The Old Garden: Nam Soo (Part 15/26)

The Old Garden: Nam Soo (Part 15/26)

October 1, 2009

Previous: Mang Wal Cemetery

It’s been more than twenty years since Nam Soo first went into hiding after the Reading Group incident. He was imprisoned for ten years because of a case involving another organization and was released before I was. During the bloody uprising in Kwangju he was already in prison, and by the time he was released I was in prison. When we first met in the seventies, I was a high school teacher in a small southern town and was preparing to leave the country to study abroad. We both were young and opposed the Yushin regime, which changed the constitutional law in order for General Park to continue his dictatorship. I read him a poem by Sergei Yesenin, handwritten in an old notebook. I do not remember where I got that notebook.

Still around, old dear? How are you keeping?
I too am around. Hello to you!
May that magic twilight ever stream
Over your cottage as it used to do

People write how sad you are, and anxious
For my sake, though you won’t tell them so
And that you in your old-fashioned jacket
Out onto the highroad often go

I could not clearly remember what followed next. It was something like, Don’t go eating your heart out with worry that I am now an unknown drunk at a tavern for fear that someone will stick a knife into my chest.

I’ll return when decked in white the branches
In our orchard are with spring aglow

I recalled the night Nam Soo left for Seoul, sometime in the late seventies. At the time, I was renting the wing of an old-fashioned house. It had a sliding door that opened to a small porch, and next to the stone wall stood a magnificent zelkova tree. When the wind came, its branches shook and the leaves rubbed against each other, and it sounded like the sea. We turned off the light and lay down, listening to the waves of leaves. Nam Soo was restless, turning left and right, unable to fall asleep.

“You know what? The first time I was caught distributing the underground newspaper, when I was taken handcuffed to the interrogation room and slapped around, someone pretty high up from the Intelligence Office came in. He handed me the printed leaflet that I wrote and ordered me to read it out loud. So I stammered but read it. Then he slapped me really hard, and he screamed, you bastard, my son goes to a good school, too, and do you think he’s behaving himself because he doesn’t know as much as you do? Then he took out a gun and put it to my forehead. The muzzle looked so big, my knees gave out and I just knelt down in front of him. Whenever I think of that . . . it’s just humiliating.”

Nam Soo got up and sat. I fumbled in the dark and found a cigarette and lit it.

“Can’t sleep?”

Suddenly, Nam Soo pushed the sliding door open. He looked out at the zelkova tree, its branches quivering in the dark.

“I want to be a real fighter now. This is the end of my half-heartedness, as of tonight.”

“They say a road is made after many people walk on it.”

“There’s always someone ahead of everyone else.”

Early the next morning, Nam Soo left for his hiding place in Seoul. All he had was a battered travel bag full of worn-out underwear and unwashed socks. When I walked with him that early morning, caged dogs barked and wailed all around. He left me a piece of paper onto which he had copied a letter from Che to Fidel, written when he had given up all his power and position in the party and had left for Bolivia. On the back was another letter from Che to his children about the future.

Continued: In the 5.16 Cemetery

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