- Is It Gravitation? Is It Repulsion?
He said that he had studied chemical engineering. Chemical engineering, like any other field of engineering, was a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing. Whenever he talked about the various chemical symbols, atoms, elements, types of matter, I felt as if I couldn’t be sure that my own being wouldn’t end up splitting apart into innumerable molecules. In that respect, his words were intimidating. Yet at the same time captivating. He habitually spoke in a slow, quiet voice. In that respect, his voice too was a little intimidating. Yet at the same time captivating. His voice was pleasant to the ear. If there was a break in the conversation, I might talk about Robert Musil or Samuel Beckett, to which he would mainly just listen wordlessly, but now and again he might ask whether Alexander Trocchi was Scottish or Irish, or some such question. I don’t know if the sound of my voice was pleasant. In any case, I wouldn’t have been pleasant to look at. I was constantly wearing a tired expression.
One day, he yawned while I was talking about the writer Kim Sŭng-ok. I told him a joke, “Yaksan in Yŏngbyŏn, nuclear Azaleas.” This was the height of the period when North Korea’s sinister face was revealed, despite its claims of innocence. The majority of the North’s land remained, and an adequate proportion of its nuclear facilities too. He smiled. Suddenly he began talking, with [End Page 179] a cynical tone, about a certain chemical product. The moment it made contact, he said, this substance would completely dissolve the bones beneath the skin. The bones alone were affected, the rest of the body being left entirely intact. He claimed to have seen with his own eyes the hand of a person who had accidentally been affected by this product. Listening to him speak, I had imagined him at work in some hidden laboratory, calmly creating chemical or biological weapons. If an x-ray were taken of the left hand, its bones dissolved, what kind of image would emerge? I did not ask him. And he didn’t answer that the image would be like a faint, ghostly outline. I glanced down at my left arm. It was trembling. I made an effort to forget the name of that product. It was better not to know, better not to think. But whenever the word “chemical” came up, so too would the name, and with it the thought of the loss of every piece of bone, the image of limp, dangling fingers, the image now forever associated with that name. To me this was an unadulterated horror. The outer appearance unharmed, the inside destroyed. A disturbing image. I closed my eyes tightly and shook my head. Wrapping my arms around myself, I lowered my head. A meaningless gesture. Imagining a situation that had not occurred and was never likely to occur, a particularly stupid thought. But, my body and heart moved of their own accord. Perhaps my body remained the same, but inside my heart was dissolving. Nothing but a shallow thought. Suddenly, I was crying. He was taken aback. I was no less confused than he, and for a while, we just stared at each other, our faces expressing extreme bewilderment. He didn’t ask me why. Suddenly, I felt a violent impulse. So, my heart hadn’t melted away entirely. I blinked a few times and the tears clinging to my eyelids rolled down my cheeks.
He had written his master’s thesis on a subject about which I naturally knew nothing. A matter from before we had known each other. He claimed to know nothing about anything outside his particular field of expertise. He thought Chávez was the leader of Argentina. I knew which country Chávez was president of, but [End Page 180] said nothing. To say that I knew that the capital of Sierra Leone was Freetown would change nothing. To say that I knew that the Philippines gained independence in 1946 would change nothing. Or perhaps...