A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist
- onApril 20, 2015
- Vol.27 Spring 2015
- byPak Taewon
- A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist
Tr. Sunyoung Park with Jefferson J.A. Gattrall and Kevin O’Rourke 2015220pp.
After a While
Kubo decided to walk on. The scorching midsummer sun on his bare head makes him dizzy. He can’t stand here like this. Neurasthenia. Of course, it’s not just his nerves. With this head, with this body, what will I ever accomplish? Kubo feels somewhat threatened by the energetic body and resilient gait of a virile man just passing. Suddenly he regrets having read The Tale of Chunhyang1 at the age of nine—he had to hide from the watchful eyes of the adults in the family. After a visit with his mother to one of their relatives, Kubo thought, he, too, like them, wanted to read storybooks. But it was forbidden at home. Kubo consulted a housemaid. She told him about a rental agency that had all kinds of books and lent them for one wŏn a volume, no more. But you’ll get a scolding.... And then, she muttered to herself, “For sheer fun nothing beats The Tale of Chunhyang.” A coin and the lid of a copper bowl were the price of his first storybook seventeen years ago, which was perhaps the beginning of everything that followed, as well as all that is to come. The storybooks he read! The novels he spent his nights with! Kubo’s health must have suffered irreparable damage in his boyhood. . . .
Constipation. Irregular urination. Fatigue. Ennui. Headache. Heavy-headedness. Syncope. Dr. Morida Masao’s training therapy. . . . Whatever his illness is, T’aep’yŏngt’ong street, humble, no. . . but barren and cluttered, darkens Kubo’s mind. While thinking of how to drive those dirty junkmen off the streets, he suddenly remembers how Sŏhae2 papered his ceiling to hide its loud patterns. Another unmistakable case of nervous exhaustion. A grin forms on Kubo’s lips. He recalls Sŏhae’s horselaugh. Come to think of it, that, too, was a hollow, lonely sound.
Kubo remembers he hasn’t read a single page of Scarlet Flame, a book his late friend gave him, and he feels pangs of regret. It’s not just Sŏhae’s work that he has not read. Already he’s three years behind in his reading. When Kubo became aware of the dearth of his knowledge, he was dumbfounded.
A young man passed suddenly into Kubo’s line of sight. He came from the direction in which Kubo is walking. He seems familiar. Someone Kubo should definitely recognize. Finally, the distance between the two is reduced to less than six feet. Kubo sees in the man’s face one of his old childhood buddies. The good old days. A good old friend. They haven’t seen each other since elementary school. Kubo even manages to extract the name of his friend from memory.
His old friend has had a hard life. He looks so shabby in his ramie overcoat, white rubber shoes, and straw hat—the hat is the only new thing on him. Kubo hesitates. Should I pass without noticing him? The old friend seems to have clearly recognized him, and he seems to be afraid of Kubo noticing him. At the last moment, just as the two are passing each other, Kubo musters his courage.
“Long time no see, Mr. Yu.”
His friend blushes.
“Yeah, it’s been a while.”
“Have you been in Seoul all this time?”
“Where have you been hiding?”
Kubo manages to say no more than this. He feels depressed and wishes he could add something more. “Excuse me,” his friend says and goes on his way.
Kubo stands a little longer, then resumes his walk, head low, hopelessly fending off tears.
joy is what Kubo decides to look for. For this purpose he decides to stroll through Namdaemun market. All he finds are a few baggage carriers squatting listlessly on both sides of the path, no wind blowing in.
Kubo feels lonely. He wants to go where there are people, where the crowds are lively. He sees Kyŏngsŏng Station ahead. There’s certainly life there. The scent and feel of the ancient capital city. It’s only proper that an urban novelist should be well acquainted with the gates of the city. But of course such professional conscientiousness isn’t what’s important. Kubo would be satisfied if he could escape his loneliness among the crowd in the third-class waiting room.
Yet that is just where loneliness dwells. The place is so packed with people that Kubo can’t even find a seat to squeeze into, and yet there’s no human warmth. These people are preoccupied with their own affairs. They do not exchange a word with the people sitting next to them, and should they happen to say something to each other, it’s only to check the train schedule or something similar. They never ask anyone other than their travel companions to watch their luggage while they run to the restroom. Their distrustful eyes look weary and pathetic.
1 Ch’unhyangjŏn, a Korean folktale from the eighteenth century, tells a love story of two teenagers, Ch’unhyang, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a gisaeng and an aristocrat Mongnyong, the son of the local magistrate. After they secretly become engaged, defying a conventional ban on marriage between members of different social classes, Mongnyong moves back to Seoul with his family. Left alone, Ch’unhyang is subjected to the persecution of the new magistrate, who is charmed by her beauty. In the end, she is rewarded for her brave struggle to preserve her chastity.
2 Ch’oe Haksong (1901–1932), whose pen name was Sŏhae, was a representative writer of Korean proletarian literature.