On the Road with the Indricotherium
- onSeptember 4, 2018
- Vol.41 Autumn 2018
- byPark Min-gyu
As luck would have it, I received the request to write this essay in summer.
And so I thought of Jung Young Su’s short story, “Traces of Summer.” I pulled out his book for a look and the first line of the story caught my eye—Our lives just happen by chance. It felt unfamiliar. I closed the book. In the time since I had read the story, the line had completely slipped my mind. But the story lingered, like a majestic landscape painting. Should I read it again? I deliberated for a moment, then quietly put the book back in its place on the shelf. There are stories like that. Stories that, because of their intense first impression, wear out little by little with each reading. Maybe this is one of those stories, I told myself. I did not want to tarnish that particular painting I treasured . . . no matter if I forgot all its sentences.
Like stills from a short motion picture, the story’s plot lives on in my head. A divorced man. A trip to Japan. Waseda University. Elementary Korean language classes. A Japanese college girl. Her boyfriend. An outing. A museum of natural history. A bookstore. The ex-wife . . . The characters in this story spend a summer tracing lives conceivable anywhere in the world, even South Korea. Rather than focusing on the meaning or an event, the narrative unfolds in an ordinary, universal way on an earth that’s simply going about its circumvolution of the sun, in a certain spot on its surface where people live . . . and part with a goodbye with no guarantee they’ll meet again, then meet by accident, and suffer, and live. And as if to argue that there are plenty of such lives, plenty of such stories, Jung completes his landscape of the ordinary meticulously, without distortion. It’s true. There are plenty of such stories. But there’s a wonderful device in “Traces of Summer” that transforms its trajectory—a Cenozoic-era creature the protagonist encounters in a museum of natural history. Or more precisely, its bones.
The Indricotherium, the largest mammal to walk the earth, lived from the early Oligocene to the late Miocene epoch of the Cenozoic era. Height 5–7 meters, length 7 meters. There are animals that you can’t believe exist until you see them with your own eyes. The Indricotherium would be the epitome of such animals. At the end of the story, Jung gathers the characters in front of an Indricotherium fossil in a museum in a realistic way (but of course, since it’s all real). On an earth that’s going about its circumvolution of the sun, in a certain spot on its surface where people live . . . and part with a goodbye with no guarantee they’ll meet again, then meet by accident, and suffer, and live . . . and spend the summer, because they have to, the characters stand in front of the Indricotherium. And as I read that ending,
I felt the surrounding air turn into a layer of rock.
That’s the kind of magic Jung gifts us. Those things . . . they probably thought they would be around forever, too. Whether the self-realization in this line, which from what I recall is spoken by the ex-wife, is accidental or inevitable is probably unimportant. At that moment in the story, I imagined a crowd of Indricotherium peering at a human fossil, a house-hunting Indricotherium on a subway ride . . . or a herd of humans strolling through a grass prairie in the Cenozoic era, bags slung over shoulders . . . or life forms in the distant future, which we don’t have the authority to name, browsing books in their bookstores to identify ancient creatures. It was a fresh shock. And, above all, that their god and our god is the same . . . that all these moments are the same . . . that our time is a layer of chances . . .
. . . I could picture it all.
I think, once in a while every summer, I’ll be reminded of this story. It may become a fossil with the passing of time, but even if I were to forget all the sentences that make up its flesh, I think the painting that “Traces of Summer” has gifted me with will still be standing in a corner of the museum of my memory. It will probably be summer again when I look at it next time. Because like the story’s first line I had forgotten, life is an inevitability made up of chances.
Translated by Agnel Joseph