I have a photograph of my grandfather, likely taken toward the end of his life. He sports a beret and a fall coat. He’s looking at the camera, but his gaze has a far-off quality; not unfocused, but seeing beyond. He appears knowing, relaxed, debonair. Even beyond the veneer of a photograph taken decades ago, he’s someone with a charge about him. It emanates from his visage, continuously breaking and coming together again, making a sound inside my head.
I remember very little of him. What I do recall may not be real. He died in Korea when I was a child, only a year or so after I emigrated to the United States. I was told that we could not attend his funeral, due to the fragile status of our residency.
The day we received the phone call, my mother began weeping right away. My father lay silently on the sofa, unsleeping with his eyes closed, shrouded in the darkness of a curtained room for what seemed like days.
When I was very young, in Seoul, I often saw him being interviewed on television. Random details strike me from memory: black leather shoes, a leg crossed over another, an interminable run of beige carpet.
I know that my grandfather was a celebrated intellectual and artist. A member of a prominent leftist literary organization in the 30s, arguably Korea’s most prominent literary critic during the 50’s and 60s. He was invited to teach at Yale and Stanford in 1957. The most recent critical biography of him was published in 2008. He authored an influential literary history which is still being used today. As chairman of International PEN, he once co-hosted a conference with John Updike.
I hear he liked to fish.
For someone with such prominence and legacy, it’s been difficult to confirm much else. My limitations with higher-level Korean along with a complete inability to read Chinese has been a significant barrier. My younger sisters — they’ve even fewer memories of him — and I have done intermittent sleuthing, over the years, across continents. We’ve engaged with professors at Columbia; Seoul National University; University of California, Irvine; Stanford. We’ve reached out to estranged cousins. We’ve purchased books, gathered photographs, pored over articles.
Nothing has led to conclusions; only more questions. So I invariably turn back to my unreliable memory, and stories from my mother, which are told with liberal color. A beautiful and apocryphal narrative has developed over the years in this way, and I return to it again and again, with inexplicable fervor.
I wonder if I secretly prefer myth and mystery to the piecing together of facts, because they are so much more seductive, and it might break me to be disappointed by what he really was: just a man.
He was imprisoned during the Japanese occupation for writing nationalist poetry. I remember a few lines from a poem, where he forebodes an approaching storm by repeating the word “cloud” in Korean, the collective sound of which phonetically evokes the falling boots of marching soldiers.
Gurum, gurum, gurum.
Later, and ironically, he was accused of being a Japanese collaborator. Eventually he must have been exonerated, because in the end he was given a burial by the State.
Was he indeed a traitor? Did he stand for one thing, then something else? What did he really believe? What made him change his mind? Did he change his mind? Was he simply a shrewd strategist? Ambitious? Without integrity? Misunderstood?
These are all very real possibilities.
In 2001, sixteen years after his passing, I traveled to Korea to finally pay my respects. I was able to obtain this enigmatic map from the estranged brother of my father, via fax:
It was a surreal journey, one that deserves its own story. Despite the odds, I found him, collecting a taxi driver and a rural village resident along the way. They led me up a steep jungle in the heat and humidity of Korea’s summer, to an unmarked clearing, by an unmarked road, on an unnamed mountain.
I bowed and apologized for nearly fifty minutes. My eyes were swollen by the end and I had difficulty seeing. The driver and village elder sat cross-legged facing each other on the grass many yards away, talking in low voices, contentedly listening to a granddaughter begging for forgiveness. Their presence comforted me. The white American man I was with didn’t understand; he asked them to leave.
I do not have the original photograph. What I have is a grainy black and white digital copy whose origin I can’t recall. It looks professionally taken, perhaps for a magazine, or a book.
(I see my face in his face. The grooves that say he lived, suffered, and loved to certain excesses.)
I look at it from time to time. Particularly now, in a new home, struggling to balance work for pay and work for self, the pursuit of artistic goals, lacking a community of peers and consequently critical feedback; long seeking a creative mentor and collaborator where the idea of him seems to fit so perfectly.
Sometimes I’m taken aback by the power of his pull from beyond so many years, generations, even death.
Ultimately, I don’t need all the facts. But I would give anything to have one conversation, as one adult with another, two points on a line running through. About the banal and the sublime. Share the exasperation I feel at reading V.S. Naipaul or Alice Munro. That recipe for midnight pasta. I want to hear what he thinks about my plan. Tell him my two-cannibals-eat-a-clown joke. Ask him if I make him proud.