In contrast to Korean literature of the twentieth century, which battled with how to present social and political upheaval from occupation to war to industrialization, Korean writers of the twenty-first century often seem driftless. Many writers of this new generation experiment and take risks in their fiction but few have done so as brilliantly as Bae Suah. With its shifting timeframes, ambiguous narrator, and apartment empty except for small traces of previous inhabitants, Bae’s “Toward Marzahn” perfectly depicts a hypnagogic atmosphere unlike any other. Marzahn is not in Korea but rather a corner of Berlin, a city where Bae has spent long stretches of time, and her words give life to this realm far removed from her Korean readers’ homeland. Yet the loneliness of these characters never feels foreign or unfamiliar. Rather, it transplants Bae’s readers to her reality, which her critics have hailed as “a world of dreams . . . through which lost voices drift.”
The moment the clock hit 7:45 ᴀᴍ, the radio’s noise could be heard. It wasn’t always the same program, even though the channel was preset. While there was no way to know who had originally set the radio to that channel, that person had clearly wanted the news program that started right then. But with the passage of time, the station changed its programming schedule, and so too did the news program’s time slot change. The 7:45 ᴀᴍ timeslot was reassigned first to a morning program that played mostly light music or soft pop, and now it was a news-and-classical-music program, which sometimes also had local news announcements and popular music. Even though the way the radio clicked on—wobbling and crackling faintly as it automatically turned on—was with the same tumultuous and spasmodic movement as always, the content of the broadcast was different. According to the broadcast, the snow from last night had not melted yet. No, the humidity had caused it to turn gray and lumpy and by now snow was falling so lightly that it was barely noticeable. The temperature was not low, so the street had become wet with slush. Anybody who needed to go out might think about putting on a pair of boots. Of course, that’s assuming there’s something like a pair of boots to be found at home. Are they trying to be funny? The announcer spoke hurriedly as if he had too much to read in too little time. Last night, a fire broke out in a theater nearby. Thankfully, since nobody had been there at the time, nobody had been hurt and the firefighters had arrived quickly to put it out. The radio sits beside the bed’s headboard, directly below a large window with drooping gray curtains. The window is so ridiculously large that if the wind was especially strong or the temperature dropped dramatically at night, a cold draft would hang in the air. People who had moved up from the south were ill-equipped to endure this air so glacial it chilled them to the bone. The sky visible through the window is completely gray; this winter the weather was particularly awful. Occasionally a crow flashed by the window. The view from the window is more than just dull. It is the manifestation of a deeply dull imagination. Below is a large, empty intersection with tram tracks running down the middle. On the street’s opposite side is a line of five rectangular buildings, which at first appear to simply be duplicates of one another but upon closer observation, it is clear they are all connected by a huge deep-set glass hall. It would be much more accurate to say that the buildings look like a huge lump. The “ Oғғɪᴄᴇ Sᴘᴀᴄᴇ Fᴏʀ Rᴇɴᴛ” signboard is still up after several months and, inexplicably, sand on the roof had been piled on top of one of the flat buildings below. The low rectangular buildings existed without any hint of variation in every direction that could be seen. This apartment building is the only high-rise on this street. No matter how hard you may look for the next closest apartment building, there is no way to know how many kilometers away it is. It was not strange that one of the residents had spent the whole winter standing by the window, looking outside, and had eventually become depressed. Moreover, to the point of beggaring belief, the street is always, always empty. It often happened that the snow would melt before anyone had the chance to tread on it. Traffic along the street is limited to three- or four-car trams and automobiles regularly moving under the traffic light. As soon as the sun sets, everything quickly falls into darkness except for the corner on the other side of the street, illuminated by a yellow light from the large car wash and a billboard with an advertisement for beer. These are the only signs that this city is not completely abandoned.
It was just before 8:05 ᴀᴍ but there was no sound of any door opening or closing in the building. The radio announcer quickly swallowed soundlessly and cleared his throat.
All right, listeners, I have one more thing to announce. If you would like to enjoy a Monday-evening recital, you have the opportunity today. This is not a regular concert but a piano recital tonight at eight ᴘᴍ. It will take place in the reading area between the library periodicals room and the history corner. Three students from the graduating class of the music school will be performing. The musical program will be Loeffler’s Two Rhapsodies for Viola, Oboe, and Piano, and Schumann’s Romances. Concerning the Marzahn Theater fire, the police have not given any explanation for its cause. And tomorrow’s weather is expected to be colder. In the early morning, the temperature will be around minus-fourteen degrees Celsius. The next song will be Fettes Brot’s “Gay Girls.” Dududududududoong, la, la . . .
Gay girls, we are gay girls . . .
Whosoever opened the door and went in (that is if the key to this empty apartment could be found) would find themselves facing a small kitchen. A visitor standing in the doorway might think that someone was in the out-of-view bedroom, reading the local newspaper out loud. As the coffee machine in the kitchen has a timer, at the same time every morning, when the radio was set to turn on, the coffee machine would automatically start brewing coffee. But this was no longer the case. There is no one here now to change the coffee filter every night, put in the new coffee grounds, or fill the machine with water. So, really, there is no longer any use for the coffee machine’s timer. The apartment is really just a kitchen and a bedroom-cum-living room. Anybody walking through the entrance would see a framed watercolor hung on the wall and, written underneath, “One Wild Red Bird.” Yet no matter how much anyone looks, there is no bird in the painting; it in fact comprises an orchid and a few other plants. Moreover, not a single part of the painting is red. This orchid is the only flower in the whole apartment. The wall directly across has a closet, which was where things such as food and household items had been kept. The warmest place in the apartment was this entrance and corridor. All spaces can be said to retain a fated smell as a kind of identity. The smell in this place—in addition to the remnants of smoke, of potatoes burned on the bottom of the oven, of beer that had long since gone bad at the bottom of a glass—felt like an intentional demeanor. Melancholy, long winters spent here alone for who knows how many years, an elderly person, a night-shift nurse, the sound of music from a basement bar, an insurance company employee who appears as just a shadow. The space retains these kinds of traces, rendering them as visible marks of its past inhabitants’ personalities. All this despite the fact that it had been some months now since anyone had lived here.
The last resident had left a little bit over four months ago. Since then, no one had come looking for a place to rent. It is not strange that this area had become so empty that most buildings now stood unoccupied. A long winter had settled over this place. In most cases, as soon as the rented apartment was vacated, the janitor would clean it. But this time was different. There had been a delay due to a problem with the cleaning company, and when a new cleaning company was hired at last, the apartment had been forgotten. It seems almost certain that no one will come across any of this until a new person looks around for an apartment to rent. There is one desk in the bedroom. At mealtimes it became a dining table, and when work needed to be done, it could simply be given a different name. It is that kind of desk. For instance, the last resident here was a person who liked to write with a pen. He might have been too poor to buy some sort of machine but during the quiet hours he would become absorbed in the silence and, despite not being a professional, would write a few pages. At the desk, he would unfold and set down a blank piece of paper and write about things he had seen and he had not seen. Even factoring in that he was the last resident, he had left far more traces than previous residents. Looking at the vinyl-covered waterproof desk in detail, it is still possible to see the marks the pen left as it pressed down onto the paper. Like a person unused to writing, he had dug his pen into the paper with more strength than was necessary. He had written many letters at this desk. Not only letters to the government or the bank, but to friends as well.
I bought three aspirins and a magazine with the money left . . . since I have spent all my money, I doubt I will have enough to buy a stamp. If I cannot find a job by the end of next week I will have to move out. Everything is uncertain right now. Even if you do receive this letter, I do not need any response. Because I don’t even know if I’ll have to leave or not. It seems like your work has been troubling you lately. But if you are healthy, that’s what matters. Three o’clock . . . Everything’s good. I like the place I’ve been living in. I think the rent is pretty high. Sometimes it’s cold. But it’s a new building. Ever since I moved here, I haven’t met a single person. It’s a good place to be alone. Whenever I’m alone, I end up humming songs to myself. Like “Three Chinese with a Contrabass” . . . Something like that. I’m terrible at singing. Oh, there’s a radio here I can listen to for free. But . . . [The rest is so blurred it cannot be read.]
His hair was red with streaks of dark brown. There is still some of that hair left in the bathroom. He was a shy, cautious, humble type of man. When he met women, he was shy and careful to the point of painful awkwardness, and when he was around other men, he couldn’t match their confidence and aggression, so he got hurt easily. He was the type of person who couldn’t fit in anywhere. During his short time here and probably even before that, he had been unable to find a friend, whether female or male. If he was invited to a New Year’s party, nobody would talk to him and he wouldn’t strike up a conversation with anyone either. Worried that other people would pity him or look at him oddly—that is, worried that people would focus on this aspect of his personality—he attempted to make it seem like he wasn’t like that and so he became nervous and pessimistic. He began to enjoy being alone more and more.
There was another tall, cheerful, pleasant young man who had lived here. No matter the weather, he always carried his blue rucksack. But he couldn’t endure the loneliness, so, he left, less than four months later, almost as if running away, for a livelier street. His appearance was quite striking. He looked like a baby about to laugh. The sides of his mouth were perpetually tilted upward; even when he was sad or angry, it looked like he was about to laugh. One photo, stuck between the bed and the wall that no one knew about, was evidence of this. Before he had left the apartment, behind the framed picture titled “One Wild Red Bird” he had scribbled something. It’s clearly a swear word but no one has discovered it yet. He had had a bicycle and ridden it several kilometers each day to the park in order to take a walk. Even after his girlfriend left, his handsome and cheerful expression remained undimmed. It’s unclear precisely when he left this apartment but he seemed not to have been more than twenty years old.
There was a time when a young couple lived here as well: a nurse aide and a female employee from a hat shop at the mall. Their relationship was not typical, but they loved each other and were sure they would be together a long time. Although they both had given names, they had given each other nicknames for when they were alone together. This had been their first home. Whereas the nurse aide was introverted and solitary, the mall employee was the opposite. They sometimes tickled each other’s toes and read out loud in bed or lay at night watching the home shopping channel. The nurse aide wanted to buy new hair rollers and the mall employee wanted a travel package to the Himalayas despite the cost. The two had met through a magazine’s personal ads section. They started living together as soon as they met. If the nurse aide had not jumped resolutely out the window one November afternoon then they might have even adopted a child and started a family. But the nurse aide had already been critically ill and ultimately, try as they might, there was nothing more that could be done. The mall employee then packed her bags and returned to her hometown.
The morning’s pale light illuminated the clouds. The street lamps were still on even though the sky had already gotten bright. But, of course, it was a depressing day as always. There was nothing awe-inspiring to be seen in any direction. The snow had now turned to brown rain. At 9:15, the radio shook in excitement as the performance of “The Berlin Occupation” neared its finale, but, as if caught by its shyness, the radio suddenly cut out. It was like a novice actor entering the stage at the wrong time and consequently running off. In the corridor, surrounded by a dizzying number of Hakenkreuze scribbled on the walls, two men stood talking by the elevator. From a distance, the two appeared to both be armed with nearly identical heavy brown coats and felt hats. One of them was carrying an umbrella. The two were visibly restless; they looked at their watches while shuffling their feet.
“So, it’s a studio, huh. Well, just a bedroom for one person.”
One of them spoke up, his voice downcast, and let out a hacking cough. He had a sturdy build, but he wasn’t healthy, and the more he aged, the more his face deepened with worry and concern.
“I haven’t decided yet if I want to rent the room. I’m extremely sensitive to cold and this place is cold. Too cold. I don’t know what on earth to do. And also, I don’t have a car and there doesn’t seem to be a single place around here to buy anything.”
“Depends on how you think about it.”
The other person answered thoughtlessly. While this shorter person looked fairly similar, his expensive-looking leather bag and gloves set him apart from the larger man. His hat was pulled down to his sly eyebrows.
“Of course if it’s an apartment with one bedroom, it’ll be cheaper than a two-bedroom. More so than that though, weren’t you were thinking of a place that would be quiet with a good view? Think about it. Here the apartment is right in the plaza. Think about it. Here no one, not one person, will disturb you. Even if they were looking for you, they couldn’t find you. This is an important point to consider.”
“Still, it’s too cold here. Almost like ice! Even taking all of that into account, it still seems too expensive.”
The larger-framed man trembled as he suddenly hiccupped.
“If you hem and haw like this, you won’t get anything done. And as you said before, this is clearly a furnished apartment for rent. This isn’t some refugee camp or whatever. And so, I’m saying that you have to pay a commensurate sum of money. You know this is how the world works. I’m saying this because it’s your decision. But I don’t think I should interfere anymore.”
The elevator stopped and the doors opened. The two stepped inside. The doors shut and the elevator began its descent. Inside the elevator, neither man spoke a word. The door opened once again and the two stepped out into the lobby, not far from the mailboxes.
“All right, then.”
The smaller man walked ahead and spoke. “Will you let me know when you make your decision? It’ll complicate things for me otherwise.”
“I really don’t know. Right now, I want to look at some other places.”
“Well, then, do as you like.”
With resignation on his face, the smaller man headed to his parked car. Then, as if a thought had suddenly occurred to him, he turned around to look at the larger man.
“Oh, I just remembered something, I have to go a different way. A different direction is what I mean. I have an important meeting and it’s in the other direction— the complete opposite one, in fact. So I’m afraid I have to break the promise I made you. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. I guess it just slipped my mind. Ah, there’s not much time now. It’s a very important client so I have no choice. Sorry. Well then, I’ll see you later.”
The smaller man got into his car and, like an escape artist, seemingly vanished almost the instant he turned on the ignition. The larger man was left behind. Just before the car disappeared from sight, the larger man, flustered, flailed his arm and shouted.
“What did you say? This, I don’t know this area, I’ve never been to this city, and you knew that too. What am I supposed to do? After all these years, we’re just going to go our separate ways, not even getting a cup of coffee . . . ?”
Then, giving up, he lowered his upraised arm and readjusted his coat collar meekly. He turned his attention towards the tram station. If he took the tram, even just for a short while, he wouldn’t get lost. It wouldn't be too late to put off thinking about the problem of renting the room until after taking the tram, right? When the traffic light changed, he hurriedly crossed the street. The rain stopped and sunlight began to stream through the clouds. An uneasy ray of sunlight began to break through the clouds, its light brief and cold, shining down upon the snow-covered street. And then suddenly everything began sparkling like a mirror: the building’s windows, the white and hard snow trapped in the shade, the puddles formed in the street from snowmelt, the tram tracks, the yellow road sign—painted with five black arrows and a black airplane—wet with rain. Crossing the intersection, the large man’s brown coat slowly recedes into the distance. Looking down on him from above, he is the only “walking man” in sight. As usual, the street is completely empty. The man slowly became smaller. Finally, he disappeared from view. At some point, near the tram station. It takes at least five stops to get to the closest busy area. The tram stops in front of a mall with a subway station and theater. All that can be seen while riding the tram are the completely empty buildings standing gloomily on the roadside. The buildings had been completed several years ago, but not a single person has moved into any of them. Fᴏʀ Rᴇɴᴛ is the most commonly seen advertisement, and indeed the only message in the area. The empty buildings seem to keep pace with the tram. The perfectly rectangular concrete buildings, all the same height as if in agreement; the empty plots of land surrounding the tram tracks, left unsold and overgrown with grass; the signs constantly follow the tram, filtering through its glass windows, Fᴏʀ Rᴇɴᴛ, Fᴏʀ Rᴇɴᴛ, Fᴏʀ Rᴇɴᴛ . . . In the empty sky, dust particles were floating in the weak light. On Friday and Saturday nights, young people, in pants snug around the waist and wide in the leg paired with short jackets, cluster at the mall, the movie theater, and the bowling alley. But most of the time there isn’t even a beggar or stray dog in front of the subway entrance facing the mall. The entrance looms in the middle of the plaza like a ferocious mouth opened wide and covered in a dizzying array of graffiti. In all honesty, it is a bit of a dangerous place to be alone at night.
Bee-beep, the buzzer’s drawn-out sound was like a hammer hitting the wall. It’s the buzzer for the apartment downstairs. No question they had pressed the wrong button. But the buzzer rang again. The room’s silence was marred by the buzzer’s sound. Why isn’t there an answer? In front of the entrance downstairs, a skinny young man with a violin case is waiting impatiently. He doesn’t know he’s made a mistake. Why don’t they answer? He repeats the address in his head. Number 137. It isn’t the wrong place. But, why? He had asked someone for directions. And the response had been this building. At the building’s entrance, the address was written clearly. Number 137, Apartment 343. But why? The person living there might have forgotten the young man was coming today. Maybe that was why they weren’t answering the door. Without someone else’s help, he couldn’t get in the building and try to find the apartment. He didn’t have much time. He tried pressing each button, Apartment 344, Apartment 342, Apartment 333, Apartment 323, Apartment 353, but none of them provided any reply. During that span of time, the sun had again hidden itself and the street was once again dark. Everything within sight had transformed into a dirty, muddy puddle. Nothing glittered any more. The young man let out a sigh. He kept on pressing the bells to random apartments. And then finally, he got an answer.
“What is it?”
It was the voice of a middle-aged woman.
“I’m sorry but could you please buzz me in? I have an important appointment but, you see, no one answered.”
“What did you say?”
“I would be really grateful if you would buzz me in. I received a request to give a violin lesson and it’s a really important job for me, but even though today is the right day and this is the right place, no one has answered so I can’t get in. That’s why I would like you to buzz me in, please.”
“I really don’t understand what you’re saying. So you’re a visitor and you need to get in but no one has answered the door. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“So instead you want me to open the door.”
“What apartment are you looking for?”
“Well that’s strange, why would I have to open the door for you? That’s very strange. Look here, I live in apartment 655, so you are currently ringing the bell of apartment 655. Since 655 and 343 aren’t close together at all, it’s rather strange for you to be ringing my bell! Why are you doing that? I think you should have asked that person’s neighbors instead.”
“Of course, I wanted to do that, but no one seems to be at home. Actually, no one’s been responding at all.”
“Well, I really doubt that. Not in this weather. And older people don’t really go out during the winter.”
“But it’s true. I definitely have to finish negotiating the lessons and receive the advance payment. I’m trying to say that this is really urgent. So if you would just buzz me in . . .”
“Money? This is about money?”
“Yes, about the lesson fee. I’ve come to receive the advance payment today.”
“That doesn’t matter, you said money, didn’t you?”
“The lesson fee.”
“Well, money is money. Whether it’s lesson fees or whatever, in the end, it’s all the same.”
“Yes, well, that’s true. Would you be able to buzz me in?”
“How I see it is, it would be good for you to leave for now and come back later. Or try to ask someone else for help. Me, I don’t think it would be good for me to buzz you in. Especially someone like you who has come about money . . .”
“Oh, I think you misunderstood me. It’s nothing like that. Since it’s just opening the front door, I don’t understand why that would be a problem.”
With a click, the woman hung up the intercom receiver. Drained of all strength, the young man sank to the ground. He didn’t want to ring any more bells and repeat the same conversation. But he really needed the money today. He took out the paper from the homeowner with the address written down. Time passed silently. The young man read the address carefully before looking up toward the sky and then glanced at his surroundings. It would be a long walk before he reached a public phone. He slowly repeated the street name. He bent down his head, covering it with his hands, and stared at the ground. Then he stood up. He started walking. At first, he dragged his feet listlessly but gradually he began standing up straighter and walking faster. Once he reached the middle of the street, he shook his head and once again took out the piece of paper with the address and read it. He sounded out the address like he was rolling it around in his mouth. In the distance, as the sound of a bell rang out, the tram approached. As if he had made a decision, his pale lips sealed shut and he began running in that direction. While running, a ridiculous sound, hick hick, spilled out of his mouth. It was hard to tell whether he was laughing or crying.
“What are you looking for?”
“My textbook and notebook for homework.”
“Why are you looking for your textbook and homework in the trash? You’re in my way, move. I need to throw away my trash.”
“But I need to find them in order to finish my homework. I can’t do that without my textbook. I have to go to school tomorrow.”
“That’s why I’m asking, why on earth are you looking for your textbook and homework here?”
“Penn threw them out.”
“What? Penn, who is Penn?”
“Penn is this gap-toothed guy, and he’s fat. Even his hands are huge.”
“Which is why I’m asking, who is he?”
“He’s my mom’s new boyfriend.”
“What? This is a surprise! Isn’t your mother’s boyfriend that short bus driver with the beard on his chin? Why the sudden change?”
“He doesn’t live with us anymore. They broke up two weeks ago.”
“What? Nobody bothered to tell me, huh! So, this new boyfriend of your mother’s, his name is Penn?”
“But why did Penn throw away your homework and textbook?”
“Whenever he gets drunk, he gets angry and hits my mom. He’ll throw stuff away, smash anything and everything, without even a second thought.”
“Is that so! But why did he throw away your things? You don’t have anything to do with them and you haven’t done anything wrong. Right? Because he’s your mother’s boyfriend, he’s not yours. Right?”
“That may be true, but . . .”
“So why is he throwing your things away? He’s in the wrong if that’s the case.”
“Yes. That’s right.”
“The important question is, why did he have your things? You know, because he’s just your mother’s boyfriend. So how in the world did he get his hands on your things?”
“I can’t earn money to rent a house yet. I’m still too young and, renting is so expensive nowadays.”
“That man needs to consider these kinds of circumstances. Who is that person you mentioned? His name was . . . ?”
“Yes, that’s right, Penn. He shouldn’t touch your things, right? Someone has to talk to him. Harshly, I mean. Like, for example, your mom could talk to him.”
“She doesn’t care about my situation. Look, I need to find my notebook.”
“You’re being foolish, you’re really not thinking about the important things. If something like this happens again, what will you do? That’s why you need to have a talk with this Penn guy before anything else happens. Tell him not to touch your things. You know? Whether you talk to your mom or someone else, you have to make the facts clear. That you’re just living there in your mom’s house, together with her, just like Penn.”
“But, right now, I just need to look for my textbook and notebook. If I can’t do the homework, if I don’t graduate because stuff like this keeps happening, I won’t be able to get a job.”
“Just listen to me. If not your mom, then at least you need to say something, right? You are someone with no direct connection to them and their problems. Where were you when your things were destroyed?”
“Standing outside the door.”
“Why were you just standing there?”
“Because he didn’t open the door for me.”
“Where did you sleep then?”
“In the super’s apartment.”
“Poor thing. So I guess the super knows everything.”
“You should say something to him. Aren’t you grown up now? You’re tall, you look like an adult. So you can say something. Tell Penn not to touch your things. You see, until you graduate and get a job, you’ll be staying in that apartment. Of course, even if it’s only a little, you’re giving them money, right? Therefore you have a right to be there. Say: ‘don’t touch my things.’ Go tell him immediately. He’s in the apartment now, right? Since he was drunk last night, he must still be sleeping deeply. Go right now and say it to him. ‘My things are important and they have nothing to do with my mom, so don’t ever lay a finger on them.’ Wouldn’t it be okay to look through the trash later? I think that method is much more reasonable and, if you think about the future, then it seems much more sensible. Isn’t that right . . . ? It would be good to go now and tell him. Now, don’t look at me like that, just listen to me . . . I’m saying, go quickly and tell him . . .”
The sound of a television spreads into the hallway. Someone had turned up it up far too much. Or perhaps the television itself had automatically become louder. The television is playing a rerun of a late-night movie. It’s the kind of movie in which the characters are all talking in regional dialects. A headache-inducing wind blew through the corridor’s air vent, a wind humming with the smell of gunpowder burning upstairs. The person living upstairs had opened their window and is burning off the leftover gunpowder from their New Year’s party. A fizzling sound could be heard every fifteen minutes. Along with the reek of gunpowder and smoke, scraps of paper and sparks drew arcs in the air as they fell from the balcony. If the window had been open, the burning gunpowder might have blown into the room and set it on fire. A desk and chair had been placed next to the window. Both had originally been placed against the wall that stands behind the bed but the last resident had decided to set them right by the window. Dealing with weak eyesight at times, they had needed rays of light. It was midday but everything was dark as if coated in black ash. In front of the kitchen door a shadow of a person—it looked like that, or to be more specific it looked like a person’s foot, that is, a shadow in the shape of a slipper worn on a person’s foot—appeared momentarily and then disappeared. Neither the person’s legs nor the bath towel that ought to have been above the slippers could be seen. Though there was no wind, the kitchen door that couldn’t close all the way made a strange noise. Perhaps it was because of the gunpowder’s fizzling noises. As the gunpowder burned once again, light, broken into tiny pieces, sparkled as it fell in front of the kitchen window. There is just one forgotten slipper covered in dust underneath the kitchen window.
“That’s what I’m saying, I’ve never liked my name. Because my name is so common that it’s very easy to meet people with the same name. My grandmother had the same name. Among my close friends, too, one of them has a grandmother with the same name. Without fail, there was always at least one student in my class with the same name. Even after graduating from school, I often heard my name called out on the street. But whenever I looked back it wasn’t me who they were calling for. Worse than that, once I was walking down this huge, wide street at dawn, like the one below, and I heard someone calling my name . . . I was alone and nobody knew who I was . . . Well, of course they wouldn’t. It was a few thousand kilometers away from here at three in the morning. During the summer the sun doesn’t set and the light has the same brightness when you wake up as it does when you go to sleep. So there I was, at three in the morning, walking alone. It was a huge, wide street, surrounded by a factory with a chimney on top and a ruddy residence building, endless and shaped like a bread tin, where the factory workers and their families lived. I could clearly hear a voice calling me from somewhere in these homes. Not just once, either; I heard it many times, over and over. It was three in the morning and there wasn’t a single other person around. But the voice was clearly there, repeating again and again. Among these hundreds, maybe thousands, of different square brick rooms that stretched to a white sparkling horizon, someone was calling me. The voice was being carried through an open window but it was impossible to know from where. Ah, I felt like I was dreaming. It must be a mistake, I thought as I circled round and round, trying to find the building the voice was coming from. Like, if I turned onto this block, I heard it coming from the next block over but when I walked over there, I heard the voice coming from where I had just been. By the end, I felt like crying. On this side there is a red square building and on that side there is an identical one. I ended up completely lost. And I even lost that voice. Until it was properly morning and the first train started running, I was unable to escape from that street. Even now I think about it, that street where the chocolate factory was . . . That summer night when the sun didn’t set . . . The red buildings with open windows . . . There has to be someone who lives there with the same name as me. Don’t you think so? Why aren’t you saying anything? Of course, we’re talking about names. I hate my name. But I don’t want to start hating myself because of that, really . . .”
“Clearly, just now . . .”
“What do you think? Do you like my name? Tell me, I want to know. You’ve never told me, not even once.”
“More than that though, it seems like someone is clearly calling your name right now.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Someone’s calling my name? Outside right now?”
“Listen. I can hear it right now.”
“But I don’t hear it. Only the sound of the wind.”
“That can’t be. Just now clearly, ah, I heard it again.”
“I don’t hear anything. And I don’t know anyone around here. Like, nobody knows that I’m here.”
“Who could it be . . . ? Someone’s calling you. Why don’t you look out the window?”
“I did, clearly. But I couldn’t see anyone. With this kind of weather, do you think anyone’s really calling out to people outside? Look, can’t you see, there isn’t even a dead ant on the street . . .”
“They’re impossible to see, indistinguishable from the shadows on the street corners . . .”
“Why am I so angry?”
“Because of me . . . ?”
“Yeah, because of you. And because of my name.”
“Wait, I heard it again.”
“They’re calling somebody else. It’s like what I said. About my name. It’s always like this. I always hear it but I’m never the one they’re calling.”
“No, it’s clear that if you heard this voice, you would know who it was . . .”
“That’s not true.”
“If that’s the case, then why did you deny hearing it until just now?”
“I can’t hear it now either. That’s right, it seems I can’t hear it at all. But, even if I did hear it, they clearly would be calling someone else with the same name. It’s always like this. There have been a lot of times like this . . . Didn’t I say so? But why am I so angry?”
“I didn’t mean to make you angry.”
“But the reason I’m angry isn’t because of myself. Like that name, there are a lot of things that get in my way. I get angry and then I can’t handle it.”
“Really, you don’t love me?”
“I love you. All the same, I can’t do anything about getting angry. But why are you laughing?”
“Do you know what you threw out the window?”
“What I threw out the window . . . ? Are you saying that I did that . . . ?”
“That’s right. You threw something out the window.”
“What is it?”
“Why is someone shouting so loudly?”
“Like, there’s a name being shouted out. It’s not mine but it’s similar.”
“You said you couldn’t hear it.”
“I don’t hear it. No, it doesn’t matter whether I can hear it or not. Because, in any case, it’s not my name. As such, to me, these instances are minor and insignificant and despicable. But why do you care so much?”
“I don’t care. The only person who cares about it is you. I’m just asking you who is calling your name.”
“So why do you keep laughing?”
“Because you threw out my slipper.”
“Is that funny?”
“It’s because I’m angry. Like walking down that street with the chocolate factory. It was so easy to get lost there, you know. This alley and that alley are no different from each other and that alley looks similar to the thousands of other alleys standing beside it. Night was like day and day was like night. If I ever hear my name being called by the same voice as the one in that street with the chocolate factory, then I’ll show you I can throw something other than a slipper.”
It’s hard to figure out where you can buy a magazine. In just a glance, it’s clear that there are no stores to buy either a newspaper or magazine within a few kilometers. Not only that but you also cannot find a public phone, a trash can or a single place for fried noodles. There isn’t even a post office or a church. It’s hard to figure out what you would do if you were hungry. The street that had been covered with wet snow was slowly soaked in darkness. The light at the car wash was shining brightly already. Under this yellow light, shining over the vast car wash, only a few cars had stopped to be washed. The darkness now complete, the gunpowder upstairs that had momentarily stopped burning began again. As there didn’t seem to be much gunpowder left, it was right when its existence might have been forgotten that a thud suddenly came and the remaining sparks fell from the sky. The lights were finally on in the room. Bare feet are resting in the seat next to the window. Only the bare feet can be seen. As if cold, the left foot covers the right. And then the right foot covers the left. The bare feet get up and pace. As if looking around for something, the bare feet keep pacing from the kitchen to the bedroom and back again. However, since they are only bare feet, it’s impossible to really be sure of anything. In the meantime, quicker than one could say, “Oh, so this is what you call darkness, it’s getting dark, huh,” the darkness had completely captured the unlit street. The bare feet are reading a magazine that had been published quite a long time ago. The bare feet always rest on the seat by the window rubbing against one another as the magazine lays open on the desk. The only remaining sound that can be heard is the magazine’s pages sliding as they are turned. It was a popular kind of magazine that talked about television programs and included popular-gossip columns. Published every two weeks, it had been known for its personals section. If you wanted, you could even include a photo in your submission. But is it wise to include a photo in a personals ad, the bare feet wondered. Although, who can know the thoughts of bare feet? They are only bare feet.
Hello. I’m a nineteen-year-old woman. It hasn’t been long since I turned nineteen. A quick note about me, I’m a bit on the introverted side and very shy but I’m not physically weak. I just look like I am.
The door to the trash chute in the corridor shut with a bang. Ripped textbooks, homework, school, work, home, and important money . . .
I’m a nurse’s aide at the Jewish Foundation Hospital. It’s been two years since I started working there. Of course, I work at night. When barefoot, my height is 1 meter, 70 centimeters. My weight is a secret but I’m on the skinny side. Honestly, I’m looking for a friend. That is, a special girlfriend. I don’t care about age or have any other particular conditions, I’m just looking for a friend I can communicate openly with and who can understand me sincerely and warmly. If I meet that sort of person, then I would like to live together. That is, if possible, for a long time. If I had a dream, it would be to live with this kind of girlfriend in a home on the edge of a thick forest. As time goes by and we grow older, together with my beloved girlfriend I would like to create a family with an adopted child in that home.
The woman wasn’t quite sure which day the female post-worker came. She had to mail a letter. She hadn’t included a picture but she still deeply hoped that there would be some news. If perhaps she can find a friend, she will leave here and rent a furnished home. It will be fine even if there is only one room. It doesn’t matter either whether or not the place is crowded with young people. All that matters is if it’s quiet and near the tram. Take, for instance, here. Marzahn, Number 137, Marzahn. On the desk, the years-old magazine that the bare feet had been reading lay open and the light in the bedroom was turned off. And without anyone to fill it, the abandoned room had turned cold. At the front entrance of Number 137 was a metal sign, commonly seen throughout the area, that read as follows:
People can live comfortably and safely here.
Rules for all Residents:
Parties and dogs and small children are prohibited.
In spite of the metal sign, the person upstairs often disregarded and broke the rules. He liked to throw parties and turn up the music and set off firecrackers. Right now, though, there weren’t any neighbors near enough to him to justify a complaint. Therefore he could enjoy himself to his heart’s content. Whether it was Christmas or New Years, his birthday or some special weekend, the beginning of fall or about time for playing a private concert with his computer, he always had an excuse to throw one of his noisy parties. His face has never been seen. But there is always the sound of music and firecrackers. When he threw parties, the sound of furniture dragging across the floor and heavy jumping could be heard all day long, and the sound of ear-splitting music burst out from that apartment. A thought came to mind every time these parties passed through like typhoons: His speakers can’t possibly work after this. They must be completely wrecked by now. The parties were that loud. But there was never any problem with his equipment and he kept on throwing loud parties. There was nothing especially strange about the parties. That is, excluding the fact that despite throwing parties frequently, not a single person ever came to his place. And that when the party was in full swing, only music—never another person’s voice—could be heard from his open windows. Also that, during the party, the sounds of fierce jumping that shook the ceiling came from only one person. Tonight as well he was getting ready to throw a party. Mar-zahn. Someone called out. But where exactly the sound had come from was hard to tell. The streets as usual were quiet with not even the shadow of a person. Mar-zahn, Mar-zahn. Damn [mumbling], he must be throwing a party. He should eat shit. There was the sound of fingers tapping on a window and a high-pitched sound came out of the speakers twice and then the music started. Dududududududoong, la, la . . . Great! It’s cranked up to the max.
We are gay girls
When three gay girls walk through Hamburg
People stop talking and they stare at us
While waiting to see what will happen . . .
Translated from the Korean by Annah Overly
Bae Suah is an award-winning South Korean author whose unconventional, ever-changing prose has cemented her reputation for "doing violence to the Korean language" across twelve novels (including Nowhere to be Found and A Greater Music), seven books of short stories (including North Station), and an essay collection. She has also translated the works of W. G. Sebald and Fernando Pessoa into Korean.
Annah Overly is a graduate of Barnard College with a degree in Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures. This is her first published translation.
마짠 방향으로 [Toward Marzahn] from 훌 [Hul], 문학동네, 2006. Grateful acknowledgment is made to Bae Suah for her permission to publish this English translation.
¹ Translator’s Note: Hakenkreuz is the German word for the Nazi swastika symbol. While there is a word for swastika in Korean, Bae opted to use Hakenkreuze here instead.