Born in Seoul in 1945, Choi In-ho graduated from the English Department of Yonsei University and immediately began his career as a writer of fiction. He published a number of best-selling works, and was one of Korea's leading writers in the 1970s. In Korean critical circles, best-sellers are generally assumed to have no serious literary quality but Choi was also able to produce works of a less popular and more seriously literary kind, although it is evident that the underlying world-view is the same in all his works. His first novel, Pyolt╡ur ╡ui kohyang (Stars' hometown) became an immediate best-seller when it was published in 1972. It was followed by T'ain ╡ui pang (The stranger's room, 1972) and by 1980 he had published almost twenty novels. Another ten titles followed in the next decade, to say nothing of several volumes of essays, and he continues to write, though at a gentler rhythm. His collection of stories about (though perhaps not entirely for) children Palmy╡ongwang Dodani (Great inventor Dodani) was published in 1992.
The short story published here is one of his most highly acclaimed works, and is characteristic of much of his writing. Choi is convinced of the discord, depravity, and falsehood of human society and sees in it a tragic dimension. The official ideology of the successive dictatorships tries to disguise this reality, he says, and alienation or empty nihilism are tempting responses although they are in fact nothing but forms of escapism, without tragic depth. At the same time, attempts to rise above them often lead to nothing but compromise, not true reconciliation of opposites. In certain of his works, Choi seems to suggest that individuals can only overcome by preserving their humanity no matter what the cost in pain.
A small boy's head popped in at the tavern.
The small boy greeted the heavy drinkers sitting near the door.
Most of them weren't able to locate him, but one of them happened to see him by chance.
"Look, you guys, look at that boy."
The man who had first seen him had much to say over the side dish that was then being emptied.
For the drunkards who were already quite far gone with hard liquor and hot and hazy from the red-hot briquettes, it was a little difficult to make out what kind of fellow the kid was, who had turned up through the open door together with the winter cold.
"Who is that fellow?"
The drunken glances of four or five persons stopped at the ragged boy. All glances fixed on him, the boy, perturbed, attempted to retreat, wriggling backward, as though he were caught rummaging through garbage. He was an extremely ugly boy.
Covered in scabs, his head was disorderly like a billboard ; his small hand peeping out of the Chinese style sleeve was hardened in dirt, shiny like a well-polished cartridge case.
"Hey, boy, shall we have a drink?"
The man who had first caught glimpse of the boy enticed him with a liquor bottle held high.
"No, thank you."
All of a sudden, the boy cried out loudly in his broad north-western dialect, seemingly ready to burst into tears.
"I've come to fetch my father."
"I know that, boy."
The same man replied.
"I know you've come to fetch your father. We know everything. Ha! Ha! Ha! Big adults like us know everything. Isn't that so, mates?"
Perking up his shoulders, the man sought confirmation from his friends who had become gradually interested in this odd boy. A friend responded, bursting into a clownish laughter like a half-boiled swindler's.
"Yeah. People of our age know everything. Boy, do you know why the world turns around?"
"I don't know."
"It turns around to tell people to drink. Child, bear it well in mind.This globe turns around to tell people to drink. Understand?"
"I'll teach you another thing, bright boy."
The first man looked down at the child, staggering.
"Do you know why a dog pisses with its leg up?"
"That I know."
The child smiled meanly.
"If it raised both legs, it'd fall down."
"Right. You're a bright boy, for sure. You're a clever one who never forgets what's once been taught you.
"What's your father's job?" Another stranger asked the kid, cutting a green-bean pancake with his chopsticks.
"He's Kook Seung Hyun. Kook Seung Hyun."
Suddenly the child's face became as crowded as a page of an encyclopedia. He wriggled forward like a toy soldier.
"You must know him. There's a large wart above his brows. He always smells of onions. He always carried garlic in his hip pocket. And every time he drinks, he has the habit of crying."
"Why are you looking for your father?"
The boy was interrupted by a man in dyed GI fatigues, who had been drinking off his glass in silence.
For a moment, the child looked up at the empty space with a dramatic expression.
"My mother is dying."
He had by now sneaked well into the tavern where it was warm. On the face of the extremely ugly boy, the 30 watt bulb provided appropriate lighting, and the slightly fishy smoke that rose up from the briquettes changed the color of the tavern's inside to a misty burnt-out gray like after a smoke shell explosion.
"I saw her vomiting blood a minute ago and ran straight out. My father told me to come here because, he said, if my mother died he'd get drunk at this tavern."
"Your father . . . ."
The man who saw him first laughed hollowly, lighting up a cigarette butt.
"Is gone. Yea, gone."
"Gone? Then where did he say he'd go?"
"He told us to send you to the tavern Pyongyang over there if you came, I think."
The boy's build was small and composed of life-like parts of a Swiss made watch. The flashy sign US ARMY glittered on his breast like an emblem showing rank ; his face glistened like velvet. He wore clothes in such haphazard layers that he looked like an encrusted insect.
"I'll head over to the tavern Pyongyang."
He hesitated a little. Something like gloomy loneliness flickered on his face momentarily, a look common to drunkards who leave a tavern having emptied their last glass. The man who first addressed the boy filled an empty glass with liquor and offered it to him.
"Have just one glass before you go, little fellow."
"I won't. I have to look for my father."
"Your father may have gone from that tavern to another tavern, who knows?"
"Still, I can find him. I'll look for him all night."
"Even if your mother dies in the mean time?"
"Everything's OK if I find my father. My father's different from you folks. He likes to drink, but he can do anything he wants to. Ah!式he used to make gold from copper. I'm talking about gold!"
Unnoticed, his hand stole out of the Chinese style sleeve like a larva casting off its skin, held up a glass and emptied it nimbly as pickpockets of the marketplace empty pockets. The glass was full, and, like a magician, he gulped it down without spilling a drop. It was perhaps because of a certain satisfaction that had filled his small mouth that he picked up a piece of pickled radish with a gratified expression.
"Do you want a smoke, too?"
"Don't make fun of me, please."
He adjusted his collar and hunched his shoulders. The child looked highly alert and nimble like a veteran sprinter about to run out in a flash after having tightened his back made of fibrous and elastic material.
"Please don't forget. I mean my father's name. Kook, Seung, Hyun. Even if you happen to see him in a tavern, don't tell him I was drinking. Please,式I mean it."
Speechless, the drunkards sent him off with blank eyes. A lonesome cold wave like pale dawn moonlight swept over the boy's face. The men were now so drunk each began to curse the home, the wife, the eldest son and the second son, curse the life, the hopes for the future, the shoddy salary, life in this world, and himself.
A cold winter wind was blowing newspapers along the market alley. The winter wind burned one's whole face like a sandstorm over a desert. With his hand in his pocket he walked, muttering something. Since sunset he had already dropped in at five taverns, and he had gulped down seven glasses at the very least. He had put away all different kinds of drink: raw liquor, cloudy coarse wine, refined rice-wine. He had drunk enough for a mild heat to rise up the throat, and life to move somewhere away from his head ; but he wasn't yet satisfied as though his stomach were still empty. Until he found his father, he would still be able to put away another five or six more drinks.
The wind was bitter in the marketplace from end to end. Winter was snickering behind every corner. Skyward, the street lamps were shining limpidly ; a cat mewed somewhere. In the closed marketplace, old sunshades flapped in the wind and swept over his face like ghosts. Kindly, the intoxicating ingredient ignited ; his small body started heating up like an electric cooker with a switch.
(Ah, ah, damn this cursed wretched head.)
For a moment he felt as though his head were terribly heavy compared with his body. All of a sudden, he began to resent the fact that he had to move around with a head so heavy he could hardly carry it.
There was the tavern Pyongyang at the end of the marketplace. The exceedingly sweet light that shone out of the tavern was cast on the vacant market. In silence the boy looked into the glass pane to ascertain whether there were any strange faces. If there wasn't a familiar face, he wouldn't be able to drink any more, or meet his father.
Fortunately, he saw two men, whose faces were familiar to him, sitting with filled glasses in their hands. Having been standing on tiptoe, the child flattened his feet and began cursing himself in the windy open.
(Damned cursed drink.)
As all experienced and veteran drunkards get doubtful and look aged on deciding to be temperate at least for the occasion, so a momentary despair, sadness and grief cast a gloom over the boy's small face.
And yet, as he saw the clear glasses on the table shining beyond the tavern's window and heard the noisy gross pleasantries of the loudly laughing drunkards, the child's ugly face changed marvelously. With the grim expression of a confessing prisoner, he reached for the tavern's door slowly. The handle was familiar to his hand.
He only stuck in his head to peep as he issued his greeting. But nobody looked at him but the waitress.
"Hey, your father's gone."
" . . . . "
"He's gone to the widow's."
The child looked up at her vaguely.
"It's true, boy."
Then the drunkards sitting farther inside caught sight of him. The man with side whiskers laughed aloud. He laughed whenever he got drunk. He laughed even while saying that fleeing from the war, his wife was killed by a bullet that made a hollow hole in her stomach, and that now he had no choice but to live by himself. He laughed even when he said he would commit suicide before reaching fifty. The man seemed to know nothing else on earth but laughing. He made it his business to sneak into the railroad station to steal and give away briquettes ; once a guard caught and battered him so that his face shape was changed式but, laughing aloud throughout, he drank, saying that if his mouth was too swollen he would drink through his nose ; he was such an odd man as to appear either somewhat weak in the head, or immensely easy-going. At any rate, the boy was ever so thankful that they were able to discover him before getting too sloshed to recognize his face.
"Hey, when I see an urchin like that hahaha, it reminds me of my dead boy, hahaha. He was an urchin exactly of that size. Hahaha. Like me he was a handsome, clever, smart child. Hahaha. He was to make a somebody when he grew up. Hahaha."
Compared with this one, the other man was quite different. Whenever he got drunk he became silent like a dumb person. There were blackish tattoos on his forearm when the sleeve was rolled up, and he would throw his knife while sitting in dead silence. The boy only once saw him laugh. He had once hardly said "good evening" when something whizzed past by his face rushing through the air like the scales of a swift fish, and he saw it stuck in the side post of the door not even a span away from his head. It was the man's knife. It was actually the substitute of his right hand lost during the war.
Exclaimed the man, seated.
"Look at my right hand. How sharp and quick it is . . . ."
It was then he had the odd laugh foaming at the mouth. It was the only time the boy saw the man laugh.
He made a living cutting wooden toys. The boy once saw him cutting wooden soldiers with his left hand only. It was at noon of a midsummer day the previous year ; hot sunbeams burned outside the dugout ; while cutting toys, his torso naked, he would suddenly poise his knife and throw it toward the distant wooden wall. The child still remembers vividly : the metallic sound of the knife that rushed glittering toward the crude drawing of the male private parts or the heart ; the stout and arid sound it made when it pierced the board wall, having passed through the empty air ; the heat from the earth as hot as crude petroleum at noon, which he saw through the open door ; the somewhat suffocating and vague hostility, and the maddening smell of sweat of that summer.
Even though the man then asked the boy to pluck the knife out for him, calling him intimately "my boy" in a low voice, the child knew well that the man didn't like him. Whenever he glanced at the boy, an open contempt flashed in his eyes. When the younger was passing by along the road sometime ago, the man popped his head out of his workplace and lured him in a whisper. There was a bottle in his hand, and he was quite drunk already.
"Hey. How about having a drink with me? I mean a hangover-chaser."
The boy had hardly stepped into the dugout, grinning, off his guard when all of a sudden the left hand of the man's only remaining arm began strangling his throat. The man's left hand kept on tightening its tenacious grip ; the child bit the man's hand with all his might. Seizing on the loosening of the hand, the youngster ran out to the main road ; he was then crying uncontrollably like an idiot. For a while since then they hadn't come across one another at taverns. Today was their first encounter since the incident.
"I've come to look for my father."
The kid's diminishing voice was not directed toward the one with the single arm but across to the one with side whiskers.
"I saw him, hahaha. I saw him a little while ago. Do you think that's all? Hahaha, I drank with him, too, hahaha."
"My mother, my mother . . . ."
He gesticulated, speaking in a voice strangled with tears.
"Is dying. I saw her vomiting blood and came straight out."
Hesitantly, he went closer to the table. His small and narrow eyes, heavily tinged with red by the intoxicating ingredient that was rapidly heating up, were getting gummy. There lay clear hard liquor on the table. It was a bottle newly unstopped and almost full.
He knew the taste of the drink. He also knew how he would change after one more glass.
He sat down on the edge of the bench. The man with side whiskers stretched himself stifling a long yawn in his full mouth.
"You won't find your father tonight."
"I can find him."
He spoke resolutely.
"I'm sure I'll find him."
"Hahaha, yea, woudn't it be all right if you found him tomorrow in case you didn't find him today?'
"No. I must find him today. My mother is dying. She vomited red blood out of her mouth and, lying down, told me in a thin voice to fetch my father. She'll be all right only if I find my father."
Taking the best opportunity, the youngster held up the liquor glass on the table. And agilely, he popped its contents into his mouth.
"My father is a drunkard, but he's different from you uncle. Ah!式he can make gold from copper. I'm talking about gold!"
That one glass of liquor made him free. Like the last drink people gulp down on parting, that one glass of drink made him happy. He began to sing, tapping the table with the chopsticks he held:
"Long, long ago there lived a man who had a pretty daughter.
On the village dike he advertised,
If you are a son-in-law who can drink and sing,
Come here and give it a try."
Without showing any sign of being particularly surprised, the man with side whiskers smiled in silence like a sheep eating paper from its beard. The other man was only staring, with fisheyes, at the ceiling of the tavern. If undisturbed, it seemed he could sit for days in that manner. At the first opportunity the youngster extended his hand and, holding the bottle, poured out some more liquor.
"Every time my father drank, he would cry."
Nobody listened to him. Even the man with side whiskers no longer laughed. A night cat mewed somewhere ; fatigue and sorrow fell heavily from the ceiling. The boy held up the glass he had poured, and lapped it little by little with the tip of his tongue, watching for what was about to happen. The barmaid glanced this way from time to time, smoking ; she looked up and down at the three persons, who formed a queer composition. Now the boy, flushed like a carrot, began hiccuping.
"I'll give you a funny riddle. Do you know why a dog lifts a leg when it pisses?"
"I don't know."
"If it lifted both legs, it'd fall down. Hiccup."
Now the liquor made the boy's whole body drunk and he, immensely pleased, was observing the drink at play. Under his eyes, everything began to swim past him. He held up his chopsticks again and, tapping the table with them, started to sing a clumsy song:
"One moonlit night, a bald bachelor came along.
Fiddle, fiddle, fiddle-di-dum ; nice listening to your fiddling,
But you're so ugly I don't like you."
Small was the build of the child that drank tapping the table in a corner of the tavern ; but all his wrigglings were fully experienced, and giving the strange impression that he was prepared to put in his best effort.
The boy finished singing, and began to extinguish his cigarette. The hot cigarette light was put out at his tongue with a keen noise, and he looked as though he were a juggling boy of a circus troupe.
It was at that moment that, all of a sudden, the man took out his knife, moving with a start as though he had woken up from his sleep. Then in a blink, the knife was aimed at the boy's throat. The child looked up at him blankly. The man's eyes were glittering morbidly, and, under the rolled-up lip, a white smile was glistening ominously.
"You drunkard midget."
The man barked.
"I'll let you die comfortable."
The boy tried to resist somehow, but knew it was useless to move his tongue.
"Keep still, you midget."
The knife glaring in his left hand was aimed at the boy's throat. The boy felt a slight pain near his throat, and heard his life sighing.
(Damned cursed throat.)
The man's hand was lifted high like an athletics teacher's signaling a start. In his palm, the blade sparkled like a small bird. Then the knife in a flash drew a line in the empty space. The child heard a light rustle in the air, and saw, at the same time, a momentary flash as though from the striking of a flint. Then he saw the man stabbing his own breast, tumbling down onto the table. The kid shot out of the tavern like a bullet.
The street was dark. It blew from every corner, and the sky was transparent and leaden. The cold was quite familiar to the child. Always and everywhere, he had to fight this cold. The marketplace was empty already. From under his nose, white breath would leak out like vapor and melt away into the darkness. The hiccup hadn't stopped yet, and fortunately, he wasn't dead yet. He had drunk more than usual ; all the same, it wasn't too much. He stuck to a cold wall, and unbuttoned his fly. Because he wore clothes in random layers, it was difficult to find his little thermostat. Urinating, he began to sing in a diminishing voice:
"One moonlit night, a bald bachelor came along.
Fiddle, Fiddle, Fiddle-di-dum ; nice listening to your fiddling,
But you're so ugly I don't like you."
He knew the place well where he was going. No matter how much he might have drunk, he had never lost his way.
(My mother is dying ; what is my father doing?)
He looked up at the sky which a black dye seemed to have melted into. There was no hope of finding his father, but, even so, he wasn't about to give up on his last bulwark.
Staggering, he started to walk. At the end of the marketplace, a drunkard was sleeping with his body flat on the street. The boy went closer, and took a good look at the drunkard's face. He began feeling the man's pockets. He carried on the work without hesitation, thinking the man would be frozen to death before dawn. The pockets were empty. Only a few cigarette butts and left-over dried pollack came out of the left side-pocket, and only two streetcar tickets from the right.
Now the youngster started to search the inside pocket. His fingertip felt a piece of paper money ; he took out two bills, breathing hard. With them in hand, he started to walk again. His heart began throbbing in expectation of being able to drink some more. He knew, with these two bills, he would be able to drink about two more glasses of hard liquor. He also knew well how he would change with the two glasses that he would drink by himself, not fearfully but squarely. He knew as well that two wings would grow painlessly out of his sides and make him as light as a bird.
The boy knew the taverns that were open till late. But, however late they might be open, now it was almost time to close, and so he started running. His footsteps resounded all over the frozen land. The tavern he had run to was already closed.
In front of the door of the tavern where the light had gone out, holding his breath like a cat, he sniffed the smell of liquor leaking out of the chink in the door. The wind blew his hair, and he shortened himself. He thought a little about what to do and soon began knocking at the window pane as though he had made up his mind. The pane sounded like a sheet of ice being broken. There was a white layer of frost on the pane like a flower pattern. The child repeated knocking for some time and listened. Whenever he listened, he heard the cold wind blowing far away. After a while there were signs of life within, and at last, a person came closer to the window. The person inside started scratching the frost. After a little, a coin-size peephole was made, and an eye approached.
The kid saluted politely. Then an opening in the wall was uncovered, and the barmaid showed up with her loose hair.
"He isn't here. Your dad didn't come here."
"I know that."
Feeling a chill, the boy rubbed his hands.
"I know that much already."
"Then what are you up to not sleeping?"
"I don't need my daddy anymore."
The child was terse but clear. Then he moved his facial muscles, but they twitched as though about to burst into tears. His voice sounded husky like a goose crying in the direction of a setting sun.
"Auntie. I've come for a drink, a drink."
He glanced at her imploringly as though begging her to trust what he said.
"Are you out of your mind, child?"
"I'll drink only two glasses. I have money."
He showed two bills to the woman.
"I want to be drunk ; I mean it. I know how much I can drink. If I drink two more glasses, no more than two, I'll sleep without any dreams. If I stop now, it's worse than not drinking at all, and I won't sleep well ; that's why . . . ."
The child smiled like a fresh water fish. A handful of light from the kitchen was slanting desolately into his face. The woman appeared to think it over a little, and opened the door for him, with a stir that was often seen in the women of her kind. He staggered into the tavern ; the woman walked to the kitchen, yawning, and brought a bottle.
The boy sat down on the table that looked cold. From the bottle she poured the drink for him. With the glass of raw liquor which smelled of kerosene in front of him, he calmed his breath for a moment.The countenance of the boy was somewhat solemn as he sat facing the glass in the dusky light. Every time he raised his hand and held the glass, light scattered like the whitish flakes of a moth ; he looked like a boy sowing seeds. A glass was emptied ; he lightly tapped the table with his fingertip, and she, holding up the bottle, generously poured it full to the brim.
"Every time my dad drank, he would cry. But I don't cry, as you can see."
A baby's cry was heard from an inner room. But the woman didn't care. The baby would stop crying by itself. Taking up the glass again with a hand shaking like someone with the palsy, he drank from it. It was a very brief joy. The child slowly rose to his feet.
"Auntie. Please don't die before I grow up. Try to put up with it, with your teeth clenched."
He bowed at the door. Closing the door, the woman shouted out something.
"Goodbye. And never come back."
The boy was now walking like a toy with its spring run down. He knew well the place he had to go. He started the slope. The heap of a crumbling house was standing there in the dark like an animal. A night cat mewed. Always at about this time, the cat mewed at the lightless ruins, where the rusty steel frames were meshing the sky like a net.
The wind on the hill was even more chilling. He was walking up the slope, his hands in his pocket.
There stood the orphanage on the hill. The lights were out ; the children rounded up like small balls to fend off the cold, were asleep. Some boy would be sleeping, gnashing his teeth ; another boy would be sobbing as always, peevishly afraid of the dark.
(Ah式ah! on this dark night, where can my father really be?)
He staggered a little. Drunk as he was, however, he wasn't such a one as to forget where the hole in the barbed wire was.
For a moment he worried about how to creep safely into his bedding that still kept his body heat without being caught by the nurse in the dark that glistened like velvet. Nonetheless, he entrusted himself to the self-sufficient, easy optimism of the drunk.
From below the hill blew the cold wind mixed with the smell of dust. Smelling it, he clenched his teeth and decided that on the next day he would find his father without fail.