Note from the editor: The forth selection in our ongoing translated Asian literature series is Choi Suchol’s River Dark, is a quiet meditation on memory and place. Under Choi’s pen, a remote island becomes a potent metaphor for the fall of man and the destruction of nature. – NS
Early last summer he took a solitary vacation on Ullŭng Island. Instead of the fancier and faster charter boat he went by ferry, arriving after several hours of pitching and rolling on the East Sea. Dumping his bag in the hotel room he’d reserved, he went out onto the balcony. Free at last! Off to his right was Sŏngin Peak, high point on the island. His eye followed the ridgeline down to the indigo-blue water lapping at its base like a dragon thirsting for the mountain’s vital energy.
He had long wanted to set out all by his lonesome on an off-season trip. Several opportunities had arisen, but each time, the necessities of day-to-day living had tripped him up and he’d had to reschedule. His family were well aware of these false starts, and at the revelation of his latest plan they had sent him off with expressions that were equal parts “good for you” and “be my guest.” But neither his family nor he himself could have explained why Ullŭng was his destination—why there? Simply put, he’d been quite the romantic when he was much younger, and although that facet of his temperament had pretty much eroded, in the whirl of daily life he’d become blindly attached to his youthful dream.
He was at his absolute leisure on Ullŭng. A hike up Sŏngin Peak? No thanks. A pleasure-boat cruise around the island? Who needs it? What mattered was that he had finally made the trip here, alone. He desired only a lack of desire for anything; all he wanted was to be as lazy and lethargic as possible.
A typical humdrum day started with a late breakfast at the hotel, after which he’d mosey about the island, returning around sundown to the dock in front of the hotel for a bottle of soju and a taste of the local seafood. He learned from the proprietor of the eatery that the deep blue color of the sea owed to the abundant seaweed and to the strong sun that left it so pulpy and buoyant. The man also related a tapestry of legends about the island as well as tales of the islets nearby.
Dusk found him back at the hotel, in the bar off the lobby. He sometimes drank coffee, but mostly beer or highballs. The bar had the ambience of a countryside tearoom–when the waitress brought him his beverage, whether soft or hard, she would park herself next to him and strike up a conversation, ultimately dropping hints that he should buy her a drink. At first he was fazed—how could a self-respecting hotel countenance blatant wheedling by the waitresses? But then his lethargic game plan kicked in again and he decided it didn’t matter. If it was tea she wanted, fine; if a drink, he’d buy that for her too. But because he wasn’t interested in her, he answered her sporadic questions half-heartedly and didn’t initiate conversation. Inevitably she’d grow bored, dutifully toss down her drink, and move to another table.
She looked to be in her mid-thirties. She had a broad, swarthy face, lusterless skin and hair, and fleshy forearms and legs and a flabby midriff–so much for keeping herself up. He could count on her for a blank, seemingly unwary expression or, more frequently, a frown of mild irritation that might have been a ploy to entice the guys.
But sometimes he found himself staring at her, and the next thing he knew he’d be hankering to ask her questions. He convinced himself she’d drifted in on the tide after leaving her ancestral village on the mainland at a young age and shuttling from place to place. What ferry of fate had brought her here, and which vessel of destiny would deliver her? If at some point the locals tired of her she’d have to leave. He imagined her on some old rust-bucket riding the currents to islands even smaller than Ullŭng.
None of these questions escaped his lips. What could the curiosity or compassion of others, their favor or disdain, add to the fabric of her life beyond a few stray threads? But on his last night he found himself wavering as she sat there across from him. Not because of her. Rather he felt he’d come face to face with an expanse of sea grass that shimmied back and forth with the movement of the water, and he imagined that grass beckoning him closer and himself responding by forging his way through it and past the woman.
For as long as he could remember, water and rivers had been a familiar presence. He’d grown up in a city where the two streams of a great river came together; nearby there were lakes. Many were the hours he spent by the river with friends and family during the summer and winter school breaks. He lived with the river and it became part of him. But when after many years he returned home for a visit and sought out the river that had been flowing all that time in his memory, invested with recollections from his youth, he found it ailing.
It was a late spring day when he drove out to the riverside. The river stank to high heaven. A new dam upstream had lowered the water level, and the surface was coated with black scum. The fouled water barely moved, flowing in fits and starts, like a long-bedridden man struggling to turn over.
Witnessing the river he’d neglected, already polluted beyond hope, he felt a storm surge of regret and pent-up anger spill into a stream of sorrow as all together his recollections of the past and his hopes for a future that kids could savor there turned black along with the river.
When grade school was out for the summer his family had liked going down to the river for picnics. The water was clear and cool, the sand soft and clean. The only lack, if one could call it that, was of shade trees. Back then anyway beach parasols weren’t common, so once settled at the riverside you were at the mercy of the sun. Some tried to make do with an umbrella or a sunshade; others took refuge in the pine groves off at a distance.
Then one summer day his father fashioned a canopy of sorts, in reality an awning, out of four posts and a blue tarpaulin, and it became a fixture at the riverside outings. It wasn’t much to look at but offered pleasant shade the summer through. Before long, similar shelters were being erected.
Late in the season, after one last frolic at the riverside, his family decided to bury the canopy and retrieve it the following summer. They chose an abandoned sesame patch for the purpose. No worries about the vinyl tarp, but would the wooden posts rot? Thankfully the soil was dry and sandy.
Next summer came around and one day he suddenly began fixating on the canopy. It was early in the season but he couldn’t wait; he had to find that sesame patch. But there were only windswept mounds of sand with a straggling of weeds. Where was the canopy? Here he dug, there he dug, and finally he found it! The blue tarp was crumpled, ripped, and faded, the posts a bit punky and wasted, but the boy’s sense of wonder, the pleasant surprise of it all, was undiminished. Young as he was, he felt truly grateful that there were objects buried in nature, undergoing transformation along with it, that actually waited for people to discover them!
But all too soon those same people had polluted the river beyond redemption.
Now that he thought about it, hadn’t he been traipsing the island with the image of the decaying river lodged in his mind? He understood now why he had wanted to come here: he had to, before it was too late! If there were a place of unspoiled nature, not yet polluted by human hand, perhaps it would be Ullŭng. And if he were to pass the time here doing nothing and desiring nothing, then perhaps the living river, now moribund, that used to flow inside him might come back to life and transport him in its flow.
But here too the situation was iffy. With feverish voices the islanders were wont to proclaim that their lives would improve with all the development projects soon to begin. Hearing such talk, he imagined the river about to revive inside him suddenly fouled for all time and gasping for dear life, an aortic vessel obstructed by a vile growth. He understood people’s fretfulness at the irony of their fleeting lives in steadfast nature, but didn’t that fretfulness block the passage of time within them, bringing their lives to a standstill?
He was wrenched from his reveries as the woman sprang to her feet. She eyed the door, perhaps checking for footloose, would-be customers. Observing her, he realized why a sound night’s sleep was proving as elusive here as at home: the river of his childhood was repeating a painful cycle, resurrecting to clarity but the next moment reverting to a decaying trickle. Turn by turn the river wended its way toward the woman. Where would it empty–into radiant purity once it reached her, or into dark decay once it enveloped her? Before he could answer, the river and her life merged in a single flow.
Late the previous night he’d seen her emerging from a second-floor guest room. Who knows, maybe deep down inside she was waiting for him to invite her to his room tonight.
Without a word he rose and left. He found open-air seating at the humble eatery at the dock and had a bottle of soju with fresh raw squid on the side. Add this to the bottle of soju with which he’d washed down his dinner, and by the time he paid the bill he was pleasantly drunk.
Back at the hotel he found the bar closed for the night. Gazing at the dark window, he felt an urge to talk with the woman. But she was nowhere to be seen. Like the polluted river that had disappeared into the gloom of his darkened memories, she had strayed off into the deep of the night.
Step by ponderous step he climbed the stairs to the third floor. Listing toward the wall, he was nearing his room when the door to the VIP suite at the far end of the hall banged open and a throng of people burst into the corridor. “Come on, hurry, we don’t want to keep him waiting!” someone called out. The group rushed past him, a mix of middle-aged men and women—the hotel staff along with the woman from the bar bringing up the rear as she worked her arms into her jacket. Spotting him, she slowed down and with a twinkle in her boozy eyes said, “Oowee, steady there, mister, you’re almost home. Gotta go, it’s party time—big spender, you know!”
And then she was chasing down the group. It took a moment for it all to register. By then she’d disappeared to the lower level. Standing askew, he gazed at the dim light at the end of the hall, where the stairs went down and around the corner. The river was following in her course, decaying as it went, and he never did learn her name.
Choi Suchŏl (b. 1958) is the author of more than two dozen volumes of fiction. He is the recipient of South Korea’s Yi Sang and Tongin literature prizes and teaches creative writing at a university near Seoul. He appears in English translation in Hayden’s Ferry Review; Land of Exile: Contemporary Korean Fiction (M.E. Sharpe, 2007); and Acta Koreana.
Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton are the translators of numerous works of modern Korean fiction, most recently Moss by the graphic novelist Yoon Taeho (serialized at The Huffington Post, 2016-17) and Sunset: A Ch’ae Manshik Reader (Columbia University Press, 2017). Their translations have appeared in a variety of anthologies and literary journals.