In-ah has been having nightmares. These nightmares are not something I could enter into. I don’t live with her, so I’ve never even seen her having one. In-ah called last night, the first time we’d spoken in a while; her voice was light as ever when she asked how I was, and when I asked her the same, she answered ‘fine, aside from the nightmares’, and laughed. So far that’s all I know.
In-ah strides into the café, wearing red heels, grey jeans, and an oversized charcoal cardigan. Her long brick-red scarf, thrown back over her shoulder, goes well with her shoes. You wouldn’t think of her as someone who’d been having nightmares. But the moment she sees me and flashes a smile, I notice how pale she is.
“You shouldn’t have waited,” she says, sitting down and immediately opening the menu. “You must be hungry.”
“I wanted to order when you got here,” I respond with the same familiarity. Almost like we’re an old couple.
Clear autumn sunlight streams into the café. The smells of teriyaki sauce, coffee, steamed milk and vanilla mingle in the air. The open-plan layout feels awkward, like sitting in the kitchen of someone you barely know.
“What would you like?” In-ah asks, browsing through the menu. “Sorry for getting you out of bed this early on a weekend.”
My response is intentionally deadpan. “So you should be. It’s practically a criminal offence. Order whatever you like, this one’s on you.”
“That’s hardly fair,” she protests, but quickly softens and picks out a simple breakfast set and two coffees. “Shall we get this?”
I nod, and In-ah raises her hand. She relays our order to the waitress and flashes a smile. There is an impish gleam in her eyes. She can’t know that when she gives that smile to someone else, I ache inside.
This extract from Han Kang’s story Europa was translated during the 2015 International Creative Writing and Literary Translation Summer School, organised by the British Centre for Literary Translation in partnership with Writers’ Centre Norwich. The translators were Sophie Bowman, Victoria Caudle, Roxanne Edmunds, Slin Jung, Chunghee Kim and Esther Lee, with workshop leaders Deborah Smith and Daniel Hahn.
Han Kang herself took part in the workshop as well.
It has been a great honour for me to participate in these sessions, and I truly enjoyed the time we spent together. I have been fascinated by the delicacy of language from a young age, and it is still an important part of what keeps me going as a writer. During these sessions, which progressed as slowly as possible, and with surprising patience, I felt great happiness in sharing this delicacy. I am grateful to everyone.
The title of this story is “Europa”. As I’m sure you all know, Europa is one of the moons of Jupiter. Three years ago, I read in a science magazine that the surface of this moon is covered with ice. And so, if a meteorite crashes into the moon, the surface ice melts due to the heat of the impact, and then, when it freezes again, recovers its former smoothness as though nothing had ever happened.
It made me think of a person – a person recovering from something. Someone who, after experiencing pain, has outwardly returned to looking almost perfectly untroubled. And someone else, who meets this person, while going through their own, quite different pain.
After experiencing violence, In-ah, the female protagonist of this story, is engaged in a desperate struggle for survival, choosing life over death. Now she is a living a new life as a singer. On the other hand, the narrator, while aware of his own identity as a woman, conceals this from others. He and In-ah have been friends for a long time, and as he feels physically drawn to the liminal space between the binary genders, his feelings towards her become confused – a mix of empathy and friendship, desire for and desire to be.
Though this pair have somewhat dramatic lives, I wanted to deal with their relationship rather than focus on dramatic events. They want to be involved in each other’s lives, yet are wary of too close an entanglement, and a certain distance grows up between them due to this ambivalence. An equilibrium comes about similar to that maintained by a moon in orbiting its planet.
For me, the most important scene in this story is the one where In-ah encourages the narrator to go for a walk with her as a woman. The narrator keeps the wig, dress and high heels which he loves at In-ah’s house, sometimes meets up with her and, after changing his clothes and applying thick make-up, goes for a walk through the night streets of Seoul. Among the sea of people, they walk until they are exhausted, at a slight distance from each another, each in their own private solitude.
Their relationship is quiet and calm, like the icy surface of Europa, where even the deepest wound leaves no discernible mark. The dignity achieved, a dignity of silence and solitude which is as easily broken as ice, is sustaining their lives at this time.