Rain falling onto thick layers of accumulated dust had left the windows of the criminal investigations office so mottled that they were virtually opaque. Beyond them, roofs could dimly be seen, huddled grimly beneath a lowering city sky. When the Dongbu Police Station had first moved here, some two years before, the location had been nothing more than a hill on the city outskirts, in an area recently zoned for development. Then houses had begun to spring up, and now the area was completely built up. As he contemplated the brightly colored roofs, aligned in a variety of shapes that seemed to suggest their owners’ vain fondness for things western, or their pretentiousness, Sergeant Nam fell into the state of melancholy, as was nowadays almost habitual for him. The fact that he owned no home of his own among all those many houses stretching before his eyes, where his wife and children might live and take their ease, kindled in him a deep sense of failure.
As he recalled the two little rented rooms he would return to after work, unless something unexpected occurred, Sergeant Nam reviewed glumly his career, over which a dark sense of impending failure loomed. Nam Gyeongho was his name, born in 1945. His parents had been ordinary, run-of-the-mill folk but, since they had experienced the almost universal poverty of the 1950s, his childhood had been subject to 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 had arisen a growing lack of proportion between their limited 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 room 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 something to every newspaper that ran any kind of New Year literary contest. That intense 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 had 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 all 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, then gone to work in the Middle East as a technician in construction equipment as soon as he had finished his military service, the previous year. For their sake he had 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 down. 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 that 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 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 leather boots, to have sex with her in extravagant ways after stripping off all her clothes, leaving her wearing only her boots. The urge arose less from the perverted physical desires of a man in his mid-thirties than from a pornographic movie that had been confiscated the previous autumn. Under the pretext of making an investigation, one of the staff who knew how to use a 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 scrutinise the accused youth more closely. At first glance, he looked to be 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 all 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 her bare feet, lying on the ground, shivering . . .’
The young man began to speak haltingly, as if unsure of himself. 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 it could be 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 bother but he was doing it as a special favour. To Sergeant Nam, he seemed like someone who had committed a crime of conviction, but more than that, he felt he must be either crazy, or deliberately trying to irritate the person he was 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 who had relatively less work 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 usually able to tell the seriousness of an incident simply by the expression and tone of voice Lee adopted while taking a phone call.
That day, too, his guess seemed not too far wrong. When he finally finished speaking, Lieutenant Lee called Sergeant Nam over; 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 district, 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, the 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 it. 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 was virtually no sign 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 over this hill. It’s a clean enough 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 that had followed 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 built of cement blocks at the entrance to a valley, on the far side of the hill from 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 have been 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 soon learned 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 recognise 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 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 rumours?’
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 harsher voice. 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 back. But after nearly ten years without any news of him, I only met him again about a month ago.’
‘What was your relationship before?’
‘We were classmates in our schooldays. He dropped out halfway 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 spending time here in prayer, 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 never had 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 help 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. 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 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 lefthand side of the room.
After glancing around, Sergeant Nam set about looking for things belonging to Min Yoseop. As he had expected, 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 scrutinising 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 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 agreed that there seemed to be no other way.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2014 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Yi Mun-yolwas born in Seoul in 1948, but his father defected to North Korea during the Korean War, leaving his family in the South, where they had to endure years of suspicion and stigma. After much torment, struggle and poverty, he was able to enter Seoul National University. He made his literary debut in 1979 when his novella Saehagok was one of the winners of the New Spring Literary Contest sponsored by the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper. A prolific author,
Yi Mun-yolhas published a number of outstanding novels including Son of Man (the first chapter of which appears above), The Poet, For the Emperor, and the novellas Garuda and Our Twisted Hero. Since 1999 he has served as the head of the Buak Literary Center, a residential program for budding writers.
Brother Anthony was born in 1942 in England and completed his studies at Oxford before becoming a member of the Community of Taizé (France) in 1969. Since 1980, he has been living in Korea and teaching at Sogang University, where he is now an Emeritus Professor. He has published some thirty volumes of English translations of modern Korean literature, including the novel The Poet by Yi Mun-yol and poetic works by Ko Un, So Chong-Ju, Ku Sang, Chon Sang-Pyong. For this he was awarded the Korean Government’s Order of Cultural Merit (Jade Crown) in 2008. He is President of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch.