Born in South Korea in 1987, Guka Han studied fine arts in Seoul before moving to Paris in 2014. Her debut collection, Le Jour où le désert est entré dans la ville, has been translated into Japanese and Korean. A graduate of the Master de Création Littéraire at Université Paris 8, she is also a translator into Korean of French books by Olivia Rosenthal, Monique Wittig, and Édouard Levé.
Guka Han’s short story “Luoes” is translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman for this issue.
Nobody knows how the desert got into the city. Only that the city wasn’t a desert before.
How long ago did it arrive?
Someone said before they were born. Someone said after the mirage appeared in the river. After such-and-such a relative died. After the family home was destroyed. Before the most famous monument in the city was built. After the storm that had ravaged the next city over came. After the radioactive rain. Each time the question is asked, I get a before or an after that only puzzles me more.
The bus driver asks us to shut the windows. The wind already looks heavy with light sand covering the city shimmering in the distance.
I spent the morning in bed. The nighttime chill still suffuses the mattress on the floor, making me sleepier and sleepier. An airplane-shaped cloud has moved across the window frame. Or maybe it’s penis-shaped. I let time go by like the clouds drifting in the sky not doing anything special.
On my bedroom clock, the little hand said one o’clock. It stretched out, broke through the plastic cover, and reached out imperceptibly toward me. Once it was right at my forehead, it froze. I scowled as I considered it as hard as I could.
I decided I wasn’t going there. Not today, not tomorrow. Never again. I wasn’t going to stare at the glum faces of people ordering their last dinner that week off the McDonald’s dollar menu again. My manager wasn’t going to offer me a free burger after my ten-hour shift amid the smell of frying again, and I wasn’t going to thank him again. I wasn’t cleaning the bathroom toilets with bleach that would destroy my skin for days after again. I wasn’t doing those things or any of the others ever again. I said a prayer to the hand, I asked it to go back to the clock, to leave me alone, once and for all.
On the dial, the hand had moved a teensy notch. I’d won.
In a corner of my room, the huge bouquet of dried flowers had lain there for some time: roses, lilies, hydrangeas, even sunflowers. The bouquet my mother had given me at graduation. She was so proud of me, of what I’d done. In the photos taken that day, she was beaming beside me as I tried to hide behind the huge bouquet.
I dug through all the things I’d need to put in my bag. My books piled up on the shelves remained untouched. The bouquet ended up in the first trash can I passed.
Welcome to Luoes.
The prerecorded announcement drowns out the classical music blaring from tiny loudspeakers. The bus has reached Luoes. The bus station looks like a clump of huge bunkers piled any old way. Up and down the platforms, there isn’t a soul waiting for anything. The passengers start lining up in front of the doors even before the bus stops. I didn’t realize there were so many. The trip was oddly calm, as if, apart from the driver and me, there was nobody else on board. An odd, stifling calm. If the path from life to death could be traversed by bus, the trip would be like this one: a long run of landscapes each more monotonous than the last, a road so smooth it doesn’t produce the least vibration, an itinerary followed down to the centimeter, and, on board, not a sound, not even a whisper.
Gathering my belongings, I suddenly feel like something important has been lost—but what? I open and close my bag several times, pat down my pockets, look under my seat, in the luggage rack, but to no avail. The driver’s standing up front; he glares at me. All the other passengers are already out. I finally get off but can’t shake the feeling something has been left behind.
Along the platform, the empty buses are lined up under a shabby light. The concrete’s cold strikes me. On the wall, a half-erased inscription indicates sublevel three. I don’t see an elevator anywhere, so I head up an emergency stairwell. The space smells stuffy and the sound of my feet on the steps echoes and grows.
In the station’s main hall, the travelers are glued to evenly spaced TV screens. Some watch the news, others an American show, yet others a cricket match or baseball game. The volume on each television is set to max, and in the hubbub, I can’t make out anything apart from exclamations, incomprehensible bits of sentences. I stop for a second in front of a wildlife documentary. There’s a marked resemblance between the animals onscreen and their environment: the iguanas’ skin is as hard as the rocks they sun on, the stick bugs blend into the branches, the toads disappear into the mud, the seahorses barely stand out from the undersea vegetation around them. And around me, the travelers’ eyes are fixed on the images. I observe them one by one to get a clear first impression of their own environment, of Luoes, but there’s no way to tell which ones live here. They all have the same pasty complexion, the same empty gaze, their occasional gestures are abrupt. I can’t deduce anything from that.
On the ceiling, there’s a single light bulb with an intriguing bluish light. I once heard about a light bulb designed to shine forever. Word had it that manufacturers pulled out all the stops to keep it from going on sale and that there was only one hidden somewhere, glowing nonstop for a hundred years. Ordinary light bulbs, with a limited lifespan, made it possible for sales to grow.
I look at the light bulb for a long while. For no clear reason, I think that if it went out, it would be terribly sad.
My breathing gets more and more difficult. I haven’t breathed fresh air for hours. But which way is out? I go from one end of the main hall to the other, trying to tune out the flood of noise the televisions are spewing and to avoid the travelers, the benches, the displays, the coffee vending machines, but all I can find are passageways leading to a subway station, a shopping center, and offices. Is there a way out of all that?
I finally opt for the subway, and I have to take several escalators down before I’m finally on the platform. The travelers are lined up like pawns across the whole length. As they arrive, they queue up methodically behind one another, and when the subway stops, their flow is perfectly coordinated. I let myself be borne by the general movement into the train, and a few seconds later, the subway starts again without a sound. Through the windows, the concrete walls go by at a steady clip. Practically every passenger has their head tilted down to a screen that faintly lights up their face.
At the next station, a man steps on the train circumspectly. He’s clutching a black plastic bag to his stomach like a weak animal. After slowly looking over the people around him, he says a hoarse hello to anyone who might listen. Only two or three glance up, without responding. He waits until the subway moves again before speaking.
“Days like today, they’ve all come already. I know perfectly well that you’re admirable and I’m hopeless. But I do like being here, on the subway, with you. The sounds here make me think of the sound of waves, even if I’ve never been by the sea. I let my body sway with the train’s movements, this way, that way, like it’s waves carrying me.”
As he speaks, he shifts from his right foot to his left, from his left to his right.
“It’s a huge gray wave . . . and it’s so pretty, isn’t it . . . ? Today, I want to show you something. It’s a very precious thing . . . Do you want to know what it is?”
His voice echoes on its own in the whole car. I’d like to know what this thing is but I don’t pipe up. The other passengers are unbothered. With great care, he opens his plastic bag slightly and pulls out a wad of envelopes before continuing his monologue.
“Here . . . My pretty envelopes . . . See them? They’re not ordinary envelopes, they’re as white as jade, as like white jade.”
I give them a proper look but can’t see what’s so special about them.
“I can sell you these pretty envelopes at a very low price. Maybe I’m hopeless, but I’m a good person too. I want to give you a good opportunity. Look at them, look at these envelopes, they’re so pretty, my pretty envelopes like white jade.”
The people stay as they are, heads down at their screens. He gives each one a blank stare. For a few seconds, he stays silent. Then his eyes land on a seated old man, the only passenger with a book in his hands.
“Pardon me, sir. May I ask what it is you’re reading?”
The man doesn’t react, he doesn’t look up from his book.
“You’re reading the Bible! Me too, I tried to read it one time. I couldn’t. I started crying at every sentence . . . It moved me or it scared me. Sir, please, look at these envelopes. Aren’t they as pretty as white jade?”
The old man just shakes his head.
“Sir, listen to me, I’m sure that you’ll need them one day. To send good news to people you love, and bad news to others. Envelopes like these—you’ll use them for a long while, for forever, believe me.”
His head still bowed, the old man starts furrowing his brow. The speaker seems to realize that he won’t be able to sell him his envelopes, but he doesn’t move.
Then, suddenly, he thrusts his envelopes at him. The old man tries to push them away, but the other man is insistent. In a sharp, aggressive tone, the envelopes man tells him that he doesn’t want money. The old man slams his Bible shut then heads to the door. He gets out of the subway at the next station.
The envelopes man looks baffled, his eyes well up. Wiping away a bit of yellowish snot building up at the end of his nose, he drops all the envelopes he’d been holding. They spread across the floor like a liquid. He crouches to gather them up with his grubby fingers.
At that exact moment, two security agents rush into the train car. They head for the envelopes man and try to usher him to the platform, but the man resists, letting out yells. Around him, people look up for the first time. The envelopes man ends up dragged out of the car by the agents holding his arms behind his back.
A few seconds later, the loudspeakers installed in the car blare the conductor’s voice. He asks if the police activity is finished. The agents wave at the front of the train. The envelopes man stands to their side, his arms dangling. The doors shut and the subway leaves with everyone buried back in their screens.
At the next station, new passengers enter the car. Without realizing, they trample on the envelopes scattered on the floor, and shoe prints accumulate on their white surface.
Before getting off a few stations later, I get down discreetly to take one.
Outside, Luoes’s glass towers stretch to the horizon. I was told long ago that sand was one of the main components of glass, but I still don’t understand how small golden particles could turn into something so smooth and transparent. As I approach a tower, I discover that the glass covering it has something opaque that keeps me from seeing through. I wonder if they can see me from inside. But maybe there’ll never be anyone behind this thick glass. The layer of glass seems indestructible and the dark, murky image of myself it reflects strikes me as odd.
On the road, the lines of cars move in slow motion and the honks are deafening. Scooters and mopeds weave perilously between the cars. The bikers’ visors are lowered, and not one car’s windows are open.
The towers only let through a narrow strip of off-white sky. The wind rushing into the streets smells sandy. My eyes start stinging, my vision grows hazy. Most of the passersby are wearing a mask and sunglasses. I accost a few to ask which way to go, but they pay me no heed, they walk on, ignoring me. It’s like they’re playing a game I don’t know the rules for.
“You’re not from here?”
The man came up to me without my realizing. After a moment’s pause, I just say that I’m looking for the desert. His sad eyes look me over for a few seconds, then he slowly raises his hand and points in a few directions.
“It’s there . . . there . . . a bit everywhere.”
The man heads off without another word, an unreadable smile on his lips. I squint again at the directions he’d pointed, but all I see is towers and endless columns of cars.
The wind whistles louder and louder. My throat is itchy and my ears are buzzing, but I keep going straight. On top of the roaring wind and the horns are all sorts of music coming from stores, ear-splitting pop songs that nobody seems to be listening to, and, beyond, far off, some sort of threatening rumble. After a long while, I see a familiar sign. I head toward it unthinkingly.
At the counter, the employee is wearing a huge red hat on which Happy Meal is embroidered in yellow. She asks me flatly what I want. In the blink of an eye, I feel like I know her: that expressionless face, those bloodshot eyes, and those ears reddened by the fryer’s heat . . . as I give her my order, I imagine myself working here, in this McDonald’s practically identical to mine, with colleagues hardly any different from mine, in the same uniform. In front of me, the tray fills up methodically. The employee pushes it toward me before going back into the kitchen.
I sit down in a corner and I start on the burger. The shriveled-up meat, the wilted vegetables, and the bread covered in bland sauce mingle in my mouth. This food and the space’s smells suddenly remind me of my city, and I feel a nostalgia of sorts rising up. The customers sitting at the next table have nothing in common with the indifferent passersby on the street. They seem as close as old friends. Hunched over their tray, they dutifully chew one bite of Big Mac after another, fries dipped in ketchup, and they drink their soda with a loud sucking through their straw. For the first time since arriving in Luoes, I relax. I down the food diligently, just like my neighbors.
After I’ve finished eating, I push the tray aside and pull out the envelope I picked up in the subway. The shoe prints stand out on the blank paper. I try to scrub them off with a napkin, but they’ve soaked into the envelope. I tell myself that I have to write a letter, but I don’t have any paper, just an old ballpoint pen. In any case, I don’t have anything in particular to say or anyone to write to. I mull over the envelope for a few seconds, then I write my address on it, the only one I know by heart.
It’ll be waiting for me at home, and when I go back, it’ll be a souvenir of Luoes. An empty souvenir.
Now that I’m full, the city feels less threatening than before. As I come out of the McDonald’s, I do my best to walk like the others, I keep pace with them. I just have to put one foot in front of the next and to swing my arms quickly and regularly, without stopping. The right arm follows the left foot’s movement, the left arm follows the right foot’s movement, and so on: left foot, right arm, right foot, left arm . . . Always faster, as if something urgent were waiting for me too somewhere in this city. But suddenly, a yell stops me in my tracks. There’s a man stretched out on the road, beside a moped on its side. I join the pedestrians gathering around him and see his whole body shaking.
The driver who’d hit him gets out of his car, looking flustered. The traffic’s stopped completely and the honking grows. Only scooter riders and motorcyclists can make their way past either side of the crowd gathered on the road. They move hurriedly, without stopping, apart from one who gets right off his moped. He has the same delivery uniform as the man flat on the ground. After pulling off his helmet, he kneels down beside his colleague and shakes his shoulders. He yells words, sentences I can’t make sense of. The other man opens his eyes a little, tries to move his lips. His colleague rubs a handful of tissues behind his ear, right where a trickle of blood is flowing, and the tissues turn red in seconds. At some point, his shaking stops and his body goes limp, as if he weren’t worried about the accident anymore. His colleague panickedly shakes him again, but his body is inert. Then he leans over him and whispers in his ear, then gets up and returns to his moped. I see him put on his helmet, look at his colleague’s unmoving body for a few more seconds, then take off.
I can’t believe what I’ve just seen. It’s like I’m in a movie. The asphalt, the towers, everything suddenly feels unreal to me. I pull away from the horde of rubberneckers and try to start walking again, to get into a rhythm, like just before: left foot, right arm, right foot, left arm . . . In the distance, I hear an ambulance siren. The traffic jam resulting from the accident has to be keeping it from getting closer. In my mind the man is sprawled on the ground again, the little pool of blood beside him. It was no bigger or smaller than in films. I wonder if the man is still alive. If he survives, he’ll go back to work as a delivery guy, he’ll zigzag between cars again to deliver a pizza or some chicken wings on time, and there’ll definitely be another accident, maybe more serious than today’s. Staying alive isn’t always the best solution.
But where is the desert? Is it hiding? Does it really exist?
I keep walking and walking, my weariness notwithstanding. All the soda I drank at the McDonald’s is weighing on my bladder, and I’m thirsty again.
After making my way past a gray wall with no door or window, I reach the entrance of a hospital. Inside, patients are smoking and walking down the paths of a little garden. Some are in a wheelchair, others are leaning on crutches or distractedly holding an IV stand. There’s something cottony in their gazes. The second I step into the hospital proper, most of them turn their heads to me and eye me suspiciously. Maybe they’re mad at me for not being sick like them. I cross the garden and stride toward the main building, trying to look busy. I can’t find a bathroom anywhere. The two front-desk employees keep their heads down. I keep going and get in an elevator to avoid being noticed. My bladder clenches again as I grab the metal handrails.
I press a button at random. The elevator doors open after a few seconds on a long, deserted hallway with a smooth floor, lit by fluorescent bulbs. On each side there are numbered rooms and at the very end there’s a sign for the bathroom. I make my way down the hallway as quietly as I can. The room doors are slightly ajar and only let through the noise of televisions. After doing my business. I drink several gulps of water from the tap and splash my face, but the water’s coldness is cold comfort for my windburnt and sandburnt skin.
When I come out of the bathroom, I see a woman in hospital scrubs leaning against the wall a few meters off. She jolts violently when I go by and looks at me in astonishment.
The plastic cup she’s holding slips out of her hands and its contents spread across the floor. It’s a sort of transparent gel. I don’t have time to apologize for scaring her. She’s down on all fours gathering up the puddle of gel in her hands, then burying her face in it and starting to lick it. I can see her pink tongue moving rapidly on the gel’s surface, like a cat licking. At some point, she presses her lips to the floor and suctions up the gel noisily.
I watch her, agape, until she gets back up. The floor is perfectly clean.
She doesn’t look twice at me as she turns back to a disinfectant gel dispenser attached to the wall and refills her cup by pressing the lever efficiently. In a few seconds, the cup is overflowing. She raises it slowly, brings it to her lips, and downs its contents in a single gulp. Then she fills it again before turning to me and holding it out to me.
I look at her waxy face ravaged by alcohol. Her eyes are gleaming like a wild animal’s. She shows me how to do it without saying a word: she brings the cup to her mouth then tilts her head back and parts her lips. The gel’s smell is overpowering.
Suddenly, there’s a sound from the elevator. The woman slips her cup in my hand and disappears into her room. A nurse comes out of the elevator, pushing a cart full of medicine and syringes. Without a thought, I down the cup in a few big gulps. The nurse looks at me suspiciously, as if she was about to ask me the reason for my presence here. I drop my head and rush to the elevator. Once I’m inside and the doors have shut, I drop the cup in a corner. The gel flows slowly down my throat.
The desert . . .
Maybe it’s already here, inside the city, behind this simple wire fence. I contemplate it snaking through the surrounding upheaval. A dune scarcely higher than the others glimmers in the last rays of sunlight.
My feet sink into the sand. It’s hard for me to forge onward, but I like feeling the sand give way under my feet. After about twenty meters, I fall to the ground and stretch out on my back. The sand’s heat and warmth are calming. There’s still a bit of light in the sky and there’s a few clouds going by. One of them is shaped like a plane. Or maybe a penis. A pink, downy penis with shining edges.
A man’s booming voice pulls me out of my sleep.
I frown but do not open my eyes. I don’t want to wake up. Not now, not yet.
“Hey, get up. You can’t sleep here!”
My shoulder’s being shaken, and I open my eyes. It’s morning. The sand is cold and wet. Workers with shovels are standing all around with worried faces.
From Guka Han’s collection of stories The Day the Desert Got into the City, © Editions Verdier, 2020
Interview with translator Jeffrey Zuckerman
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Jeffrey Zuckerman: It was an accident! I needed an upper-level French class that fit all my particular constraints, and I happened to notice that there was a seminar on Wednesday afternoons called “Introduction to Literary Translation.” I thought, “Oh, that sounds nice,” but I couldn’t have guessed when I saw it in the course catalog that it would be the germ of a whole career.
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Jeffrey Zuckerman: I can hardly weigh in on how contemporary political reality should impact short fiction; art often resists any dictum, well-meaning or otherwise. But these matters absolutely inform an artist’s choices in ways both conscious and not: when women’s rights are repressed in one country or wartime efforts result in energy shortages in another, then an artist’s ability to freely explore possibilities is hampered by the brute reality around them. As such, art is always implicitly a form of resistance against the reality that informs the conditions of its making.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Jeffrey Zuckerman: Years after I first read it, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” still stuns me. On a craft level, it brilliantly performs the perceptual thought experiment it proposes, giving readers a sense of what it would be like to be able to remember the future as well as the past, and how one might live with that foreknowledge. And on the level of character, it still moves me to tears: it carries readers through the full spectrum of human feeling, and somehow, despite all the odds, ends in true joy. I cannot press it into enough readers’ hands.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Jeffrey Zuckerman: Negative capability, not only in inhabiting the minds of the characters within a story, but in inhabiting the minds of readers and sensing what choice of words will spark the living dream the writer strains for.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Jeffrey Zuckerman: To always, always second-guess myself, and to trust the words in front of me.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Jeffrey Zuckerman: I’m recasting Adèle Rosenfeld’s exquisitely rendered novel Jellyfish Have No Ears, about a woman going deaf, into English: bringing her into a new language and welcoming its characters into my own world as a deaf person.