Alexandr Kan (Novelist, Kazakhstan)
As with people, objects oftentimes become sources that arouse particular memory of one’s past. Strangely, though, objects seem to hold still the past, present, and future of a person, unlike memory of people which is subject to constant change. I tend to treat all my personal belongings with utmost affection, like an old friend. Intimacy would be the right word to describe the relationship. My clothes, shoes, watches, stationery, my desk, sofa, the walls surrounding me, have always been there with me. We form a close bond in a world of our own where my past, present, and future flows like a river, depending on my mood.
My childhood would most appropriately be compared to a plain wool blanket. A blanket that would provide warmth at night time but at the same time that would protect me from the hostile outside world that would harass me every day of the week, all year round. By what was a so harassed? Probably by the quest for my identity which was missing in me at the time. One might wonder what need does a mere child have in finding one’s identity. The source of the problem for the small boy, in this case, would be his father. The identity or the existence of my father was a grave issue for me. I do not remember my father. When I turned one year old, my father remained in North Korea where he was lauded as an ‘exemplary comrade’ and my mother who was Korean-Russian, brought me to Leningrad, Almaty, in order to secure a better future for both of us. The only trace of my father was a photograph. As the young boy set out for a new life, he searched for somewhere to rely on. My youth could be summarized by two objects: the photograph of my father and my blanket that would protect me every night from the aggressive outside world that desperately tried to take something away from me. I would take refuge inside the wool blanket that had become raggedy and thin. I would dream and pray inside it and be happy. The world outside the blanket was cold and dark, wrought with prejudice against me, a stranger and outsider to Russians, and the unbearable harshness which I was forced to endure. From the moment I was born and through the years, my blanket was always there with me. But the times changed and so did my clothes.
Math and physics were my favorite subjects at school. I had hoped that applying myself to schoolwork would fill the unbearable void I felt inside me in some way. Or perhaps hoping to become the center of attention or support I had never received from my father. I excelled in physics and landed in one of the most prestigious engineering schools. But I became bored shortly after. School was nothing I had expected to be. School wasn’t about true learning nor was it about the nuclear physics I had in mind, the kind where noble poetry would be created through the works of electrons and positive elements. The violent temperature soaring at the collision between atoms wasn’t as dramatic as Shakespeare’s tragedies. Everything was the same as before – the same experiments, proctors, teachers and students dozing off in class. Drinking beer became an after school routine as I still tried to appease the ever-present desperate void. Eventually I would manage on a string of part time jobs that allowed me to do away with studying physics altogether. I would dig grave holes with Russian men who always seem to be dank and drive rusty trains alongside a drunken engine driver who also happened to be a swindler. Running all across Russia that didn’t seem to have an end, I thought this was the true life I had been seeking.
I realized then that during my childhood and school years, I was searching for a grand truth, for example, sincere people or a sincere relationship. The incessant quest for the truth all started out from the absence of my father, which dealt an irrecoverable blow to me as a child and from the photograph that represented our separation caused not by our own will but entirely by politics.
Friendship, love, betrayal, all this and more were new to me as I became fascinated by the carefree way of life. To my surprise, I took up the habit of writing while I was attending college. First, I began to write letters to my friends who went abroad and later on tried poetry, diary entries, and short stories. Maybe I was trying to put in the passion that wasn’t concentrated on nuclear physics. My first short story written in 1987 was about my childhood, my blanket, the playground, the story of my family, or more accurately, of those in North Korea, about my grandfather on my father’s side, and the recollection of the oppression by Stalin that resulted in the absence of my family on my mother’s side. That short story landed me a place in Leningrad University the following year. As I churned out creative assignments with much eagerness, my world also progressed carefully and relentlessly at the same time.
I soon found out that literature was a secret hiding place for me. I no longer had the need for something to rely on. It was an ideal place that I made on my own. I truly feel I was reborn during this period. My soul which, until then, was hiding and wandering outside my small blanket, my physics textbooks, and outside the train windows filled with complaints from the employer resting area every night, had finally been found. Their lives and their world have inadvertently become mine which, in turn, became original material for my writing.
An explanation is in order for stating that literature, to me, is a hiding place. The story of Jonah comes to mind. What is the true meaning and lesson of the story? What is the truth? The story goes like this. Jonah defies God’s orders to “Go to Ninevah and spread the words of God” and instead hides inside a ship in fear of God. However, the ship meets a storm at sea. The seamen finds out that Jonah is the source of God’s wrath and throws him in the sea. A huge whale comes and swallows Jonah. Jonah stayed captive inside the whale for three days and three nights until God relented and let Jonah go. Jonah repents and obeys God’s orders to engage in missionary work in Ninevah. God, however, did not punish the wrong doings of the Nivevah people who were angered at Jonah. God made Jonah realize the simple but great truth that the human heart exists to have pity on people around him/her. All writers and artists are like Jonah. The writer or the artist creates an artistic world for oneself at the request of God and shuts out the outside world, taking refuge in a closed area like the ship in Jonah’s story. After a period of spiritual pain, the writer or the artist shows the world the product of such ordeal through books, music or works of art in order to send out his/her message and heart. Unlike Jonah, however, true writers put total faith in God and do not complain about people who do not understand their world. They continue to strive to form a world of their own, cherish their work and themselves. They are faithful to themselves and, at the same time, to God.
My experience tells me that the literature of despair at the beginning of one’s writing stage later develops into a phase where the writer is able to obtain the grand truth common to all human beings as well as the literature of anguish.
To overcome the solitude and the fear of the outside world, to awaken one’s soul, in other words, to come to realize one’s fate involve not only the making of a single human being but also the entire people. We as Koreans should realize that our perception of the world, ourselves, our close friends can be sought and found in our hearts, whether we live in our own country or abroad. We need to stay away from calculating our every move, to figure out whether a particular situation, event or a person can be a gain to us. Only then will we be able to rightfully speak up for our people and our nation.
I had formed a world of my own, a world yearning for my father, a family I have never come into contact with, and my country of origin. Writing from a rather alienated stance has allowed me to realize that I am not alone. There were many around me who were living a fierce life, just like me. A Korean writing in Russian will inevitably arouse questions such as “What kind of literature is this? To which trend of literature would this piece belong? What .is the ethnic identity of this literature?” Such questions have been raised in the past, is currently raised and will continue to be raised in the future. One thing is for certain. Writers instinctively have the ability to create an artistic world based on their own existential experience and much soul searching. By developing a tiny nation or portions of areas in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or the far east where Korean-Russians form a community of their own, Koreans are taking part in the formulation of a nation in an artistic manner. On the other hand, one can continue the tradition of Western literature based on nothing but a sense of void. Or, one can express disdain towards one’s roots or deny it altogether by blindly imitating others’ styles. One can even set a character in a world famous literary piece as a protagonist in a story. All this is besides the issue. Variety is an undeniable aspect of literature, and variety is present even in disfigured examples of literary pieces that purport to describe “nostalgia aroused by one’s origin”. Arsenii Tarkovsky, a Russian poet in the 20th century, wrote as follows:
Our blood is oblivious of our homeland.
The future will greet us with a sense of void.
Since the presence can only yield the presence.
Since the presence holds limitations.
We as writers who base their writing on different culture, atmosphere and experience are bonded through a sense of yearning and a common perception. Without such yearning and perception, only “a sense of void” will await us in the future, as the poet says. The future does not exist either in the present or in art. The core of “ethnic identity” of the new millenium lies right here. Ethnic identity cannot be calculated through the number of Koreans that appear in a story. Nor is it expressed through r-y^ the character of a people or atmosphere. It is represented only through the view of the writer. The yearning for ethnicity and the vision of the writer that is evident to all people around the world are the only medium to reflect ethnic identity. Only then can we discuss the style and trend of the literature, its theme, structure, symbolism, metaphors, the intention of the protagonist, artistic image, and literary tools used by the writer.
While Korean literature in Russia or literature of Koryeo is often the target of skepticism, it is sure to continue as long as we exist. Ethnicity brings with it nostalgia and yearning which are bound to find a medium of expression whether it be a piece of poetry, a short story, or an entire book. A writer’s wish to express one’s feelings will continue to exist despite adverse historic, social and economic environment.
My life and experience show that everything goes through a phase: origin, development, and formation. The writer goes through a phase of despair, a phase of agonizing in order to overcome the limitations and discover one’s true identity, and a phase of healing. Such change moves towards the creation of great literature.
Finally, I included the number 42 in the title of this essay. I turned 42 last November 20. Looking back on the years as a child inside the blanket hiding from the harsh outside world, I would like to address myself, my readers, and if possible, the world. I have worked tirelessly to make a spiritual space of my own for the past 42 years. The ragged refuge I once took comfort in transformed into a world of art with a dome reflecting the star lights as time went by. An architect, I believe, would be a more suitable expression for all those who have put their hearts and souls into attaining their dream. It is because all forms of art, scholarship, and cultural activity builds unique time and space of its own.
Looking back, I agonized over the search for the answer to a single human question. What was it that I could do alone? Nothing, really. All humans, including writers, are innately lonesome and alone. Nothing can be accomplished alone. I dedicate this essay to Anatoli Andrei Kim who have shown the Russians, the Kazakstan people, Russian-Koreans, and all of us the road to searching and finding ourselves. Kim has provided the Korean people who share not only ethnic identity but also joy and tears with a concrete vision towards our people through his existence, art world, and his life. The endless joy of creation and the boisterous tears for things lost are the only media that would lead us to the artistic world. The joy and tears in his works aren’t simply used to show feelings to express historic irony, nor are they one side of a dialectic. Rather, joy and tears represent the core elements of literature. Without the tears to express the wrenching nostalgia, there’s simply no way to show the joy from the fetters of the history of our people. Nor will we be able to show our confidence towards our past, our literature, our lives, our souls, and our fate.
(Translated by the Center for Interpretation & Translation, HUFS).
Seoul, November 2003