|Illustration by Do Dung
by Ho Anh Thai
I was less than enthusiastic when I found out that he had been asked by the organizers to introduce me at the reading of my newly-released book. A famous Korean writer in his eighties, still vigorous in spite of his age, he and his wife made an appearance at every international writers' forum, the old couple walking in together, leaning on each other. His wife would then patiently stand guard over him when he slept, pressing his nostrils close if he snored. I saw that myself once, at an international conference of writers in Sweden.
How could he be master of ceremony for my reading if he was going to fall sleep like that? But it had been arranged that each foreign writer who had come to participate in the festival in Korea was to be introduced by a local writer. It would not be convenient if I asked to replace him with another writer. So I had to accept it.
My concern came true immediately. Straight off, he declared, "Sorry ladies and gentlemen, I have sleeping sickness, and I must beg your pardon and go to sleep in a few minutes. But my colleague here will talk with you, he's a fellow author who has joined us from Vietnam, and he's always awake".
The old writer was still able to joke.
Ten minutes later, when I turned to look at him, he had shut his eyes and rested his chin on his chest, though the sitting position he maintained was rather dignified. His old-man's spectacles hid the disrespect of his closed eyes.
Leaving me to struggle alone for about two hours in front of an auditorium containing several hundred readers. If he had been awake he could have helped to lead the discussion with suggestions and introductions and comments on quotations from my book, as well as shooting out half a dozen decoy questions to me as a stimulus to attract the audience to participate. He could have. He should have. If he had not been sleeping. Instead he put the whole sweaty burden on me. Real sweat. Just me and a simultaneous interpreter located in a cubicle somewhere off in a corner of the auditorium. Her translation from Korean to English came to me through a set of earphones; my remarks were translated back to the audience. We would like to know if Vietnamese writers can write what they are thinking? That question was OK. Korea and Vietnam have shared the situation of being a country divided into two parts; is this theme emphasized in your country's literature? That question was OK. Only several works of Vietnamese literature have been translated into Korean and I have come here out of curiosity, so can you please tell give me an overview of contemporary Vietnamese literature. That question was also OK. Please tell me what you think of a writer who has stated that everything he has written has been fabricated...
Meanwhile, the sleeper had finished his forty minute nap. He stretched out his hand, turned off the microphone in front of me and spoke into my ear: "Look, readers often ask stupid questions".
He added, in a whisper: "You know, I myself have never agreed to meet with them".
For a long time after the presentation ended, I still had to sit there and sign books. Meanwhile he completed two more sleeping shifts. After the second time, his wife took his hand and led him out of the auditorium. I was left sitting and signing, my expression surely distracted by his words, which stayed in my mind: he never met with readers. So why did he accept the organizers' invitation to sit in at my reading?
Then I understood. It was thanks to him that my book release was so crowded. He was a household name in Korea and elsewhere; everyone knew his work. Art films based on his novels were resoundingly successful at international film festivals. The audience had come to see the internationally famed writer. He was also popular because of his sleeping sickness. Everybody wanted to see him sleeping.
That afternoon, at Incheon port, he pointed at a small island in the bay, right before us. This was Wolmi island. In 1950 the American general Douglas McArthur led the United Nations troops which attacked the North Korean troops and pushed them back to the North. I said, then I have to go there. That man of eighty years briskly led me to the island. Fortunately he did not sleep on the way. At the foot of the hill, one had to step over a knee-level metal barrier. But he could not raise his legs. They could only worked horizontally, his knees too stiff or overdosed with uric acid. His eighty-year-old wife had to sit down, grab his leg at the ankle, lift it up over the barrier, steady him, and then repeat the procedure with his other leg in order to get him to complete the task. And there he was. Sixty years ago an American general had landed. Sixty years later came a second landing, this time by a writer.
He told me that last year he visited Japan and was invited to the house of a Japanese colleague, also a writer who likes his personal freedom and dislikes receiving readers into his private life. However, Mr. Japanese had invited Mr. Korean to his home. At the threshold, when the two men bowed to greet each other, the first words Mr. Japanese said were: I am sorry for what the Japanese did in your country in the war.
He finished the story and said, I'm stopping here: my landing will end just at the foot of the mountain. But your landing, son, must be up there, on the peak. He truly called me son.
I was about to climb uphill when he abruptly said, I am sorry as well for what the Koreans did in the Vietnam war. I stopped. He stopped as well. His wife looked at him as if she was ready to help him up if he suddenly shut his eyes and went to sleep. Go on uphill, son, he said.
His wife looked at him in the same way she had during the evening banquet, held by the mayor in honor of the writers. The meal had been served in the traditional style, with the diners sitting cross-legged on the floor. He had no sooner taken a few spoons of soup than he dropped the spoon in the bowl, his chin went down to his chest, and he leaned against the wall, fast sleep. His wife gentled patted his lips with a napkin, and lightly tapped on his hands as if lulling him to deeper sleep. My perverse imagination made me wonder who would be by his side to lull him to sleep if she died first.
Two days later, the writers were taken to visit Hadong, a word which means "east of the river". The Seomjingang river, from its source, flowed down twenty five kilometers to Hadong province, and on its banks was a long strip of brightly pink cherry blossoms. The organizing committee of the international literary forum thoughtfully chose that time at the end of April, cherry blossom season, for the foreign writers' enjoyment. Mount Jirisan, which has long been a subject in Korean literature, in poetry, music and the arts, now was covered by a pink canopy of cherry blossoms. While the Japanese cherry flower is pure, the Korean cherry flower is warm. Whenever cherry blossoms are mentioned, people usually just think of the Japanese variety. This has created one more task for the Ministry of Propagation of the Korean Image, an institution that has become very dynamic over the last years.
The writers were brought into a complex of Korean pagodas, originally built for the monks and their adherents, but now set up to also accommodate tourists
The tourists could stay several days, or up to a week or ten days. They would be entertained with a folk music evening, performed by the singers with half a dozen musical instruments. At three o'clock in the morning, they would rise and listen to the verses of the Buddha's teachings, and then practice meditation under the guidance of the monks. In the morning, they would join in doing the pagoda's work as their contribution to the pagoda.
I went with the writers, lugging my backpack uphill. The old writer and his wife stayed in a pagoda at the foot of the mountain. From the foot of the mountain up, I could count nine pagodas scattered around the complex. One had to climb about a hundred of stone steps from one pagoda to another. The pagodas mistily appeared and disappeared in the forest of cherry and...
... strawberry trees. In front of every room, there was a basket of strawberries left by the monks as a welcoming gesture. The strawberries were big as peaches, ripe and bright red. The tourists were given pale blue clothes to wear. And now they all looked like they belonged to the pagodas.
The night was chilly. The temperature outside dropped down to under ten degrees Celsius. But it was very hot in the room, the heat emanating from the wooden floor. It became so hot that one could not lie on it for long. We even tried to cover the wood with a thin blanket, but still it remained too warm, so we layered it with our extra clothes to lessen the heat, joking to ourselves that tomorrow the monks would have to come into every room to drag out every tourist, and then lay them side by side like baked fish. I went out and sat in front of my room, covered from head to toes with a blanket, my hand placed on the strawberry basket to feel the night chill. Now I understood why the monks did not leave the strawberry basket inside the room.
So cocooned in the blanket, I went around the guest house. There I found the traditional Korean heating system and the reason the wooden floor had gotten so hot. The house was built about one meter higher than the courtyard and under the base there was a narrow tunnel, zigzagging under the rooms. The heat blew through the tunnel, wormed its way through the lanes and so heated the floor. A stove of coal or wood logs provided the heat source for the tunnel.
Early in the morning, after listening to the Buddha's teachings and meditating, I went downhill to welcome the dawn with the venerable writer. He had sat for a long time on the terrace, his head covered with a fur hat with ear flaps, his hand resting on the strawberry basket the same way I did when I sat last night. The extraordinarily big strawberry fruits seemed to ripen for men to simply place their hands on them, without the need to eat them.
He and I picked up long-handled brooms and swept the pagoda courtyard with the others while his wife went into the kitchen to help the monks prepare breakfast for the guests. Other guests helped open the many large, heavy doors, while some watered the trees or picked the fruits.
The pagoda courtyard was immense, and it was only the courtyard of one pagoda. It would take a day to climb up to all the nine pagodas of the complex. He and I talked while sweeping the leaves from the courtyard. Later his wife went out from the kitchen to join our conversation. The merry conversation gave me the impetus to bring up the subject about readers. He repeated his words days ago, how readers often asked stupid questions during readings. His wife gentled his criticism by saying that it was different now, that sometimes writers cannot keep up with their readers. They are stuck at one level in their work, while their readers have grown further.
He put the long-handled broom against an ancient cherry tree and said that his wife was talking about a country whose literature was underdeveloped, where the readers were more mature than the writers.
I understood that a writer of his kind usually wrote for an invisible audience elsewhere, imagining readers who cried or smiled with him, nodded in agreement or became as excited as he was. They existed in his imagination, these readers, and when the real readers broke this writer's private law and appeared in reality, it was inevitably disappointing. For both sides. He had always managed to avoid that disappointment. The real readers, like the real writers, should remain behind the screen of pages and not appear in the flesh. Readers who cross that border would inevitably be disappointed, for example, to see him sitting with his chin leaning on his chest as he nodded off to sleep.
And now he was leaning against the cherry tree near the long-handled broom. Then he stirred a little before leaning completely against the tree. In a few moments, he shut his eyes, still standing. His wife swiftly came over to stand beside him, giving him one more place to lean on. She cast her eyes at me. He slept. His body was still there but he was gone.
Translated by Ho Anh Thai and Wayne Karlin