If a man wanted to hide his guilt, he could camouflage himself.
But if the guilty man is also a victim—he has to disappear, to renounce everything.
Since he was young, practically every day, Min gyu got drunk alone in seedy bars. The reasons can’t be put down here and now, as alcoholism in every man claims different roots, but what’s certain is that in the course of his life, despite everything, Min gyu never suffered for the drink, was never made its fool in public, nor because of it landed in jail. On the contrary, thanks to the drink he tended to benefit in his dealings with glacial Korean women and when it came to writing short stories which were never published.
If not for a wretched accident, Min gyu would’ve had within his reach a moderate literary future, despite his singular lack of style. After a time he would have received some important literary prize, would have bought a house in a wealthy part of Seoul, would have drunk good liquors in peace and not been exposed to wretched traffic accidents.
The accident itself cannot be attributed to the alcohol. Before that day, Min gyu had driven down that road at least a hundred times drunk; his disgrace, therefore, could have come long before, or never, or, more plausibly, while completely sober. It ought to be clear that the accident in question is a minor episode in relation to what it revealed about Min gyu’s life: that he was not the man he’d believed himself to be up till then.
The circumstances of the accident were unimportant as such. As I’ve said, he drove drunk, although with a regular drinker a certain degree of inebriation is natural and even desirable. From Min gyu’s perspective, the sun was setting. According to witnesses and victims, night had already fallen. The route was deserted. Generally, the road that links Wonju to the suburbs of Seoul is empty. The lighting is bad and at every moment whoever might be driving—be he drunk or sober—should heed the shadows that flutter at the road’s edge. A second of distraction combined with an instance of chance and catastrophe is brewing already, like a storm.
The speedometer reached one hundred kilometers per hour; the radio played some unctuous popular song. Along the side of the road planters and greenhouses rose up covered with plastic sheeting for the intensive cultivation of produce. Min gyu lifted his gaze and there, in the rear view mirror, were his features pinched inward as if on the concave bottom of a bottle. A terrible laugh overwhelmed him as he perceived in his face the physiognomy of a dwarf. He squinted his eyes, blinked, looked up and there still, reaching beyond the mirror as if his features were stuck to the glass and the deformed figure were trying to catch sight of something indistinct happening inside the car, he was laughing. His teeth appeared crooked and yellowish. Min gyu felt wretched, he imagined what he saw to be the ultimate reflection of his life, that he was hallucinating his own death. Just at that moment of sinister delight, a strange mass smacked against the bumper and slid beneath the tires. Min gyu didn’t stop: he associated the blood-curdling screams with the phenomenon in his rear view mirror. Only when another body hit and broke the windshield did he manage to stop. In the agonized facial expression something familiar leaked out. Behind the froth of blood smearing the victim’s face, he noted the last blink of an eye. Like resuscitated bodies escaping from a cemetery, numerous battered forms rose from the roadside, between rousing shouts they threw themselves on the car and began to shake it. Then they tried to get in. Min gyu thought about getting out and breaking into a run: all those bloated body snatchers had no chance of catching him. The engine was still running. He revved it. The banging on the hood intensified. A body ricochet off the back window. New shrieks, terrible and crude. He put the gears correctly in first and this time the car went forward instead of in reverse. He took pleasure in watching that hostile pack of rams, howling at the high moon from the middle of the road, recede in his rear view mirror. The glass of the back window was also cracked. After driving awhile he noticed that on the hood there was still a body stuck to the windshield like a giant moth. He pulled onto the shoulder. He got out to evaluate the situation and vomited. He looked for something with which to nudge the body. But along the roadside there wasn’t anything more than desert grass, greenhouses and dust. He resigned himself to tugging it by one of its legs, pulled at an ankle while averting his gaze and… a black sneaker detached itself from the body. In the same way, without looking, he took off a sock, another sneaker, another sock. The body didn’t move. The feet were so cold they seemed porcelain. He yanked the toes, felt a toenail: a human quality. Finally, with a slight shift, the body separated from the windshield and soaked in its own blood slid slowly down the hood. Min gyu tugged again so that the body would finish its slide, and as soon as he heard the crunch of bones on the ground, ran toward the car fearing that with any delay, the body, in an inverse movement, would throw itself back onto the hood.
No one saw him arrive. Min gyu parked the car on a tract of undeveloped land, one of the many that lie between the small and chaotic settlements that make up the suburbs of Seoul. It was rare for anyone pass by there, but for the occasional huddled farmer coming to fertilize his crops. He almost always left his car in that spot and walked the three hundred meters to the abysmal apartment in the massive mono-complex where his faithful and long-suffering wife, Jeon Dong, would be waiting up for him.
She was in bed, watching television. She pretended to ignore Min gyu as she heard him come in. He undressed, without preamble. Feeling her foot under the covers, he thought of the crushed body on the hood.
“Drunk, again… It’s late…,” and she leaned toward his face, sniffed and declared: “Very drunk.”
Min gyu would’ve liked to tell her what had happened. But the events appeared vague in his mind: a body on a hood, zombies trying to damage his car. He had the impression that his state of excessive intoxication came more from the irrational accident he’d survived than from the alcohol. After her moment of anger, Jeon Dong turned her back to him. He knew that when this happened, she was really expecting an act of sexual solidarity. He’d begin by nibbling her pale ears, embracing her below the waist, pinching and tugging her nipples. At which point she’d always put up a slight resistance, like a writer who sits down to write and considers the possibility of pouring himself a whiskey or checking his email. He’d proceed by conquering that little resistance, holding her down until she let out her first moan, a kind of warble which was followed by a soft squealing, a vibration in her throat and along her shoulders. Now he followed the formula exactly, although this time he decided to position her face up, as if more than ever he needed to be seen and recognized. He felt anesthetized. “I ran down the devil,” he said. She looked at him with a little bit of fright and tenderness, as if she were taking him into her body for the first time.
“Min gyu, if only you were someone else. Not a drunk who wants to be a writer.”
“I am who I am. Take it or leave it,” he answered without thinking.
She didn’t answer. Perhaps she wasn’t ready to accept him just as he was. Min gyu held her and took her brusquely, without opening his eyes and without even a groan. That woman drained away beneath him. The memory of love was as fragile as that of a crime.
Min gyu woke to the sound of the telephone. Jeon Dong leapt naked from bed to answer it and barricaded herself in the minuscule dining room to talk in peace. The conversation turned out to be a long one, replete with questions, hysterical shouts and whispers. Then she hung up and burst into tears. She paced back and forth. Min gyu, while trying to get back to sleep, couldn’t free his mind from the sound of those desperate footsteps. It gave him a headache, and when she finally came back to the bedroom, he pretended to be asleep so he wouldn’t have to rouse himself and console her fully awake. He listened to her crying. He couldn’t keep himself from half opening an eye: she was looking at herself in the mirror that faced the bed. He supposed her crying had lasted so long because the presence of the mirror lent reality to her simulacrum. Then suddenly he became aware of what was really going on and thought to himself that something terrible could have happened. The death of some family member, he immediately imagined. He was now completely awake, so he joined her at the foot of the bed. He waited patiently for her to speak up, to demand the comfort that he’d withheld at first, comfort that would then transform into a wild offering of kisses and caresses.
After a few minutes, he lost hope that the drama would, as was their custom, unleash the usual passionate scene.
“We have to talk. I could never tell you. A while ago at University…,” she paused.
Min gyu quickly considered various possibilities of which the most plausible seemed to be the following: some anonymous person had tipped Jeon Dong off about his romances during their early days as students, back when they’d hardly known each other. But before he could say anything, Jeon Dong burst into tears, and he stammered out:
“I’ve always been faithful; I never cheated on you.”
She twisted her mouth, mockingly, as if what he’d said was obvious. Min gyu tried to hug her, but in his attempt managed to transmit some deeper falsehood, an obligatory affection which she immediately rejected with a slight wave of a hand. When she calmed down, she told him that the phone call had been to tell her of Kim Sung jung’s death. Kim, briefly put, was a renowned literary critic who had been their professor at university and, around the time that they’d first met in a creative writing class, had eviscerated all of Min gyu’s compositions, methodically, as if the two men had been in competition for the same woman. The same Kim had relegated one of Min gyu’s compositions to tenth place—out of eleven competitors—in the university’s literary competition, and had precipitated the rejection of his first book of stories by Dungji Press with a devastating reader’s report. To make matters worse, Kim Sung jung used to collaborate with all the national newspapers, commandeering a monopoly on “new Korean narrative” with a petulance and arrogance that inflamed Min gyu: promoting the work of every Tom, Dick and Harry; young writers in whom he extolled the aesthetic virtues actually present in Min gyu’s work, the very work Kim gratuitously demolished.
Despite this—and even though they’d once spoken of the animosity he felt for Kim Sung jung—Min gyu answered that no, he didn’t remember him, but that either way he was sorry. Then she hugged him, and apologized, begging him to understand her pain. That very moment, after the word ‘pain’, she said what he’d have preferred to never hear: Kim Sung jung had been a “stabilizing figure,” someone whom she had loved and with whom she was known to have, when he would disappear drunk for days or would go on vacation to his hometown, “intellectual exchanges.” Min gyu nodded, stunned. Had he been drunk, he would have reacted differently. Not in his life would he have thought that Jeong Dong would cheat on him with his greatest adversary, a man so much older, a putrefied literary critic, a professorial social-climber, a frustrated writer. The betrayal was double. Up till then he’d believed that her only “intellectual” relationship prior to their engagement had been a fleeting encounter with a South American professor. He consoled himself with the thought that Kim Sung jung had chosen to become his enemy deliberately, out of jealousy, and not for any intellectual animus, which at least explained the devastating reader’s report and that tenth place finish in the literary contest.
Then, without drying her eyes or begging for forgiveness, Jeon Dong related in detail the contents of the call she’d received: an unidentified psychopath had run down a group of nighttime marathoners. The only fatal victim had been Kim Sung jung, who’d been training with a group of professors from the University of Suwon along the edge of the road. His body had been found ten kilometers from the accident. The criminal hadn’t only fled, but had driven a thousand meters with the body in its death throws on his hood. Apparently, at that point, he’d stopped. According to a witness, he’d ditched the corpse only after first removing its shoes and socks, and immediately, sadistically, running it over again.
“Don’t tell me any more… It’s horrible.” Min gyu gasped, put on his best victim’s face and with a rueful pose told her that from that moment on he would try to be different, that they should forget the problems of the past, the errors committed under the maleficent sway of hatred or perhaps madness. It was time to start over. Immediately he promised, smiling, what she had always wanted to hear: he would no longer try to be a writer.