Son of Man
by Yi Munyol
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Chung Chong-Wha
Note: The text translated here is that of the 4th edition, which was first published on June 15, 2004. The author has made many small changes—deletions, modifications and additions—to the text of the 3rd (1993) edition.
After consulting with the author, it was decided to eliminate the 335 notes. Such an aparatus is not a usual feature of works of fiction published in English. In many cases, the information has been introduced by the translators into the body of the text, especially in the lists of gods and brief accounts of polytheistic mythology and other religious details. In many other cases, the information offered seems not to be needed for a full understanding of the novel.
With the author¡¯s agreement, the translators have omitted the text contained on pages 211 – 219, which presents a series of notes on the life of Zoroaster and the main teachings of Zoroastrianism. They consider that this section interrupts the flow of the narrative to no purpose, and gives an over-detailed account of a religion which is not destined to play any particularly significant role in the novel as a whole. The same decision was taken by the translators of the French version.
The translators have deliberately sought to maintain the rhythms of the sentence structure of the original, although the resulting sentences are sometimes far longer and more complex than is usual in modern English. Stylistic editing, if it is found necessary, is best left to the publishing house that takes the book.
Rain falling on accumulated layers of dust had left the windows of the criminal investigations office so mottled they were nearly opaque; beyond them roofs could be seen huddled grim beneath a lowering city sky. When the Dongbu Police Station had first moved here two years before, there had been nothing more than a hill on the city outskirts, recently zoned for development; then houses had sprung up, and now the area was completely built over. As he contemplated the brightly colored roofs aligned in a variety of shapes, seemingly indicative of their individual owners¡¯ vain fondness for things western, or their pretentiousness, Sergeant Nam fell into the state of melancholy that was almost habitual with him. While those many houses stretched before his eyes, the fact that there was no house of his own among them, where his wife and children could live and take their ease, spurred him with a deep sense of failure.
Recalling the two rented rooms he would return to after work, unless something unexpected occurred, Sergeant Nam reviewed with no particular feelings his career, over which an increasingly dark sense of impending failure loomed. Nam Gyeongho. Born in 1945. His parents had been ordinary, run-of-the-mill folk but, since they had been subjected to the poverty of the 1950s, his childhood had not escaped the average degree of misery that other children of his age had had to endure. His middle and high school years, spent in a small country town, had left no memories, sad or happy. As he neared the end of his high-school education, there arose a growing lack of proportion between their financial resources and the enthusiasm for further education that his parents were beginning to manifest. That finally took him away from their small town and turned him into a student enrolled in evening classes at a second-rate university in this city, for a course of study he had finally given up half way through.
Even after dropping out of university, he had naturally kept trying to better himself, during the early years at least. The university he attended was so mediocre it had even been hard for him to get a part-time tutoring job; but still, he had been studying law. He had once shut himself up in a rural temple for several months with the intention of preparing the civil service exam. Another time, he had suddenly become fascinated by writing, burying himself under reams of manuscripts. Not one of his works ever got beyond the preliminary screening, but he wrote enough in the course of six months to submit to every newspaper that ran any kind of New Year literary contest. That extravagant passion for literature was perhaps ultimately a perverse way of working off the frustration he had felt on finally losing all hope of ever passing the civil service exam.
Poverty never allowed him to complete anything he undertook, as with his university studies. All the while, his elderly parents and his younger siblings, who had no one else to look to for support, were waiting. They were all gone now. His parents had died, one after the other, before he had even managed to escape from the single room they shared. His older sister had left home suddenly, fed up with being poor, and had given no news for the last nine years. Supporting his younger sister had made the start of his own married life harder; after graduating from commercial high school, she had married a colleague working in the same bank as herself some two years before; his younger brother had studied at a technical college before going to work in the Middle East as a technician in heavy construction equipment as soon as he had finished his military service the previous year. For their sake he joined the ranks of job seekers, who were having an extremely difficult time in those days, and taking the easiest way he joined the police, where he had settled. Promotion was neither rapid nor slow compared to the hard work he put in; the job afforded neither satisfaction nor regret, but his eight years in the criminal investigations unit had gone speeding by, making him feel as if each year was like a day.
¡®So why did you kick a young lady on the backside as she passed, eh? Why?¡¯
Sergeant Nam came to himself at the abrupt sound of someone shouting in a shrill voice, which penetrated his mind as if it had ruptured his eardrums. It was Detective Kim, who was sitting at the desk next to his. He was three or four years younger than Sergeant Nam, but he had joined the police earlier and was senior to him by a couple of years in his career with the crime squad. Judging by what he had just overheard, it seemed he was taking down a statement for some kind of assault case, but on closer examination he was looking thoroughly rattled.
¡®Because of those damned leather boots . . .¡¯
The suspect replied imperturbably, as if to say that Detective Kim¡¯s shouting did not impress him; he was a youngish man, about twenty-four or five perhaps, with a completely shaved head. If he had not attracted Sergeant Nam¡¯s attention before, it must have been because he had been brought in much too quietly for someone guilty of an assault.
¡®What about her leather boots?¡¯ Detective Kim asked, as if lost for words, after glancing in the direction the young man had indicated, pursing his lips. The long, slender legs of the victim, who was still crying to herself, were sheathed in brown boots high enough to hide her knees.
¡®Because they¡¯re too long.¡¯
¡®Are you drunk?¡¯
Detective Kim burst out so loudly, as if unable to put up with the insolent way the young man was addressing him, that everyone in the office turned to look. But the youth did not so much as flinch.
¡®Not in the least.¡¯
¡®This guy must be completely mad.¡¯
At that, someone sniggered in a corner. Detective Kim turned and threw a furious glance in that direction, then went back to questioning the young man, as if he was trying to provoke a quarrel.
¡®So you kick some girl on the backside because you reckon her boots are a bit too long?¡¯
It was rather obscene, but from time to time Sergeant Nam had experienced an urge, if he came across a woman wearing long, fancy leather boots, to make love to her in extravagant ways after stripping off all her clothes, leaving only her boots. It was not so much an urge arising from the perverted physical desires of a man in his mid-thirties as the effect of scenes from a pornographic movie that had been confiscated the previous autumn. Under the pretext of taking a reference for an enquiry, one of the staff who knew how to use the video machine had played it through in a corner of the office, and in it the women never removed their boots or stockings while things were being done to them. Oddly, he had found that much more titillating than sex with a woman not wearing a stitch.
¡®So you just felt like kicking her?¡¯
Sensing something slightly strange, Sergeant Nam began to scrutinize the accused youth more closely. At first glance, he looked like a dim, stubborn kind of fellow, but the deep furrows between his eyebrows and the dark shadows round his eyes suggested intelligence. He felt there was a kind of detachment in his gaze, that was directed vacantly at a corner of the room¡¯s plastered wall; that was not something you found in professional criminals with their bluff and bluster. Then, going on to examine his clothes, it was different again. A military jacket of a kind no one now wore, for fashion at least, dyed black and with sleeves shiny at the cuffs from use and accumulated dirt, was accompanied by trousers made of coarse, fawn corduroy, and plastic shoes so covered in dust it was impossible to distinguish their color; his dress was so completely at odds with his face, it was almost as if he had deliberately disguised himself.
¡®One pair of boots like that . . . could keep several pairs . . . of frozen feet warm. Just beside the road where that woman was passing . . . a kid was begging, wearing nothing but rubber slippers on bare feet, lying on the ground, shivering . . .¡¯
The young man began to speak haltingly, as if talking about someone else. Still crying, the girl fired back a reply as if she could not take any more:
¡®Is it my fault if a kid¡¯s begging in such a state?¡¯
¡®Of course, it might not be you personally. It might be your rotten dad who bought you such expensive leather boots but never gave so much as a penny to someone starving right beside him, or your old boyfriend crazy about your crotch. Anyway, it makes no difference. After all, the fact is that a kid was shivering with bare feet because you were using up all that leather.¡¯
The young man spoke without once raising his eyes to look at the girl, as if to show that replying was a nuisance but he was doing it as a special favor. To Sergeant Nam, he seemed like someone who had committed a crime of conviction, but more than that, he felt he must be either a psychotic, or putting it on in order to irritate the person they were addressing. Growing increasingly angry, Detective Kim rebuked him on her behalf.
¡®Shut up! You idiot! I can¡¯t believe it. Who asked you to interfere in things like that?¡¯
¡®I did it because nobody else was interfering.¡¯
¡®You! The more you go on, the worse it gets. Here, do you want a taste of the national hotel?¡¯
¡®I¡¯ve already been there several times.¡¯
¡®How many times? How many stars have you got, then?¡¯
¡®As many as the Milky Way in the night sky. I only came out the day before yesterday, after a full year.¡¯
Detective Kim, whose quick temper and irascibility were well known in the office, seemed to be arguing with the accused, rather than taking a statement. In addition to Sergeant Nam, a few detectives relatively less occupied had been observing the scene for some time with amusement. However, Sergeant Nam found himself unable to go on watching for long. The sudden ringing of a phone attracted his attention. Lieutenant Lee, the head of the third division to which he belonged and who was sitting two desks away, could be seen picking up the receiver, turning away from the document he had been reading.
¡®Looks like a robbery—two or three wounded,¡¯ Sergeant Nam thought to himself as he watched him answer the phone. Because he had been working with him for the past two years, Sergeant Nam was roughly able to tell the seriousness of an incident simply by the expression and tone of voice he adopted while taking the phone call.
That day, too, his guess seemed not too far wrong. When he finally finished speaking, Lieutenant Lee called Sergeant Nam; his expression was grave, as always when he was faced with a violent crime.
¡®Sergeant Nam, follow me, with Detectives Im and Park.¡¯
¡®Looks like a murder.¡¯
¡®Over in Yeongji county.¡¯
In terms of administration, Yeongji belonged to the neighboring county, but the local police came under their responsibility. A well-known mountain rose nearby; the valleys were beautiful, the streams pure. Halfway up the mountain stood a large temple, called Donggak-sa. It was a popular picnic-spot for the people of Daegu in three seasons out of four—spring, summer, and autumn.
As far as the police were concerned, that area was a constant nuisance, one that inspired a strong sense of grievance among them. Since the place attracted large numbers of people, it was the site of a correspondingly large number of crimes of all kinds. The fact that it was located quite far away and they had not enough men made their work that much harder. Especially during the high season, in the spring and autumn, in addition to the regular staff stationed there, they were obliged to send extra staff from the main station.
Now it was winter, when the men at the small local station had time to breathe, and for a violent crime, a murder, to happen there was totally unexpected.
The body lay at the side of a mountain path a little way outside the village. When the head of the investigation team removed the sheet with which the corpse had been covered, the long, pale face of a man seemingly in his early thirties appeared. The face was unharmed, the eyes were closed in a natural manner, there was almost nothing to awaken the sense of shock or repulsion that a dead body usually provokes. However, even a brief glimpse of the rest of the body that then lay uncovered indicated plainly that this was a murder. Blood lay thickly clotted over the chest, seemingly from repeated stabbings with a sharp weapon.
The scene was relatively well preserved. The head of the investigation team questioned the officer in charge of the local station, who was already there.
¡®Nothing new, apart from what¡¯s already been reported?¡¯
¡®I found this lying on an oak stump down there.¡¯ The man showed him a pair of bloodstained gloves wrapped in newspaper, as if he had been anticipating the question. They were ordinary gloves, made of white cotton. He then went on to repeat with additional details what he had already said on the telephone.
The body had been found about one hour ago, by someone from a neighboring village going into the town. The fact that the body had been moved a little way from the scene of the crime to a place more secluded suggested that the criminal had tried to conceal the crime. The time of death, which would only be known precisely after the autopsy, seemed probably to be some time very early in the morning. A fruit knife had been left lying beside the body, and given the sharpness of the blade the crime seemed to have been premeditated. Since the scene of the crime was some way from any houses, it seemed that the criminal had persuaded the victim to come there and, judging by the location of the wounds and the posture of the body, there were virtually no signs of any struggle.
¡®The victim¡¯s identity?¡¯ The lieutenant¡¯s question cut short the station head¡¯s flow of words that seemed likely to go on. With an apologetic air, as if to say he knew everything but that, he replied: ¡®Impossible to tell. He¡¯s not got a single paper left on him. That could be the work of the killer, of course.¡¯
¡®No name inside the jacket?¡¯
¡®I looked, but there¡¯s nothing there.¡¯
¡®Couldn¡¯t any of the local people identify him?¡¯
¡®I called some of those who live in the nearest village, but they all said they¡¯d never seen his face before.¡¯
Just then the patrolman in charge of preserving the crime scene, who was standing nearby, spoke hesitatingly: ¡®A while ago, after you¡¯d gone somewhere, one of the villagers told me he felt sure he¡¯d seen him in a prayer house.¡¯
¡®A prayer house?¡¯ The lieutenant repeated the words, staring at the man. The local station head replied at once, glaring at the patrolman as if to ask why he hadn¡¯t said so at once:
¡®There are several prayer houses and hermitages around here. So which one did he mean?¡¯
¡®The one called the House of Eternal Life.¡¯
¡®I know the place; it¡¯s just beyond this hill. It¡¯s a comparatively clean place, with no problems.¡¯
The head of the investigation turned to his team: ¡®Is that so? In that case, Lieutenant Lee, you¡¯d better send one of your men over there to enquire about the identity of the victim; the others can make enquiries in all the villages around here. I¡¯ll set up a headquarters in the local station and that¡¯s where I¡¯ll be.¡¯
He was looking utterly worn out. He had not been able to sleep properly for several nights on account of a series of violent crimes following one after another recently, waiting as he was for promotion.
The forensic unit had been as quick as it could, but it was a little after two in the afternoon when Sergeant Nam arrived at the Eternal Life prayer house, carrying a still damp photo of the victim. The prayer house was plainly built of cement blocks at the entrance of a valley on the far side of the hill to the spot where the body had been found. Everything was so quiet, probably because it was winter, that the sound Sergeant Nam made when he knocked on the door seemed to echo particularly loudly. A middle-aged man who might be a handyman opened the door with an unwarrantedly cautious air. Sergeant Nam, unsure of the hierarchies of a place like this, demanded randomly to see the director.
He found the director, who he discovered to be an elder at a church in the city, sitting by a stove with a youngster who seemed to be serving as an errand-boy. He checked with a look of surprise the police identity card that Sergeant Nam held out to him.
¡®Is there anyone from here who went out between yesterday and today and hasn¡¯t come back?¡¯
¡®I can¡¯t be sure. We have very few people at present. And we don¡¯t really control comings and goings here. Why do you ask?¡¯ The director turned the question back on him. Sergeant Nam took out the photo of the victim.
¡®Have you ever seen this person, by any chance?¡¯
After gazing at the picture for a long while, the director murmured, almost to himself: ¡®I have a feeling I¡¯ve seen him somewhere. Is it that fellow who came for a while last autumn?¡¯
He abruptly turned to the young man who was standing beside him.
¡®Look at this. Who is it?¡¯
¡®What, him? Why, isn¡¯t that Preacher Hwang¡¯s friend?¡¯ Glancing at the photo, the boy replied in a flash. The director immediately assented.
¡®That¡¯s right. Now you mention him, I¡¯m sure that¡¯s who it is. I only met him in passing, so I didn¡¯t recognize him at once, but. . .¡¯ He turned to Sergeant Nam.
¡®But why does he look like that?¡¯
¡®He¡¯s dead.¡¯ Sergeant Nam replied in a toneless voice, for by now such deaths inspired no special feelings in him, whereas the director raised his voice in affected surprise.
¡®What? How did it happen?¡¯
¡®He was murdered. What¡¯s this man¡¯s name?¡¯
¡®Let me see, now. Min something I think. Anyway, Preacher Hwang knows him well. He was the one who brought him here a short time ago, saying he was an old friend. I only spoke to him once, when we exchanged greetings that first day.¡¯
Intuition derived from long years of experience in the police told Sergeant Nam that the man was not simply making excuses to avoid further inconvenience.
¡®This preacher Hwang—where is he now?¡¯
¡®He ought to be in the house somewhere. He didn¡¯t tell me he was going out today. I¡¯ll have this young man go and fetch him.¡¯
At those words, Sergeant Nam felt vaguely troubled. He suddenly wondered if this preacher was deeply implicated in what had happened, in which case he might already have disappeared. But before the boy could even leave the room, the preacher in question came in. He looked about thirty-one or two. His face had a fragile, vulnerable look to it but overall he somehow made much the same impression as the dead man.
¡®Why, here you are. Mr. Hwang, let me introduce you to this gentleman, from the police.¡¯ The director spoke in a deliberately calm voice, as if it would be a great help in the investigation. But Sergeant Nam, seeing traces of tears on the man¡¯s cheeks, questioned him without bothering with formal greetings.
¡®So you went to look before you came. Did you go because you¡¯d heard rumors?¡¯
The preacher nodded, saying nothing.
¡®You must be very upset; you were friends.¡¯ Sergeant Nam intentionally spoke words of comfort; at the same time he slyly observed his expression. But he took the words at their face value.
¡®Everything is God¡¯s will. But I felt so sorry for him . . .¡¯
Once again, his eyes began to fill with tears. If pushed any further, the tears would turn into sobs, so Sergeant Nam deliberately adopted an official tone, drawing out his notebook with a rather exaggerated gesture.
¡®First I am just going to ask some a few questions for information. His full name?¡¯
¡®He must have been thirty-two.¡¯
¡®I don¡¯t know.¡¯
¡®I don¡¯t know that, either.¡¯
¡®Weren¡¯t you friends?¡¯ Sergeant Nam spoke in a somewhat harder voice. It was because something didn¡¯t seem to make sense. The preacher seemed startled by the change but the tone of his voice did not vary.
¡®Yes, a long time ago. But after nearly ten years without news, I only met him again about a month ago.¡¯
¡®What was your relationship before?¡¯
¡®We were classmates in our schooldays. He dropped out half way through but we were pretty close for a while when we were students. To tell you the truth, he was more than a mere friend; I used to respect him deeply.¡¯
The preacher¡¯s voice had so far sounded like that of a little schoolboy answering his teacher¡¯s questions, but on reaching that topic it suddenly grew emotional. Vague memories of the old days seemed to be welling up. Pretending not to notice, Sergeant Nam continued with his questions.
¡®So you know nothing of what he¡¯s been doing recently?¡¯
¡®Almost nothing. He didn¡¯t tell me, and I didn¡¯t ask.¡¯
¡®But you say he¡¯s been here a month. You must have been curious after not seeing him for such a long time?¡¯
¡®It was for his sake; I thought I might only rub salt in his wounds to no purpose.¡¯
¡®Then how did he happen to come here?¡¯
¡®I met him by chance in the street. He was dressed so shabbily that I enquired what he¡¯d been doing. He made no reply, only smiled sadly. Then he asked me what church I was in charge of. I told him that so far I didn¡¯t feel I was up to serving as a minister and that I was therefore praying here, and he suddenly said he¡¯d like to spend some time here too. Obviously, although I¡¯m only a guest here I accepted with pleasure. More than that, I was delighted.¡¯
¡®It was as if a lost sheep was coming home. In the old days, he had a deeper faith than anyone else and was a first-class theology student. He made such sincere efforts to put into practice the teachings of our Lord that it would have been hard for any of us ordinary folk to imitate him. He did not have so much as an extra pair of socks or underclothes for himself. During the holidays he used to do volunteer service in an orphanage or helped in a lepers¡¯ village. Only he went a bit strange, in the fall of his second year, I think it was. It was not just that he distanced himself from us; he seemed to distance himself from God and the church. Then, after a big row with the teachers, we never found out what it was about, he quit the seminary. I heard that he had not only given up studying at that time, but had left the church and God too.
¡®Right. Enough about the past. Did he have any money?¡¯
¡®So far as I know, he was practically penniless.¡¯
¡®What about his relations with women—his wife, or other women?¡¯
¡®I¡¯ve never heard anything at all about that. If I were to hazard a guess, he seemed to have been wandering about completely alone before arriving here.¡¯
Sergeant Nam found the reply deeply disheartening. In his experience, nine times out of ten incidents that were not connected with money or women turned into cases where he made no progress but only developed a headache. Sergeant Nam asked his next question as if he was seeking confirmation from the preacher¡¯s memory.
¡®In short, you¡¯re saying you know nothing about his present life?¡¯
¡®That¡¯s about it. If I¡¯d known something like this would happen, I¡¯d have questioned him, even against his will.¡¯ The preacher muttered his reply, adopting an apologetic expression for no apparent reason.
¡®What did he do while he was here?¡¯
¡®Endless prayers and reading the Bible to the point where he forgot about sleep, that was all. Even the monks in the Middle Ages would never have mortified themselves as he did.¡¯
¡®He never went out?¡¯
¡®Well yes; the day before yesterday he went out, saying he was going into town, and spent the night out.¡¯
¡®He didn¡¯t say where he¡¯d been?¡¯
¡®I asked him, but he didn¡¯t answer, only smiled sadly. He seemed to be counting the days recently, so I reckoned he had an appointment with someone.¡¯
¡®When was the last time you saw him?¡¯
¡®Yesterday evening. We went to bed at the same time. But he didn¡¯t read the Bible or say any prayers, and he seemed unable to sleep. That was about as odd a thing as could be, you know. At any rate, I opened my eyes from time to time almost until daybreak and could see him curled up on his bedding, but when I woke up in the morning, he was gone. But he often used to go for an early morning stroll in the nearby hills, so I didn¡¯t bother to go looking for him, but . . .¡¯
After that, Sergeant Nam tried asking a few more questions but none of the replies was of any real help to his investigation. There being nothing more he could do, he jotted down the necessary details in his notebook, then finally asked:
¡®Could I see his room?¡¯
¡®He shared my room. Follow me.¡¯
Preacher Hwang led the way without the least hesitation.
The room he was brought to turned out to be a wood-floored room, simple and clean, away from daily routine and suitable for solitary prayer. Some books were lying on a low wooden desk and on the opposite, plastered wall hung what seemed to be a charcoal drawing of the head of Jesus in a simple frame. Nothing else could be seen, no bedding, clothes or other objects used in daily life. Everything must be in the large closet that was built into the left side of the room.
Having once glanced around, Sergeant Nam set about looking for things belonging to Min Yoseop. As he had guessed, the preacher opened the closet door and produced a small, worn suitcase. Looking through the open door, he saw some neatly folded bedding and another, larger suitcase. That apparently belonged to the preacher, as did the clothes that were hanging on the wall. Sergeant Nam opened the case that he had pulled out. Except for a few tidily folded clothes, which seemed almost to have been prepared in advance, there was not a clue to reveal anything about the owner. The absence of particular signs was so total that it almost prompted a suspicion that he had deliberately set about concealing his identity in order to help the criminal.
¡®Is this all?¡¯ Sergeant Nam asked, looking rather disappointed. The preacher picked up a Bible lying among the other books on the desk. The book was new, apparently purchased recently, but portions were already darkly stained by frequent fingering. Sergeant Nam flipped through the Bible. There was no sign of the address he had hoped to find; but on the inside of the back cover he noticed a scribbled phrase in a foreign tongue that he could not decipher.
¡®Desperatus, credere potes. Mortuus, vivere potes. Now you can believe. Having despaired. You can live. Having died.¡¯
Such was the content of the phrase the preacher said was Latin and translated for him. Sergeant Nam found the phrase hard to understand, even in translation.
¡®Despair here seems to signify despair concerning one¡¯s self and the essence of one¡¯s being. It is a compelling situation, one in which we cannot help but turn to the Absolute Being, God. Death, too, here suggests something spiritual rather than physical death. Intellectual pride, self-righteousness, prejudice, vanity, all the poisons that have to be banished from the heart in order to attain true faith. I can¡¯t quite recall where, but I think you¡¯ll find something like those words in the epistles of Saint Paul. In them, it looks as though Min Yoseop is confessing a sincere conversion and expressing a decision.¡¯
To Sergeant Nam, who was still scrutinizing the Bible closely, the explanation sounded like a sermon. For him, whose life had long been spent among statements written in a clichéd style full of Chinese characters, the words were barely comprehensible. But even if he had understood them fully, they hardly seemed likely to be of very much help in his investigation. Finally, Sergeant Nam left the prayer house feeling rather discouraged.
Returning to the investigation unit, he found that the head of the investigation had been called to the main station and none of the others were to be seen, with the exception of Lieutenant Lee, who was going through a list of petty criminals from the neighborhood with the second-in-command of the local station. A few of those had already been called in for questioning and were quarrelling with the patrolmen over their alibis. The continuing inquiries of Detectives Im and Park in the nearby villages seemed not to have produced any clues.
Lieutenant Lee looked extremely disappointed on hearing Sergeant Nam¡¯s report. He had intended to speak at length but the lieutenant hurried him up; after getting the main points, he muttered more or less to himself: ¡®So we¡¯ve got his identity, but there¡¯s no knowing what he¡¯s been doing for the past eight years . . .¡¯
He remained sunk in thought for a brief moment, then gave Sergeant Nam orders in a manner befitting an experienced investigator with more than twenty years of service.
¡®Sergeant Nam, go back to the main station and prepare to take a trip.¡¯
¡®Report to the chief, then go up to Seoul. To that seminary. If you search their academic records, you should find his old address at least. Try that first.¡¯
It felt rather vague but Sergeant Nam likewise thought there seemed to be no other way.
The seminary Sergeant Nam visited the next day on arriving in Seoul was a small, old building in antiquated style located incongruously in the very center of the city. Initially built on a modest scale on a hill outside the city limits marked by the four gates, the expansion of Seoul had resulted in its present appearance. The building could only have held about thirty classrooms at most and the front yard seemed no bigger than a large primary school playground. Still, the red brick walls of the main building, covered in leafless creepers, and the girth of the old trees scattered here and there suggested a particular weight of tradition and an antiquity demanding devotion and reverence.
It being the winter vacation, the place was so deserted that it provoked a melancholy feeling. Passing the empty janitor¡¯s room, Sergeant Nam crossed the yard and encountered a student near a gnarled old tree in front of the main building, whether an undergraduate or a graduate assistant he could not tell, whom he asked to show him the office of student affairs. The student kindly led him to a room where a few clerks were chatting around a large oil stove. The office was so poorly furnished that as he came in Sergeant Nam wondered for a moment what on earth he could hope to find there. Yet the records on Min Yoseop that he found with the help of one of clerks were not only better preserved than he had expected, they yielded some interesting information.
Judging by his age, Min Yoseop must have been left an orphan while still a child, during the Korean War; he had been adopted by a foreign missionary called Thomas D. Allen. He had graduated from what had been in those days first-class middle and high schools, the names of which were immediately familiar, and for almost two years had studied philosophy at a university as prestigious as his secondary schools, before moving to the seminary. His grades there were equally outstanding. Those in the first year, in particular, amazed the clerk who found the dossier. He was nearly certain that no one had done so well since then. Yet in the second semester of the second year, his grades had dropped and soon after beginning the third year he took leave of absence, then left the seminary for good.
Sergeant Nam noted down what seemed relevant to his inquiries in his notebook, then asked if he could meet any of the faculty who had been teaching at the school in the days when Min Yoseop was a student there. There were several, it seemed, but not many had come in that day. Sergeant Nam decided to visit the professor whose room was nearest, and left the student affairs office.
It was in the same building, but in so secluded a corner that he lost his way briefly; he knocked on the door and was received rather reluctantly by a middle-aged professor. He barely recalled Min Yoseop and could remember nothing that might be of use in the enquiry. If there was anything strange, it was not so much that he had never had memories but rather there were signs suggesting he had deliberately eliminated them, as people often do with unpleasant or painful recollections. Apparently feeling sorry at Sergeant Nam¡¯s disappointed air, he added: ¡®If it¡¯s that student, Professor Bae will know much more. He was very fond of him.¡¯
¡®Where could I meet Professor Bae?¡¯
¡®He¡¯s probably in his office now. If you follow this corridor all the way back, his office is the second room from the end.¡¯
Following his directions, Sergeant Nam arrived at Professor Bae¡¯s room. The door was opened quietly by an elderly professor with completely white hair, who must have been well past retirement age. He gave the impression of having long been a pastor as well as a professor. This was because of the rather particular aura emanating from his old but respectable black suit, his voice that tended to grow increasingly soft, and his posture, that manifested such modesty it might be thought exaggerated.
¡®Yoseop is dead?¡¯ On hearing the news, Professor Bae fell into a heavy silence for a while. After Sergeant Nam repeated a number of questions, however, the professor gradually began to speak. His voice was oddly tremulous, possibly on account of the shock caused by the news of Min Yoseop¡¯s death.
¡®Yes, certainly I prized him; there¡¯s no doubt about it. His adoptive father was someone I respected deeply ever since I was young; in fact we were graduates, many years apart, from the same American university. Besides, he was the brightest student I ever taught in the ten or more years I¡¯ve been here. But I don¡¯t think that I have the kind of information about him that the police would need.¡¯
¡®Still, tell me just one thing. For what reason did Min Yoseop leave the seminary?¡¯
The professor peered at the police officer, who seemed to be hanging on his every word. It was as if he was weighing something up, probably his interlocutor¡¯s intellectual capacity. He finally made up his mind and replied in a voice filled with sorrow.
¡®Faith does not always go well with knowledge, you know. He was more fascinated by the pursuit of knowledge than by faith, and inevitably he ran out of energy. He went out with Kagawa and came back on the tail of the Ophites. We could not accept him under those conditions. Even if he was intellectually brilliant, we could not allow him to shake the foundations of belief. That angered him and he left, never to return.¡¯
Sergeant Nam could only understand about half of what he said. Suddenly more keenly interested in Min Yoseop as a person than in the needs of the investigation, he asked: ¡®What¡¯s Kagawa? Ophites?¡¯
¡®To put it more simply, shall I say radicalism and heterodoxy—or something like that.¡¯
¡®It would be better if you could explain simply, so that I can understand.¡¯
¡®Kagawa Toyohiko was a Japanese practical theologian, a social reformer, a member of the workers¡¯ movement, an evangelist and a writer, too. The scion of an aristocratic family, that disowned him when he became a Christian. Yet he did not yield but kept the faith. He graduated from Kobe Theological Seminary and went to study at Princeton Theological College. After his return from Princeton, still aged only twenty, he went to live in the Shinkawa slum in Kobe and began to be active among the workers, playing a leading role in the Kobe docks strike, as well as leading the farm-workers¡¯ union movement and the co-operative movement. During the war he was imprisoned by the military police for having apologized to the Chinese for the Japanese invasion of their country and became widely known as a writer for his novel Across the Death Line. He was an extraordinary person in many ways. Min Yoseop appeared to have been fascinated by his practical theology.¡¯
He closed his eyes wearily, then slowly continued: ¡®The Ophites were heretics in ancient times who did not consider the serpent in the Bible as a messenger of Satan charged with humanity¡¯s fall, but instead venerated it as an apostle of wisdom. The ideas of Min Yoseop did not correspond to theirs exactly, but his way of viewing Satan as a spirit of wisdom or as an alternative attribute of God was something we could never approve. Do you see now?¡¯
¡®Yes, a bit . . .¡¯ Sergeant Nam replied in some confusion, having listened to every word with intense concentration. It had been better than the explanation he had heard a little before, but his long years in the police constituted a considerable handicap to understanding Professor Bae¡¯s words fully. Professor Bae quietly stopped talking, as if to say that was enough.
¡®I think you¡¯d better go now. I am very tired. I do not think I have anything more to add.¡¯
As words designed to dismiss a visitor without upsetting him, they could not have been more determined. Sergeant Nam still had points that were unclear, but he had no choice. After speaking, Professor Bae had closed his eyes gently and fallen into a deep silence such that it seemed no word could break it, no matter how strong. Just as Sergeant Nam was going out of the door, he heard him murmur: ¡®Dr. Allen, it¡¯s truly a great pity. But at least, he said he was on his way back.¡¯
After a simple lunch near the seminary, Sergeant Nam went to the address where Min Yoseop had lived eight years before. It too was now in the center of the city, but the area must have been a remote suburb in those days. The single-story, flat-roofed house, scarcely more than a hovel, stood wretchedly amidst recently constructed, luxurious dwellings. Luckily, a person connected with Min Yoseop was still living there. She was an elderly woman in her sixties who said she had spent more than half her life as housekeeper for Doctor Allen. It turned out that it was mainly she who had raised Min Yoseop after his adoption while he was still just an infant.
On hearing the name Min Yoseop, she immediately burst into tears, although she knew nothing of his death. She clearly felt for him as if he were her own son.
¡®And where is he now?¡¯ Her voice was filled with the tender affection of an elderly mother longing for her far-away son. Even without knowing how much contact there had been between them during the past eight years, it was easy to imagine what profound shock and grief his death would cause her. Wishing to spare her, Sergeant Nam prevaricated:
¡®He¡¯s in Daegu now.¡¯
¡®What¡¯s he doing? Is he well?¡¯
¡®Yes. But where is Dr. Allen nowadays?¡¯
A gleam of doubt showed in the old woman¡¯s tear-filled eyes.
¡®Why, he went back home more than ten years ago, a year after Mrs. Allen died. At that time, he asked me and Yoseop to go with him but when the boy refused, I stayed here too. But who are you?¡¯
¡®A friend of his. How are you nowadays?¡¯
Again Sergeant Nam avoided telling the truth, glad that he had not revealed his police identity. This time it was less for her sake than in order to do his job. He had so far only exchanged a few words with her, but he had a feeling that her strong attachment to Min Yoseop might end up hindering his inquiries. If ever she decided to stay silent, thinking she might harm him if she spoke, his visit would have been useless.
Apparently reassured by Sergeant Nam¡¯s relaxed attitude, she replied with an expression slightly less suspicious: ¡®Not too bad, thanks to the boy. Though things are not as they were before, of course.¡¯
¡®You call yourself his friend, and he hasn¡¯t told you about it? But of course, he was always obedient to the Lord¡¯s words: ¡®Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.¡¯¡¯
¡®I haven¡¯t known him all that long, you see. And he doesn¡¯t talk very much, either. What happened?¡¯
Recalling what he had heard from Preacher Hwang and Professor Bae, Sergeant Nam paid careful attention to her words. He seemed somehow to have overcome her doubts and she began to tell him everything, with an expression that showed she was quite glad to be able to talk about it.
¡®Doctor Allen left him well provided for when he went back, all he had accumulated in the more than thirty years he had lived here. But once Yoseop moved to the seminary, he began to share it with others. Later, he even went so far as to sell the big house up in Seongbuk-dong. We wouldn¡¯t even have kept this shabby little house, if it hadn¡¯t been for me.¡¯
¡®Why, who did he give it all to?¡¯
¡®To those with nothing, of course. Isn¡¯t that what there¡¯s most of in the world—cold, hungry folk? To those in lepers¡¯ villages, in orphanages and rehabilitation centers. You wouldn¡¯t believe how many places there are to give money away! Once you start, it¡¯s soon all gone. In less than two years he was obliged to work to pay his tuition. At first, I tried to stop him. But after all, it had been given to him, hadn¡¯t it? I thought of letting Doctor Allen know, back in his country, but I might as well be blind as far as writing goes.¡¯
¡®Then what happened?¡¯
¡®When there was nothing more to give away, he left. He said that once you have nothing to give, you have to serve with your own body. Still, he never forgot me. During the past seven years he¡¯s always sent me enough to buy food.¡¯
¡®Still, did he really give away all that money just to the poor? Might he not have spent it in other ways?¡¯
Sergeant Nam¡¯s question was a sincere one. He simply could not believe that such an act of charity, unlike anything he had ever read about in the social pages of newspapers, could happen in reality.
¡®Don¡¯t say such things! God might punish you. That kind boy . . . As soon as he was old enough, he went through the winters without ever putting on a pair of socks. It was from thinking of his poorly dressed neighbors. Once he came home shivering in his shirtsleeves, on a day when it was snowing hard, because he had given his jacket to a beggar huddled on the roadside. He went so far that even moderately tolerant pastors used to tell him off. It¡¯s true. So kind a boy . . .¡¯
The old lady looked thoroughly upset. Sergeant Nam felt a deep emotion surging up from his heart for no apparent reason. He suddenly recalled the long-forgotten Sunday school he had attended for years as a child for the sake of the maize flour and the powdered milk distributed there, and the noisy festivities on Christmas Eve. Later, after he had stopped going to church, he used to look up from time to time at the white cross on the pointed spire with a vague sense of longing, almost until the end of his youth. But at some point he had found himself thinking that the world those things symbolized was not part of life here, where the only things left were rituals and systems corrupted and debased by human greed and hypocrisy. As a result, the past life of Min Yoseop that the old woman was describing filled him with a kind of sense of mystery.
¡®Ah! I knew he was good, but I couldn¡¯t believe he went that far. Have you not heard from him lately?¡¯
¡®Some money came about a month and a half ago, from Daegu.¡¯
¡®But no letter?¡¯
¡®No. He rarely writes letters.¡¯
¡®You¡¯ve got his address, though?¡¯
¡®No, I don¡¯t have that. The boy never writes his address.¡¯
¡®Will you let me see the envelopes?¡¯
¡®I know I kept them, but everything¡¯s so topsy-turvy, I wonder if I can find them.¡¯
She burrowed into the drawer of an old dresser and pulled out a bundle of envelopes. They bore postmarks from almost all the main cities, beginning with Seoul, then Gwangju, Busan, Daejeon, Incheon. Only three were postmarked from Daegu, including the one she had mentioned from the post office near the Dongbu Police Station. Sergeant Nam noted down the names of all the post offices from which Min Yoseop had mailed more than three money orders.
Feeling that that was still not enough, he examined the letters inserted in some of the envelopes. There was one letter for every five or six envelopes, written, it appeared, each time that he was preparing to move from one city to another, though he hardly ever indicated any reason or purpose. In them he would ask how she was, specify how much he was sending, and indicate approximately when he was going to send the next. Sergeant Nam felt that if he had made any new discovery, it was that, corresponding to the maternal affection the old lady harbored toward him, Min Yoseop considered himself indebted to her, more or less duty-bound to support her.
¡®Isn¡¯t there anything left that belonged to Yoseop—books or notes, for example?¡¯
After he had done with the letters, Sergeant Nam asked again. It might prove important for the investigation to understand what kind of a person Min Yoseop was. This thought occurred to him from his intuition as a detective, not merely from personal curiosity.
¡®As far as books go, Doctor Allen left a lot but Yoseop got rid of them all. He sold them to second-hand bookstores for the money, I suppose. He took a few of his own books with him in a bag when he left. There ought to be quite a few notebooks somewhere, though.¡¯
¡®That would do. Can I see them?¡¯
¡®The box over there is full of his notebooks; but you¡¯ll not have time to go through them all.¡¯
Seeming to sense something out of the ordinary, she asked in doubtful tones again: ¡®Why are you asking all this? Has something happened to our Yoseop? Who are you, anyway?¡¯
She seemed to have become suspicious when Sergeant Nam began noting down the postmarks on the envelopes and scanning the letters. He thought for a moment of saying who he was, but instead, he made something up again, in the hope of hearing more.
¡®Actually, Yoseop asked me to find him a job several months ago and yesterday I got good news. But there¡¯s been no sign of him for a month now. I thought he must have gone to work somewhere else but I just wondered if he hadn¡¯t come back here by any chance and that¡¯s why I came. I examined the envelopes and letters because I reckoned I might be able to find him if only I knew what town he was in. As for the books and notebooks, Yoseop told me about them some time ago. He said that one day he would come and fetch them. I thought I could take them, since I¡¯m here. I¡¯m sure to meet him soon, one way or another.¡¯
Even Sergeant Nam himself was amazed how naturally he was able to relieve the old lady¡¯s doubts. The tale didn¡¯t hold together very well when he thought about it afterwards, but it seemed to work. The old woman¡¯s expression, which had suddenly hardened in doubt, gradually softened again. Noting the fact with a sideways glance, Sergeant Nam felt quietly pleased and set it aside for future reference.
¡®But if Yoseop takes this job, he¡¯ll have to travel a long way away. It¡¯s a country called Saudi Arabia and it takes months to get there and back. It¡¯s going to be hard for him to send news for quite a long time.¡¯
¡®I somehow guessed he might be going to leave for a far-off place, from a letter I received about two months back. But why should he go abroad? He resisted so stubbornly when Dr. Allen asked him to go with him.¡¯
¡®Still, that¡¯s the way it is now. Look, I¡¯ll just take what¡¯s needed.¡¯
¡®Do as you like, if he asked you to. There¡¯s nothing I need.¡¯
She finally agreed, still looking rather reluctant although her suspicions had lifted. Sergeant Nam opened the box and set about examining the notebooks. It was a jumble of lecture notes, documents in files, a personal diary, and manuscript pages. Among all the rest, Sergeant Nam picked out the volumes of his diary that corresponded to the time when he left home, and a pile of manuscripts in a separate bundle.
¡®I heard about what happened from some neighbors while I was looking for this house. Do you know if he¡¯s kept in touch with that woman?¡¯
As he was about to leave, he allowed himself to be greedy. He spoke in a low, natural voice, as if he knew all about something that was in fact blind guesswork. He invented a woman because, in the light of all he had heard, he felt sure that Min¡¯s death had nothing to do with money. Sergeant Nam was no different from any other detective, in reckoning that every crime was invariably connected to either money or a woman.
The effect exceeded his expectations. Before he had even finished talking, the old lady¡¯s eyes narrowed, and her face hardened more than ever.
¡®Who dared repeat those worn-out old tales? I swear to you that Yoseop is not like that at all. Try to expose people¡¯s stinking backsides, and they¡¯re so wicked they¡¯ll make up any kind of story. Besides, Elder Mun and his wife left the neighborhood years ago. Don¡¯t talk to me about that again. And don¡¯t say you¡¯re any kind of friend of his, if you believe stories like that.¡¯
Her reaction convinced Sergeant Nam that he had just discovered a definite clue that might shed some light on the cause of Min Yoseop¡¯s death. Cowering before the old lady¡¯s stubbornness, as she stood there staring into the distance with her arms crossed and her lips compressed, he left without asking anything more. After all, apart from her there were other old acquaintances of Min Yoseop he had to meet.
With the help of the local ward office, and after a few enquiries, Sergeant Nam succeeded in finding a man who, eight years earlier, had known Min Yoseop quite well, and from him he was able to hear about a quite different side of Min Yoseop¡¯s character from what he had just been hearing. Needless to say, quite often in the course of an investigation into someone¡¯s past he ended up by bringing to light ugliness and baseness hidden behind gentle, noble appearances, but the case of Min Yoseop was proving to be rather unusual. The next person Sergeant Nam met was a deacon at the local church, an older man who had been living there for twenty years, who had no hesitation in calling Min Yoseop ¡®that breed of Satan.¡¯
¡®He came into our church wearing a sheep¡¯s mask. In the sacred church building, he committed adultery with the wife of another and struck God¡¯s faithful minister on the cheek. More than that, he tempted the simple flock by the cunning wisdom of the Sons of Darkness, finally sowing division among them, setting people at each other¡¯s throats, turning the church upside down . . .¡¯
There was no end to his tirade, once he had started. The woman with whom he had committed adultery was no less than the young, second wife of one of the church¡¯s elders; he had slapped the cheek of the minister, an outrage committed after he had surrendered to ¡®heretical doctrines,¡¯ when he dragged the minister down from the pulpit while he was preaching. He said he had tempted and divided the flock, because he had intervened in the church¡¯s financial problems, accusing the minister and the elders so that some of the church members, taking his side, had risen up and demanded an enquiry into irregularities in building their new church, leading to a fight for control, against those who supported the minister.
¡®On account of all that, our church was devastated. The shepherd left, abandoning the sheep, who then scattered. While Elder Mun, unable to show his face on account of what was said about his wife, left the area, a broken man. Later, fortunately, a shepherd and the sheep finally came together again and the church was restored to life. But God will never forgive that man, that cunning child of Satan. I don¡¯t know what brings you here, but since you say you¡¯re a policeman perhaps something bad has befallen him. That would be a sign that God¡¯s judgment is upon him.¡¯
In the deacon¡¯s voice he heard faint echoes of a curse.
Whenever he discovered traces of ugliness and baseness behind gentle, noble appearances, Sergeant Nam usually experienced a feeling of pleasure on finding what he had been expecting, and an inexplicable sense of relief. In the case of Min Yoseop, however, it was different; he rather felt a kind of bitterness, as if he been betrayed by someone he had trusted. He even found himself wondering if Min Yoseop had not fallen into some kind of trap.
If Sergeant Nam set off to meet another of Min Yoseop¡¯s former acquaintances, it was entirely on account of that personal feeling he had, almost unconnected with the investigation as such. This time, having deliberately searched in that direction, he met a former member of the church, whose memories were quite unlike those of the deacon.
¡®I remember that student quite well. He had a radical streak to him, but he was a good churchman and a devoted Sunday-school teacher. As for his alleged adultery, I really don¡¯t know . . . Everyone was talking about it at the time but there were aspects that were very hard to understand. He was, I suppose, barely twenty then—certainly not the age to know much about that kind of thing. Even if he had been so depraved at such an early age, why would he have seduced a married woman approaching thirty, with two children into the bargain? There were plenty of pretty girls of his own age he could easily have associated with if he¡¯d wanted to. If there was someone fishy, she was the one. She was supposed to be the daughter of some church¡¯s elder, but she didn¡¯t seem to have much real faith. Besides, the fact of having married a man over forty who had already been married once, when she was only twenty-four, was enough to make you wonder. Her behavior after her marriage with elder Mun was definitely far from perfect. She had two children, but it wasn¡¯t sure they were both his—at least, that¡¯s what some people were saying. If ever something happened between the student and that woman, he¡¯s not the one who should be blamed. The people who sympathized with him claimed he was the victim.
¡®The fight in the church? I don¡¯t know about other things, but as far as the minister goes, frankly I¡¯m on the side of the student. I¡¯m not sure what people will think of me talking like this to a stranger, but to all appearances, the minister seemed an extraordinary man. In those days, that neighborhood was a shantytown outside the city limits. The minister arrived with just an army tent that could hold thirty people, but within five years he¡¯d succeeded in building the present church. I¡¯ve been told that he had already built two other churches in the same way. If building big, elaborate churches is the only way for someone to be a faithful servant of God, then he was certainly the most faithful servant of all. The problem was that the new building and the land it stood on had been registered in his own name. He had bribed some of the leading members of the church in order to do that. Later we learned that he had registered the other two churches, those he had built before, either under his own name or that of his wife. Once he had built those churches, he had employed ministers to serve in them, then moved to our area with his rolled-up tent and started a new church here.
¡®In other words, erecting a church offered him a fully legal way of making a fortune. He would take all the money offered by the believers in the first two churches, claiming to be using it for the costs of the new building, leaving only enough to pay barely sufficient living expenses to the minister in charge and to cover minimum maintenance costs. While at the same time he could demand, with all his authority, the maximum in offerings from the faithful in our church. Only think! When it comes to building a church, the house of God, what believer wouldn¡¯t consider it important?
¡®In a poor shanty-town like ours, the faithful were mostly ignorant, uneducated folk who did all they could to contribute to the construction of the church. People living from hand to mouth would labor without pay at least once a week to cut into the hill and level the ground for the new building. Since it was being done for God, there was no question of resting even on Sundays. The minister urged them to make the work go faster, even reducing the length of the services. And do you know how much he demanded in offerings? People who had just enough for that day¡¯s evening meal gave the money for their next day¡¯s breakfast to the church. Obviously, some people did that out of a deep faith, but most of them did it on account of the minister¡¯s threatening descriptions of the wrath of God, with the fire and brimstone of Hell. Most of his sermons would begin, ¡®Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth¡¯ and ¡®Man does not live by bread alone, but by the Word of God,¡¯ and end with descriptions of the Last Judgment and the terrible punishments God had in store for those who did not obey those commands.
¡®By the time that student moved into the neighborhood, the church had already taken shape. At first, he was extremely polite to the minister, as docile as could be. But as time passed he became increasingly critical; in the end, once he realized what was going on, he began to demand that he repent and that corrections be made. The minister probably viewed that as youthful rashness and did not take his demands seriously. Once the young man had denounced the minister¡¯s behavior publicly to the faithful and begun to gather support, the minister reacted with every means at his disposal. He tried to control the faithful by asserting his pastoral authority; he tried to threaten them in God¡¯s name, coaxed them with small advantages, anything to keep them on his side. The claim that he had tempted and divided the simple flock was an accusation the minister¡¯s supporters made in response to the situation.
¡®It was then that the incident occurred that I feel ashamed to talk about, since it involves our church. It happened one Sunday, shortly before the student disappeared from our neighborhood. That day, as usual, the minister was preaching in such a way as to put himself in an advantageous situation, quoting ¡®Man does not live by bread alone.¡¯ That student, who had been sitting in the front row, rushed toward the pulpit, pointed his finger at him, and shouted, ¡®Shut up! What can the Word give us? Misused by someone like you, the very bread is being snatched out of our mouths!¡¯ Up in the pulpit, the minister cried, ¡®Get thee hence, Satan!¡¯ and the student, unable to take any more, climbed up to the pulpit, grabbed the minister by the neck, and forced him down while denouncing all his corruptions. The minister responded equally vigorously, accusing the student of adultery—that was the first anyone had heard of it—then those who supported the minister rushed up and tried to throw the student out while those who believed him and thought he was right rallied round him. The church found itself in utter turmoil.
¡®Because of the fight, the police were brought in; since his actions were about to become public knowledge, the minister abruptly transferred ownership of the church and land to the church members, and resigned. Many, disgusted at the ugly fight, left to join other churches, far away but peaceful. I was one of them. At that time the situation in our church was absolutely appalling. It took four or five years to recover to the state you can see today. Seeing how the church was devastated, you could say that that student did not act in the best possible way. But it would not be fair to blindly take the minister¡¯s side and blame no one but the student.¡¯
He had spent nearly one hour listening and the short winter¡¯s day was already drawing to a close. Sergeant Nam still hoped to meet Elder Mun and catch at least the night train back to Daegu. He had spent a long time listening to a story that did not seem directly helpful to the investigation, but he was feeling much relieved.
The idea that he had to meet Elder Mun was a quite commonsensical one, since he was included among the suspects. Elder Mun had opened a cereal company on moving to the city of Seongnam. Sergeant Nam felt rather disappointed as he pushed open the door of a run-down shop that might be more accurately termed a rice store than a cereal company, having imagined him to be quite rich. It took more than two hours for him to make the journey from Seoul and then have supper and it had already been dark for some time; there was nobody in the store, as if the owner had gone in for a late evening meal.
He called in a loud voice toward the door at the back that led inside. He was obliged to call several times before an old man with a gloomy face and of uncertain years emerged. It was Elder Mun. The moment Sergeant Nam saw him, he smiled bitterly to himself, because he knew his true age and realized how foolish his suspicions had been. Still, he had to be cautious because of the way crime often refused to follow the dictates of common sense.
Sergeant Nam asked him at once about his young second wife. Elder Mun replied calmly: ¡®She left home a long time ago.¡¯
¡®Did you get a divorce?¡¯
Feeling slightly tense, Sergeant Nam enquired. If she had lived with Min Yoseop after leaving home, it might not have been so foolish to suspect Elder Mun.:
¡®No. How should men put apart those whom God has joined together? I even moved here for her sake, but still she left in the end. But what do all these questions mean? Why are you looking for her?¡¯
His voice was full of gloom. After a moment¡¯s hesitation, Sergeant Nam revealed the death of Min Yoseop in a few words. Elder Mun¡¯s face hardened for a second.
¡®I hate to say it, but he was already a dead man.¡¯ Sergeant Nam offered the hint casually, without taking his eyes off Elder Mun, whose face quickly returned to its normal calm expression.
;No, I don¡¯t hate him. Looking back, I reckon he too was merely a victim. I forgave him long ago, and forgot him.¡¯
¡®What do you mean, he too?¡¯
¡®She was Satan¡¯s agent in all that. I did everything for her, but less than a year after we got here, there was already another man . . .¡¯
His voice died away and his face creased with lines of deep anguish.
¡®The man working in this shop. But God forgive me, I feel sure it would take more than the fingers of one hand to count the people she had been with in this street alone.¡¯
It was the same story as Sergeant Nam had heard in Seoul. There was no reason why Elder Mun should have directed his resentment against Min Yoseop in particular. Besides, even if he had possessed such animosity, it hardly seemed possible he would have been capable, with his body like a withered old tree trunk, of using a knife to kill young Min Yoseop. But on the basis of what he said, he could not draw any definite conclusions regarding the young wife. He felt he had to meet her in person to confirm for sure that the unfortunate couple had had nothing to do with Min Yoseop¡¯s death.
¡®Do you know where your wife is now?¡¯
¡®I have no idea. I¡¯ve not had any news of her for the past five years.¡¯
¡®How many children do you have?¡¯
¡®Two—a girl who¡¯s just started middle school and a boy in the fifth year of primary school.¡¯
¡®Are they both her children?¡¯
¡®Yes, my first wife died without having any children. Why are you asking about them?¡¯
¡®No particular reason. You must have had a hard time.¡¯
¡®Please, I beg you, don¡¯t let the children hear anything about their mother. To them she was a good mother. I¡¯ve told them she died in an accident. Last autumn I took them to visit her grave; of course, it was actually that of my first wife . . .¡¯
Elder Mun¡¯s request sounded sincere. Yet the more he listened to him, the more Sergeant Nam felt a stubborn conviction growing inside him that he had to meet that wife who had left home, even if she turned out to have had nothing to do with the death of Min Yoseop. It was for that reason that he had asked about the children. He knew that, even if separated parents break off all contact, the children usually stay in touch with both. Especially if the first child was already in middle school, no matter how carefully Elder Mun tried to hide everything, he guessed she was bound to have at least a vague idea of what had become of her mother and have some kind of contact with her. Sergeant Nam nodded his acceptance of Elder Mun¡¯s request as he went out, but felt he had to meet the children and ask their mother¡¯s address.
Sergeant Nam¡¯s guess proved correct. He spent the night in a nearby inn, then early in the morning went to wait at the corner of a cold alley, where he was able to meet Elder Mun¡¯s daughter on her way to school at about eight, and obtained her mother¡¯s address without much difficulty. She was living in Seoul.
Returning quickly to Seoul, Sergeant Nam found the house, which proved to be a neat, traditional-style house in the Insa-dong area. From the outside it looked like an ordinary private home, but once inside it seemed to be an unlicensed entertainment house. On the branches of the well-kept trees in the yard a number of sea-fish—cod and pollack—were hanging to dry to be served as snacks. In a large aquarium in the wood-floored hall were swimming flounders and squid, certainly not there for decoration. However, the clearest indication of the nature of the place came from the women. Although it was past ten in the morning, young women of a particular type were bustling around in their nightdresses with puffy faces.
Sergeant Nam enquired for Elder Mun¡¯s wife, giving her name to a girl who was filing her nails at one end of the veranda, her hair wrapped in a towel, as though she had just finished washing. Without any special caution, she called toward the inner room: ¡®Madam Jin, a visitor!¡¯
Without any reply, a door slid back and a woman emerged. The wife of Elder Mun looked less than thirty, although he knew she was really in her late thirties. Perhaps because she had already applied makeup, to Sergeant Nam she looked more youthful and sensual than the other girls. But at her age she could not be an ordinary employee, she must be the manageress.
To Sergeant Nam¡¯s surprise, at first she could not remember Min Yoseop at all. He reminded her of certain events and showed her his photo, at which she finally recognized him: ¡®Oh, that student!¡¯ She registered no more feeling than if she had been shown the photo of a not particularly close classmate from primary school. It was the same when she heard of Min Yoseop¡¯s death. She not only displayed no surprise or sorrow, she did not utter a single word of regret.
As she later explained, Min Yoseop had not been the only man with whom she had had illicit relations at that time. It had been the same when she left Elder Mun, and judging by the overall atmosphere Sergeant Nam had the impression she was still involved in a giddy tour of the available men. If her relationship with Min Yoseop had been so scandalous for the members of the church, it was because he was a seminary student and a Sunday-school teacher in the church where her husband was an elder, and their secret meetings had mainly taken place in the course of church activities.
Sergeant Nam, although no churchgoer, was taken aback to hear her relate what had happened one evening during a revival meeting one year. When everyone was in the church engaged in all-night prayers, they had slipped out surreptitiously and made love in a shed behind the minister¡¯s house so noisily that a neighboring dog had begun to bark in surprise. As a result they had been discovered by the minister¡¯s cook, who must have told the minister; she related the events of that evening in considerable detail.
Sergeant Nam was lost for words on hearing her tell not only that, but a lot of other things women do not usually discuss, without any embarrassment. She struck him as being a mindless doll, the very incarnation of carnal desire. But strangely enough, in spite of the way she behaved almost like a born whore, he could not sense any indecency or depravity in her way of speaking and behaving. It all suited her so well, like a well fitting dress, and even served to highlight her almost bewitching freshness.
As time went by, Sergeant Nam increasingly felt that he was on the wrong track. Yet in one corner of his mind he stubbornly felt that something would come out. Therefore, although knowing the obvious answer, he asked a question: ¡®Have you heard from him recently, by any chance?¡¯
She looked incredulous and laughed to herself as she replied:
¡®You really don¡¯t believe me? Even now, I don¡¯t leave anything behind with men. Once our bodies separate, I take my heart back. Why drag things out, once you¡¯re apart? And in any case, with that student, it only got physical a few times. One evening there was a power cut and the sight of him praying under the oil lamp tickled my appetite, like a fresh fish, so I just took him once. He was a greenhorn; his talents were not so wonderful as to leave any memories . . .¡¯
She pulled out a cigarette from inside her dress and lit it. The way she sat there with her legs crossed, carelessly exhaling the smoke, made her look like an arrogant queen. As he watched her, Sergeant Nam felt the hope he had so far stubbornly nourished of finding in her a clue for his investigation snap miserably. His intuition, resulting from the last ten years¡¯ experience as a detective, told him that she had no direct relationship with the death of Min Yoseop. Sergeant Nam hurriedly parted from her. If he was to get to the police station before office hours were over, he would have to catch the midday train for Daegu at the latest.
Sergeant Nam barely caught the train and once he was seated he closed his eyes for a moment, feeling dispirited. Then he set about examining one by one the notebooks he had taken from Min Yoseop¡¯s house. As things stood now, they were the only hope he had. Sometimes, the personal notes or the diaries of a culprit or a victim could provide significant information for an investigation. But, on the other hand, he was equally beginning to develop a personal interest in Min Yoseop.
The first thing he opened was the bundle of diaries. The one he picked up happened to begin just after he had entered the seminary. The first parts were full of the ardent faith and an ambition to attain true goodness that had motivated his decision to quit university and enter the seminary. Soon, though, his interest shifted to the material conditions of human life and to social problems, and he went on to formulate doubts about the Christian religion itself. Particularly after returning from a lepers¡¯ village, days had gone by filled with religious doubts.
¡®How can misfortune befall humanity, indifferent to considerations of good or evil?¡¯ ¡®Words of Jesus declare that those who are rich, strong, and powerful are nothing. Then why are they everything in this world? According to the words of Jesus, the poor, the sick, and the rejected are everything. Why then are they nothing in this world?¡¯ ¡®The world is full of superstitions designed to foster belief. Religion is perhaps in some way nothing more than the most skillful form of superstition.¡¯ Although the contents of the diary were almost constantly abstract and conceptual, Sergeant Nam was able to keep on reading thanks to such poignant questions inserted here and there.
The train was passing Yeongdong Station by the time he had finished perusing the whole diary. Although Sergeant Nam scanned quickly through the abstract parts, he paid close attention to the sections dealing with his daily life, but the diary ended on the day of his expulsion from the seminary, without providing any definite clues that could shed light on events afterward.
Sergeant Nam next opened the remaining bundles of manuscript. It was written in the form of a novel, but to Sergeant Nam¡¯s limited knowledge, his rusty brain dulled by repeated daily routine and professional modes of thinking, it was just as hard as the diary. As the train approached Daegu, he would probably have given up before the end of the second page had it not been for the sense of frustration arising from the way he was bringing so little back from his trip, combined with the fact that he had nothing else to do except go on reading.
In the days of Octavius Augustus, in the early years of the Roman Empire, the Three Wise Men from the East must have been an immense disappointment to Yahweh, who had until then only been the God of Jacob and his descendants. Later generations invariably considered Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar to have been wise men, but it seems extremely doubtful whether they were truly wise and their actions were really worthy to contribute to ¡®Glory in the Highest¡¯ and ¡®Peace on Earth.¡¯
No matter how faithfully Yahweh may have been fulfilling the prophecies made by the servants he had sent previously, he must have been highly embarrassed when they arrived so noisily, seeking the birth-place of his son, bearing extraordinary gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. For Yahweh, the occasion was destined to be a lamentable mistake for long ages after. Because Mary was another man¡¯s espoused wife, her son was later mocked as a god who ¡®demolished the gates of the prescriptive law he had himself erected¡¯ and had ¡®come in by a short cut,¡¯ and because she was a human being, controversies about the status of her son drove the early Church into conflicts so terrible that Arius, that lofty ascetic, was condemned to the humiliation of expulsion from the Church, while Nestorius, austere and faithful servant though he was, was obliged to succumb to the fatigue of exile. It would have been so much better if those irresponsible prophecies of Isaiah—¡®Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son¡¯ and ¡®the Messiah will be born of David¡¯s line¡¯ and the rest—had been ignored. It would have far better if the Son of God had come down in a flash of lightning or sprung from a rock. He might even have fulfilled a prophecy of Daniel and arrived borne on a cloud.
Further doubts as to the wisdom of those men from the East arise from the immaturity of their words and deeds prior to the moment when Yahweh arrived in the humble stable that served as a delivery room for his son. Because they kept asking everywhere they passed where the King of the Jews was going to be born, Jerusalem was stirred, and the intention of Yahweh, to keep the birth of his Son secret until the proper moment, was betrayed. Presumably that was why he sent down angels, when the birth of his Son was imminent, and announced it in haste to shepherds as lowly as tax collectors or tanners.
The foolishness and indiscretion of the three men from the East did not stop there, since news of the amazing birth finally reached the ears of the tyrant. While his darling son was making the dangerous journey to that unfamiliar, far-away land of Egypt, passing through a forest of swords, Yahweh must have felt such anxiety as he watched over him. How vexed he must have been on seeing Limbo suddenly crowded with the souls of all those Jewish babies massacred by Herod¡¯s troops, and what regret he must have felt at all those reproaches through later ages that he had brought about his son¡¯s birth on the basis of the sacrifice of innumerable innocent lives.
Blessed be the Evangelist who, ignorant of all that, discretely praised the three for their simplicity. Likewise whoever it was who later created the legend that they were the kings of some oriental lands, finding no better way to glorify them. To say nothing of the apostle Thomas, reputed to have traveled so far to visit the three men in their old age; and Saint Helena who made such efforts to recover their remains; and Fredrick Barbarossa who did all he could to transfer those relics into the great cathedral of Cologne, uncertain though it is if they were authentic or not. Sancta simplicitas!
Moreover, the story of the three men from the East did not end with their controversial veneration of the baby. Yahweh, fearful that on their way home they might drop in on Herod and tell him truthfully where his son was, belatedly intervened by sending angels. That very night, avoiding Herod and following a different road as the angels had told them, the three men arrived in the Plain of Esdraelon, where they beheld another star that inspired them, a great, dark red star, possessing all the attributes of every star, known to astrologers as the Star of Disaster.
At the sight of a star so utterly in contrast with that which they had been following eagerly all those months, they stopped in their tracks, at first only vaguely intrigued. But then they found themselves seized with an inexplicable fear and trembling. It was above all on account of the strange light emanating from it, rather than on account of any preconception inspired by their knowledge of oriental mysteries. Boding ill yet darkly tempting, the light seemed directed at their hearts like a myriad black arrows, and at the same time it soothed their souls like a warm blessing.
Their beliefs and knowledge meant that they saw everything only in terms of good or evil, darkness or light, and therefore they trembled all the more in fear before the unfamiliar ambivalence and complexity of the light from this star. Caspar in particular, with his weak heart, shocked by his own conclusion that it was a trick of Satan directed at them, would have fallen from his camel if Melchior had not held him up. Even Balthazar, the eldest of the three, with the widest experience of the world, came out in a cold sweat and set about reciting all the prayers people of those times reckoned effective in such a case.
But impervious to every kind of threat, be it an eternally burning pillar of fire or a blazing lake of molten rock, the frozen ocean that will extinguish the sun or the hell of flogging more agonizing than all the whips of the Assyrian tyrant Ashurbanipal, the heavenly warrior of lightning and thunder, the swords of the Zoroastrian divinity Spenta Armaiti, sharper than all the weapons of the Hittites, or the chains of adamant that bind for a thousand years, that star did not vanish until the morning sun rose bright. As a result of their prejudices, equaled by their blindness and ignorance, the three men from the East merely took the star for a sign of calamity, whereas in fact it shone for another great providential event; at that hour, in a house near Bethel belonging to a teacher of the school of Shammai, a true Son of Man had been born, Ahasuerus.
No surviving record tells how Ahasuerus avoided wicked Herod¡¯s swords. One malicious legend tells that he was easily able to deceive the soldiers of Herod, who were only looking for infants of less than two years old, because with the assistance of an evil spirit he was able to walk and talk from the moment of his birth. Still, it seems more reasonable to conjecture that he was able to avoid death thanks to his father¡¯s cunning art of social survival, rather than accept such nonsense. According to the known facts, while his father appeared publicly to belong to the party of the Pharisees, secretly he had from an early age been linked to the Sadducees and the supporters of Herod.
At any rate, while the son of Yahweh was growing up in wretched poverty in Heliopolis, Ahasuerus was able to enjoy a peaceful childhood in his father¡¯s small but charming house. Apart from that detail, most of his childhood, like that of the son of Yahweh, is buried in the darkness of history. As a result, in order to reconstitute his youth we are obliged to rely on fragmentary, uncertain legends just as people rely entirely on apocryphal gospels for stories about the son of Yahweh.
According to them, Ahasuerus was from infancy extremely thoughtful and intelligent. The malicious claim that he was able to walk and speak from birth was probably an embellishment based on those remarkable talents. Above all, he had such an exceptional memory that by the age of about ten he could virtually recite the Torah by heart. His father, although he considered himself a master of the Law, had spent his whole life carefully repeating the words of others, and dreamed of raising his amazing son to become the greatest rabbi in Judea. Indeed, his dream might have been realized, if it had not been for the call of a greater providence.
The first sign of providence revealed itself when Ahasuerus was twelve. For the Passover that year, he set out with his parents to worship at Jerusalem. They entered the city, after a long journey, as the sun was setting and people were already slaughtering the sacrificial lambs and anointing their thresholds with a branch of hyssop dipped in the blood.
They made their way through streets bustling with preparations for the Feast of Unleavened Bread that was about to begin and headed for the house of an uncle of Ahasuerus who lived in the eastern section of the city. Unlike his scholarly brother, his uncle had early gone up to Jerusalem and begun life as a merchant, going into leather trading, that everyone despised, and was currently doing very well in shoe-making.
After initial greetings, the grown-ups busily set about preparing for the festival. Taking advantage of that, Ahasuerus went outside, where suddenly an odd sight attracted his attention. A crowd of neighborhood children was following a man, mocking him and shouting:
¡®Thedos, Thedos, Thedos the Braggart!
Thedos, Thedos, Thedos fake Messiah!¡¯
Some naughty children threw handfuls of sand at the man, or poked him with a long stick. The man walked on, not scolding them and showing no anger. He did not look mad, or possessed, but his unsteady gait, his projecting cheekbones and the pallor of his face all indicated how exhausted and hungry he was. Ahasuerus felt sorry for him for some reason and quickly fetched from his uncle¡¯s house some leavened bread and unclean meat that had been put aside to be thrown away.
When Ahasuerus came running back to the man, he was resting with his back against a wall in the open space at the end of the village. Slumped on the paving stone he had carefully chosen, he quickly glanced round at the children who had been following him. His expression was one of slight annoyance, not of anger, yet it somehow intimidated the crowd of children, so that they ran away in all directions.
¡®Child, what do you want?¡¯
The man, noticing Ahasuerus, who was still lingering there when all the other children had left, questioned him.
¡®There¡¯s some bread and meat here . . .¡¯
Ahasuerus replied cautiously, showing him the basket he was carrying.
¡®Really? That¡¯s very kind of you. Did you bring it for me?¡¯
¡®Yes, but it¡¯s leavened bread.¡¯
¡®That doesn¡¯t matter. The Feast of Unleavened Bread hasn¡¯t begun yet.¡¯
The man took the basket and hungrily ate the bread and meat. Then he drank from a nearby well before slowly examining Ahasuerus. Finally he asked him: ¡®Do you live hereabouts?¡¯
¡®No, I¡¯m here visiting my uncle.¡¯
¡®I suppose you came with your parents to worship in the Temple?¡¯
¡®Thank you, anyway. I feel stronger, thanks to you.¡¯
Ahasuerus could see nothing particular about him that might have made the children follow him, mocking. He plucked up his courage to ask the question that had been preoccupying him for some while.
¡®Say . . . what did you do?¡¯
¡®What? Oh, you mean the children . . .?¡¯
¡®Yes. Why were they following behind you and teasing you?¡¯
¡®It was because . . . ¡®
He paused and smiled sourly.
¡®It was because I commanded the walls of Jerusalem to collapse.¡¯
Unable to understand, Ahasuerus repeated his question. Again the man smiled sourly and replied as if he were talking about someone else.
¡®In order to manifest my power to all the Jews; I made out that I was the Messiah.¡¯
Hearing that, Ahasuerus felt he somehow understood what the man meant. Although only a child, he had already heard, through the whispers and sniggers of grown-ups, rumors of the false messiahs who were causing such a stir. One false messiah had assembled a crowd beside the Jordan, claiming to be able to walk on water like Moses, but then he sank. Another self-proclaimed messiah had summoned people to gather in the plain where he would reveal to them the face of God, but only ended up covered in sand. Ahasuerus thought he had heard something of what the man before him had done. But on meeting him, instead of finding that amusing as grown-ups did, Ahasuerus felt mystified and curious.
¡®So what happened?¡¯
¡®Well, not a stone moved, of course.¡¯
The man continued to speak as if it had happened to someone else. Ahasuerus found his way of talking very strange.
¡®So you¡¯re not the Messiah and you did what you did knowing that the walls were not going to fall down?¡¯
¡®Right. And I did it after gathering tens of thousands of people on the Mount of Olives.¡¯
Once again, the man smiled strangely. Bewildered, Ahasuerus asked again: ¡®But why did you do it? ¡®
¡®More importantly, you¡¯re listening to what I say and not laughing. Why don¡¯t you laugh like the rest?¡¯
Suddenly looking serious as he spoke, the man gazed intently into Ahasuerus¡¯ face. He then looked sterner as he asked another question, to which he had no answer: ¡®Child, how old are you?¡¯
¡®What do you want to become in the future?¡¯
¡®I would like to become the most respected rabbi in the country.¡¯
Ahasuerus gave the reply he had learned from his parents and the teachers in the synagogue.
¡®In that case, you must already have learned many things.¡¯
¡®I can recite the entire Torah by heart, almost without missing a line. I have also learned the Nebi'im, the Prophets, and the Kethubhim, the other writings, as well as the commentaries of the Midrash, the Hallaka, and the Mishnah.¡¯
With a childish pride, Ahasuerus reeled off everything he had ever studied. But unlike the teachers of the law and the scribes, the Sophrim, who had instructed him previously, the man did not seem surprised, neither did he show any interest in testing his knowledge. Ahasuerus had wanted to boast that he likewise knew the Haggada from the Talmud, and the apocryphal books, that he could speak Aramaic fluently, and that he had begun to read and write Greek, but he said nothing more, rather disappointed.
¡®You have indeed studied difficult texts, hard even for grown men to master. I believe you. But tell me, what can all those words give us? ¡®
The man, who had been observing the boy for a while in silence, questioned him with a watchful look. Ahasuerus hesitated, unsure of what the man was asking, then finally repeated the reply he usually gave to his parents and teachers.
¡®Why, everything—blessings and peace, and the strength capable of awakening the love and compassion of God.¡¯
¡®Really . . . ?¡¯
On hearing Ahasuerus¡¯ reply, the sad smile of a short while before returned to the man¡¯s face. He murmured, as if lamenting: ¡®Your father seems to have entrusted the formation of your wisdom to the priests and rabbis too soon.¡¯
What he said was too hard for a child in his twelfth year to reply to. The man remained silent, apparently absorbed in his own deep thoughts. An awkward silence settled between them.
¡®Child . . .¡¯
The man finally addressed the boy in a firmer voice, as if he had just come to a difficult decision. His gaze, too, was not that of the starving, exhausted vagrant he had been only a short time before.
¡®Will you meet me again tomorrow?¡¯
¡®Why?¡¯ He asked, feeling apprehension for some reason, mingled with a strange sense of expectancy.
¡®I¡¯ve not answered the question you were curious about yet. I¡¯ll give you an answer. But first, there¡¯s something I want to show you.¡¯
¡®What is it?¡¯
¡®Things that will teach you what the Word and the Law are. Anyhow, will you come to me tomorrow?¡¯
His eyes seemed to be burning bright with a myriad small flames. That, together with his low, powerful voice, was more than enough to overwhelm the soul of young Ahasuerus.
¡®Yes. I¡¯ll ask my parents.¡¯
¡®No, you must say nothing to them. You can go with them to the Temple, then steal away secretly while they are busy worshipping. I¡¯ll be waiting for you in front, where the moneychangers sit.¡¯
The man rose abruptly and hobbled away. The words he had spoken were like an order that Ahasuerus could not disobey.
The next day, drawn by an unknown power, he duly went to the appointed place to meet the false messiah Thedos, who first of all took him into a slum on the outskirts of the city. There, naked children without so much as a stitch of clothing were weeping for hunger, while beside them women were rolling on the ground, tearing at each other¡¯s hair, hurling coarse insults at one another over a scrap of bread, in a scene that showed to what extent material penury causes people misery and pain. Next, they visited a workshop manned by slaves. There, men were treating other men in a way no animal, no matter how fierce and brutal, ever treated its like, harshly harnessing them and dominating them with whips. Reduced to slavery after being defeated in war, or for not paying debts, yet prisoners of a superstition known as hope, they endured an existence worse than death, and would only escape from the bonds of misery and pain on the day their souls finally left their bodies. After that came an underground prison. It was not clear how Thedos managed to enter with the child into a place so strictly guarded, but Ahasuerus was deeply shocked by what he saw in that dark, dank gaol. Theft, robbery, murder, rape . . . people guilty of such crimes, dreadful when heard of outside, proved to be no more than his wretched fellow men who had lost the battle with their own flesh; what had turned the scales against them was generally the times and the social system. In addition, ever since the miserable end of the Hasmonaeans over thirty years before, some had been awaiting a Messiah from the family of David, one who would establish a political regime, others from among the descendants of Levi, the priestly caste with their religious, otherworldly vision. When it came to zealots who had fought and been taken prisoner in the resistance against Rome, there might be apprehension concerning their fanaticism, but not the least shadow of evil could be found in them.
Thedos did not stop there, but led Ahasuerus outside the city walls. He wanted to show him the Hill of Crosses, the main place of execution, and then the Valley of Lepers. On the Hill of Crosses, several Galileans were being executed; they had killed a Roman centurion and a tax collector. The man most recently crucified was screaming in pain, while others, having already spent long hours there, were slowly dying, calling the name of God or Elijah. Inside a cave in the Valley of Lepers, worse than any pig sty, lepers, whose only crime was to have been born with a body capable of being infected with such a terrible disease, addressed unending prayers to Heaven, lifting up disfigured faces and truncated limbs.
It is hard to believe that a boy of twelve, no matter how intelligent and thoughtful, would be able to comprehend fully the true implications of such scenes. But it seems clear that some kind of power, that went far beyond mere curiosity, was somehow vaguely leading him, for he continued to follow Thedos to the very end of that strange pilgrimage without turning away, although at such an age it was bound to provoke abhorrence and fear. Indeed, more than that; for, at the very moment when Ahasuerus was plumbing every recess of the misery and misfortune that befall human beings with their physical bodies, the son of Yahweh was in the Temple discussing the Word with famous priests and teachers, in which we cannot help but sense an intervention of Providence.
The day was drawing to a close by the time Thedos and Ahasuerus had visited all those places and returned to the city. Thedos walked ahead of the boy from beginning to end, not speaking, merely guiding, and it was only when they reached the vacant lot where they had met on the previous day that he looked at Ahasuerus and spoke as if resuming their previous conversation:
¡®Child, you are intelligent, so you will remember what I say, even if you do not yet understand fully the meaning of what you have seen today. Listen, and then think about it all for yourself, when your mind and intelligence are fully grown. Yesterday, you said that the Word can give us everything. But today you have seen for yourself that the Word can give us nothing. Were not people suffering and dying at the very moment when the priests and teachers were proclaiming at the top of their voices the Word in all its beauty and hope? The Word was unable to fill the hungry or clothe the naked. It was unable to protect people from crime and from disease; it was powerless against misery and misfortune. At this very moment, many thousand times the number of people you have seen today are dying pointlessly in pain, believing in the superstition of the Word.¡¯
Although Ahasuerus could understand almost nothing, his words penetrated deep into his soul, like rain soaking parched ground. Thedos briefly observed the boy with piercing eyes, as if to check how deeply his words were engraving themselves on his soul, then went on, his tone growing more passionate.
¡®Listen well. I feel that a critical moment is approaching. Someone is coming. But he must not simply be an incarnation of the Word. The one who comes must be able to give us everything we desire.
¡®For that, he must bring three keys with him: first, bread, to save our wretched bodies from famine; second, a miracle to protect our feeble minds from evil; and third, worldly power, to impose the order of justice and love on the history of blindness and cruelty. If any of those three are lacking, that person cannot be our Messiah.
¡®What I did on the Mount of Olives was designed to teach people that. I initially promised to give bread to my followers, but I could not keep my word. Then I declared that I would drive out the Romans, establish the kingdom of God in this land, and defend righteousness with the royal scepter and the sword, but that too I was unable to achieve. Finally, I revealed to the people on the Mount of Olives, through the memory of their disappointment, that the last of the signs a Messiah must bring with him is a miracle. Be sure to remember: bread, a miracle and power. The mere incarnation of the Word, just like the Word itself, can give us nothing.¡¯
After speaking, with a piercing gaze Thedos again looked at Ahasuerus, who was moved for a reason he could not fathom. At last Thedos smiled in satisfaction, as if confirming that his words were safely lodged deep in the boy¡¯s memory, then rose determinedly.
¡®Night has fallen, child. Go home now. I must be on my way, too.¡¯
Thedos hastily bade Ahasuerus farewell, while he was still standing there vacantly. He disappeared down an already darkening alley without once looking back. His words of farewell were spoken in the tired, weak voice of their first meeting, perhaps because of a sense of emptiness arising from a feeling that he had done what he had to do in life, but there was a mysterious aura about him as he walked away.
Ahasuerus only came to himself long after Thedos had disappeared into the dark alley. The anxious expressions of his parents, searching everywhere for him, suddenly came into his mind and his heart slowly filled with anguish as to what excuse he could find to explain how he had spent that day, for they could never understand if he told them the truth. He began to run as fast as he could toward his uncle¡¯s house, and the world of a twelve-year-old awaiting him there, forgetting Thedos and the rest. The memory of that strange day, engraved forever within his mind, would suddenly come rising in later days, steering his life in uncommon directions, but as yet his youth was utterly powerless to deal with the problem of God or of spiritual experience.
Time passed; time recorded nowhere, remembered by no one, known only to the soul of legend. Now Ahasuerus was in his eighteenth year, in the full springtime of his life.
Meanwhile, his body had fully matured. He was nearly a full span taller than his father and as broad-shouldered as the laborers engaged in felling the cedars of Lebanon. His face, where blond sideburns had begun to grow, was so handsome that girls would lie dreaming of him for several nights after a single glance; his brown eyes had lost their boyish sparkle and had taken on a darker, brighter sheen.
Like his body, his knowledge had matured. No other youth had studied and committed to memory as much as he had about the Word of Yahweh and his Law, the teachings of the prophets and their prophecies, the faith and exploits of kings and judges, the exegesis and commentaries of all the doctors of the Law, all the hymns so full of faith and the various apocalypses, the rituals and services of the Temple and the synagogues, all the rules and customs that determined the life of his people and much else beside. His skill in mastering languages was so exceptional that beside the written Hebrew inherited from his forefathers, he could speak Aramaic with the merchants arriving with caravans from exotic, eastern lands as with hometown friends. He had learned Greek so well through the translation of the Septuagint that his mind would have been capable of getting to the heart of Greek culture if the strict traditions of the Pharisees had not held him back.
Legends even claim that he knew every tongue from the land where the sun rises to the land where the sun sets. That rumor probably arose from exaggerations intended to prove that he had been assisted by Satan, but in view of the fact that Judea was situated at a crossroads of trade coming from all directions, where caravans arrived from many countries, it is quite probable that he might have known a few other languages in addition to Aramaic and Greek.
The learning that Ahasuerus had inherited from his ancestors in his own people¡¯s tongue as well as the learning borne in from other regions in strange tongues filled his mind and overflowed, casting a striking shadow across his face. It was a shadow deep and calm, resulting from the addition of intellectual charm to a man already handsome. But in years when he should have been whispering bashful feelings of love to girls of his own age, the spring of his adulthood sought him out in an unusual form.
One night in August, the month of Elul, Ahasuerus was prowling the dew-soaked garden surrounding Asaph¡¯s house. Asaph was extremely rich, owning several caravans and with a wharf of his own as well as a warehouse in the nearby port of Jaffa. Ahasuerus was waiting for the immense mansion to be asleep.
Soon the lamps in the windows went out one after another and the servants, who had been bustling about until it was late, coming and going as they finished washing the last dishes, finally seemed ready for sleep. Still Ahasuerus lingered in the shadow of the trees in the well-tended garden; only when the entire household had fallen into a deep silence did he move at last toward the house. Approaching the single window from which a bright and peculiarly voluptuous light still shone, he knocked lightly several times at regular intervals, as if tapping a signal.
Without any other sign the curtain lifted and the window opened silently. Ahasuerus climbed skillfully over the marble sill and into the room.
He was welcomed joyfully by Asaph¡¯s young wife, wrapped in a silk robe, eager to embrace his dew-soaked body. After his first wife died, his immense wealth had enabled Asaph to take a new wife, a beautiful young woman from an illustrious family. That was several years ago; since then she had become the mother of a boy and a girl, and she was approaching thirty with her beauty still quite dazzling.
¡®I don¡¯t know how I could have got through so long and dreary a night if you hadn¡¯t come. It¡¯s been five days since he left for Parthia to open up a new caravan route. I was waiting for you yesterday and the day before, with the blue veil hanging at the window.¡¯
She kissed Ahasuerus passionately, then whispered to him without releasing him. That blue veil at the window of her room was a signal they had adopted to indicate that her husband was absent.
¡®I knew, Sarah, of course I knew.¡¯
Ahasuerus stammered, giddy with the fragrance of the woman¡¯s flesh, a fragrance he had been deprived of for some time. He had in fact spent several days in agonies of indecision, ever since he learned that Asaph was away. The guilt he felt at having broken Yahweh¡¯s commandment and committed adultery with another man¡¯s wife, combined with an overwhelming remorse, had for some time now grown stronger than his reckless passion. He had already sworn to himself on several occasions, as he staggered from the deep shadows of Asaph¡¯s garden in the early morning light, that he would not come to her again.
Yet it had only taken a glimpse of the blue veil at her window for him to be swept away by an uncontrollable desire. No dreadful warning as to the wages of sin, no verse from any of the books of Wisdom teaching the vanity of carnal desire, had been of the slightest help to him. This time he had spent three whole days in an intense struggle with himself. After those wide-eyed, sleepless nights, in which each moment had been like a cruel whiplash, he found himself brought to his knees before her or rather before his own immense desire, finally defeated, shuddering with a greater ardor and excitement than on any previous nights he had spent with her.
¡®My beauty, my love! Why did the Lord not send you into the world a little later? Why did he not place you among our neighborhood girls so that I might take you for my lawful wedded wife? Why did he give you into the arms of that ugly old merchant? Why does he not allow us to spend every day and night in love together?¡¯
Ahasuerus stammered out his words, in the throes of a deep sorrow for reasons he could not grasp, lying like a child in the woman¡¯s arms with his brow pressed between her warm breasts. The torment and agony he had experienced in the course of those nights now turned into uncontrollable tears that flowed down his haggard cheeks.
¡®My poor dear! You¡¯re crying like a fool. Here we are together, and can feel love for each other like this.¡¯
¡®That¡¯s not what I meant, Sarah. Why has God . . .¡¯
Sarah loosened her embrace and placed her soft white hand over Ahasuerus¡¯ mouth.
¡®That nonsense again! Now, take me in your arms. Hold me tight, passionately. The morning star and the cock that will crow at dawn are jealous of us as they await their hour. Stop hurting yourself with pointless worries and regrets. We should simply enjoy the cup that is before us. All we have to do is drink and enjoy it when we can. Come, quickly.¡¯
With those words, she warmly embraced Ahasuerus, who was caught in the throes of a strange blend of passion and torment, and drew him toward the bed. The luxuriously adorned bed and the memories of the pleasures they had shared there kindled him instantly, body and soul. It was a fire of intense carnal desire that burned clean away every other thought.
As on previous occasions, they fell on to the bed in a tight embrace and lay rolling there. They were fierce waves and a boat rocking to the movement of the waves; a mighty waterfall, an inextricable swamp, wild stallions, tenacious serpents. They each gave themselves unsparingly at the same time as each greedily took from the other, tormenting and enduring torments. It was at the same moment a focusing and a releasing, a suffocating act of coming together, then pushing away in surprise.
The bed creaked despite the skilled carpenter¡¯s boasts of how solid it was; strange groans that might be shouts or might be sobs burst out in spite of every caution and effort to restrain them, and a storm of passion swept over them amidst a rustling of bedding. Bathed in sweat, Ahasuerus lay as if dead on top of the woman, without the least movement. She gently pulled him down to lie at her side and whispered as she snuggled afresh against his breast:
¡®Could Heaven be more delightful, more blissful than the place we have just passed through together? Could Heaven be more beautiful or more resplendent? Oh, beloved Ahasuerus, when I saw you for the very first time in the olive grove at Shekhem on the feast-day of Purim, I recognized that you bore a heaven within you. In your red, warm lips, your profound gaze, in your soft hands, and above all in your body, so well proportioned and so strong, like a Greek statue, I saw . . .¡¯
Her voice was moist, thick with the sensations of pleasure still thrilling and flowing through every part of her body. For Ahasuerus it was otherwise. He was blankly staring up at the ceiling with a vacant gaze. He tried to stifle the voice of guilt and repentance rising from deep in his heart by the memory of the rapture of the previous moments, but to no avail. Rather, as the fire of desire subsided and the palpitations of his body slowed, the voices grew louder.
¡®Why has the Lord not allowed us to enjoy ours bodies freely, after giving them to us? Why did he send his Word belatedly to name this joy a sin? Why is it that as soon as I¡¯ve finished making love to you, so many helpless tears flow like this?¡¯
Unable to endure any longer the tormenting voices in his heart, Ahasuerus murmured sadly. His murmur vexed Sarah, who was intent on savoring her pleasure for as long as possible, regretting only that it was already fading, but she spoke with a gentle, caressing voice as if to soothe him:
¡®Ahasuerus, you should forget all that. Those commandments are for old men and for priests, not for us. They were handed down to Moses by the cantankerous ghost of Horeb, intent on forbidding for no reason at all anything that might give us joy or pleasure; it¡¯s not something demanded by the almighty El Shaddai, God of Abraham.¡¯
¡®They¡¯re one and the same God, not two. Besides, ever since that Word was received by our forefathers and placed in the Ark of the Covenant, it has become the object of our faith and worship, virtually equivalent to God¡¯s presence. Sarah, we mustn¡¯t deny the Word and the Law in order to deny our sin.¡¯
At that, she finally manifested her feelings of displeasure. She drew Ahasuerus¡¯ head toward her, and gazed into his eyes as she spoke sharply:
¡®You¡¯re afraid. What you really fear isn¡¯t the Word of God, or his Law; it¡¯s being dragged into the street and being struck by the stones people throw, isn¡¯t it? But I¡¯m not afraid. If I am to be rewarded with the moments of ecstasy I have just experienced, no flying stone, however sharp, could ever hurt me.¡¯
¡®I fear the stone that is flying toward my conscience.¡¯
¡®A stone flying toward your conscience? My mother¡¯s a daughter of the tribe of Levi and my brother¡¯s a well-known rabbi, but I don¡¯t believe in all that. Did you know what sin was from the moment you were born? Isn¡¯t it because people have told you certain things are sins that now you regard them as sins? Nothing in this world is a sin from the beginning. It¡¯s the same with adultery . . . What¡¯s turned that into a sin is a mean trick invented by men uncertain of being able to keep control of their wives by the power of love alone, as a way of binding them to themselves. Only think for a moment! What harm have we done, except to the vanity of an ugly old merchant and his warped self-esteem? We¡¯ve simply been happily enjoying the bodies that the Lord gave us.
¡®Besides, even if it is a sin, I don¡¯t regret or fear anything. Because between knowing nothing of this pleasure or of the pangs of conscience, or knowing it and suffering, there¡¯s almost no difference. It¡¯s better to eat both sweet and sour figs than not to eat the sweet fig for fear of the bitter fig that may follow it.¡¯
To Ahasuerus, who had only chosen celebrated masters, only heard orthodox forms of teaching, Sarah¡¯s reasoning was new and artful, and it therefore felt strange to him. Still, one thing he could not comprehend was the light that seemed to be shining from her flushed face. Not the gloom of sin and death but the fullness of beauty and life, it was a light he had never before seen emanating from her or from anyone else.
Ahasuerus gazed at her in astonishment. But only for a moment; flowing in his people¡¯s veins, faith in the Word and the Law had accumulated like perpetual snows in their souls as generation followed generation, and it quickly transformed his astonishment into a strong sense of guilt. Instead of contradicting her, he slowly rose, feeling even grimmer than before, and went to where his clothes lay strewn.
¡®Ahasuerus, wait. Will you leave before you drain the cup poured out for you? There are still many hours before the first cockcrow.¡¯
Presumably her still unfulfilled desires were urging her, for Sarah now moved toward him on her knees, preventing him from getting dressed. Her beauty, shining in a bewitching manner from her totally unclothed body, served to stimulate Ahasuerus afresh. He stopped briefly, then pushed her hand away. He struggled to control his thoughtlessly reviving desire by imagining the vulgar coquetry of the prostitutes on the streets.
¡®Sarah, you must let me go. I need to reflect alone. If I find the self-confidence, I will come back.¡¯
He stuttered. Yet he knew full well that this was the end. Sarah, awakened now from the dizziness of her passion by the humiliation of having been rejected, seemed to have realized it too. Her renunciation of him was so quick and clean that Ahasuerus was puzzled when he later recalled the moment. Rising with a little sigh, Sarah drew on the silk nightdress that Ahasuerus had so hastily torn from her. Going to a mirror, she straightened her clothing and arranged her disheveled hair, then she addressed Ahasuerus calmly as he was about to climb out through the window:
¡®Goodbye, Ahasuerus. What was nothing special for me was highly painful for you. But now I am giving you your freedom. Don¡¯t yearn for me. What I loved was a healthy man in the fresh flush of youth, not some particular person with your name and your mind.¡¯
Her words might have seemed a form of revenge but nothing in her face suggested that she was lying or exaggerating.
So Ahasuerus found himself back in his own world, that he had paid no heed to for some time. Yet it was no longer the world of the Temple or the synagogues where his former teachers were still to be found; nor that of his father¡¯s library with its smell of parchment, or the world of the Word. Ridding himself of all the preconceptions and prejudices he had acquired by his studies and learning, he focused on an aspect of human life that he had newly discovered by himself through Sarah. He had only detected a vague shadow of it here and there in a few verses of the Psalms and the Song of Songs, but there were no writings he had read, no words he had heard, that explained the light full of beauty and life he had glimpsed during the last night he had spent with her. Yet despite his constant scrutiny and repeated sleepless nights, the true nature of that light remained unfathomable. No matter how hard he tried to suppress it, his carnal desire came surging back whenever there was a chink and his longing for her grew ever stronger.
A few months passed. One day Ahasuerus went for a walk through the streets to clear his mind, exhausted by sorrowful musings, and noticed, on some open ground in front of a synagogue, a strange commotion among a crowd gathered there. Approaching unthinkingly, he realized from their threatening eyes and the stones they were carrying that it must be one of the impromptu street-side trials that occasionally happened. He was about to leave before the cruel spectacle began; but when he saw the woman who was being dragged into the center of the crowd he stopped in surprise. It was Sarah, Asaph¡¯s young wife. But although she was surrounded by a furious mob, she had the appearance of a noblewoman. She seemed to have been awakened from slumber by the noise of a crowd and come out to see what vulgar activities they were up to, rather than a sinner trembling before her imminent death.
¡®What has that woman done?¡¯
Ahasuerus questioned an unknown bystander in a shaken voice. The man spat out a reply, his face expressing an insidious mixture of instinctive disgust and incomprehensible jealousy:
¡®She has broken the Law, committing the sin of adultery.¡¯
¡®Who was her partner?¡¯
Quailing inwardly, Ahasuerus questioned him again urgently. The man¡¯s face twisted with reinforced viciousness as he replied:
¡®A young groom in the service of Asaph. He¡¯s already been killed by his master.¡¯
¡®Where is Asaph?¡¯
¡®He¡¯s over there beside the priests. Since she¡¯s no slave, he¡¯s handed her over to the Law and to us.¡¯
The judgment must have been pronounced as they were speaking, for someone shouted and then stones began to fly from all sides. Abruptly paralyzed by a sudden dread and an awareness of his own helplessness, Ahasuerus stared dumbly at Sarah. At that very moment, her eyes seemingly drawn in his direction by some force, Sarah saw Ahasuerus and threw him a look. Their eyes met for a second. Despite the hundred cubits separating them, he felt that she was standing just in front of him. Blood was flowing from her forehead, wounded by flying stones, but still she remained erect; strangely, there was the hint of a smile in her eyes. It was a frightening, mysterious smile, suggesting mockery or compassion. But that was all. Then a sharp stone from near at hand slammed into her back and brought her down, without so much as a single cry, and she lay crumpled on the ground. Then stones rained down and in next to no time her bloodied body was covered.
Ahasuerus remained standing there, unaware of anything, his body and mind frozen; when he came to his senses, the crowd had already scattered. All that remained were the stifled sobs and lamentations of relatives who had come to take away the body, and the insoluble riddle of a corpse buried under the stones of the Word.
In the time following, Ahasuerus devoted himself to an arduous pursuit of human reality, which clearly originated in the riddle posed by Sarah¡¯s death, the misery and misfortunes of every person endowed with a body and desires. Legends report of him at this period that he was ¡®a friend to thieves and beggars; a brother to prostitutes, slaves, the possessed, and lepers.¡¯ That might seem to have little connection with the shock caused by Sarah¡¯s death, but at least one thing can be asserted definitely: he had rid himself of the traditional view according to which the misery and misfortunes of all who suffer are to be considered the wages of sin. And there is no doubt that somewhere deep within him, he was driven on with continuing force by his memory of that vagabond Thedos he had met in Jerusalem as a child.
¡®Father, do you really believe in the sin of Cain?¡¯
One evening in his nineteenth year, Ahasuerus, returning home after a lengthy absence, went to see his father in his study and without preliminaries abruptly questioned him. His father considered him with a look of deep solicitude and carefully rolled up the megillah scroll he had been reading. Six months had passed since his son had left home and family, following with difficulty his own unknown path. He had been worried about his perilous wanderings and wild giddiness, but such things could happen to anyone at least once in their youth, and since he felt fully confident of his son¡¯s unique intelligence and good character, he had never allowed himself to scold him. However, the rumors that had recently come to his ears were such that he could not remain indifferent. He was deeply anxious, at a loss where to begin, even if he wanted to; now here was his son, breezing in and asking preposterous questions:
¡®Father, who would you punish more severely, the perpetrator of a crime or the instigator?¡¯
This time Ahasuerus asked a different question, perhaps unaware of his father¡¯s inner perplexity. Unable to sense the intention behind his son¡¯s first question, he had hesitated to reply; he reluctantly replied to the second, more obvious question.
¡®The instigator, of course.¡¯
¡®Then is the perpetrator always innocent?¡¯
¡®Not necessarily. Even a mere perpetrator, if he knew or might have known the evil of the action or the wrongness of the outcome, should be punished.¡¯
The father answered his son¡¯s question warily, but with all the sincerity he could muster. His son pursued his questioning, as if he had expected that answer.
¡®What if all the feelings and the will of the perpetrator were entirely under the control of the instigator, or if he had been compelled to act by the irresistible power of the instigator?¡¯
¡®In such a case, no. Are you suggesting that Cain was a perpetrator of that kind?¡¯
¡®Exactly. He was the Lord¡¯s perpetrator. Just a poor agent, betrayed by the instigator, who cursed him instead of rewarding him.¡¯
At that point, his father began, though vaguely, to sense the drift of his son¡¯s words. He had no wish to enter into a lengthy discussion. It was not so much that the complexity of the topic troubled him, but because he feared his son¡¯s knowledge and sagacity, of which he had not yet sounded the limits. He pretended not to understand his words, though it was not the case. He made him go on talking alone in order to avoid the risk of a conflict of opinions between them.
¡®I don¡¯t understand what you mean.¡¯
The son was not prepared to let his father off so easily. Instead of resolving his father¡¯s doubts, he tried to draw him into the argument he was formulating by asking a new question.
¡®Father, do you think that the will of a creature can ever transcend that of the Creator?¡¯
¡®Of course not. Every hair on our bodies, our every breath, all without exception derive from him, and likewise our minds too are all under the will of the Lord our God.¡¯
¡®From whom, then, did Cain¡¯s murderous intent originate?¡¯
¡®This is rather sudden . . . The Lord who is the Origin of everything must have given it to him, of course. But that went together with a prohibition.¡¯
¡®Then what about a will that ignores the prohibition and proceeds to kill?¡¯
¡®What a tough exegesis! But I never considered it significant, so I haven¡¯t thought about it deeply.¡¯
Again his father tried to escape from the discussion, that he was being drawn into without any preparation. As he had hoped, Ahasuerus continued to present his ideas, but he did not let his father off the hook.
¡®There¡¯s no need to think so deeply. There can only be two solutions. The first is to say that it did not come from God. In which case, like the Persians, we are bound to acknowledge an aspect of humanity that escapes his control, with some other Mighty Being controlling that part. Then his Word and the Law express an abuse of power, an excessive self-confidence, or a misunderstanding about human nature. But you cannot accept that, since you believe in God and serve him as omniscient, absolutely perfect, unique.¡¯
¡®Naturally. And what is the other?¡¯
¡®The conclusion that every aspect of human nature comes from the Lord. The result remains the same, even if you invent a shield called Satan. In that case, Cain is not answerable for any sin. He merely carried out the prearranged plan of the Lord with the instrument of the will he received from him. The all-knowing Lord allowed Abel to be struck down before his very eyes, because he had an intention higher than forgiving Cain¡¯s homicide. We might say that he instigated Cain¡¯s act for a certain purpose. For example, to show through Cain a type of crime, murder, and its wickedness, and through his punishment impose a psychological constraint and threat on everybody, all potential criminals.
¡®In that case Cain, having fulfilled his task to the letter, ought to have been rewarded rather than punished. Besides, what the Torah implies is God¡¯s hidden goodwill toward Cain. Though Cain is reported to have appealed to him, the Lord promised anyone who persecuted him a retaliation seven times as great. For what earthly reason does everyone constantly consider Cain, as far as humanity is concerned, to have been simply a wicked sinner?¡¯
When Ahasuerus reached that point, his father sensed that he could no longer avoid taking a stand. The discussion was growing increasingly serious.
¡®My son, you are seeing the matter too one-sidedly. Questions about God and Heaven cannot be clarified by petty human wisdom. There is something in what you are saying, but it somehow reminds me of those Sophists who used to go wandering across Greece in groups at one time. You are deliberately confusing the nature of the law that forbids and the law that commands. Your defense of Cain would be correct if he had fulfilled God¡¯s command. Why do you only stress the evil hidden in human nature, and ignore the existence of the good will that is capable of opposing and conquering it? Has the Lord not given us strength enough to resist all the temptations of evil? Between those two wills, we are free to choose one as the motivation of our actions. That is why Cain should be blamed, because he paid no attention to the good side and dared to take a forbidden course.¡¯
¡®You talk like a Roman judge. So, father, you believe in that freedom of the will that we¡¯re supposed to have been given since the days of Adam? Do you truly believe that any aspect of our actions or our thoughts is free of the Creator¡¯s all-inclusive providence?¡¯
¡®I believe that to be the testimony of all the scriptures and the prophets.¡¯
¡®While knowing that everything concerning us was made according to the Creator¡¯s plan and therefore we can never in any case be his equals?¡¯
¡®Yes indeed. Insofar as he has foretold the Last Judgment; insofar as he has promised to reward good and punish evil . . .¡¯
¡®That¡¯s not freedom; it¡¯s irresponsible laissez-faire on his part. Do you really believe that a being who stays silent while people struggle and bleed, caught between two contradictory wills, and then, after they have been defeated, pursue a course of depravity and ruin, has the right to judge and punish the sins of people, resulting from that? Can you truly call such a being not a heartless jailer but a God of Love and Mercy?¡¯
¡®But the Lord did not remain silent all the time. He has given us many Words and many Laws, while many prophets and righteous men have been sent to fortify our good will.¡¯
¡®But isn¡¯t the choice to believe them or not included within our freedom?¡¯
¡®Any soul who believes in him and does his will is able to believe and follow his Word and those he has sent.¡¯
¡®It¡¯s a circular argument. Couldn¡¯t the choice whether or not to believe in him and obey him be included in our freedom since the time of Adam?¡¯
¡®But what do you understand by freedom?¡¯
¡®I reckon it never existed from the very start. That freedom itself is part of his preordained plan, and likewise our salvation and our fall merely follows that plan.¡¯
¡®What about all the sincere intentions and endeavors we offer up to him in this world?¡¯
¡®They are merely the mark of a small elect remnant whose destiny it is to be saved according to his plan. While bestowing sorrow and despair on the majority, who are not chosen, without knowing when that will be revoked . . .¡¯
When he heard Ahasuerus speaking in such terms, his father felt an unidentifiable fear and an indistinct sense of helplessness. It was a maximized form of the concern he experienced, simple and honest as he was, every time he listened to the radical new exegeses of young rabbis obviously influenced by Persian dualism and eschatology, together with an intellectual inferiority at being unable to beat them in logical argument.
¡®I do not think so. And even if I agreed with what you say of that plan, I cannot think that the plan of the One who loves us could be so narrow and capricious. He would rather wait thousands of years, tens of thousands of years, until we had all saved ourselves.¡¯
His father, after a silence, stammered out a reply in which he slyly attempted to draw love and mercy from behind a traditional God of punishments and rewards. But that only served to open up the floodgates of whatever dark passion had swept over his son. Suddenly bringing a new, malicious and aggressive energy to his sarcastic, mocking tone, Ahasuerus retorted:
¡®That¡¯s a foolish belief. If our God was so merciful, so full of love, he should never have given us that undefined freedom to start with. Then Adam would not have dared pluck the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and we could have avoided the yoke of original sin. Moreover, if freedom had to be given to us, he should not have established any proscriptive laws. In that case, even if Adam had picked the fruit it would not have been a sin.
¡®But God, loading our feeble wills with those two heavy burdens, is determined to impose on us responsibility for our choices; on us who are mere creatures and are bound ultimately to be irresponsible. Worse still, as time went on the number of proscriptions increased more and more, whereas in Eden there had been just one, in all the different edicts from before the time of Moses, the more than four thousand teachings in the Torah and the Hallaka, and the countless proscriptions hidden in the Midrash, the Mishnah, and goodness knows what else. I really cannot understand why they are needed, or what essential relation they have with our salvation or our eternal life. Why did such a long, meandering and painful way have to be imposed on us, his ¡®dearly beloved children¡¯?¡¯
¡®My son, you must not try to attack the works of the immeasurably profound, almighty Lord with puny, simple human logic. There is no light without darkness; a straight line would be meaningless if there were no curves. I don¡¯t know, but if the proscriptions have made our path a long and painful one, and if for that reason the world has become wrapped in sin and darkness, there must be a sufficient explanation for it. It may be that through the sin and darkness of the world he intends to make his goodness and his light more clearly manifest . . .¡¯
¡®That¡¯s precisely the point. What you are saying employs the logic used by the priests in the Temple and the teachers in the synagogues. According to them, Satan and sin exist by God¡¯s will. But in that case, why must they be cursed and condemned and why must those humans who follow them fall into Sheol or Gehenna? At least, why must they be hurled into the eternal flames of torment, when they exist by permission of his will, and while they have fulfilled the role given them in order to contribute to his glory? If we go back to the problem I started with, the case of Cain provides us with an example. He sincerely did the will of God with the instrument he received from God, so at least the ¡®Mark of Cain¡¯ ought to have been a mark of trust, of a promise showing he had been chosen by God for a particular purpose, not a mark of forgiveness and mercy to a sinner.¡¯
¡®My son . . .¡¯
His father rose abruptly as if alarmed, recalling something.
¡®I¡¯ve just remembered . . . when I was young, there was a group of blasphemers who used to make assertions similar to yours and troubled people for a while. Unable to form a distinct sect of their own, they vanished under the curse of God and the wrath of the people, but I heard that their origins were very ancient. Some said that they had first arisen at the time of the division of the tribes after the death of Solomon, or during the Babylonian captivity, and that if they ever appeared again and received a name, it might well be ¡®the sect of Cain.¡¯ Also, I seem to have heard that there is a heresy that sees Satan as the Spirit of Wisdom and venerates the serpent that tempted Eve as the Apostle of Wisdom, and the basis for what you are arguing seems to me to be the same as for those two groups. Where in heaven¡¯s name did you hear those ideas? Does it mean that group of blasphemers still exists in today¡¯s world?¡¯
His father¡¯s face manifested clearly fear and anguish as he questioned him. He was in the grip of an ominous premonition that, rather than seeing the day when his son would be respected as the finest rabbi in Judea, he might rather be seeing the day when he would be obliged to drag his corpse from under a mound of stones after his execution. Fortunately, his son¡¯s reply was sufficient to alleviate, if not totally allay, his grim premonition.
¡®It¡¯s not something I¡¯ve learned from anyone, or read. These are simply doubts that are bound to confront you as soon as you free yourself from the superficial exegeses of the scriptures or the prejudices and fallacies that are so popular nowadays. Father, have you really lived your entire life with the faith and devotion you have now?¡¯
The father detected in his son¡¯s tone a strong desire to be freed from an agonizing doubt, rather than a wish to impose his opinions.
¡®So much the better. I thought you¡¯d been bewitched by some evil heresy. In my younger years, I too spent many a sleepless night in insoluble doubt over what God¡¯s will might be.¡¯
¡®And did you overcome all those doubts?¡¯
Ahasuerus asked, his eyes suddenly filling with expectancy. Eager not to disappoint him, his father quickly replied:
¡®I think I can say so. I recall that I did experience doubts similar to those you¡¯ve been mentioning. But the pity of it is that I don¡¯t seem able to express things to you clearly in a few words.¡¯
His father was feeling deeply perplexed. It was clear that the difficult questions over matters of faith in days gone by, long transformed into indifference and inertia, were an unspeakable burden weighing on his shoulders. Despite his son¡¯s deeply disappointed expression, the best he could do was, after a long silence, imitate the high priest Annas when he once scolded some young atheists who had been polluted by Hellenic thought.
¡®My child, you seem to have too much trust in human knowledge and wisdom. But always remember; no matter how great, knowledge and wisdom cannot solve the problem of God¡¯s Providence as if it were arithmetic; it is not by wisdom that we come to believe in God, it is by believing in him that we become wise; too much learning often harms our faith and devotion. Through ardent prayers with a humble heart and by sincere efforts, reading his Word and putting it into practice, it is possible to perceive the true mind of God and, in that way, I feel sure you can finally have part in spiritual knowledge . . .¡¯
The father was clearly aware that vacuous arguments of that kind could never move his son. He, in turn, was still looking at his father¡¯s face but his thoughts were clearly elsewhere, as if he had lost interest in further conversation. The father looked at his son with a new anxiety, and concluded quickly.
¡®Never let small doubts confuse you; always maintain a broad judgment and wise perseverance. I firmly believe you will without doubt become the finest rabbi in Judea. Now I am tired. Kiss me. It¡¯s past my bedtime.¡¯
At that, Ahasuerus rose without a word, lightly kissed his father¡¯s already withering cheek, and went to his room. That evening¡¯s serious encounter was to be the last between the father and his son. After that, the father found himself almost overwhelmed by a flood of letters and messages from far and near. Mostly they came from teachers of his acquaintance, from scribes in synagogues, old friends who had retired from the world or become priests, and they were all about the heretical opinions and blasphemous acts of his son. He had left home and was wandering through Judea, having become Satan¡¯s hireling, trampling on everything sacred that came his way.
As Ahasuerus denied original sin and took Cain¡¯s defense, solidly armed with youthful sharpness and his own, individual logic, many aged priests and hermits withdrew from before him, shaking their heads and lamenting. Orthodox teachers and scribes exploded in fury. One day, Ahasuerus was driven out under a hail of stones for having dared to criticize the way Abraham had acquired wealth by selling his wife and the trick by which Jacob had stolen the benediction destined for his elder brother; another day, he was denounced for having mocked the cruelty of Yahweh who had provoked the massacre of the first-born of Egypt, and had incited their ancestors to slaughter every living creature in a host of cities. In addition, he was thrown out of a synagogue after accusing the sons of Korah, authors of a number of Psalms, and David himself, of being sycophants; and he was beaten up by a mob in the street for having laughed at the cunning way Job had endured those unjust torments because he believed he would be rewarded, and also at the capriciousness of Yahweh, who sent calamity on Job without consideration of good or evil.
In the end, his negations were a search for affirmation and acceptance, but the world could not understand him. The insincere responses of the formalists, who surrendered to higher authority, and the way the world persecuted him indiscriminately, made him more perverse and resolute.
¡®If all that the Scriptures say about God is true, it was he who received favors from us, not we who received favors from him. No other tribe paid any attention to a god of such jealousy, wrath and capriciousness; our ancestors alone accepted him. More than that, it might even be said that we created him, not he us.¡¯
The legends report that such was Ahasuerus¡¯ final conclusion at this time, while busily exaggerating his subsequent fall. It was all presumably caused by the sense of desolation of someone who had finally lost the God he had firmly believed in and had passionately wished to believe in. He was rolling drunk in broad daylight; he shamelessly mixed with the women of the back streets. He haunted gambling dens and had taken part completely naked in violent combats in the Roman arenas; sometimes he would fight bloody brawls with thugs in the streets. Then at last, one day, Ahasuerus vanished completely from his native land. It happened just as his despairing parents, giving up all the hopes they had nourished for him, had been considering sending him off as an apprentice to his uncle, the Jerusalem shoe-maker.
Min Yoseop¡¯s manuscript broke off there. The text provoked a strange emotion despite its difficulty. The question of God, which had briefly arisen in days long past and had then been forgotten amidst the complications of everyday life, suddenly took hold of Sergeant Nam like a kind of nostalgia. At the same time, he grew convinced that this was no mere fabrication, but rather a reformulation of Min Yoseop¡¯s own vivid experiences of life. Sergeant Nam was curious to know what developments followed, in that they might reveal Min Yoseop¡¯s inner journey. He was about to pick up the next section to read when a glance through the window showed that the train was already entering Daegu Station. He reluctantly bundled together the notebooks and manuscript, resolving to read more later, and prepared to disembark.
All the way from the train to his office, Sergeant Nam remained unable to cast off the strange impression his readings had produced, but it all evaporated the moment he began to make his report to Lieutenant Lee.
¡®You¡¯re writing a novel, aren¡¯t you? Are you going to publish it in the Police Gazette?¡¯
Carried away by his emotions, Sergeant Nam was evoking Min Yoseop¡¯s personal details at tedious length, when Lieutenant Lee, who had been listening patiently, brusquely burst out:
¡®You haven¡¯t discovered anything new about the last eight years? What are you going to do with a few letters postmarked several years back? Really! I don¡¯t know how someone like you has managed to stay a detective for so many years!¡¯
He was flipping roughly through the notebooks and manuscript Sergeant Nam had brought. His expression suggested that he would have laid into him with his hands, if he let himself go. Suddenly coming to his senses, Sergeant Nam realized he was making his report in the wrong order and pulled his notebook out of his pocket.
¡®I forgot to tell you that I made enquiries in the local ward office. Six months after he left, Min Yoseop transferred his residence registration to this address in Busan.¡¯
Sergeant Nam had completely forgotten about the address the moment he had noted it down, as if bewitched in some way. The lieutenant¡¯s expression relaxed a little.
¡®It¡¯s the most important detail. Why didn¡¯t you tell me that first? Don¡¯t lose a minute; go to Busan straight away. Detective Im is now at the hardware store where the fruit knife was sold. And Detective Park will have to go to Seoul . . .¡¯
¡®Why to Seoul?¡¯
¡®We¡¯re going to have to question again that wife of Elder Mun or whatever she is, to find out if your fortune-telling was right or not.¡¯
Lieutenant Lee was obviously far from satisfied with the way Sergeant Nam had simply given credence to the woman¡¯s words and loosely wrapped up his investigation. Strangely enough, there was a general tendency among the police to be obsessed with any woman connected with a crime. In addition, the distorted picture of the woman that Sergeant Nam had presented, somewhat carried away by his feelings, had seemed to the lieutenant insufficient for the investigation.
By nature Lieutenant Lee was incapable of harshness; feeling sorry for Sergeant Nam, who was looking thoroughly dejected as he turned to leave, he called him back before he had gone more than a few steps.
¡®Look, it¡¯s already past five now. Go home and get some rest this evening and leave early tomorrow. But don¡¯t waste your time digging into every kind of pointless detail again. Be back here with your report tomorrow before we go off duty.¡¯
Sergeant Nam must have been thoroughly exhausted after the two-day trip and it was nearly eight in the morning when he woke, although he had gone to bed early the previous evening. Beside his pillow, Min Yoseop¡¯s manuscript lay scattered in disorder; he had taken it out to read but then put it aside, unable to finish even the first section, overwhelmed by sleep. He washed hastily, had a quick breakfast, then picked out the section he had been reading the night before and hurried to the station.
In Busan, unseasonable winter rain was falling. The place he was looking for was close to Number Two Pier and he found it easily, with the help of directions given by an officer at the nearby police substation. It turned out to be a small rooming house at the side of a four-lane road that had been recently built as part of a redevelopment plan. Sergeant Nam pushed open the iron gate with its scaling paintwork and found two men who looked like dock-workers sitting drinking soju, perched on the edge of the veranda at the center of the old, Japanese-style house. He asked for the landlord and one of them shouted something in a slurred voice toward a room inside. In response to the shout or because he had heard Sergeant Nam¡¯s voice, an older-looking man who seemed to have never once smiled in his entire lifetime slid open the door, with an expression suggesting that everything was too much bother.
Sergeant Nam briefly identified himself and produced Min Yoseop¡¯s photo. The furrows in the man¡¯s grim face grew deeper still, indicating that he recognized him at once.
¡®That bastard . . .¡¯ The man spat out the word in almost a groan. His voice seemed to reflect a deep grievance.
¡®You remember him?¡¯
Indifferent to the man¡¯s feelings and pleased that he recognized Min Yoseop, Sergeant Nam pressed on with his questions. With an expression plainly suggesting that he was struggling to control some strong emotion, the man replied.
¡®Remember him? I¡¯ll never forget him, not even when I¡¯m dead and buried.¡¯
The old man briefly clamped his mouth shut and his eyes, that had flushed red, looked up at the leaden sky from which raindrops were still falling. He seemed to be trying to suppress feelings that were growing increasingly violent.
¡®He led my son . . . my only son . . . astray.¡¯
The reply was completely unexpected. Sergeant Nam found himself becoming tense.
¡®When was that?¡¯
¡®About six years ago.¡¯
¡®How old was your son at that time?¡¯
¡®If he¡¯d stayed on, he would have been in his last year of high school. He was eighteen.¡¯
Despite his anguished expression, Sergeant Nam felt his own tension relaxing while the man grew increasingly distrustful. People whose son or daughter had left home long before sometimes deliberately made false reports or statements. For example, if a corpse was found that was so decomposed or disfigured as to be unidentifiable, they would swear blind it was their child. As a general rule, a thorough check showed that the missing person was alive and well. In that way, taking advantage of an intensive investigation, people found their long lost child. Strictly speaking, they could have been charged with conspiring to obstruct the police in the course of their duties, and they caused no little confusion and waste in investigations, but at the sight of parents and children meeting after years of separation, hugging and weeping copiously, it was difficult to charge them with even a minor misdemeanor. What Sergeant Nam suspected now was just such a false report or statement.
¡®Look, you must tell me the truth. If it¡¯s because you want to find your lost son, file a separate report. Then we¡¯ll look into it as carefully as we can.¡¯
¡®What are you talking about?¡¯
¡®Only think for a moment. Your son was no longer a child. Don¡¯t you think it odd to say that someone in his nineteenth year was tricked and led astray?¡¯
At that, the man burst out in a rage. It was no ordinary rage; he trembled and screamed:
¡®What? You think I¡¯m lying to you because I want to find that good-for-nothing son? That¡¯s going too far. I¡¯ve worked with the police. At least I know you¡¯re not allowed to use tricks like that.¡¯
¡®Still, when a boy¡¯s eighteen he¡¯s an adult . . .¡¯
¡®There¡¯s no doubt about it; it was that fellow who led him astray. My son left me the very next day after that bastard went away. And he blamed us for having driven him out. That¡¯s not all. Later on, someone plainly saw my son in his company.¡¯
At that Sergeant Nam¡¯s doubts vanished. In view of the man¡¯s unflinching attitude and firm, unhesitating tone, he did not believe he was lying.
¡®I understand. I believe you. Now, about this man, can you show me some proof that he really lived here?¡¯
Sergeant Nam brought the talk back to Min Yoseop, partly to calm the man¡¯s agitation. He reflected for a moment, then replied:
¡®Yes, there is something. There¡¯s a bundle that he forgot when he went away in the middle of the night. I felt like burning it but I didn¡¯t.¡¯
Since Min Yoseop had officially registered this house as his new address, it was unnecessary to look for further confirmation. Sergeant Nam began to question the man regarding things he felt curious about, starting from the beginning.
¡®Tell me step by step what happened. How did this man come to be staying with you, what were his relations with your son, why did your son leave home to follow him, what happened after that . . .?¡¯
The man calmed down and seemed to be recollecting old memories. He drew from his pocket a cigarette holder made of artificial ivory with blackened cracks from which tar was seeping, inserted a cigarette stub and lit it.
¡®I hate even thinking about it all, but I¡¯ll tell you for my wife¡¯s sake. If ever you come across any news of our son, you really must let her know; she never stops crying, day and night.¡¯
When the stub in the ivory cigarette holder had completely fallen into ash, he began his tale with a sigh that issued from the depths of his heart.
. . . Seven years previously, when the neighborhood had not yet been touched by redevelopment, it was full of cheap bars and brothels for dock-workers and sailors. In those years, Cho and his wife had been running an unlicensed rooming house and one day in late spring Min Yoseop had arrived at the door, scruffily dressed and carrying a heavy suitcase. He had claimed to be a stevedore and had asked for a room.
Cho had agreed at once to take him in because he was ready to pay the rent in advance, but from the start there were all kinds of odd things about him. In an unlicensed rooming house like theirs, it was not normal for a dock-worker to take a room of his own, while the books he took from his case and piled in one corner of the room did not at all correspond to what he claimed to be. His regular features, his untanned skin, and his slender body rather like a woman¡¯s were all very unlike the appearance of an ordinary dock-worker. That first impression had given Cho something of a fright, almost a kind of inkling of what was to come later.
On that account, he had suspected Min Yoseop of being a spy on a special mission, but as time passed those suspicious aspects had gradually diminished. Not only was Min Yoseop really working as a stevedore, but his outward appearance began to be more like that of all his fellow-dockers.
By the end of three months, nothing much distinguished him from the others, except that he would read until late at night and mingled on familiar terms with clerks in the port authority office, with whom he would not normally have had a close relationship. When he saw tough dockers being as docile as children and as readily submissive before him, or when university students who had shared his room briefly later visited addressing him respectfully, he would feel proud and happy. An unlicensed pier-side rooming house is at best a place where drunken sailors spend a night giggling with cheap bar girls, or unmarried dockers spend a few nights with passing whores who take their fancy. Min Yoseop was an exceptional customer, equal to the clerks from the port authority office who occasionally spent a few days there while looking for more respectable rooms.
At that time, Cho had a son who was in the junior year of high school. His two older daughters had already got married; his son was the only child left at home. At some point he had begun going to Min Yoseop¡¯s room, then one day out of the blue he told his father that he wanted to stop attending the private institute where he was preparing to take the university entrance exam and learn instead from Min Yoseop; in return, his father should stop taking rent from him.
It was his only son¡¯s wish, and the father was sure of Min Yoseop¡¯s ability to coach him; yet for some reason he could not readily agree. It was hard to put into words but he had a premonition that the link between Min Yoseop and his son was a kind of evil bond that ought to be avoided if at all possible.
Min Yoseop¡¯s feelings seemed to be much the same as those of the father. He was unable to repel the boy coldly as he followed him with such respect, but had for no apparent reason seemed apprehensive at the reckless zeal with which he pursued him. It was the same when the father, pestered by his son¡¯s requests, asked him to take charge of the boy and tutor him. Min Yoseop had not only replied bluntly that he was not qualified to do it, he had even given him to understand that it was not good for the boy that they should become close.
Yet in the end neither of them had any success in preventing the boy from coming closer to Min Yoseop. He pestered his father and Min Yoseop by turns, like a person possessed, until he finally obtained permission from both of them and even managed to move his desk into Min Yoseop¡¯s room.
The matter having been thus settled, his father tried to see everything in the best possible light. At least, his son seemed to be studying much harder since he had moved. The light invariably stayed on in the room until late, and sometimes Min Yoseop could be heard teaching the son in a low voice until the early hours of the morning. Knowing no better, his father even came to believe that their meeting had been a stroke of good fortune. Apart from anything else, he came to believe that thanks to Min Yoseop, his son might be able to enter a far better university than they had previously expected.
It was late in the autumn, when there was a strike at the docks, that his doubts returned. He never knew what role Min Yoseop had played in the strike, which had been accompanied by unprecedented violence, but he had been arrested in connection with it and harshly interrogated for more than two weeks; he returned in a terrible shape. The head of the local police substation, with whom Cho had been on friendly terms, had said that Min Yoseop was not only one of the strike leaders, but was ideologically suspect. All that he knew, from his experience of the years of social confusion and conflict after the 1945 Liberation, was that strikes and labor disputes were all the work of the Reds; for him, the information was deeply shocking.
From that moment, unlike before, he set out to observe his son and Min Yoseop more closely, on account of the fresh caution and suspicions awakened by the police officer¡¯s words. One after another, really strange features began to strike him.
The first was his son¡¯s books. He might have been so poorly educated that to him reading any book was a form of study, he could still see that the books his son was reading in Min Yoseop¡¯s room were no ordinary textbooks or study-aids. Then there was Min Yoseop¡¯s attitude and the contents of what he was teaching. The father had peeped through a chink in the door several times, but he never found Min Yoseop sitting opposite his son at his desk in a posture of serious teaching. Instead, he would invariably be half-reclining or leaning against the wall, occupied with his own work, and only responding when the boy asked a question; if ever he was teaching seriously, he detected after a moment¡¯s listening that the things he was saying had no bearing on preparations for the university entrance exam. There were times when they seemed to be studying English, but on careful listening, what Min Yoseop slowly translated seemed to be seditious materials that would never be part of a school textbook.
Cho¡¯s apprehension manifested itself in visible signs, no longer mere suspicions, when his son moved up to the senior year of high school. One of the changes that he noticed around that time was that his son had at some point stopped going to the church that he had previously been attending devoutly. He had started going to church in his middle school days, becoming so enthusiastic that he even disappointed his parents before Min Yoseop appeared by insisting that he wanted to study in a seminary.
When their only son expressed his intention of becoming a minister, they vehemently tried to dissuade him but did not attempt to take him away from belief as such. Even though they were not believers they felt, simple folk as they were, that there could be nothing wrong in believing the teachings of a holy man like Jesus. Now this same son had not only stopped attending church, but he had turned the minister and the leader of the church¡¯s youth club out of the house, his face crimson with rage, when they visited him. As he did so, he swore at them as ¡®those who have imprisoned God in churches¡¯ and ¡®those who have separated Jesus from the poor and abandoned¡¯—insults that his father could not understand.
The next change to reveal itself came in the son¡¯s grades at school. Previously, he had always received excellent grades, invariably among the top ten of his year in a high school that was reckoned to be one of the two best in Busan. But at the start of his senior year, his class teacher could not hide his disappointment when he summoned his father and informed him that his son had moved up, but with such poor grades that he had only narrowly escaped being held back.
Returning home shocked, he had closely questioned his son and Min Yoseop in turn. Min Yoseop, looking startled, had reminded him of his initial unwillingness to tutor the boy, and insisted that he was ready to stop at any time. His son¡¯s attitude had been different. He calmly reassured his father that it was simply because, for various reasons, he had missed exams in several subjects at the end of the previous term. When his father told him he was going to have to send Min Yoseop away, his son became threatening and showed his teeth. So long as he went on working with him, he would soon regain good grades and certainly go to a good university, but if he was sent away, he would give up everything, starting with school.
Cho realized that the situation was going from bad to worse, but he had no choice in the face of his son¡¯s response. One reason was that this was his one and only son, and even if things were bad now his hope was that it was just a passing phase and he would improve with age. So far, although he had grown up in an environment where nothing was favorable to education, he had never once given his parents any grounds for worry, which made them feel optimistic.
Yet finally, disaster struck. Less than three months had passed when the father received notice that his son had been expelled; he went rushing to the school. He had been absent for seventy-six days since the start of the term; what made his father more furious still was the fact that that very morning he had left home saying innocently that he was off to school, wearing his uniform and carrying his bag. It was not difficult to understand without further inquiry that the five or six messages and warnings sent by the school had disappeared.
Looking back after careful thought, it was not that there had been no grounds for suspicion. First, his son¡¯s delicate face had recently become sunburned and swarthy, while his rather feminine hands had grown rough. That was not all; seen from behind as he was coming home from school after dark, he seemed exhausted, worn out like someone who has been engaged in hard labor. His father had assumed it was because he was working hard at his studies all day long; yet, feeling that something was strange, he had taken his son to task on several occasions. But in addition to the excuse provided by his studies, he always had some extra reasons—either a school foundation day sports event, extra-curricular farming activities, or two successive periods of physical education—things that explained not only his fatigue but also the sunburned face and the blistered hands.
Moreover, he had been struck at the same period by frequent conflicts of opinion between his son and Min Yoseop. He did not know what it was all about, but his son seemed to be doing things that Min Yoseop did not approve of, and that he angrily tried to stop him doing. Sometimes, accidentally opening the door of their room, he found Min Yoseop scolding his son in a subdued voice but then abruptly stopping, and his son protesting quietly with a flushed face.
After careful consideration, Cho finally came to a decision. After an altercation that had the whole neighborhood in a tumult, he succeeded in separating his son from Min Yoseop, but it was too late. Having severed his relationship with Min Yoseop, he likewise broke with his father. He declared that he was an adult, although he had barely turned eighteen, and would live his own life. Refusing the transfer to a private high school that his father had managed to arrange at the price of a big donation, the son set about doing openly what he had already been doing in secret with Min Yoseop. He often stayed idle in his room, lost in his thoughts, or went looking for work as a stevedore on the docks where Min Yoseop had been blacklisted after the strike, or as a laborer on the building site for a new export-goods factory. The father regarded his son¡¯s conduct as sheer madness.
Reaching that point in his story, he let out a long, bitter sigh. His reddened eyes were moist. Sergeant Nam waited in silence, not wishing to distract him from what he was saying. With a trembling hand, he inserted another cigarette into his holder and inhaled several times; then he went on, exhaling a cloud of smoke.
¡®But . . . worse was to follow. Not content with that, at some point that wretched son of mine began demanding money, never explaining what it was for. He even asked for an advance payment of the inheritance he would receive later. To tell you the truth, in those days my wife and I had a fair amount of spare money. Business here was doing at least as well as it is now, and my wife was making a go of it, lending money to the girls in the neighborhood. If I¡¯d realized all my assets, there would have been enough money to buy a big house in a classy neighborhood. Until then we¡¯d considered our son to be too young to know anything about that. Whereas in fact, I don¡¯t know how, he knew everything right down to the smallest details—how much we¡¯d lent and at what daily rate to such a girl in such a house. I suppose it was that goddam Min who told him. In earlier days, he used to glare at my wife whenever she came in with personal possessions she¡¯d taken in place of money.
¡®Of course, we turned down his request. I can¡¯t disclose details, but the origin of that money was in some sense the price of my blood. It was capital I was able to obtain at the cost of a knifing from a wartime comrade with whom I had risked life and limb. But my son had his own ways too. He used to go in secret to those who owed us money, write off half the debt and ask them to give him the rest; or else he stole the IOUs from us and gave them back to the people in exchange for a reduced amount. With his build, his strength, there was nothing I could do. My wife¡¯s tears and her threats that she would kill herself were no use at all.
¡®So in a few months almost all our spare capital had vanished. When you¡¯re in money lending, there are times when you borrow a little from others and lend that out on a daily basis; but with him chopping off half the capital, regardless of whether it was my money or what I¡¯d borrowed, how could I go on? In the end my wife gave up lending altogether, reckoning herself lucky to have managed to pay back at least what she had borrowed . . .¡¯
¡®What do you think your son did with all that money?¡¯ Sergeant Nam could not help asking, detecting the Min Yoseop of earlier years in the son¡¯s actions described by his father. He spat out in a voice trembling with hatred:
¡®Whatever that goddam fellow told him to do, I suppose.¡¯
¡®You mean you let Min Yoseop stay on in the house?¡¯
At that, his tone changed, filling with resentment.
¡®Thinking of it now, I regret not having had it out with him. In fact . . . being more afraid of my son than of him, though I¡¯d managed to separate them I could not put him out of the house. My son kept the promise he made, not to set foot in his room if I did not turn him out.¡¯
¡®So it¡¯s only your guess that Min Yoseop told him what to do?¡¯
¡®He¡¯d already spent several months sharing the same room, hadn¡¯t he? If he told him what to do, it must have been during that time. Besides, there¡¯s no knowing if they met secretly outside of the house after that.¡¯
¡®What do you think they were up to?¡¯ Sergeant Nam asked the question to verify something he had already guessed.
¡®To tell you the truth, I¡¯m curious, too. That goddam Min always went about looking like a beggar, never drinking so much as a glass, and my son too, although he squandered all that money, I never saw him going around with any girl .¡¯
¡®Can¡¯t you even guess?¡¯
¡®Oh, he must have spent it in some wrongful cause, and with his usual heroism. He went to a girl owing us money, who was sick in bed, and handed back the IOU without taking anything. Once I saw some student who came on a visit looking up at my son like some kind of Buddha, so I guess . . .¡¯
¡®Isn¡¯t that better than just squandering it?¡¯
¡®I wouldn¡¯t have minded so much if he had made merry with drinking or girls. Think what kind of money it was . . . how could anyone take him for some kind of Buddha?¡¯
¡®Ah, I understand. How did he finally leave the house?¡¯ Wishing to avoid pointless arguments, Sergeant Nam asked for the end of the story. The father¡¯s voice again grew distorted with hatred.
¡®That was also the work of that goddam bastard. Haven¡¯t I already told you? He led my son astray.¡¯
¡®You must tell me more precisely. I can¡¯t understand . . .¡¯
¡®Once there was no more money available, my son started stealing our things and finally pestered us to sell the house. But that was not possible, even if he was our only son. My wife is still heart-broken that we didn¡¯t do it, but this house was our last source of livelihood. Day after day there were scenes about it between our son and the two of us. When things reached that point, even that jerk seemed at a loss. He tried to reason with my son quietly, and calm him down, then one night I¡¯m glad to say he quit the house without saying a word. The two of us felt relieved. But then the next day, my son disappeared too. He¡¯d gone after the bastard. I suppose he might not have deliberately led him astray. But even if my son acted on his own, for us how was that different than if he¡¯d misled him? And that¡¯s not all . . .¡¯
Cho seemed to hesitate for a moment. But then he went on, as if determined to tell everything.
¡®A few days after my son left, someone broke into the house. He took a little money, that we¡¯d carefully hidden, and the ring my wife had when we got married. That was really odd. When it happened, we were too confused to think straight, but the way he knew the house so well, and the hoarse voice he deliberately put on, all seemed to suggest it was undoubtedly our son. My wife felt sure of it too. So we never reported it to the police, just in case . . .¡¯
By the time he had reached that point, Sergeant Nam felt he could to some extent grasp the son¡¯s psychological state. That eighteen-year-old had become bold in his desire to imitate. At least, the final burglary drama he had put on was certainly not a crime done for profit. . .
¡®Have you had any news of your son since then? You said that someone had seen him.¡¯
¡®Yes, someone I know said he¡¯d seen him at Daejeon with that jerk. Then he visited the ward office here without me knowing in connection with military service. He hoped he¡¯d be exempted as he¡¯s an only son. But when I followed up the rumors and went there, he had already gone.¡¯
¡®What¡¯s your son¡¯s name?¡¯
¡®He¡¯s called Dongpal.¡¯
¡®Please can I take a look at the bundle the other guy left behind?¡¯
Sergeant Nam decided to bring the conversation to an end there with his request. Cho replied curtly, went inside and brought out a dust-covered bundle. At a quick glance, it seemed to be books. Just then, Dongpal¡¯s mother emerged from somewhere, her eyes full of tears.
While trying to comfort her, the sergeant untied the bundle her husband had brought out. Apart from a few books in Korean, with recognizable titles like Comparative Religion and Mystical Theology, almost all were foreign books. There were a few note-books but, despite his hopes, there was no diary, no personal writing, only vocabulary lists and passages copied from books. Sergeant Nam jotted down the titles and authors of the foreign books in case it might be of use. Since his grasp of even basic English vocabulary was vague, he identified the letters one by one and drew the words rather than wrote them, but still among the names of the authors a few were already familiar. Fumblingly deciphering them, he recognized that some of the names had often figured in Min Yoseop¡¯s diary together with that of Kagawa Toyohiko—Karl Barth and Moltmann, for example.
¡®Apart from yourself, is there anyone else in the neighborhood who knew Min Yoseop then?¡¯
Sergeant Nam asked that, after having gone through Cho Dongpal¡¯s belongings, in the hope of gaining more information. He felt that the father¡¯s lopsided account might be insufficient.
The man racked his brains for a while, counting off this person, then that, before speaking as if doing him a favor:
¡®There were quite a few who kept company with him in those days, but they were all migrant workers; there¡¯s no knowing where they¡¯ve gone . . . but that white-collar worker would do. Shin Hyeongsik he was called; he worked in the port authority office. When he was newly assigned here, he boarded in our house for two months. He often went around with that goddam guy, though we never really knew why.¡¯
¡®Is he still working there? Which section?¡¯
¡®I don¡¯t know which section he¡¯s in but I¡¯m quite certain he¡¯s still there. I met him in the street only a few days ago and we exchanged greetings.¡¯
Judging from what he said, it seemed that Shin Hyeongsik had occasionally used his inn later when he was moving from one boarding house to another or when he had several friends visiting at the same time.
Sergeant Nam went straight to the port authority office and had no difficulty in finding Shin Hyeongsik. Over thirty, he was still unmarried and looked good-natured. He readily recalled Min Yoseop.
¡®Min Yoseop? I know him very well. We spent barely two months under the same roof, but I reckon I¡¯ll never forget him so long as I live. He really knew so much! I¡¯ve never met anyone who knew so much about so many different things. Of course, maybe it was nothing so special, but I felt like that about him because I haven¡¯t studied much myself . . . and what was interesting was the way he was always drunk without ever drinking a drop. Sometimes I got worried about how drunk he was, although I was the one who¡¯d drunk half a pint of cheap soju. Yet he hadn¡¯t drunk a drop, mind you. What sort of a person was he? Well . . . In those days, I was utterly fascinated by him, he was like a god in my eyes. But a few years later, putting two and two together to complete the picture, I reckoned he would end up as some kind of revolutionary, in the good sense or the bad, or the head of a religious sect.
¡®As for the details of his private life, there¡¯s not much I know. We met in the evenings, after we¡¯d finished work and gone back to the boarding house. We mainly talked about abstract aspects of religion and philosophy concerning God, man, and salvation, about history and politics.
¡®Mr. Cho¡¯s son? Ah, I remember that student. I don¡¯t recall his name clearly but he was outrageously precocious and clever. He was only in the junior year of high school, but he made a better partner in discussion with Min Yoseop than I did. He used to ask hard questions, and listen hard, too. But soon after he joined us I moved to another rooming house and I don¡¯t know what happened after that. I wonder if he didn¡¯t become a little Min Yoseop . . .¡¯
But that was all. What he said was of almost no help in the investigation, apart from serving as indirect evidence that what Cho had said was no groundless exaggeration.
Mindful of Lieutenant Lee¡¯s rebuff the previous day, after quickly leaving Shin Hyeongsik Sergeant Nam hurried to the train station, as soon as he had obtained Cho Dongpal¡¯s new address from the records at the ward office. If he was not going to obtain any significant new information, he was anxious to get back by the time his boss had specified.
But the trains were so crowded for some reason that he ended up taking an express bus, barely making it in time.
On his return, he found the investigation team full of excitement. Detective Im had managed to obtain a montage of a young man who had bought a fruit-knife, after visiting a hardware store on Lieutenant Lee¡¯s orders; Detective Park, who had gone up to Seoul, was continuing his inquiries regarding the wife of Elder Mun after reporting he had uncovered new grounds for suspicion. Recently a young man resembling Min Yoseop had often been seen in her company. Now that Sergeant Nam had succeeded in obtaining information about two of Min Yoseop¡¯s eight lost years and the address he had moved to, a solution seemed to be not far off.
Still, concerning the information about Min Yoseop¡¯s activities that Sergeant Nam had brought back from Busan, especially the changes in his mental attitude and lifestyle, totally different from before, Lieutenant Lee was as cold as before. He listened to Sergeant Nam¡¯s words abstractedly, refusing with a scornful remark when he suggested consulting a specialist about the books whose titles and authors he had noted.
¡®Do you think the criminal¡¯s name may be written somewhere among all those crooked letters? If you have time to waste like that, you¡¯d better go home and get some sleep. You¡¯ll have to search Daejeon tomorrow.¡¯
That was where Min Yoseop and Cho Dongpal had moved after leaving Busan.
After his return from Busan, Sergeant Nam was strongly convinced that this case could never be solved by pursuing motives of greed, jealousy or ordinary personal animosity. He felt a strong enmity toward Lieutenant Lee who was recklessly trying to steer the investigation in that direction. It was in reaction to him that he started to read Min Yoseop¡¯s manuscript that evening, prior to leaving for Daejeon.
Arriving home, he had a late supper then looked for Min Yoseop¡¯s notebooks. He had left them scattered randomly on the floor of his room that morning but now they lay neatly arranged on the table according to the numbers written on the top of each. It must have been his wife¡¯s doing. Sergeant Nam had no need to search his memory; he picked up the bundle starting where he had left off reading the previous night.
Having left his parents¡¯ house and the streets of his home town, it was not long before Ahasuerus also left his country and his god completely. It was the beginning of a long journey, lasting more than ten years, that led him to wander in every corner of the world. It was a quest for a new god and a new truth that could console him for the despair he felt about the old god of his people, and also bring solutions to questions about the world and life that had entangled his existence from the beginning and had finally been transformed into a fury and rage that made him spend part of his precious youth staggering about in swamps of falsehood and evil.
Ahasuerus first headed for Egypt, often called ¡®the home of the gods.¡¯ Viewed casually, what drew him there might seem to have been that. But in reality what attracted him was not that land¡¯s other name, which seemed to have been inspired by its numerous gods and temples, its multiple, mysterious doctrines and ceremonies, but rather something heard from a hermit he had met as he was traveling through Judea in an agony of doubt. The hermit, rejected by his family and neighbors on account of his heretical opinions, lived alone in a hovel he had built at the desolate foot of a stony hill and as soon as he heard Ahasuerus¡¯ doubts and despair about god, he explained their cause without hesitation.
¡®It¡¯s natural. Since they made one god by combining the shepherds¡¯ god El Shaddai with Horeb¡¯s warrior god, it¡¯s hardly surprising that they don¡¯t fit together!¡¯
What he meant was that the god of Abraham and the god of Moses were different. Seeing Ahasuerus taken aback by such an amazing statement, the hermit went on to explain his reasons with an increasing passion:
¡®Not only was Moses himself not circumcised, he did not have his son circumcised either, until he was visited by the wrath of god. He found no inconvenience in living among the Egyptians; his wife Sephora and his father-in-law naturally took him for an Egyptian. From the very start there were plenty of odd things about his encounter with our ancestors, who all belonged to the same race. He killed an Egyptian soldier who was mistreating some of them, but instead of thanking him they used that as a weak point to threaten him. That¡¯s not all; later, when he had become their leader, Moses performed a host of miracles and displayed great power in a short space of time, yet within the barely forty days he was away from them in the desert, our forefathers were already making the golden calf. That shows a fundamental distrust of him. The next suspicious point is the way he is reported to have had a severe stutter. It suddenly became pronounced when he made an official appearance before our forefathers, whereupon his brother Aaron appeared from nowhere and spoke in his place.
¡®Putting all this together, the truth becomes obvious. Moses was not descended from Israel as our forefathers were; he was an Egyptian. He approached our forefathers with some particular purpose in mind and became their leader, but obviously they always distrusted him because he was from another race. As for the problem of his stutter—he did not really stutter at all, he simply did not speak our language very well; Aaron was not his older brother but an interpreter.¡¯
¡®I cannot believe that Moses, who gave us the Torah, was really an Egyptian. Why did the God of Abraham and of Isaac set aside their descendants and choose a foreigner as the recipient of His promise?¡¯ Ahasuerus asked, astounded and in the throes of doubts he could not repress. The hermit replied quite readily, as if to say the question was a natural one.
¡®You¡¯re right. When I went down to Egypt and first heard these things, I could not believe them either. But then, once I studied and compared their history and legends with our own records closely, it all became clear. On account of which my life suffered many handicaps, grew full of solitude and hardship as it is now; but my conviction about all that is still unshaken.¡¯
The hermit had gone on to tell him in ardent tones a portion of the story he had put together using facts drawn from both Egyptian and Jewish histories and records.
. . . It was long ago, in the days when their forefathers were living in Egypt in painful slavery. The Egyptian pharaoh of the time, Amenhotep IV, set out to abolish all the many gods of the country and establish Aton, the god of the sun, as the only god, to unify the faith of his entire kingdom. He was so determined to carry out this new religious policy that he even changed his own name to Akhenaton; with that passion and his immense power behind him, it seemed for a time at first that he had succeeded to a certain degree at least.
But greater still, behind the supporting clique composed of courtiers who bowed and scraped before him and generals who depended on the salary he paid, was an opposing force, situated far away and out of sight. The heart of that opposing party was found among the priests in the temples scattered across the land, whose lives were dependent on the gods worshipped there, as well as the local nobility whose interests were closely bound up with theirs.
They decided to defend their old beliefs and their vested interests before the pharaoh¡¯s policies could put down deep roots among the common people, and initiated a violent resistance. Rebellions and uprisings broke out here and there, and blood-soaked battles were fought between those intent on defending and those intent on overturning. In the end, victory went to the rebellious forces, those claiming to be defending the old beliefs. Defeated, Amenhotep IV was driven from the throne and executed; those who had supported and followed his religious reform were scattered, dispersed.
However, there was a high priest of the religion of Aton, or perhaps a member of the family of Amenhotep IV, who escaped and went into hiding in the land of Midian. After the immediate threat to his life had passed and he had acquired relative peace, having become the son-in-law of a local landowner, he began to nourish an ambition of reviving their religious vision, that had been so wretchedly destroyed. Before embarking on action to bring about that ideal, however, feeling a need for self-assurance, he embarked on a program of ascetic mortification. Steep, rocky hills swarming with deadly snakes and deserts full of thorny bushes were places perfectly suited for such mortifications. As he went wandering through such places, he must have kept invoking his god and seems to have received a reply or a revelation from that god somewhere on Mount Horeb.
Having received self-assurance, he quit his land of exile and first went to his own people in Egypt. Once more, he tried to effect a reform of their primitive, irrational religion through the one, unseen yet supreme god he had encountered. Not only the reactionary nobles and priests who had successfully opposed the reforms of Amenhotep IV, but even the simple people, long immersed in polytheism, paid no heed to his teaching.
He then turned his attention toward a group of foreigners who in those days were living wretchedly as slaves. There were two reasons why he was especially attentive to that tribe. The first was their tradition of monotheism, already deeply rooted in their minds. Considering that he had failed among his own people entirely on account of their age-old polytheism, that foreign group¡¯s religious tradition must have struck him as a truly irreplaceable possibility. The other reason was the wretched condition into which those foreigners had fallen. Given that slaves want freedom most of all, he must have reckoned that he could gain their support and submission by promising freedom.
The man in question was none other than Moses and the foreign group was composed of the descendants of Israel who had been brought by Joseph to live in Egypt. There is nothing strange about Moses pretending that his origins were the same as theirs in order to gain access to them. For nothing is stronger than bonds of blood to bring people together quickly and easily. Likewise, the change of names from Aton to Yahweh should not be too rigidly regarded as an unacceptable concession. Because in exchange for Moses¡¯ concession concerning the name, their ancestors made a compromise regarding some part of their belief. In short, the ancient promise-centered thought of the Hebrew people simply took on a more concrete expression in the form of the so-called Covenant with an ambitious, heretical priest from Egypt . . .
Such was the gist of the hermit¡¯s story. He gazed for a long moment at Ahasuerus, who was shocked, still reluctant to believe him, and went on:
¡®Naturally, that is hard to accept readily. But how else are we to consider the passive, defensive god of Abraham with his quest for comfort and plenty, even to the point of offering his wife to an enemy, as one and the same god as the god of Moses who urged our forefathers ¡®not to leave one stone on top of another and to destroy every living, breathing creature¡¯ when they were taking possession of Canaan? Indeed, those of our forefathers who remained in Canaan and those who came back from Egypt used different names for their god for a while. The ones used Yahweh, the others used Elohim.
¡®If you were to go down to Egypt and enquire, the true picture would emerge more clearly. The things that the scholarly priests there learned and remembered, or the historical facts I¡¯ve been telling you on the basis of ancient records written on papyrus, may have been preserved in a slightly distorted form. In the myths of the Isis cult there are things reflecting those events too, though in a symbolic form. After he was defeated in battle by Horus, Seth was obliged to flee for one whole week, day and night, before finding a safe hiding place; there he is said to have had two sons, who were Jerusalem and Judea. It¡¯s not possible to be categorical, but the monotheism that was driven out by the polytheistic cults is certainly concealed within our religious traditions; the way we left Egypt with that god, finally succeeding in settling in Canaan and establishing the kingdom of Jerusalem and Judea, undoubtedly underlies the myths they fabricated.¡¯
Still, in those days Ahasuerus was seeking all the answers to his questions within the traditional doctrines of his own people. The shock verging on horror that he had experienced while listening to the hermit only lasted a moment, then finally adopting the gentler of the two attitudes manifested by his compatriots toward the hermit, he left him. He did not attack him as a blasphemer as a way of defending their god, or treat him like a crazy lunatic; instead, he adopted the approach of ¡®even it were true, so what?¡¯ Even if he accepted what he said completely, Ahasuerus¡¯ doubts about the world and life and his disappointment concerning Yahweh could find there no fundamental solution.
The months of intense emotions that followed made Ahasuerus utterly forget all that. Those were times given over entirely to human desires, competing in violent contests in the arenas that the tributary dynasties were building in order to encourage the Hellenization of the Jews, or rampaging through the streets. Then one day, on waking from that meaningless intoxication, he resolved to leave both his land and his god; thereupon he recalled the hermit and finally decided to make Egypt his first destination. It was not that he wanted to find out if the hermit¡¯s words had been true or false; rather he simply wished to encounter directly the gods of that country.
There is no way of knowing what route Ahasuerus took on his journey to Egypt, nor in what city he first set foot. With the pax romana, those were years when traffic by sea and by land had developed fast and he would have experienced no great difficulties, no matter which route he chose. If he did face hardships, they mainly arose after he had been traveling around Egypt for about two years.
The first thing that troubled him was finding the necessary funds for his journey. He had left on an impulse, without consulting his parents, without being able to prepare any money; even if he had, it would not have been enough. Besides, he did not stay in one place but was constantly on the move, so there could be no thought of finding a job; it would have been difficult in any case, since he had nothing to sell except his not very useful knowledge. As a result, during the time he spent in Egypt, despite assistance he occasionally received from Jews of the Diaspora, his life was basically little different from that of a tramp.
Communication, too, was far from easy. The Latin and Greek which Ahasuerus spoke, thanks to hellenizing policies which had reached their height in the days of Herod the Great, were of little help once he left Alexandria and a few other major cities of Lower Egypt, and Aramaic, close to the communal Semitic tongue, was of no use except among merchants and a few privileged classes. Unless he really could speak every dialect ¡®from that of the land where the sun rises to that where the sun sets, with the assistance of the Evil Spirit,¡¯ as the malicious legends claim, he must have faced a host of difficulties in communicating freely, even in Lower Egypt, to say nothing of the remote regions of Upper Egypt. In addition, whenever he arrived in a new town, the place he would first visit and spend most time exploring was the temple of the guardian deities, which tended to be closed to foreigners; that created even greater difficulties
The loneliness he felt while wandering through unknown lands among foreign faces, having left home, family and friends, certainly contributed to his sufferings. Despite the indefinable passion within him urging him on, he must have spent many nights with the arm pillowing his head soaked with tears, having just turned twenty, the age of intense affective emotions,
For nearly two years, Ahasuerus roamed the four corners of Egypt in the midst of all those difficulties and hardships, as if possessed by a wandering spirit. All the way from Thebes, Coptos, and Hermontis in Upper Egypt to Memphis, Sais and Mentellis in Lower Egypt, and on into the regions of Libya and Nubia, his feet never failed to linger wherever the gods had a shrine or a temple. A hope drove him, like a strong, irresistible wind; a hope that, among these gods and teachings, he might perhaps be able to discover a new god and a new teaching that could soothe the wounds caused by his disillusion with the god of his people.
There was such a host of strange gods: Amen, Ament, Menthu, Tefnut, Nau, Mestha, Tuamutef, Ra, Mut, Herukhuti, Sekhet, Amen-ra, Bast, Khensu, Hapi, Ptah, Khnemu, Satet, Bennu, Atet, Hershef, Aten, Merseknet, with a host of other ancient gods, lost or surviving, to say nothing of Osiris with his nearly two hundred names, and Isis, Horus, Set, Nephthys, Her-hepes, Shu, Anubis, Usert, Seb or Geb, Nut, Tem, Heru, Khent-Maati, Uatchet, and the other gods included in the Great Company of the Gods of Heliopolis, in addition to foreign gods such as Neith, Anthat, Baal, Baaleth, Reshpu, Sutekh, Bes, Aasith, as well as the various animals that had been deified and were worshipped. For Ahasuerus, who had only ever known and believed in one god, the multiplicity made him almost faint.
But Ahasuerus could never shake off the god of his people, even if he wished to, with the teachings centered on that god that his forefathers had refined through thousands of years. All that had settled like a sediment deep in his soul, preventing him from opening his heart to any of the new gods he encountered in Egypt. They all invariably seemed to him to be nothing more than mere idols, fashioned by people¡¯s pain and want, fear and rancor, while the hymns and prayers addressed to them sounded to him like nothing more than the cries of people harassed. The blessings or the miracles believed to proceed from these gods seemed to him to be nothing more than an echo of those human cries, bouncing off the walls of an empty universe, or a magnificent human illusion about that echo.
With the passing of days, while the number of gods still to be encountered in the land diminished Ahasuerus fell into a strange impatience. His dissatisfaction with the god of his people, that had formerly been a cause of distress and torment, began to fade under the impact of his repeated experiences of disillusionment with these foreign gods. This led to an anxiety as to whether his dissatisfaction had not simply been a way of complaining, and his present wanderings might turn out to have been a waste. On the other hand, the somber, inborn passions of negation and doubt were certainly growing more intense.
¡®Even if there is something more ugly, that does not make what is less ugly beautiful. Equally, even if there are more irrational gods, it does not make the less irrational god of my people perfect. Moreover, I am seeing other gods with eyes accustomed to the god of my people; I am hearing teachings about other gods with ears trained by the Word of my god. That should not be so. First, let me free myself completely from the god of my people and his Word. No, more than that, I must enter more deeply into those gods. So far, I have only been observing them from one step away, like a kind of spectacle; I was listening to their teachings as if it were mere knowledge . . .¡¯
Ahasuerus finally came to that decision when he was visiting Heliopolis for the second time. To his surprise, he found that he had been heading in that direction swayed by an inner temptation to go back home, although there remained a few more places to visit; from then on he kept himself under a tighter reign.
Coincidence or not, Heliopolis was the perfect place for Ahasuerus to carry out his decision. It was the topmost religious city of Egypt, the site of the sycamore tree sacred to Nut, the home of Aton, and the place not only where the spine of Osiris was buried but also where he first began to be venerated; it had once been the center of the cult of the sun god Amon-Ra but now it was the center of the fast-growing cult of Isis.
For his last Egyptian passion, Ahasuerus joined the temple of Isis at Heliopolis, no longer as an onlooker, as previously, but as a brother in the same faith, who had sworn a formal oath of conversion before a priest. If it were possible he hoped to become a priest of the cult and so approach mysteries that were not easily accessible to lay believers. Yet despite appearances at first sight solemn and grandiose, their doctrines struck him as incomparably feeble with the exception of a few moving verses in the hymns; he longed to find what it was in them that sent such crowds of people into ecstasy, driving them to such a rapture that they no longer feared death.
Though he exaggerated his faith and devotion, and made desperate efforts to make up for being a foreigner, especially a Jew, all Ahasuerus was able to gain after several months of intense effort was a position as an acolyte to an old priest. Even that was not because the hierarchy had been impressed by his efforts and his devotion, but because the venerable priest had intervened on his behalf. One day the old priest happened to see him sweeping the temple yard; surprised for some reason, he observed him for a while, and it was presumably an impression he formed that day that led him to defy the hierarchy.
The tasks assigned to him were trivial, following the old priest carrying the ritual vessels, bearing sacrificial offerings, or keeping the temple clean, nothing more. But at least there was something he could see, having become one of them.
What first touched Ahasuerus most was the maternal nature of Isis. The god of his people in whom he had believed until now was a god with a paternal nature; he weighed human good and evil on the scales of his strict Word, and strictly punished and rewarded accordingly. But Isis was different. She was a woman who had twice known the sorrow of cruelly losing her husband, and had gone to the ends of the world in search of his body, that had been cut into more than ten pieces and scattered in various places; as a loyal wife she reassembled it and gave it burial, then as a mother she admirably brought up her husband¡¯s posthumous son, whom she had conceived without physical contact, and shielded him from merciless enemies. Behind the motherhood of suffering and sorrow lay a motherhood of mercy which even saved her husband¡¯s enemy from being killed by her son¡¯s spear. With her, it seemed, human weakness could be sufficient excuse for sin, and moreover, unconditional love and forgiveness could be sought from her.
Formed under a strict, paternal God, Ahasuerus¡¯ mind was deeply moved by the attributes of Isis, even if he insisted that she was only the deification of undisciplined, irrational maternal love. They were all strands knotted in one myth; Isis was clearly below the paternal gods in power and rank, yet it was obvious why the cult was called by her name, not that of Osiris or of Horus; it was also easy to see why the religion had spread far beyond the Mediterranean. What comfort and encouragement this maternal being could offer people, someone they could entreat, grumble to, presume upon, irrespective of good or bad. Whenever a priestess with her head closely shaved sang the ¡®Lament of Isis¡¯ with tears flowing down her lovely cheeks, tears would also flow helplessly down Ahasuerus¡¯ cheeks, though he fully realized it was all nothing more than an expression of human pains and sorrows,
What moved Ahasuerus next was the incarnation or human embodiment of the divine. In the teachings he had so far followed, god was for ever god and man for ever man. Just as men could never transcend the wall of their humanity, so too god as such never came down to the human level, except as Word or pillar of fire. Several prophets had alluded to the advent of a man vested with the power of god, whom they termed the Messiah, and especially Daniel had come near to suggesting an incarnation of the divine under the name ¡®Son of Man,¡¯ but no one had ever spoken of the incarnation of Yahweh as such; and even if they did, that lay in a future that his people had not yet experienced.
In Osiris and Horus, Ahasuerus for the first time saw gods that were born with human bodies. A god who dies, one born as a man, suffering on account of evil, and dying powerless, such a touching image! After fully experiencing human pain and sorrow, weakness and want, he dies then rises again, and judges us, what a close, affectionate deity! Despite the immaturity of the imagination that brought Osiris back from the dead and set him over death, and despite traces of primitive religion, Ahasuerus felt as if he had perceived a ray of dazzling light. He even found himself thinking that the notion of ¡®the Messiah¡¯s foreordained suffering¡¯ that had in recent years appeared and been discussed cautiously among rabbis in his native land could not be unrelated to the Osiris myth.
Equally new to Ahasuerus was the concept of parthenogenesis in order to distinguish the birth of a god from that of humans. He had always considered the phrase in his people¡¯s scriptures ¡®Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a child¡¯ as a kind of symbol or parable, but it had already happened in the myths of the Egyptians. A teaching that was more inclined toward death than life also provoked a strange feeling in Ahasuerus, for he had grown up in a religion that laid more emphasis on life. Since the wars of the Maccabees, his people too had begun to talk much about death, but that death was still connected with life. In addition, though it was not directly related to the cult of Isis, the concept of the Word of Ptah shocked Ahasuerus. For he too was said to have created the heavens and the earth by his Word alone.
Still, the day of departure soon arrived. Although he still occasionally experienced a fresh shock at this or that point, the further he penetrated into their doctrine, the more Ahasuerus discovered absurdity, immorality and corruption. The inferiority of the imagination and logic revealed in their entire mythic system, the lack of morality that undermined the foundations of their doctrine, the overfrequent, extravagant ceremonies and rituals, the vulgarization of the sacred giving the impression that it was not the priests who were there for the gods but the gods for the priests, the corruption of the priestly caste who took advantage of the hedonism of the common people, the absurd superstitions and the improper use of talismans, all these soon destroyed the fresh emotions and shocks Ahasuerus had encountered in that religion.
Before he had lived in the temple for even a year, he realized that staying there longer would be nothing but a waste of time. What had hypnotized him and kept him close to their gods was merely the novelty of a few ideas produced by a time-worn religion with its last reserves of wisdom, fearful of being completely rejected by the masses, parasitically dependent as it ever had been on the powers-that-be, sharing even their corruption and degeneracy. All the efforts he had made in the past to be part of that ingenious agglomeration of religious techniques and devices, when they had no connection with his own quest, made him feel sorry for himself.
What he found quite incomprehensible was the common people of that country. The entire truth that had become so clear to him after little more than two years of observations seemed not to be in the least visible to them, who had lived there for thousands of years. Not only they seemed far from suspecting or protesting at the corruption and degeneracy that lay beyond the altars, that a sharp eye could see at a glance, they even averted their eyes from the overt immorality and wrongdoings practiced before the altars. They almost seemed to enjoy submitting to the priests¡¯ blatant threats, allowing themselves to be exploited without anything in return.
Ahasuerus, having more or less decided to leave, quietly sought out the old priest, perhaps on account of those doubts he harbored about the people as a whole. One night when the Nile had begun its flood and the festival of Isis was at its height, he took advantage of a spare moment and went to find the old priest who was resting alone.
¡®The people believe that the flooding of the Nile is caused by the tears of Isis, and considering it a blessing, are celebrating ceremonies of thanksgiving and worship. But I know the truth. Since we are a long way downstream, we cannot see it, but it is the rainy season far upstream which causes the flood. It is not at all on account of Isis¡¯ tears, which could never be a blessing in any case.¡¯
¡®We know that, too.¡¯ To his great surprise, the old priest replied without any sign of being troubled. Feeling sorry that he might be hurting a man who had shown particular kindness toward him, Ahasuerus had spoken in a trembling voice and the reply amazed him.
¡®You mean you consciously mislead the people? That this sacred, solemn festival is in fact nothing but a great deception?¡¯
¡®No. They know, too.¡¯
¡®They know, too?¡¯
Ahasuerus was even more bewildered by that reply, made in exactly the same tones as before. The priest briefly looked at Ahasuerus in silence, then calmly went on, without seeming to think he was revealing anything particular.
¡®Of course. Or rather, they want us to deceive them. The flooding of the Nile, a blessing and a catastrophe at the same time, has long been explained in a variety of ways. In the distant past, it was attributed to the power of Nun or Hapy and at other times it was seen as a blessing from Serapis. Nowadays we consider it as the tears of Isis, but there are some who say it is caused by semen resulting from the liaison between Nepthys and Osiris. Yet even in days when there were no roads like those we have today, and no one had heard of the rainy season in the region beyond the First Cataract of the Nile, very few people really gave credence to such explanations. It was just that people wanted to believe something like that. Only think for a moment; rather than believe that the world was entirely given over to the violence of a cruel and unpredictable nature, how much more consolation and hope it would give them to believe that such a fury could be appeased by offerings, and that it was an order governed by gods of whom they could beg blessings through worship and prayers.
¡®All we did was simply not to put obstacles in the way of their faith or try to destroy it. Even when we propagate and encourage their false beliefs, it¡¯s simply in the hope that we can thus prevent them from falling into despair out of fear and inertia. People often say that we deceive them, either for our own sake or for the sake of pharaoh and his courtiers, but in fact those who speak thus are themselves deceived by the masses.¡¯
The old priest¡¯s reply came as a greater shock to Ahasuerus than any he had previously received from their teachings. The teachings of his forefathers always began with an Absolute Being beyond human approval or perception. Therefore for him, long immersed in such teachings, the idea of a ¡®superstition for the sake of faith¡¯ was bound to seem strange and astonishing.
But unlike the other shocks, this one only served to hasten Ahasuerus¡¯ departure. Even though he could understand the old priest by human logic, such a system of belief was far removed from the idea of a new, true God he had been resolutely seeking.
¡®What I hoped to find here was a real God, not some kind of illusory image produced by a coarse mixture of necessity and imagination. I have reached the end of my days in this land.¡¯ Murmuring those words to himself, Ahasuerus left the old priest, who still seemed to have more to say, and that very night he packed his bags.
The next morning, while day was just breaking, Ahasuerus was taking a last, farewell look inside the temple to which he had briefly entrusted his body and heart, when he heard someone walking toward him out of the darkness inside, then a voice called out to him in the solemn tone used for the ceremonies:
¡®Stay a moment, son of Judea and Jerusalem.¡¯
Turning in surprise, Ahasuerus saw that it was the old priest who had taken care of him. He approached in a rustle of robes, stopping when he was near enough for his features to be clearly visible, and gazed closely at Ahasuerus as he had done before. He asked in a halting voice as if he felt uncertain:
¡®Did you not come to this city long ago, with your parents? If you cannot remember, have you never heard them mention it? You came as a newborn baby and left when you were four or five.¡¯
His attitude was no longer that of a priest addressing his acolyte.
¡®Until three years ago, I had never gone outside my own land. I have never heard anything different from my parents.¡¯
The old priest scrutinized Ahasuerus, who had been taken aback by such an odd question, then sighed for some unknown reason as he murmured: ¡®That is fortunate. Then the time has not yet come . . .¡¯
¡®What do you mean by that?¡¯ Ahasuerus asked, unable to contain his curiosity. The old priest began to speak slowly, taking his eyes off him and raising them to the eastern sky where dawn was just breaking:
¡®You are not that child, but you seem somehow not unrelated with him, so I want to tell you the story. It happened fifteen or sixteen years ago. A young couple from your nation came into this city, bearing a newborn baby. For some unknown reason, on witnessing their arrival, I got the impression they were fleeing from something. They settled among people of the Diaspora not far from this temple; the husband worked as a carpenter and the wife did odd jobs for their neighbors for about five or six years.
¡®One strange thing was the child, that had arrived as a newborn baby. Perhaps because his parents were busy working, he started to toddle around the courtyard of our temple when he could still barely walk; until he left the city with his parents when he was five or six, he grew up constantly hanging about our temple. Sometimes he watched the ceremonies all day long; on days when there were no ceremonies he would play in front of the altars and statues; he was particularly fond of the statue of Isis. Whenever there was no one before it, he would stare at it watchfully with a gaze unlike that of a child; sometimes he would stretch out a hand and stroke it, incapable of leaving.
¡®But my position at the time did not allow me to regard that as something charming. In those days I was still young, more like the temple¡¯s caretaker than a priest, and on several occasions I tried to drive him away. Even if he was only an innocent child, there was no forgiving the disrespect involved in thoughtlessly touching the statue of Isis. But I never succeeded in driving that child out of the temple until the day he left the city. No matter how firmly I steeled my heart as I approached, I would completely forget what I had been intending to do as soon as I saw his clear eyes, feeling a strange chill. Rather, I would smile unintentionally and go off to some other task that I would suddenly remember.
¡®It was the same, though to a lesser degree, with his young mother who used to come in search of him as night was falling. Intending to give her the warning I could not give the child, I would go running toward her, leaving preparations for the evening prayers, but it was no use. A kind of sacred aura faintly surrounding her used to freeze my lips.
¡®One day, this happened: for some reason I was sitting with that child in the shade of the fig tree in the courtyard, exchanging a few words. After talking about this and that, I happened to ask him about his father; without the least hesitation, the child pointed at the sky, and said that his father was the One who dwelt there. Thinking that he had literally believed something his parents had said, I asked him about his mother. He replied that although he considered the young woman as his mother, she had conceived him as a virgin after an annunciation from god. According to his words, they were a living Isis and Horus. As you know, Isis bore Horus without having received the seed of Osiris.
¡®What I still cannot understand is the way I reacted to what he said. Here was disrespect, the most extraordinary disrespect, blasphemy, utter blasphemy, yet there I was sitting listening without a word, as if bewitched. I felt as if some kind of inexpressible power was weighing down on my body and my heart, and I simply sat there paralysed until he had gone; then I was just about able to walk, trembling for no reason . . .¡¯
The agitation he had felt then seemed to come flooding back into the priest¡¯s face. Ahasuerus, likewise feeling a strange agitation, asked:
¡®But why did you think that I was not unrelated with that child on seeing me?¡¯
¡®On account of a dream. One night, I dreamed a strange dream. The child was going somewhere, pulling the statue of Isis along by the wrist. I followed them, summoning up all the energy and courage I possessed. With great difficulty, I managed to seize the statue of Isis by an edge of its clothing and she turned her face towards me. To my great amazement, it was the face of the child¡¯s young mother. Moreover, this new image of Isis addressed me: ¡®Henceforth, I am leaving this land; I am going to all the peoples of the world. The traces of my past that I leave behind here will be utterly overthrown, burned and destroyed by my son when he comes again.¡¯ Then she coldly shook off my hand and went on her way.
¡®Waking from my dream, I ran to the statue of Isis to calm my startled, trembling heart. Nothing about it had changed but still I stayed awake all night, burning incense and praying. As dawn broke, I walked to and fro in the yard, waiting for the child to appear. Once I was somewhat calmer, I had decided never again to allow him anywhere near the statue.
¡®For some reason the child did not come that day. After I had spent much of the day waiting for him, I went to the Jewish neighborhood where he lived, feeling incomprehensibly impatient. After asking here and there, I found their hut, but the young couple and child had already left. According to their neighbors, they had set out for their own land very early in the morning, just at the moment when I was having that strange dream . . .
¡®That incident caused me a great shock. For a time, I thought of laying aside my priestly robes and going to look for the mother and child in your country. In the end, I stayed in this temple wearing these ceremonial robes. The shock naturally lost its sharpness with the time I spent hesitating, but more important was a reason similar to that for which you could not accept our Isis in spite of all your exceptional devotion and efforts over the past year. I simply could not believe that there might be a god and a teaching transcending a particular race and territory.
¡®Then you arrived. The first time I saw you, I trembled, strangely shocked. You were obviously not that child, yet the mysterious power that overwhelmed me was very like that radiating from him. When I realized that you were from the same country, I arranged for you to be accepted in our temple, filled with a mixture of fear and inexplicable curiosity. Somehow it seemed to me that you must be not unrelated with that child; I even went so far as to wonder whether you had come as his representative. I wanted to see how the prophecy I had heard in my dream so long ago would be fulfilled, just how you were going to overthrow, burn and destroy the statues of our god.
¡®It was the same when you came to see me yesterday evening. I interpreted what you said as meaning that you were finally going to destroy our statues. That was why I took the initiative and tried to break the idol first, contrary to the teaching of my forebears. I blasphemously overturned all our teachings, leaving only humanity on this earth. In doing so, I was hoping to see you raise up a new god and a new teaching in their place . . .
¡®But you were only surprised and disappointed by what I said, making no attempt to set up something new. It was rather as if you too were seeking a new idol.¡¯
¡®It¡¯s true. I am simply the son of a man. Despairing of the god of our people, I have been seeking a new god and teaching.¡¯
¡®I know. As soon as you left I felt sorry not to have enlightened you about our god and teaching with more skill and sincerity. I finally came to realize that you were without any relationship with that child, and I suffered from having so readily destroyed before you the image of our god.
¡®Do you know what dream I awoke from in fright just now? I was dreaming that the statue of Isis was collapsing. No one was breaking or burning it; it was collapsing and crumbling on its own, like grains of sand, together with this temple, turning back into soil. Awakened from my dream by amazement and fear as I was ten years before, I ran toward the statue. I burned incense and began to pray, but before I had finished praying, I heard your steps as you were leaving. Who on earth are you? How could such a thing happen? What inspiration provoked such a dreadful dream?¡¯
The old priest was becoming increasingly breathless and he was trembling. But Ahasuerus could answer nothing to his questions. After a long, awkward silence, he could only repeat what he had said previously: ¡®I was born, without the least doubt, the son of a man, inheriting my father¡¯s vital spirit and my mother¡¯s blood. I am simply seeking, never wanting to break down or destroy.¡¯
¡®To seek new things is to destroy the old. But oh, who are you really?¡¯
The old priest murmured in a voice from which anxiety had still not been banished. His anxiety transferred itself to Ahasuerus in the form of a vague premonition as to the future destiny of his own people¡¯s god.
As a rule, gods willingly take on a martial role in times of growth or at periods of reform; and, although some aspects of Yahweh were a transformation of Aton, such problems hardly constituted a serious response to his quest. Still, what had first directed his attention toward Egypt had been precisely the past history of Yahweh. Yet after nearly three years of wandering, all he had gained in that country was a premonition of Yahweh¡¯s future history, though that was unexpected. Yet that had almost nothing to do with what he was seeking at that moment. Not wishing to be detained any longer by the old priest¡¯s questions, Ahasuerus hastened to take his leave.
¡®In any case, I am not the child you say you once knew. So, farewell.¡¯
He set off, leaving the old man standing lost in thought in the darkness that precedes the dawn.
Leaving Egypt, Ahasuerus headed for home, as if it was the natural thing to do. But as he gradually approached his native land, his thoughts began to change. In the end, the awareness that he had gained nothing, together with a sudden decision that he was not going to fill the remaining years of his life cowering before a god and a Word he could neither believe in nor respect, blocked his return home. Moreover, his experience of direct physical contact with strange gods and teachings had awakened in him a new interest in the various idols of the land of Canaan that had, previously at least, been the objects of his habitual contempt and ridicule. Designating them as idols had no doubt been nothing more than the result of the self-righteousness and prejudices of his forefathers.
He therefore went on past his home and quite naturally first spent some time travelling in the region of Canaan and on the coast of Phoenicia. In those regions, in addition to the gods imposed by Rome, there were numerous gods alive amidst the ruins of towns that had been destroyed, as well as in the memories and oral legends of gentile tribes who still rejected Yahweh; those gods had flourished in the days before Yahweh, transformed into a merciless, martial god, brought back Ahasuerus¡¯ forefathers who had been renewed in cruelty in the course of their nomadic existence. Among all those gods it was Baal, whose name has become a synonym for every kind of idol, who first attracted his attention, together with his father El. Then there was Dagan, god of harvests, Asherah and Anath, wives in turn to El and Baal, Yam, the eldest son of El, a sea god represented as a dragon, who had been killed fighting against Baal while attempting to take revenge on his father¡¯s enemy, and Mot, god of death, who finally took revenge on Baal. Around them were Athtart, the goddess who assisted Baal in the battle with Yam together with Koshar-wa-Hasis the blacksmith and Shapash, Athar, the goddess of the sun who tried to sit on Baal¡¯s throne after his death but failed, as well as the seventy gods born from the union of El and Asherah. Ahasuerus sought out descendants of the old priests, who stubbornly kept guard over the ruined temples of those gods, as well as the fragmentary records that had survived and restored their teachings and ceremonies. Through the myths transmitted from mouth to mouth among the older people, no longer a religious system so much as a series of tales, he tried to understand the view of the cosmos and of life of those who had once served those gods.
Yet at the end of months and years of painful, difficult seeking, collecting materials and deciphering them, all that Ahasuerus was able to gain from his partial reconstitution of the teachings and ceremonies of Baal was a disappointment greater than that which he had experienced in Egypt. All he could see was the deification of fears arising out of the simple hopes and ignorance of peasants, and the corrupt, chaotic morality of a stagnant culture, obviously resulting from a sedentary life.
The battle between Baal and Yam, for example, was merely a myth designed to explain that in farming, rain was far more useful than sea water or spring water; the revenge of Anath on Mot proved to be nothing more than a description of the processes of the cereal harvest. When Anath caught Mot, who had killed her husband Baal, then ¡®cut him in pieces, winnowed them, roasted them, ground them in a mill and sowed them in the fields,¡¯ what else was it but a dramatization of the process of harvesting the ripe grain at the end of the year?
He was dumbfounded to discover episodes marked by an inverted morality when Baal, the chief god in their mythological system, had driven out his old, weak father El and taken for himself the two wives of his father. It was a mystery to Ahasuerus that, no matter how much it owed to skilful and lavish embellishments, a cult based on all that absurdity and immorality could have been endowed with such magnificent temples and ceremonies both sumptuous and solemn, and have stood up to other gods and cults with a strong resolve to defend their faith on the part of its people.
Yet all the efforts Ahasuerus had invested in that task were not completely wasted. The greatest gain had been the way it enabled him to understand the circumstances under which the god of his people had acquired the power of an agricultural deity. Yahweh had possessed only the power of a shepherd¡¯s god and a martial god until the entry into Canaan, where he had become almighty by assimilating the power of an agricultural god on encountering Baal. Certainly, even before that he could do as he wished with the rain, the wind and the sun, but there was almost no sign of him using his power for the sake of agriculture, until the victory of Elijah, when he finally manifested a power superior to Baal by bringing down rain, defeating four hundred of his priests.
It was at that point too that Ahasuerus discovered that the temple and the holocausts of his people had developed through contact with Baal. It was only when they had settled in Canaan that the Sanctuary, which had originally accompanied them in their wanderings in the form of a tent, was transformed into a temple built of wood and stone, putting down roots; the irregular sacrifices of nomads had obviously been established as holocausts under the influence of the ceremonies of an agricultural people, that had grown sophisticated by long, regular repetition. As he explored the ruined temples of Baal and imagined what they must have looked like at their height, he was surprised to find that the form of the altar, the wooden pillars and the vessels for the offerings were very similar to those in the temple of his own people. Their word for priest and that in his own tongue had a common origin and he was bewildered to find signs that the gods had been mixed and worshipped together.
As he listened to tales of the ancient prophets of Baal, who were said to have prophesied in a state of ecstasy, he recalled how, in the days evoked in the Torah, there had been none of the crazed prophets who filled the roads of present-day Judea, nor the inflamed prophets of the past such as Amos, Elijah, or Jeremiah. It was also during this time that he learned that the cultic prostitution that had been current in the days of the Kings had its roots in Canaan at the time when Baal had been venerated in that way. Though it showed a bad influence, he even wondered if the wife of Jael, who had killed Sisera in violation of the absolute law of the nomads that required protection for those who came in search of shelter, had not been corrupted by the cunning of the farmers who worshipped Baal. The fact that his people had poured out fiercer denunciations and curses on Baal than on any other god might perhaps even prove to be the expression of a corresponding fear of assimilation or fusion.
As he made his way along the Phoenician coast, then passing through Abilene heading for Syria, Ahasuerus encountered many more gods beside Baal—Chemosh of Moab, Moloch of the Ammonites, Cybele a cereal god and Atys a shepherds¡¯ god from Asia Minor, Elgabal the sun god of Emesa, Jove identified with Zeus in the eastern regions, Hammon from Carthage, Mot and Anath of Phoenicia, Athena Aphaea venerated in Aegina, Milkom of the Ammonites, Nergal of Cuth, Ashima of Hamath, Nibhaz and Tartak of the Avites, Adrammelech of Sepharvaim—starting of course with the gods still worshipped in the various regions, as well as those mentioned in the Scriptures, or gods of which he heard from the caravans, Ahasuerus spared no effort to find out at least a little about each of them. Yet although his mind was now free of the prejudices and dogmatism of his forefathers, none of those gods attracted so much as a second glance from him, let alone taking hold of his heart.
Ahasuerus¡¯ encounter with a series of new mythic systems came as he reached northern Syria, turning southward again after going as far as Asia Minor. As he was passing through the region of Karkemish, he came across a young man of his own age digging among the ruins of an ancient city and gathering up some kind of objects. Finding it odd that anyone should be digging on the slopes of what merely seemed a barren hillside in a deserted region several miles from the nearest village, he went to investigate; it turned out that what he was collecting were dried clay tablets buried there. They were closely inscribed on both sides with characters that looked like caterpillars and were presumably an ancient system of writing.
¡®What are you going to do with those things, once you¡¯ve dug them up?¡¯ Ahasuerus asked the young man, stopping in a sudden burst of curiosity. He had occasionally seen similar clay tablets before, but since no one could read them, they received almost no attention. Their usual fate was to be left lying around until they finally crumbled back into dust. Seeing the effort he was making to dig them up, anyone would have asked the same question as Ahasuerus. The young man who, though he was about the same age, was clearly not of the same people, stopped working and replied reluctantly:
¡®I have no idea. I¡¯ve been doing this for several years now, simply because my father told me to.¡¯
Fortunately, he not only understood Ahasuerus¡¯ Aramaic but was even able to speak it quite fluently. Delighted by that, Ahasuerus pursued his questions:
¡®You mean you don¡¯t know why your father is collecting these objects?¡¯
¡®Well, he says he¡¯s seeking to restore the glory of the gods of our ancient forefathers. He claims that the stories of those gods are written on these clay tablets.¡¯ The young man answered with an expression suggesting that he found what he was doing disagreeable. Ahasuerus pricked up his ears at the mention of gods, and asked in a voice that quavered without his realizing it:
¡®Those ancient forefathers . . . what kind of people were they?¡¯
¡®Hittites, he said, or Hattians . . . anyway, father insists that he¡¯s descended from their royal family.¡¯ As he replied, a slight sneer appeared at the corners of his lips. But Ahasuerus reacted differently. If he meant the people of Hatti, they were identical with the Hurrians about whom he had read in the Scriptures. They had suddenly vanished from history long before, after causing his own forefathers many difficulties with their sharp iron weapons, and their strong, speedy chariots and now, quite unexpectedly, he was enabled to encounter their gods.
Thrilled by this uncommon stroke of good fortune, Ahasuerus set off after the young man, ignoring the looks that suggested how odd he found him. They shared between them the load of undamaged tablets, which was more than one person could carry, and reached the young man¡¯s home after walking a good eight miles.
Contrary to Ahasuerus¡¯ worries, unsure as he was if his father would not prove to be senile or cranky, he turned out to be a sound-minded man of no great age, not yet sixty by his looks. Even greater cause for rejoicing was his Aramaic. Nowadays he was settled as a farmer with land and cattle, but in his youth he had traveled far and wide, accompanying caravans to every corner of the earth, and as a result he had learned to speak and write Aramaic more fluently even than Ahasuerus.
¡®Why, you¡¯ve picked out nothing but a load of useless stuff to bring back. All they deal with is soldiers¡¯ wages and ways of training horses. Didn¡¯t I tell you to hurry up and learn the letters?¡¯ Examining the clay tablets they had brought back, the old man scolded his son, then looked up at Ahasuerus:
¡®You¡¯ve come to learn about our gods, you say? A strange young man indeed. Don¡¯t the people of your tribe refuse to acknowledge any god apart from your own?¡¯
He seemed to have recognized at a glance what blood flowed in Ahasuerus¡¯ veins. He responded curtly: ¡®I have left my tribe and its god. It is in the hope of filling the empty place that I am traveling about like this in search of a new god.¡¯
¡®Nonetheless, the blood that flows in your veins is Jewish blood. Your god is one and the same as your blood. Still, you¡¯ve come seeking our gods that no one ever seeks; no guest could be more welcome. Come in. I am heartily glad to welcome you.¡¯
Having spoken thus, he led Ahasuerus into the house without further questions. However, after supper, when he began to talk of his past history, there was a trace of madness about him.
¡®I am Muwatallish. Have you ever heard of King Muwatallish? There¡¯s no reason why you should. Judging by the records I¡¯ve seen, he could be reckoned the last glory of us people of Hatti. Well over a thousand years ago, he defeated the Egyptian army led by the Pharaoh Rameses II near the River Orontes. My late father deigned to suggest the hopes he nourished regarding me, by bestowing on me the name of such a great man.¡¯
¡®What relation is there between you and King Muwatallish?¡¯ The air of incipient madness in the man¡¯s eyes made Ahasuerus apprehensive but he could not help asking the question, unable to resist the curiosity that had taken hold of him. Old Muwatallish replied as though he had been expecting the question.
¡®Unless my father¡¯s recollections are mistaken, he was one of our distant forebears. After the king¡¯s death, our Hittite kingdom experienced disturbances on account of sea-borne peoples, originating from the Aegean Sea, and finally ceased to exist about a thousand years ago. The kingdom vanished, but some of the last king¡¯s descendants moved into this region of Karkemish, where they continued to survive in a number of small kingdoms for several centuries. Some of those kingdoms are said to have survived until Alexander came sweeping down and my late father¡¯s forebears are said to have been the rulers of one such kingdom. In which case, it¡¯s incomparably more likely that the blood flowing through my veins derives from that of Muwatallish than that yours comes from Abraham or Jacob.¡¯
¡®But why are you going to such pains to rediscover gods that have vanished so totally?¡¯
¡®It is natural for you to ask that. In fact, until I was forty that was my thought, and I paid no attention to what my father said. Just the same as my own son now . . . It was only after father had died and I was growing older that I gradually began to grasp what he had been saying while he was alive. Father used to say that when a nation perishes, it is not because its gods have abandoned it, but because it has abandoned its gods. Defeat in warfare or the rise to power of another, mightier nation is a secondary problem, he would say, and in reality a nation that keeps faith with its gods has always survived. He even used to quote your people as an example. Since the day when you crossed the river and came into Canaan, any number of mighty nations have arisen and established empires; yet where are they now? The fact that you alone have resisted and survived through the centuries is due to the way you have never abandoned your god.
¡®Despite the fact that he gave me such a great name, all that my father wanted was that I should restore our gods to life. That meant completing the work that he had nearly finished by the mysteries he had received from our forefathers. He firmly believed that if only our gods could be brought back to life, then the former glory of our clan would be restored, no matter how scattered they might now be, and irrespective of how few remained. So long as we had preserved a pure Hittite pedigree, we would once again gather before those gods, drawn by the blood in our veins.¡¯
Despite the ever more intense strain of folly and the logical incoherence, Ahasuerus had already been confirmed in the rightness of his decision to learn about the man¡¯s gods. The reason was his thought that, if gods were still capable of inspiring such a degree of passion in men although they had vanished completely many centuries before, then they must be worth learning about at least briefly, even if finally he did not stop but continued on his way.
Muwatallish made Ahasuerus welcome with a depth of feeling that went much farther than words. There might be an element of misdirected affection, made greater by his disappointment with a young son who did not understand him; there was equally at times a sense of pride at being able to teach a young man from another tribe about his clan¡¯s gods and their religious system. As a result, Ahasuerus was able to study more comfortably and quickly than at any time since leaving home, as he learned about the gods of the Hittites. According to Hittite mythology, Alalu was the original king of heaven, served by Anu who later replaced him, only to be replaced in turn by the god Kumarbi. Teshub was the storm god, leader of the three gods born to Kumarbi. Hebat was the wife of Teshub, Sharruma was their son, as was also Telepinus, a god whose wrathful withdrawal caused the earth to become a waste land. Wurusema was the sun goddess of the city of Arinna. Shanshka was the equivalent of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. The goddess Inaras helped the storm god vanquish the dragon Illuyankas by following the advice of a human who was then permitted to sleep with her. Ullikummi was known as ¡®the diorite giant,¡¯ born of a rock. Ubelluri bore the world on his back . . . swept along by his passion, Muwatallish revealed those many gods one by one, explaining their genealogies and sometimes their tribal origins.
But as the days passed Ahasuerus grew increasingly frustrated. In spite of Muwatallish¡¯s enthusiasm, he soon felt that he was wasting his time without being fully convinced, learning about a mythical system that was far coarser than any he had previously encountered. Heavenly power seemed to be a series of betrayals; Alalu, the pitiful high god, banished from heaven to beneath the earth by his followers was finally caught and devoured by one of them after wandering for a while; the extraordinary virility of Kumarbis was such that he begot a posterity by ejaculating semen onto a rock; desultory combats kept recurring between dragons and gods. In a word, there was nowhere a trace of the sacred, or of anything solemn to be seen, certainly no mercy or love, not even the least concern for human beings. Telepinus, the ¡®god who disappeared,¡¯ might have provided some freshness by his symbolic role. But their understanding of the cosmos and humanity was extremely crude, while their notions of ethics and codes of behavior were almost non-existent. Ahasuerus¡¯ total impression was of something suggesting the debauched and noisy gods of the Greeks, with the abruptness and violence typical of peoples that shine briefly by power of arms then vanish in ancient history.
In such a case, there was no other choice than to leave. It was not that the affection and care manifested by Muwatallish during his stay did not weigh with him, but one day, less than three months after his arrival, Ahasuerus expressed his intention of leaving. The disappointment and fury of Muwatallish were considerable; he had intended to transmit to Ahasuerus not only the oral traditions but even the secret of how to read the ancient writings. He tried to tempt Ahasuerus by offering to adopt him and bestow on him a share of his considerable wealth equal to that of his own son if he agreed to follow in his footsteps. Then he threatened to invoke the wrath of Kumarbi and Teshub, before finally letting Ahasuerus depart in a shower of curses he could not understand. Ahasuerus regretted having to part from Muwatallish in that way, but he felt that he had no choice. Having given up any expectations regarding these gods,