I think the time has finally come when I can try to explain what happened that winter, all those years ago. I’m well past thirty now, and I’ve got a family I have to provide for; so every morning I go out to work, wearing a suit and really looking quite respectable. At last I have come to realize that all our feelings need to be filtered over and over again, and that fine phrases achieved by exaggeration, or misrepresentation, are nothing at all to be proud of.
It was more than ten years ago. For a couple of months during the winter that year I found myself working at a rural inn in a remote mountain village in the northern part of Kyongsang Province, employed as a pang-wu. In the old days, Pang-wu was a boy’s name, common enough among country folk, but by that time it was simply used as a nickname for any general handyman or lackey.
Needless to say, I did not originally quit school and leave home just to go and work as a pang-wu in that godforsaken spot. When I first set out, I headed for Kangwon Province, farther north, intending to get work in the coal mines there. But in those days people were having a hard enough time earning a living, and it was no easy matter for a nondescript scruff from nowhere, like me, to find a job at all. In the end I only once got a chance to go down a mine—a privately owned one; it was appalling. A private mine, well, you can still find magazine articles about such places, so you can imagine what things were like ten years ago. On my first day underground, I saw the supporting wall of one gallery collapse on two men, burying them alive before my very eyes. I was so horrified, I gave up the idea of becoming a miner, once and for all. As a matter of fact, in one corner of my little traveling bag I was carrying a bottle with some pills that would have finished me off in a couple of minutes, and intellectually I had always lived on what you might call intimate terms with death. But I could not endure the idea of dying like that.
So I headed southward, until I came to a tiny fishing village out on the east coast, where I had a vague idea of getting work on board a fishing boat. Again, things didn’t work out. I spent ten days hanging around by the docks/piers; the village men scraped together a living by fishing close inshore on small narrow boats, but not one of them so much as glanced at me. Once, I plucked up all my courage and spoke to the pirate-faced owner of one antiquated motorboat, asking if he had any work for me. But he began to mock me openly, observing first my pale face, then my uncallused hands:
“My! What a fine family you must come from! You get straight back home to your books, sonny. Why, you’d be bringing up your last new year’s dinner before we were a mile out from port!”
I had no choice. I left there and headed blindly inland. I still remember the bright autumn leaves and the deep blue of the sky above me as I went climbing stubbornly over nameless hilltop passes. I walked for five whole days, taking paths without knowing where I was or where they would lead, until at last I reached that inn.
I paid for my first night’s stay there with the last of my money and, after ordering wine and drinking until I was half-drunk, I fell asleep as if I had not a care in the world. But when I woke up the next morning, everything looked decidedly grim. Here I was, in a totally strange place, without a penny to my name. There was no other solution: I asked the innkeeper, who looked kindhearted enough, to help me find some sort of job in the neighborhood, and in the end he took me on himself. Not with any kind of regular pay, mind you, just room and board, with expenses and a bit of pocket money. I accepted, because really I was in no position to say anything one way or another. Thinking of the work I was going to have to do, I couldn’t say I was getting a bad deal.
Now, if I seriously intend to get to the bottom of what happened to me that winter, I shall have to ask what was going on in my mind between the moment when I first left Seoul and my arrival at that place. The idea that I might be able to work as a miner, or on a fishing boat for that matter, was really quite ridiculous; yet such had been my intention from the moment I first set out from home. So I must admit that I was not being completely rational, but that does not mean that there is absolutely no explanation for the evolution of my feelings.
As I have already implied, there had certainly been no clear intellectual motivation underlying my departure; it had been provoked mainly by a feeling of emptiness, a kind of despair deriving from the fatigues and confusions of two years at university, brought to a head by the death of a close friend. Everything had got blown out of all proportion—it seemed to me at times that life was asking me to make some kind of radical decision: either hurl away its bitter cup, for example, or ignore the bitterness and go on drinking from it. That kind of stuff. The idea of an ultimate radical decision was excessively emotional, of course, but I can’t help feeling that the fact I was only twenty at the time excuses me at least in part.
Besides, there was another, vaguely optimistic side of me which felt that the difficulties I was going through were something that everyone has to face once in a lifetime; in that case, the confusion and fatigue would one day be overcome. Once they were things of the past, they would turn into precious youthful experience. Maybe even my idea of becoming a miner or fisherman should be seen as an attempt to move in the direction of some such optimism. I had an inkling that my dreadful confusion was the result of having been too long dependent on empty speculation; at the same time, I was aware that the brain achieves its best repose when the body is hard at work. My departure, then, was no desperate plunge into some over-hasty conclusion about life, but rather the recognition of a need to give my mind time to rest while I was sweating away at hard work, so that afterward I might be better equipped to find some kind of clue to the real form my life should take.
I suspect that another reason why I drove myself toward hard, rough work and extreme situations lies in the delights of that kind of self-torment that is so easily mistaken for self-discipline. In other words, if I drove myself as I did, perhaps it was not really from a wish to confront life, but rather in the hope of finding an alibi, by maximizing misery and pain, that would absolve my past failings. Or did I intend to provoke a crisis that would draw out my latent capabilities?
I must confess, though, that I have had these thoughts only very recently; at the time, I was completely dominated by a feeling of apathy and indifference. I tried to avoid anything that might demand too much attention, or provoke thoughts that I would find it hard to cope with. There were moments when I let myself sink into a completely soporific state of silence and inaction, suggestive of total imbecility. So I suppose it was my apathy and indifference, rather than any urgent financial need, that explain why I accepted so unresistingly that job as pang-wu in a village tavern—a job which, if we are talking about degradation, may seem like the ultimate in degradation.
The tavern was almost too big for a small provincial town. It had nine rooms in all, and normally served as an ordinary guesthouse for travelers. On “special” occasions, though, it became something else: a rural bordello with a girl on duty in every room. My main task every day was to ensure that the oil lamps hanging in the nine rooms would burn properly that night; I also had to make sure that the floors were kept heated. In addition, I was supposed to sweep the courtyard, all two hundred square yards of it, carry in drinks, take orders to the brewhouse, and so on. In actual fact, the yard was usually swept by the landlord himself—he was a bundle of energy—drinks were always carried up to the rooms by the six or seven serving girls, and one of the men employed at the inn knew the brewhouse family well, so there was no need for me to go panting there and back.
Even so, the work was very hard to begin with, and it took all my time. First, every day the thick soot had to be cleaned from the globes of the nine lamps; it was just as arduous to trim the wicks so that they wouldn’t smoke when they were turned up to give a bright light in the rooms. It was no easy matter to split the logs—carted down from the nearby hills—into firewood to heat the floors of the nine rooms. On days when the logs brought down weren’t dry enough, finding good kindling was an extra worry, and by the time I had all nine fires going properly, burning dead pine needles to dry out the damp wood, it was always past midnight.
Still, there’s a method to everything, and within a month I had got used to it all; indeed I was enjoying my work and had become quite proud of my skills.
Those lamps had burned late into the night, sometimes casting their brightness over scenes of riotous merry-making, with all the intoxication, passion, and emptiness that go with that, so by the time I had washed off the heavy layer of soot with warm soapy water, then rinsed the globes in clear water, wiped them dry and polished them bright with a cloth, I too would begin to feel cleaner and brighter. When the moment came to light the wicks, carefully prepared so that the flame would not smoke or crack the glass, the sight of the regular flame burning inside the clean globe gave me a feeling not unlike that an artist derives from the completion of a laboriously created work of art.
It was the same with heating the rooms. In preparing the firewood, I was never stingy or careless. Every day I chose six logs from the pile brought down from the hills and dumped them at one edge of the wide yard. Three crooked and full of knots, three straight-grained and regular, ready to split with a single blow of the hatchet; first I would saw them into lengths of about fifteen inches, then, stripping to my shirt, I would begin to chop them into firewood in the pale winter afternoon sunlight.
There was a pleasure in splitting the straight-grained logs of red pine with a single stroke of the ax, to be sure, but even now I cannot forget the intense satisfaction that came from cleaving at one blow those roots of young pine brushwood, all twisted and full of holes, after careful scrutiny. But the most impressive task of all was using that firewood to light the fires. I wonder what I used to look like to people who saw me? Did anyone ever realize that I felt as if I was celebrating a solemn ritual of fire-worship?
At nightfall, after an early supper, once the lamps were lit in the nine rooms, I would lay an armful of firewood by the fire-hole outside each of the rooms; then I would set out on a pilgrimage, visiting each shrine in turn, clasping some sheets of newspaper and two large bottles.
One bottle would be full of wine, the other of paraffin. The wine I used to take from the big jar that was always kept brimming full in the kitchen—my employers were not very fussy about such things. The paraffin I used to buy with some of the pocket money they provided, it was my solution to the endless problem of getting the fires to catch.
By the time I completed the rounds of all nine hearths, both bottles were usually empty. Likewise the pockets of my jacket, which I had stuffed full of dried fish and other delicacies from the kitchen to nibble as I drank. Then, full and content, I would go and lie down in the little room allotted to me. Sometimes, if I felt particularly cheerful, I might return to the kitchen and knock back a few more glasses, but more often than not I would either fall asleep at once, or lie there gazing absently at the reflections of the flames still dancing before my eyes.
To tell the truth, if I ever have the chance I intend to study Zoroastrianism. There in front of my nine hearths each day I felt quite sure that I was contemplating the shadows of the gods of the Fire-worshippers, the god of Good and the god of Evil, despite the silence they kept. I witnessed solemn rites of purification and sacrifice too, and as the flames spread, then died, I felt that something was being brought back to life in me, rekindled. I like to think that it was perhaps the fire’s sacred powers that gave me the inexplicable sense of peace and contentment I felt then, as I murmured, “If this is eternity, all will be well!”
Now I must mention that “special” occasion. The quiet country inn was suddenly turned into a kisaeng-house, with nine private suites, at least half a dozen girls, and dozens of visitors every day. All through the spring and summer, the house had been almost totally empty, only occasionally welcoming a chance visitor or two: a scribe from the mountain regions, or a newly appointed schoolmaster who had not yet found lodgings of his own; but as the late autumn winds began to blow, the place came alive.
First the courtyard flowerbeds, which had been left neglected since the summer, were tidied up; then the shabby walls, the peeling corner-posts and main gateway were refurbished. Next the stained and tattered paper covering the latticework of the sliding doors was all replaced, together with the wallpaper and floor coverings. Finally, rough curtains were draped across the peepholes in the doors.
Once all these renovations were complete, there were other preparations to be made. The landlord went as far as D. to fetch girls; his wife went to nearby A. to purchase high-quality delicacies, things you wouldn’t find even in the big city kisaeng-houses. During the period in question, the inn was completely closed to other guests. Once all the preparations were complete, we opened our doors to a small group of privileged government officials known as “the inspectors.”
It may seem odd that the arrival of a handful of officials should require so many rooms, and girls, to say nothing of a cartload of high-class delicacies every week. I myself could not understand all the owners’ hustle and bustle when I first witnessed it, just after my arrival at the inn. But then the inspectors arrived, and I soon began to understand. You see, these officials were going to weigh and evaluate the quality of the leaf tobacco which was the area’s main crop. The population of the place was upward of ten thousand at that time, but the annual revenue was in the region of seven hundred million won or so. When you remember what things were like ten years ago, you will realize that the tobacco was a source of enormous wealth for the whole area.
Now, the judgment of the quality of the tobacco depended entirely on the inspector’s naked eye. Of course, I suppose there must have been some kind of standards laid down to guide them, but you could not expect mechanical precision. A margin of one or two points in either direction might depend on the official’s state of mind. And that margin could not really be regulated; there was no accountability.
Yet that couple of points could make all the difference to the farmers. It was enough to make their crop either an enormous success with a big profit, or a failure. The weighing, too, had its influence on the final profit. There was a fixed norm, of course, but all the bundles of leaves were not absolutely the same weight, so that allowances had to be made which varied according to the person doing the weighing. From what I heard, whether the inspection was done well or badly could make a difference of up to a hundred thousand won to an average family. In those days a full year’s tuition at a private university only cost fifty thousand won; wouldn’t you have tried to influence the outcome?
I am sure things have changed now, but in those days the people living there had basically two channels through which they might try to bribe the inspectors. One involved the committee of the Tobacco Growers’ Association, but that was often ineffectual, there were too many delegates, the secret might easily become public. The alternative method was both discreet and sure, involving as it did only the landlord of the inn. That was the reason why his establishment was so full of high living during those special occasions.
I still remember it all quite clearly: the daily drinking parties echoing with the women’s flirtatious laughter, and the sight of the government officials besieged by obsequious farmers. Two of the inspectors, one A and a certain B, lorded it up like great emperors. Later, when I happened to find out how low down on the administrative scale they really were, I was quite scandalized.
Still, I hope the reader will not get me wrong. Certainly those men acted insolently and arrogantly toward me, so that I harbor a real animosity toward them; but I am not writing to bring their past misdeeds to light.
My most unforgettable memories of that place are all connected with the girls. They were lovely, but often they looked so wretched and lonely. They came from various places.
The landlord of the inn claimed to have found them through an employment agency at D., but the girls all came from different regions and towns. If there was one who came from an island in the south, another was from a remote mountain village in the north; if there was one who had been driven off an American base, another was a semi-intellectual dropout from a technical college.
In all, about a dozen women came to work at the inn during the two months I spent there. The life they led was superficially full of gaiety, but they inspired pity at the same time. Early in the evening, when they were dressed in their elegant billowing silk skirts and blouses, moving lightly like bright swallows, wearing tasteful makeup, those girls looked really beautiful. When they were moderately drunk, and excitedly deciding which popular song to sing, or bursting into screams of laughter, I somehow felt that life could even be fun. When the girl who was particularly popular with inspectors A and B began to pull out 500-won notes from her blouse or slippers, thanks to the farmers’ method of indirect bribery, I would even go so far as to reflect that some jobs are not so bad after all.
But when I witnessed the insults that the girls had to take from insistent guests, completely naked, or saw them lying unconscious after vomiting up the mixture of drinks they had been forced to swallow, the only thing I felt then was pity. It was always a challenge to see them when they came in late the next morning after washing their faces. Their skin showed tints of blue or flushes of scarlet, from all the drink and the cheap makeup they used.
None of those girls ever ate any breakfast; then at lunch they would make do with a bowl of noodles, or some rice mixed with vegetables. And nobody would eat anything at suppertime, either. I was appalled when I found out why. They didn’t eat so that they could get through more of the expensive drinks and delicacies in the guests’ rooms later. It was a trick they had learned from the harsh brothelkeepers of the cities, and it had stuck with them like an unwritten law. It played havoc with their digestive systems, so that at times they produced the most dreadful retching sounds.
I remember one incident: there was a very young girl, called Miss Kim, who was the current favorite of inspector A; one day we had just sat down to a late lunch when inspector A suddenly called for her. She had mixed an appetizing bowl of rice with vegetables and was about to take the first spoonful when the message came. She put the spoon back in the bowl and went across to the inspector’s room.
Scarcely ten minutes later she came back, her dress disheveled. She picked up her spoon and threw it down noisily, swore, “Son of a bitch!” and spat; her eyes were full of tears. A few five-hundred-won notes were still peeking out of the sweater pocket they had been stuffed into, as if to mock the kind of girl she was. For some reason, I felt a pricking in my nose, my throat constricted, and I put my spoon down.
One of the women couldn’t sleep at nights because her breasts were swollen with milk; she had been obliged to leave her nursing baby at home when she came to work at the inn. Another went down to A. every Sunday to visit her husband in the army. Then there was the girl who cried every night because she missed the young brothers she had left behind with her stepmother. All those sad memories . . . And there was a woman whose whole body was covered with whip scars and cigarette burns; but she couldn’t forget the man who had abused her, so that when she got drunk she would grab someone and pour out all her woes late into the night. The thought of that woman’s infatuation still brings tears to my eyes.
I have other memories, too, of course. I remember how the local people, who had come into big money thanks to the tobacco they grew in poor fields that had previously been good for nothing but millet or maize, would spend money like crazy, while good-for-nothing big shots who had once been mere lumber-thieves went swaggering around. I shall never forget how some spent all day playing mah-jongg feverishly in back rooms. A few were so obsessed with scoring chen-pa-wan and pen-chi-tung that when they were finally arrested for gambling, the police couldn’t fingerprint them because their fingers had been polished smooth by the tiles. Then there was a group of unpaid resident journalists who came flocking around like mosquitoes, all the fantastically minded members of the Journalists’ Association, local bureau chiefs of big national papers which in our town were lucky if they sold a hundred copies all told . . . But that’s enough of that. I’m in no position to blame or pity any of them; and besides, this isn’t about them, either.
All together, the first weeks of my life there were pleasant enough. The most agreeable thing as far as I was concerned was the fact that I was earning my living with my own two hands. True, I had sometimes supported myself before, but that winter’s experience was new and special for me.
What made my life there even more pleasant was that nothing demanded too much attention or provoked thoughts that I found hard to cope with. I admit I’ve painted a pretty lively picture of the tobacco inspectors, the girls, and the farmers, but in actual fact, it has taken an immense effort to bring them all back from the dark corners of the distant past. Besides, at the period I am writing about, they were only pale shadows flitting to and fro somewhere outside the walls of my apathy and indifference.
Things could not go on like that indefinitely, though, and before two months had passed, I began to hear two contradictory voices within me, both trying to rouse me from the hibernation I had fallen into.
One was sly and insinuating:
“You left home and school as if you were setting out on some tremendous quest for truth, and you’ve spent a couple of months wandering around looking solemn and earnest. Now what? Have you got to the roots of that feeling of emptiness and despair that you said kept pursuing you? Have you advanced even one step in the direction of that so-called decision you kept insisting that you wanted to make? Aren’t you just masking your cowardice and indecision under some kind of superficial self-torment? Isn’t this life you’re enjoying so much merely running away, aren’t you putting things off?”
While the other voice would murmur in melancholy tones:
“It may be that your decision to leave home was courageous and justified. You rejected all the ready-made values that the world accepts, and you set out because you wanted to find and verify for yourself another set of principles. But surely you’re wasting your youth and your talents here in this crazy dump? Don’t you realize that at this very moment you’re being overtaken by a whole lot of kids, all smarter and nimbler than you are?”
I first heard those voices one morning on waking early with a burning thirst provoked by the previous night’s excessive drinking, and they grew sharper as the days went by.
Before that, for some time two people had already been compelling me to think about moving on from there.
One was a newly arrived girl, Miss Yun. She was pleasant enough to look at, and when she had a moment she used to scribble the words of popular songs into a thick notebook she kept; but she was always pestering me with her incredible fantasies:
“You’re a poet, Pang-wu, aren’t you? I know all about you. You used to live in a big city, didn’t you? You went to university, too, didn’t you? I know all about you. You might not believe me, but I used to have a lover just like you. But we’ve broken up now, it was better for both of us, we loved each other too much.”
That was usually how it went; and that simple-looking girl, for whom pop lyrics seemed just right, was forever pestering me. Sometimes she would rummage through my bag while I was out. At other times, when she emerged from a guest’s room, she would follow me while I was lighting the fires. If I said nothing, she would get angry, claiming that I was insulting her. But if I was foolish enough to respond, her unbridled imagination would go leaping higher than ever: “Your father’s the head of a big company, isn’t he? The girl you loved died of leukemia, didn’t she?” She used to drive me almost crazy.
The other problem was the deputy head of the police, with his thick chin and protruding eyes. For some reason or other, he began to take an intense interest in me, after first noticing me one day during a chance visit to the inn. He was an incomparable nuisance. Somehow he convinced himself that I was a desperate criminal and that I had done something serious enough that my capture would earn him a long-overdue promotion. I was called to the police station several times, and it was so intolerable that in the end I produced my student identity card. But that only fired his enthusiasm. How many student demonstrations had I been involved in? What anti-government organizations was I part of? Wasn’t I connected with the XX Party that was currently going through the courts? . . . It was infuriating.
So I decided to leave that place. One morning, as the frost sparkled on the branches of the persimmon tree next door, I bade a brief farewell to my employer at the inn, nobody else, and walked briskly out of the town.
There is only one other thing to mention in my recollections of that spot, and that is my strange parting from Miss Yun. I had already gone a couple of miles when I heard a voice calling me from behind. It was Miss Yun, who had somehow learned of my departure. She ran up, panting, and I am sure she would have flung her arms around me if I had not deliberately adopted a hostile expression. Abruptly holding out something wrapped in pretty paper, she said:
“It’s a handkerchief. I had it all ready for you. I knew you’d be leaving soon.”
She paused, then added in a sad voice, “That man wasn’t really a poet. He was a swindler, he beat me up and took all my money. I did so want to love a poet. Will you remember me for a long, long time?”
The girl’s eyes were moist, and that was the only time I felt she did not look stupid. When I think about it now, I rather wonder if she was not a poet herself.
Copyright © by Yi Mun-yol, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC. Translation © 2014 by Brother Anthony of Taizé. All rights reserved.