Center of the Universe (6)
It was almost Thanksgiving, almost a year since Kang had entrusted me with his manuscript, when I read the second paragraph. Reverend Kang once told me he speaks five languages, including Korean, Portuguese, Japanese and English. Which is four more than I do, so I’m not trying to say anything, in any language. But if his spoken English is functional, his written English is a conundrum, a puzzle made of smoke.
If you read the sentences and paragraphs over and over, like it was a litany — or Proust — you could mostly get it, eventually. I decided the only way to escape the guilt of not helping Kang, hiding from him even, was to help him. I wouldn’t just read the book, but fix it. Anyway, I never liked Thanksgiving. So I returned to Sorellas from self-imposed exile and asked Kang for permission to proceed and the Word file. I would have four days free.
Plenty of time.
The language was sometimes stilted and murky, but the story, decoded, was devastating. And, ultimately — if you believe in such things (and I’d like to) — uplifting. And, under the surface mud, there was an Old Testament rhythm (speaking of litanies) to the chapters and a Shaker simplicity to the sentences (speaking of ego-loss). In any case, once I’d begun the journey, Kang’s journey, tens of thousands of miles and seven or eight decades from a beleaguered North Korean village, I wasn’t about to turn back (though I had my own moments of doubt in my own garden). The history deserved it. Reverend Kang, who’d endured the history, only to wind up in Fairfax, California, at the family table, next to Gary and George and a clown like me, deserved it. And I told Roni — by way of telling myself — that I was the hero uniquely equipped to undertake it, Kang’s journey, having been raised in faith (Catholic, not Presbyterian, but still) with a lot of experience writing books (rock ’n’ roll, not historical memoir, but still). So if it was an act of love, junior-grade agape — which it certainly became, as a four-day weekend of work stretched into four intensive months — it was hardly free of grasping egoism.
The story starts with the disaster that followed Kang’s conscription into, and desertion from, the North Korean army, in the futile final days of the Korean war, the disaster that started the larger, more astonishing journey — his Pilgrimage, as the new title would call it — to peace, love, faith and an Italian restaurant. I wanted to paraphrase the author here, from the terrible climax of chapter one, to confirm that life and Fairfax and Sorellas Caffe are more random than you — that is, me, a middle-class, middle-brow, mid-century white American — could ever imagine, stranger than fiction, at least, if not stranger than Watson the Supercomputer generating the world’s most improbable plot. And I wanted to paraphrase to prove I’m not being lazy. Then I remembered I already had.
And with all due reverence, I quote:
Continuing down the deserted country road, we were suddenly confronted by six men. They were in civilian clothing, but with guns, and when I moved closer, one of them pointed a rifle at my chest and shouted, “Raise your hands! Who are you?” I answered honestly that we had deserted the North Korean Army and were on our way home. Then one of the others punched me in the face. Blood started running from my nose onto the ground. When I saw it, a strange thing happened: my fear actually began to recede. The blood seemed to awaken my inner spirit and help me overcome the terror which had come to dominate my consciousness. I could control my mind better and face them firmly.
The men in the road were passionate anti-Communists, they told us, who had organized a self-defense force to maintain order after the retreat of the Communist army. They were armed with guns left by the Northern army and full of hate. I explained with utmost sincerity how we, too, had suffered from Communist persecution and learned to hate Communism, and how we were conscripted into the army only a month ago. It was easy to understand their feelings, having lived in the North under the oppressive Communist regime. I told them that our family’s life was especially hellish, as my father was a Christian minister. One of the men asked suspiciously in which year my father had graduated from the Pyongyang Seminary, the only Presbyterian seminary in Korea under the Japanese Domination. Fortunately, he seemed satisfied with my answer.
Even if my fear was under control, it was a most miserable situation — to be encircled by six armed, angry men with their guns pointed at us. Our lives might be over in a matter of seconds. I couldn’t even look them in the face. At that moment, a boy came onto the scene, accompanied by a soldier. The soldier’s uniform and gun were new to me. But when I realized he must be a South Korean soldier, all my strength drained away. He was a Southern soldier, with profound hatred on his face. We were like tiny mice facing a huge, fierce cat. The fear returned.
“Are these the Communists?” he shouted.
Under the Communist regime, we were branded anti-Communists and suffered severe discrimination for five years. Now we were condemned as Communists and threatened with death. It ripped my heart out. This soldier may have risked his life fighting, and maybe killing, North Koreans. For him, any North Korean soldier was a mortal enemy. He was not a man likely to understand nuances, to recognize that not everyone in North Korea, or even in the North Korean army, believed in the cause. We were his enemy, and he, ours. All compassion had long ago been bled from him by this inhumane war.
The soldier paid no attention to our explanations and began to force us back down the road at bayonet point. We knew he was chasing us to a suitable place to shoot, but there was nothing we could do. And when we realized that death was close, that we had to abandon all hope, strangely enough, the fear disappeared again. In the face of certain death, we found a degree of serenity. A few meters down the road, the man who had inquired about my father stepped close to the soldier and whispered for a short time. I could not hear, but the soldier seemed entirely indifferent to what was said and continued to push us.
Soon the road split, one fork going up the mountain and the other toward a rice paddy. The soldier ordered us to walk toward the rice paddy. I began, and my friend followed a moment later. But as my friend started walking, I heard the noise of a gun being loaded, and I turned around. I could see the soldier pointing his rifle at my friend. It felt as if the gun was pointed at me, too. We were so deeply attached that a threat against his life felt like a threat against mine. We had endured many dangers together, in the war and before, and together on several occasions had risked our lives. And together we were struggling to return to our hometown and realize our dreams of starting a new life. Our lives and hopes were the same.
The gun was loaded and cocked, and my friend was begging for his life, holding out his hands. His face was so pale that his soul seemed to have left him already, and the soldier was like a savage animal attacking his pitiful prey without a trace of regret. In utter desperation, I screamed for my friend’s life: “He’s not your enemy!” But any human tenderness in the soldier had been replaced by barbarous hate.
“Get away right now!” he shouted. “Or I will shoot you, too!”
It was not an empty threat. This soldier was so wild and full of loathing he could turn his weapon on me in an instant.
And then I heard the gun fire. And saw my friend fall.
Stunned, I fell into a kind of unconsciousness, almost as if I had been shot, a dark reverie disconnected from the present.
My friend had been very unhappy under the Communist regime and anxious to see the country unified and democratic. Then he was conscripted. During our month together in the army, we thought many times about escaping. We didn’t, because we were afraid it would cause our families more persecution. But, finally, with the war nearing an end, we did escape. And we were on our way home, and we had hopes and dreams again. And the first South Korean soldier we met had killed him. My sadness turned into an explosive anger that I had to keep inside. I continued walking, as if sleeping, toward the rice paddy.
My friend was dead, and I was alive. But there was no joy in surviving. All I could do was ask myself why I was spared. We were both anti-Communists. We had both been conscripted by the North Korean government. We both escaped the army at the same time. And we both encountered that same South Korean soldier at the same place and time. What made our fates different?
The man who had inquired about my father came to my mind. Maybe the man told the soldier I was Christian and that my father was a Christian minister. And maybe he even asked for my life. It was well-known in South Korea that Christians suffered especially badly under the Communists. And maybe this wild beast of a soldier knew this about the Christians, and on hearing from the man in the road, found just enough mercy to spare one life. And while I did not mention my Christian faith in order to save my life, even today I believe it was the name of Christ that saved me. And I resolved to re-dedicate myself to the Christian cause.
But, first, let it be recorded that this murderous tragedy occurred on October 25, 1950, in a small village, two days walk from Pyongyang, when I was 22 years old.
Excerpt from Pilgrimage: A Journey of Live, Love and Faith by Hi Dong Kang (2014)