solidified into a firm conviction as time went by. It began taunting me, saying that my father would not have died had it not been for my wish. What else could have made him jump into a truck that he’d never ridden in before? Can you really say you’re not the one who caused his death? In my head, I had fathered and nurtured that conviction, which went on to cross-examine and interrogate me. No one came to my defence. I faced an unfair trial. I held out a faint hope that my guilt would fade with time, but to no avail. In the courtroom of my mind, even time was not on my side. Instead, time testified against me. As days went by, my sense of guilt grew even more vivid and oppressive. One day, my Sunday school teacher promised that God would hear all our prayers and therefore we did not have to pray out loud all the time. In other words, if we so much as yearned for something in our hearts, then the Almighty God would remember all our wishes and grant them in due course. The teacher was a devout and passionate man for sure, but he never realised how his devout and passionate preaching drove one poor, fear-stricken soul into a pit of guilt. Of course, it was not his fault.

 

*

 

Gyu and I were born on the same day. He was born in the early morning of September 7 and I was born in the evening of the same day. The elders in our extended family agreed that Gyu was my senior since he had come into the world before me, albeit by a margin of only a few hours, and instructed me to address him as hyeong, or elder brother. That he was the firstborn boy of the family’s eldest son also came into play. Naturally, I found it difficult to accept their reasons and so refused to call him hyeong. Gyu, for his part, did not blame me. We grew up on an equal footing. Some even said that he and I looked like twins. Although I did not think that we looked that alike, I remained indifferent to such observations.

After my father passed away, my uncle became my de facto guardian, since my poor, sickly mother was struggling to make ends meet. My uncle had us move into the guestroom of his house. Living under the same roof, Gyu and I grew more and more twin- like. Many were amazed to note that not only did we resemble each other in our physical appearances but our voices sounded the same too. Sure, we wore similar clothes, but I didn’t think we could pass for twins. I was not particularly impressed, but nor was I offended. However, my uncle would say from time to time that he wished our grades were the same too. That irritated Gyu and made me feel ill at ease. We went to the same primary and middle schools. All throughout those nine years, I was a straight-A student. Except for a year or two out of the nine years, Gyu never excelled in his studies. He wasn’t jealous of me, and I wasn’t proud of myself. Even when his parents scolded him for his low grades, he would laugh it off, often calling me sissy for fretting about it.

Although Gyu never envied me, there was a time when I felt envious of him. Having joined the literature club at high school, Gyu took to carrying poetry books instead of textbooks. He grew his hair long, matched casual clothes with smart shoes, played the guitar, and spent hours memorising incomprehensible sentences. I often caught him scrawling gibberish in his notebook. More often than not, Gyu grew his hair past school regulations and ended up having his head shaven clean. His solution each time was to wear a beret pulled all the way down to his eyebrows. As far as I remember, he was always surrounded by girls. On top of all that, Gyu was away from home for several days on end. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine doing anything like that. Needless to say, my uncle and aunt were seriously concerned with their son’s preening and strutting, missing no opportunity to chide him for being a useless show-off. Yet, I couldn’t help but develop a certain admiration for him. Once, in his absence, I took out his notebook and mimicked him. But then afterwards, I could never bring myself to repeat such a pathetic attempt. It didn’t seem to suit me somehow. I too wanted to grow my hair or wander about the streets at night wearing my smart shoes, but I never took any action. To this day, I cannot put my finger on the exact reason why I envied Gyu. Was it because he learned and wrote poetry instead of memorising English vocabulary and maths equations? Was it because he dressed and carried himself in a way that was entirely inappropriate for a high school student? Or maybe I was simply jealous of the unfettered spirit with which he directed his preposterousness.

I went to university and Gyu didn’t. My uncle ended up paying the admission fee for his nephew instead of his son. To be fair though, it wasn’t my fault that Gyu never got into university. Failing the preliminary exam meant he wasn’t even qualified to sit for the main entrance exams. So my uncle paid my tuition not because he chose his nephew over his son, but because he couldn’t pay Gyu’s tuition no matter how much he wanted to. However, I felt guilty for many years afterward, thinking I had stolen Gyu’s tuition. My conscience tormented me because I believed my success had condemned Gyu to failure. Gyu flunked the preliminary exam, so he couldn’t apply anywhere. It’s not my fault he didn’t get in. In my mind I tried to argue otherwise, but to no avail. I was well aware of the truth. Had I been blind to the truth, I might have succeeded. Knowing the truth though, I remained unconvinced. I could not be persuaded all over again to believe what I already knew.

 

 

Upon entering university, I left my hometown. Buried deep inside my luggage on my way up to Seoul was the secret hope that I might be able to escape the guilt associated with my father’s death. I was mistaken. How naïve I was to think that physical distance could be equated with emotional distance! Even so, there exists a kind of desperation that drives us to knowingly rely on childishness. Along with my father, I carried Gyu in my suitcase. Despite the extra baggage – no, because of it – I chose to adhere to the childish notion of the correlation between spatial distance and consciousness. Faith is a leaning heart. When it leans a lot, your faith is great. When it leans a little, your faith is small. Your heart could lean heavily toward a juvenile concept or only slightly toward a noble idea. Of course, the opposite is also possible.

Thereafter, I consciously avoided visiting my hometown. Unless I absolutely had to, I chose not to return, and even when I absolutely had to, I occasionally came up with excuses for my absence. When vacations came around, I reluctantly spent a day or two in my old home before rushing back to Seoul on the pretext of my studies. On some national holidays, I lied about having to accompany my professor on a research trip, and ended up alone in the university dormitory, cooking noodles for myself.

Come to think of it, it was probably the year after my mother had passed away. When I was in my  second year at university, my mother suddenly fainted while working in the field. I was later told she had a myocardial infarction, otherwise known as a heart attack. At the town clinic, which was a handsome five- storey building complete with an inpatient ward, the head doctor explained that contraction of coronary arteries could cause sudden death by reducing the amount of blood flowing into the heart. According to him, my mother must have suffered chest pain, often breaking out in a cold sweat. I searched my memory but did not recall anything like that ever happening to her, so I just remained silent. Meanwhile, my uncle nodded gravely to show he agreed with the doctor. Thus, I became an orphan overnight but I didn’t really think twice about it. My mother would have been upset to hear me say this but I’ve been an orphan since the day I lost my father in the fifth grade. Death has provided the strongest connection between me and my father. As is always the case, nothing reveals presence better than absence. The state of being an orphan is the best reminder of one’s parents. My uncle was not going to stop being my surrogate father, a role he had taken on after my father’s death. He never blamed me much for keeping distance from home, but that didn’t mean he acquitted himself of his paternal duties. Rather, I believed he acknowledged that I was a grown-up orphan.

I saw Gyu in passing from time to time. Even when I visited my hometown, half the time he would be away. Gyu wandered here and there, trying his hands in this and that. By the looks of things, he didn’t fare so well. Each time I went down to my old home, I often found my aunt sighing and my uncle scolding his son. One day, I chanced to glimpse some books and notebooks in Gyu’s bag and asked him if he still wrote poetry. My voice immediately took on a cautious tone, lest he thought I was mocking him. ‘Poetry is difficult. Not only that, I can’t make a living out of it. I know my father won’t be supporting me forever. My family isn’t that rich anyway. Well, I can’t mooch off my parents for much longer. It’s not like I went to university like you.’ At that, I became desperate. My mind insisted to me that I had to prevent both my guilty conscience and his victim mentality from rising to the surface. The only reason I asked him again if he no longer wrote poems was because I just could not think of anything else to say. ‘Well, I’m writing novels now’, answered Gyu gleefully, flicking through his notebooks before my eyes. I wondered if novels weren’t difficult to write. Above all, I was curious and doubtful about whether he could make enough money with novels. But I knew better than to speak my mind. It might have been alright for me to be curious, but showing doubt didn’t seem like a good idea. Besides, having no reason to dishearten him, I figured it wouldn’t do me any good after all. So I said nothing.

 

*

 

Every once in a while, the unexpected cuts in and determines important aspects of life. Life is made up of unforeseen disruptions. Or perhaps there is nothing to be called life to begin with. The only concern is whether such intrusions occur early or late. Without all the things that cut in, there can be no life.

When I returned to my hometown after completing my fourth year at university to fulfil my mandatory military service, Gyu had only recently been discharged from the army. I got assigned to work for the Army Reserve at the district office. I was mainly responsible for sorting out the dates for reserve force training and distributing letters of notice. The district office was about three kilometres away and I commuted by bicycle. I would get there by eight o’clock in the morning and leave at six in the evening. Occasionally, I worked late hours but for the most part I arrived home on time. In the evening, I either lent a hand on my uncle’s farm or turned to reading. Gyu usually kept to himself in his room, writing something. Assuming that he was working on his novel, I didn’t ask him anything. Instead, I borrowed books from his bookcase. Every now and then, he would show me his manuscripts, sometimes even reading them out loud. His writing had come a long way. Unlike the poems he had written in high school, his novel had a clear style. When he asked me what I thought, I eagerly offered my critiques. The story is interesting, if a bit superficial. The message is too obvious. These sentences are rather awkward. These were just some of the things I said to Gyu, and he was always all ears. In fact, his response was so sincere that I felt pressured and resorted to mumbling something self-effacing: ‘But what do I know? Don’t take me seriously.’ Yet, it appeared he did take me seriously after all. He said I had a sharp eye for analysing fiction and asked if the Department of Public Administration taught creative writing too. One day, he suggested in all seriousness that I try my hands at writing novels. I merely grinned. I was sure he was only kidding, so I didn’t give it much thought afterward.

Something strange happened next. It was to bring this up that I mentioned earlier how life could be interrupted by the unexpected. One day, I was seized by an impulse to write. Gyu’s suggestion couldn’t have been the catalyst though. Well, I couldn’t be sure. As much as I had resolved not to take his words to heart (and believed I really didn’t), perhaps his suggestion lingered in my mind in one way or another. However, the final push came from a certain novel I read around that time. My heart was stirred, not by the plot, but by the vibration of emotions within me while reading the novel. The novel answered the question ‘Why do we write fiction?’ The protagonist was a writer who perceived his thirst for revenge and desire for control to be the genesis of his writing. For all the injustice he suffered in reality, he sought revenge outside reality. The way he maintained control had nothing to do with power, which was a mechanism of reality. He even claimed that the order within freedom was his means of control. To be honest, I did not share the author’s view that the official role of fiction was to liberate readers through this means of control. What disturbed my peace of mind was the final impact that the writer was aiming for – and probably did achieve in the end – by incessantly repeating his tedious and lengthy self-justification. I couldn’t give it a clear name but at that moment, I felt like I fully grasped the reason for writing fiction. I was not sure how much my consciousness also played a part, but at any rate I quickly came to regard the novel as a diary. Maybe novelists don’t keep separate diaries. Well, at least this author doesn’t need one. The thoughts that struck me were as abrupt as a sudden downpour on a summer afternoon. The downpour continued for a bit. I wanted to discard my old diary and get a new one. The impulse threw me into confusion. Gripped by an unexpected passion I had never seen coming, I began scribbling something down. Still, I was not expecting my words to turn into a novel. My mind was simply drawn to the idea of writing a new type of diary.

To begin with, I decided to write about the time when I realised I had not done my homework and fantasised that my teacher would call in sick or get transferred to a different school. I also wrote about how I had once stolen a few marbles from the shop in front of the school, remembering the relentless fear and anxiety that took hold of me the moment I happened to lock gazes with a classmate.

Our class captain is a thief !’ he would say to everyone in the imaginary scene that played in my head over and over again, driving me insane. For some reason, however, he chose not to breathe a word. Yet, my mind was not at ease. Convinced that people would start calling me a thief any moment, I grew even more frightened and restless. I began wishing for my classmate to disappear with all my heart. It didn’t matter how. He could either fall sick or simply die. ‘My god! How could this be?’ I could almost hear the lamentations. However, I don’t think the devil resided only in my mind. Truth be told, we must not lay all the blame on the devil after all. The common faith in children’s innocence is a misconception with which grown-ups knowingly fool themselves. Well, even if they are innocent, that does not change anything. Sometimes innocence takes on the role of a devil precisely because it is innocent and thus unaware of what is evil. What difference is there between a devil with an innocent demeanour and innocence with a devil’s heart? Desperately hoping he would disappear in one way or another, I even chanted a spell. Of course, my spell did not work, nor was my wish granted.

I wrote through the night and went to work in the morning. Again and again, I would erase and rewrite what I had written the night before. I revised some parts more than ten times. Sometimes, I would stop writing halfway through only to start all over again. Bit by bit, my sentences crawled forward. While writing, I became aware of the fierce inner battle between the desire to reveal and the desire to conceal.

Clashes broke out among my sentences, which were at odds with one another. They emerged contradictory and drenched in blood. All my energy went into the process of writing by finding new sentences to cover up those previously written. I was plagued by fatigue, hunger and lack of sleep but, consumed by an inexplicable, sadistic longing, I persevered with my struggle against sentences. I kept going as if possessed.

I had no idea Gyu was reading my work. Every morning after I left for work, he went through the blood-stained sentences I had coughed up the night before. Once, late at night, he came into my room drunk. Feeling light-hearted at having finished a long diary entry a couple of days before, I was lying on my back reading over my sentences – not that there was much to call editing. Gyu barged in without knocking, intoxicated. I sat up straight and closed my notebook. Gyu shot me a quick glance and flung himself down on the floor. His breath reeked of alcohol. ‘You went to university and I didn’t. Is that such a big deal? Well, maybe it is, huh? Look here, my dear cousin. What do you think is the most important thing in life? University for you but not me . . . Aren’t you sorry?’ It was difficult to make sense of his drunken rambling. More than anything, I was thoroughly taken aback since he had never said anything like that to me before. But I chose not to attach too much meaning to his words. If there was one thing I had learnt from my years of living as an unwelcome guest, it was that grave situations never worked in my favour. I made a remark about how he must be struggling with his novel, seeing as he had been drinking so much, hoping he would understand that I was trying to cheer him up. It didn’t take me long to realise I was mistaken. He stopped lamenting over his misfortunes. He shut his eyes and clenched his teeth. The room fell into silence and the air turned icy cold. It was suffocating. I gave him an awkward smile.

‘I’ve read your novel. When you left for work in your military uniform I came in here to read your writing from the night before. I felt like a reader of some serialised story. My heart beat faster with excitement. There were even times when I had to gasp for air. And then I decided to quit writing. Well, I realised I didn’t have what it takes. It’s not about what you write and how. All that is important, of course, but that’s not the most fundamental thing. In fact, it doesn’t matter at all. The way your consciousness turns at the very thought of writing . . . Is that what you call a genuine wish of the heart? Something like that anyway. I could see that it mattered, except I didn’t have it. All I’m saying is that I realised it was impossible to write just by sleight of hand. Besides, my sleight-of-hand skills aren’t that impressive anyway . . .’ Gyu let out his usual hearty laugh, which echoed and spread gloom throughout the room. Louder than it would have been at other times, his laugh had a hint of exaggeration. Perhaps it was his loneliness that he was emphasising despite himself. I had hitherto deliberately ignored Gyu’s question – ‘Aren’t you sorry?’ – but now it hammered the back my head. The situation called for me to say something but I could not utter a single word.

When I got back from work the next day, Gyu was nowhere to be seen. My aunt sighed and said he had left home to join a distant relative who was running a small business constructing houses in another district capital. Gyu was on his way there to ‘make a living’. His room had already been cleared out. That night I realised my notebook was missing.

 

*

 

It pained me to see Gyu suffer at the hospital; his face was thin and wan, while his belly was bloated due to excessive fluid in his stomach. The IV line and the rubber tubes that drained the urine from his body looked as if they were tying him down. Even when I got closer to him, his face showed hardly any reaction. I doubted whether Gyu recognised me at all. ‘Honey, Mr. Chang-gi is here to see you’, said his wife. To this, he only responded with a little nod as if to acknowledge my presence. Moments later, he gave an instruction with his eyes, and his wife pulled up the duvet from around his feet to cover his hard, swollen belly. In an attempt to distract myself from his gaunt face that had become so skinny that the cheekbones were now strikingly pronounced, I gently held his hand in mine. His hand felt like a dry twig devoid of all emotions. ‘Hey you, what have you done to yourself . . .’ My words sounded meaningless. There are situations where everything you say becomes meaningless. Even so, you can’t help but cling to meaningless words. In fact, those situations are precisely the times that truly call for meaningless words. To my relief, Gyu’s wife replied. ‘Not a day went by without him hitting the bottle, and he was such a chain smoker too. No matter how much I nagged him, he never bothered to get a medical check-up. He must have thought his body was made of iron. It’s no good talking. I’m guilty of being a bad wife. My in-laws are blaming me, but . . .’ She stopped talking, but I felt like I could take over: But I had a tough time too. My husband never put food on the table. I worked all sorts of odd jobs. On top of everything else, every now and then he would be gone from home for months. I could never find time to go for a medical check- up either.

I knew she had been a health supplements saleswoman, a day care centre teacher, a caretaker for the sick and even a local bus driver – all because Gyu hardly made any money. As a real estate planning consultant, his job was to connect end-users with constructors and oversee property refurbishments. The nature of the business meant there were extreme ups and downs. Once in a while, he might come into a considerable sum of money but other times he could go a year without landing a single 10,000-won bill. In the end, working in that unprofitable industry turned people wasteful and pretentious. To make things worse, Gyu was often out of contact for several months on end. He repeatedly promised that once his various construction projects were completed, he would receive billions of won. In most cases, the construction dragged on, and because he couldn’t pull out halfway through, he invested more and more money in them. Unsurprisingly, he fell into debt. The worst cases were those projects that got suspended. Years passed and still there was no sign of the promised fortune. The problem was that those worst cases occurred frequently. Yet, Gyu just could not bring himself to quit altogether. The huge sum of money he could be getting for the successful completion of just one construction project was too alluring. The dream of hitting the jackpot one day made it possible for him to withstand a series of failures. Almost out of habit, Gyu would talk of twenty million won being paid into his account in a month’s time or fifty million won that he was getting in a couple of months. Months turned into years. ‘At first I knew no better than to wait for the money he mentioned. But now I pay no attention to whatever comes out of his mouth’, Gyu’s wife had said three years ago. As far as I knew, their situation had not improved one bit since then. To pay for food, clothes and their children’s education, she had to do everything she could.

As soon as she stopped talking, her eyes welled up with tears. Gyu closed his eyes, as if to hide his embarrassment. After she stepped outside to get some water, the hospital room fell into silence. The bed on the other side of the two-person room was empty. Suddenly feeling awkward, I let go of his hand. ‘Should we watch TV?’ Gyu nodded. I found the remote control and turned the television on. A comedy programme was showing. I turned the volume down a bit. For some time, I was left to endure moments of discomfort and embarrassment. The air in the hospitable room felt stale and stifling. The stench from Gyu’s medicine and excrement seeped into the air. I could no longer think of anything meaningless to say. I blankly stared at the television, secretly hoping for the speedy return of Gyu’s wife. The comedians on TV talked in loud voices and made exaggerated gestures, but I couldn’t see or hear anything. Gyu was making me uncomfortable. Even before entering the room, I had started hearing his voice in my head, asking, ‘Aren’t you sorry?’ I shouted back at the voice. ‘I never wished for you to disappear, so get up at once!’ Yet, Gyu’s voice was louder than mine. ‘Aren’t you sorry?’ His question muffled my answer.

I thought I heard him say something, so I turned around only to find that his eyes were still closed. Gyu kept his mouth shut tight. His thin and sickly face looked like a lifeless object. Gyu’s wife had explained that he was prone to dozing off in the middle of a conversation, because he had very little energy left in him. Perhaps he had just muttered something in his sleep. Or was he really asking if I was sorry? It crossed my mind that perhaps he did not welcome my visit. In that case, he must have felt as uncomfortable around me as I did around him. Who could say for sure that wasn’t the reason why he kept his eyes and mouth closed? I turned the volume down again. As if short of breath, Gyu opened his mouth and began panting heavily. His jaw was shaking, as was the rest of his body. I grabbed his arm and called out, ‘Are you alright? What can I do for you?’ Gyu raised his hand and made a drinking gesture. The glass I picked up from the bedside table had a straw in it. I held his head up at an angle and put the straw in his mouth. He drank only a tiny bit. But it must have done the job anyway for his breathing seemed to calm down. I was about to let him lie down again but he asked me to help him sit up. I turned the metal wheel attached to the bed frame to raise the top half of the bed. He writhed about in an effort to sit up straight. When I leaned in to hold his waist with both hands, I could feel his breath on my ear. For a brief moment, the idea that he might bite off my ear popped up in my head out of nowhere, sending a chill down my spine. I must have inadvertently poked his body with my clumsy hands. He uttered a sharp cry and his face twisted in a grimace of pain. Not sure what to do next, I quickly let go of him. Gyu rested his head on the pillow and closed his eyes. For a little while, he continued breathing heavily with his face still scrunched up. My mind instantly conjured up some horrific images; I pictured his big, round swollen belly bursting and the slimy, filthy liquid inside it pouring out. The phlegmatic reddish-black fluid would spread all over my face and even stick on the walls like some hideous millipedes. Next, the stains on the wall would turn into grey mould and start decomposing. My face too would become mouldy and putrid. I hastily shook my head to get rid of those images.

‘I enjoyed your latest work, ‘Cassandra’. The one about a doomed soothsayer who is destined to make prophesies no one believes’, said Gyu. I was overcome with vertigo, as though I had been standing under the blazing sun for too long. My vision became blurry and I felt dizzy. ‘You mean you read that story?’ I managed to ask him in a choked voice. ‘Cassandra’ was the title of a short story I had recently published in a quarterly literary journal. It hadn’t yet been a month since its publication, and as with most other literary magazines, the journal had hardly any readers, save for some authors. Was he saying that he read it? His pitiful body was already half conquered by death, and he slipped into unconsciousness several times a day to take a peek into the afterlife. What was he telling me? ‘And you know what else? He hasn’t missed any of your works, Mr. Chang-gi. Even here at the hospital, he asked me get him a copy of that magazine. With his body in that condition, God knows where he gets the energy from.’ The answer came from Gyu’s wife, who had just slipped back unnoticed. ‘You should come around to our house one day. You’ll find every magazine that published your writing, not to mention all your books.’ She adjusted his gown. ‘We even have your debut story that came out twenty years ago’, she added. ‘Do I need to go on?’ Gyu gave us a faint smile.

In the spring of my twenty-fifth year, with ten days left till my discharge from the military, I received news that I had won an award from a literary journal. I was told that my short story, which I’d never submitted in the first place, had won the journal’s New Writer’s Award. Although bewildered at first, I soon figured out what had happened. The day Gyu had left my uncle’s house, my notebook had vanished too. He must have typed up my work and sent it off to the magazine. Just like that I stumbled into a new chapter of my life as a writer. I had never set my heart on writing novels for the rest of my life, which did not change even after I had received the award. All I needed was a diary. I thought that would be enough for me. ‘This is it’, I thought to myself. Before long, I realised I was far from satisfied. There were other things that I wanted to write about in my diary. Some things had to be dealt with more than once, repeatedly yet differently. Eventually, the irony dawned on me: I had to keep a diary precisely because I possessed one. The diary liberated me, but only insofar as I continued writing. Freedom came with its own shackles, and those shackles upheld freedom. Because I was free, I had to be fettered. Since my liberation was to be renewed again and again, I had to be fettered again and again. In due time, I came to accept this as my fate.

I must admit that I consciously tried to turn my back on Gyu for the sake of my soul’s freedom. For instance, I willed myself to believe that he was not the kind to read novels. That I felt the need to cast him out from my mind like that meant I was always conscious of him beyond reason. When writing, I always wondered what Gyu might say about my work. I could easily picture his face. Gyu was always the first to read my sentences, the kind of reader whose thoughts were written on his face. Since it was difficult to discern subtle changes in his facial expressions, I had to channel all my energy into reading his mind. I focused on detecting even the slightest change in his countenance. In the end, I could do as I wished. Some sentences I erased and some I contorted. In other words, Gyu was actually the one doing as he wished. More often than not, my sentences were often written in whatever way he wanted. In fact, the reader was the author.

 

*

The third time I went around to the hospital was five hours after Gyu had woken up from a two-day long hepatic coma. He looked even thinner and paler than before. His speech was so slurred that it was difficult to understand him without paying close attention. ‘Pardon?’ I had to ask again and again. Feeling rude for making him repeat himself several times, I later resorted to nodding and pretending I knew what he was saying. Gyu’s wife was worried that the internal haemorrhage he had suffered might have pumped blood into his brain. According to her, Gyu’s doctor was of the same opinion, though he still did not consider doing anything about it. The doctor was not the only one who had already given up on Gyu.

When I arrived, Gyu’s wife was discussing something with a man sitting next to Gyu’s bed who appeared to be in his mid-forties. She introduced him as her brother. His body underneath the jumper he was wearing looked hard and muscular like that of an athlete. ‘We’ve met before’, he said offering his hand. He had a firm grip. I couldn’t remember when I had seen him before but nodded quickly, mumbling something in agreement. Gyu was lying on his bed with his eyes fixed at the ceiling. His wan face looked somewhat languid. It was the face of a man with no passion or regret left in him. Compared to the two by his bedside who were impatiently ranting about something, he looked oddly calm and relaxed. It nearly made me wonder if he had already departed from this world.

‘So honey, listen to me carefully. You must get up. You really must. I know you will. For me and for our Jun-young. You’ll get through this.’ Gyu’s wife continued talking to him. ‘But then, suppose . . . just suppose you can’t move about and have to stay here for a bit longer. What if you become unconscious like you did yesterday? Then somebody will have to fill your shoes. So please think carefully and tell me. You worked day and night on that project for several years. You said it was nearly finished, didn’t you? Who should I call? How much is your share? How do we get hold of it?’ Her brother more or less echoed her words, though he sounded slightly intimidating when he said, ‘Just trust me, mae-hyeong!’ Gyu’s lips parted a little to let a sound escape. Yet, his words were so inaudible that it was difficult to tell what he was trying to say. ‘What was that?’ asked Gyu’s wife, bringing her face closer to his mouth. Gyu mumbled again. She drew back her face, looking sulky. ‘The same answer again! He doesn’t know what’s gonna happen in the next ten minutes, but still insists that he’ll take care of everything.’ Next, it was her brother’s turn to have a go. While he was talking to Gyu, she turned to me and lamented over her predicament.

For many years, Gyu had been involved in two concurrent construction projects. One of them was nearing completion while the other was due to finish in three or four months’ time. Although he had frequently talked of coming into big money before, it seemed he wasn’t bluffing this time around. To prove her point, she mentioned the four-bedroom apartment in the Songpa-gu district that they had decided to purchase some time ago. In less than a month, they were supposed to leave their rented townhouse in Uijeongbu city that had been their home for ten years, and move into a newly built, spacious apartment in central Seoul. She said the two of them had viewed the apartment together. That meant he was really on the brink of reaping the rewards of all his hard work that had destroyed his health. The money should have been paid into his account by now. ‘He couldn’t have chosen a more perfect time to get sick!’ she cried and immediately tried to read my face, adding what sounded like an excuse: ‘He’s ended up like this after working for it all his life. It’s not fair on him if he dies here.’ She glanced at her brother who was still trying to persuade Gyu and then at her husband who still remained expressionless. ‘Me and Jun-young. How are we gonna survive . . .’ she said in a sullen voice. ‘So just leave it all to me, mae-hyeong’, continued her brother. His voice seemed to be coming from somewhere afar. I wasn’t sure who, but one of them whispered, ‘Those left behind must get on with life.’

Gyu was already no longer among the living. I realised he hadn’t been listening to us for some time. I figured it was for the best. Maybe his claim that he would soon come into a substantial sum of money was true, or maybe it wasn’t. That was important no doubt. Yet to me, it didn’t seem to matter right there and then. The loneliness Gyu must have suffered living in a world where no one understood him became so vivid that it almost felt tangible. As if electrocuted, a shock zapped through my body. Gyu had lived in a world that was neither understandable nor understanding. I vaguely came to realise that the only way for him to survive in this world was to float in the air. To avoid turning into a ghost, the bare minimal form of existence, he had chosen to float. When my thoughts came to this, his face that had thus far only seemed drowsy looked like it was now putting up with humiliation. Unable to fight the heat that erupted at the bottom of my heart, I shouted, ‘Stop it! Just stop it, you two!’ My voice came out as if it had been squashed. I longed to cry on behalf of Gyu’s dry eyes that had never shed a single tear. Perhaps I was trying to shake off the anxiety bubbling up inside me. Perhaps I was only trying to get on with my life. In that respect, my tears were far from innocent. Could I have been the one who had just now mumbled that those of us left behind must get on with life? As I shook my head in denial, I felt a sharp pang in my heart. The room plummeted into silence. The two of them shot me an incredulous look as I teared up, and kept their mouths closed. Moments later, Gyu’s brother-in-law left the room, followed by Gyu’s wife.

Gyu started panting heavily so I filled a cup with water and put the straw in his mouth. The moment our eyes met he tried to say something, but he was incomprehensible. ‘What is it?’ His lips moved again, but I couldn’t hear him properly. Once he got his breathing under control, Gyu pointed at something under the bed. The cardboard box I pulled out contained paper cups, tissue, disposable chopsticks, a fruit knife, socks, tea bags, and towels. He made a gesture with his hand. I understood he wanted me to search for something in the box. One by one, I took out the items and showed them to him. There were other things in the box. I found a ballpoint pen and a newspaper from a few days before. Gyu did not respond to any of them. Right at the bottom of the box, there was a faded envelope. When I held it up, Gyu nodded. I found an old notebook inside. I hadn’t seen it in such a long time that I failed to recognise it at first. Gyu motioned for me to open the notebook. I turned to the first page. My own handwriting, familiar yet long-forgotten, revealed itself like footprints left in fossils from the dim past. The pages were nearly worn out. I grew restless, as if I had just dug out a sin buried deep in the ground. He had been holding on to it all this time. Why did he keep my notebook? The thought that I had buried it in Gyu’s heart in order to forget and move on sat heavily on my mind. ‘What have I done to you?’ I groaned. I had done nothing wrong. Yet, if someone suffered because of me, was it fair to say that I had done nothing wrong? He spoke once more. Again, his words were inaudible, but I figured out what he was asking. ‘Read this?’ I asked him for confirmation. I looked down at his face. He stared back at me as if to hurry me on. Come to think of it, he had always been my one and only reader. It occurred to me that all my sentences had been written for his reading. I opened the notebook and began reading the very first sentences I had written. My hands were shaking and so was my voice.

One summer’s day, I stole a 1,000-won bill from my father’s wallet to buy myself an ice lolly. At first, I had no doubt that he would never find out. It wasn’t like there was only one 1,000-won bill. There were five after all. How could he notice one missing out of five? My father was not that meticulous, was he? So I took the money, ran to the store, and at last put a sweet, cold ice lolly in my mouth. The whole time I was fully convinced my crime would go unnoticed. That firm conviction had sprung from my desire. I had been longing to taste a sweet, cold ice lolly in my mouth so desperately that my desire had overpowered all other concerns. As the ice lolly got smaller, revealing the stick hidden within, my fear and anxiety slowly returned. In no time, my confidence melted away like an ice lolly.

In tandem with my awkward reading, his mouth opened and closed ever so slightly. It was evident that he knew the sentences by heart. I became frightened. I felt like I was committing a sin. The sentences I was reading didn’t seem to be mine anymore. His voice faded and his lips stopped quivering. His eyes were closed. He was asleep. Yet, I continued reading my sentences for him while he slept. Tears filled my eyes. They fell on the notebook and blotched the pages. I kept reading to the end. I was desperate. I never got to say sorry

 

 

 

[About the Book]

This story is from the short story collection The Old Diary (Changbi, 2008) by Lee Seung-U, which explore themes such as sins unconsciously committed or the repayment of debts.

In the title story, the narrator keeps a diary to rid himself of guilt after his father’s death. The story reveals how writing a novel (or writing in general) is a reflective process that addresses some of the most profound existentialist issues in modern society.

The question of guilt or ethics takes on a religious dimension here as it does in much of Lee’s work. In “Whatever Happens, No Matter What,” the protagonist is unable to withstand the violence prevalent in the world and is confined to a rehabilitation center where he spends his days prostrate on the floor. His family considers him a burden, with his father calling him his “cross.” Only his elder sister realizes that the protagonist perhaps bears the weight of his family and the whole world on his back as he lies prostrate on the floor.

“The Room” is the story of a man who falls out with his wife after bringing his ailing aunt home to live with them. His wife moves to the States with their son in tow, turning him into a long-distance father. After selling his home and quitting his job in order to become a full-time writer, he rents a room in his now vacant former home as his work studio. There, in the space he thought he would be familiar with, he encounters a hitherto hidden space.

“The House of Others” is the story of a man whose home is taken over by his father-in-law on the pretext of the man’s marital discord. He is thus forced to sleep at the public sauna. By chance, he ends up living at the long-vacant house of a woman he broke up with six years ago. There, he finds that absence and death fill the house.

“Missing Case” is based on a real-life subway fire tragedy. The protagonist lends his down payment to a close neighbor couple, but they make off with the money. Over time, the cheap piece of land he’d received from them as collateral exponentially increases in value, more than compensating him for the loss. Many years later, as he’s watching news on TV of a subway fire in another city, he catches sight of his neighbor’s wife wailing onscreen. With mixed feelings, he prepares to offer them condolence money and visits the city. There, his sense of debt is resolved in an unexpected manner when he encounters a surprising truth.

“A Journey to Jeongnamjin Part 1” starts with a phone call the narrator receives from an ex-girlfriend from the past. She suggests they travel to Jeongnamjin together just as she had three years ago, as if nothing has happened in the interim. The protagonist declines and a few days later he hears news of her death. Overcome, he heads to Jeongnamjin. There he meets the protagonist of “Sky Burial: Jeongnamjin Part 2,” who has also returned to his hometown to deal with hard-to-face truths.

Lee’s writing exposes uncomfortable truths hidden under layers of accumulated memories. We must come face to face with the violence we have or may have unconsciously inflicted upon others. However, at the same time, we must forget or ignore such sins in order to survive. The Old Diary can be seen as the author’s confession of our reality that makes us numb to the absurdity found in everyday life.

 

The Old Diary (Changbi, 2008)

Author's Profile

Lee Seung-U, a former student of theology, made his literary debut in 1981 with the novella A Portrait of Erysichthon. Throughout his career, Lee has maintained an interest in theological and metaphysical issues, which is reflected in his writing style that meticulously depicts the inner workings of the human soul. His works deal with questions about morals arising in quotidian life as well as more universal issues concerning God, salvation, and guilt. In particular, Lee’s novels since 2000 have inquired into the meaning of reality and the everyday, thereby bringing together the sacred and the secular, and the mind and the body. Published translations of his books include The Reverse Side of Life (Peter Owen, 2005), La vie rêvée des plantes (Gallimard, 2009), Ici comme ailleurs (Gallimard, 2013), and The Private Life of Plants (Dalkey Archive, 2015).