The End of August

Yu Miri (trans. Morgan Giles)

August 3, 2023 
The following is from Yu Miri's End of August. A Korean author writing in Japanese, Yu Miri has with over twenty books to her name. She received Japan's most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, and her novel, Tokyo Ueno Station, also translated by Morgan Giles, won the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature. After the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, she relocated there and has opened a bookstore and theatre space. Morgan Giles is a literary translator. She lives in London.

Widely seen as her most ambitious, most personal work, The End of August is a spellbinding multigenerational saga based on Yu Miri’s family history: Set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, her grandfather was a running prodigy and a contender for the Tokyo Olympics who would have had to run under the Japanese flag. The story was deemed too controversial for print when it was first serialized in Japan in the early 2000s for its depiction of the injustices Koreans experienced under Japanese rule. A groundbreaking feat of translation, The End of August is a structurally adventurous novel comprised in part of fragmented sentences, dialogue written as if from a play, and streams of consciousness.

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Lost Faces and the Sound of Countless Footsteps

| 잃어버린 얼굴과 무수한 발소리 | 失われた顔と無数の足音 |

Running the riverside but there’s no sound of water no sound of wind the water and wind are both pretending they’re not there all I can hear is the sound of my breathing in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale my breath is a whip in my heart a red horse running around inside me each drop of sweat becomes a shout and is shaken off  I’m shouting no I’m not  I’m singing my bones are Korean my blood is Korean             this blood these bones  will live in Korea  will die in Korea  and be part of Korea  the song spurs my legs on  faster  faster  there is no pain under my left kneecap  nor from the blister on the fourth toe of my left foot  now! there is only now  pull ahead right now  if my mother and father are looking for me  tell them I’ve joined the Kwangbokkun  ari, arirang suri, surirang arariyo       Kwangbokkun, sing arirang! pull ahead? from who? aren’t I running along the bank of the Miryang River? isn’t this my hometown? what path am I running instead? is this a competition?  am I in the lead?  I can’t hear the sound of others’ breathing in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale that’s me breathing in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale no sign of my shadow, my constant companion in‑hale ex‑hale nor can I see the rising sun on my chest it’s completely dark no moon no stars no cast shadows if I turn back maybe I can see something  but I can’t turn back  someone might be coming up behind me holding their breath run leave somewhere behind get closer to somewhere else  that’s the only thing that’s clear so  run  hana, dul  hana, dul  hana, dul  hana, dul  clench your asshole  lift your thighs  let your hips lead  hana, dul  hana, dul  raise your head  swing your elbows  close your eyes  like a bird flying straight  a fierce wind is blowing  a fierce wind is blowing a fierce wind is blowing in thirty million hearts    boats gently bobbing on the sea  have come to take the Kwangbokkun on board  at Arirang Pass  the drums beat on  in Hanyangdoseong  the Taegukgi waves  the song blows through my body  an old song  but one I don’t tire of singing  just like you never get tired of a name  songs and names alone die out if not said aloud names my name in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale there is only one thing I can tell you in‑hale ex‑ hale in‑hale ex‑hale I’m getting short of breath I take a deep breath let it out another deep breath let it out that’s better in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale lead with your hips, fire out your voice Lee Woo‑cheol! in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale my father’s name is Lee Yong‑ha my mother’s name is Park Hee‑hyang my brother Su‑yong died when he was one my second brother, Woo‑seon, died right after birth my sister So‑won died at eleven my third brother, Woo‑gun, was killed at twenty‑three the only one still living is my sister from a different mother, So‑jin in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale oh, Woo‑gun you looked just like me same height  same way of running too  I’m the one who taught you how to run in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale you joined the Korean Democratic Patriotic Youth League the fundamental social cause of illegal activities violating the norms of communal living is  the exploitation of the masses  we know  that as we destroy the major causes of their poverty and destitution inevitably we shall also eradicate illegal activity in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale you were afraid of being tortured and having your legs broken  you fled from safe house to safe house  but in breaks between meetings and pamphleteering you still couldn’t stop running 1948, an August afternoon you were running on campus some right‑wing student had informed on you and nearly a dozen police came you ran away in‑hale ex‑hale when you tried to jump the wall in‑hale ex‑hale they shot you in the leg in‑hale ex‑hale limping, bleeding in‑hale ex‑hale you ran in‑hale ex‑hale five hundred meters up a mountain in‑hale ex‑hale you passed out near a reservoir  we do not know  at what speed  or in which order they will be eradicated  however  we do know that we will destroy them  and with their destruction  we will also destroy the state  I had been smuggled out and was hiding in Japan I learned later that you’d been shot and dragged in in‑hale ex‑hale when where were you killed we couldn’t even bury you in‑hale ex‑hale Lee Woo‑gun tell me the names of the men who killed you  what day you died  where they dumped your body in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale I was twelve when I held you in these arms  looking at your baby face  I will protect him  I won’t let him feel any sadness, I vowed, and yet  aigo  neomuhada!  sesange maldo andwae! I couldn’t even see your face in death in‑hale ex‑hale an August afternoon  an evening shower cut through the cries of the cicadas like a knife in‑hale ex‑hale I ran by the riverside after the rain with my brother did you hear me, Woo‑gun stay away from the water in‑hale ex‑hale don’t slow down I can hear the sound of you breathing loud as if your whole body is a throat in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale the river runs I can’t see or hear you near me in‑hale ex‑hale but I sense you I can smell the rain in‑hale ex‑hale it’s rain that muddies the path it’s han muddying my heart in‑hale ex‑hale the river runs where does it run from in‑hale ex‑hale my abeoji was a wandering fortune teller always drifting in‑hale ex‑hale after he exchanged vows and cups with my eomoni he quit reading faces in‑hale ex‑hale he sold rubber boots at the foot of Namcheong Bridge  I was mistaken  I was mistaken  I was mistaken I came as a bride in a carriage I was mistaken in‑hale ex‑hale I’m the only one my eomoni gave birth to who remains do you know the legend of Arang, who was killed protecting her purity in‑hale ex‑hale is it due to her curse that my brothers and my sister in‑hale ex‑hale died virgins in‑hale ex‑hale they are dead and my brothers wander lost now, bachelor ghosts the bird crying in the pine trees  sounds so sad  does it suffer  the curse of Arang?  the moon that falls on Yeongnamul is clear but the Namcheong River just flows silently in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale oh I’m short of breath hana, dul hana, dul  oh you dead, not buried in the soil of your hometowns but cremated  your ashes washed away, you dead with so much han  hana, dul  hana, dul  you mongdal ghosts  give your grievances to my legs now in‑hale ex‑hale body and soul may tire but in‑hale ex‑hale han never tires in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale Su‑yong Woo‑seon So‑won Woo‑gun a person’s name is heavy and heavier than the names of the living in‑hale ex‑hale are the names of the dead nothing is heavier than a name  As part of the process of integrating Korea within the empire and in accordance with the wishes of imperial subjects to be such in deed as in word, the pathway to gaining a family name has been opened to you. in‑hale ex‑hale Kunimoto Utetsu? Say it again! say what— Kunimoto Utetsu? In particular, as we implement the draft system, the imperial army will carry out its service as one unit, regardless of origin. Although there was once an idea of having Kims and Lees mixed into the imperial army, for the above reasons the merits and demerits of this have soon become apparent.  I fled the draft and hid away on a boat to Japan in‑hale ex‑hale I was found by the military police in Shimonoseki I ran in‑hale ex‑hale was that a bird the MP gasped in astonishment  in‑hale ex‑hale  call my name  call my name like you’re driving in a stake in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale I ran no matter how I ran to shake off the name Kunimoto Utetsu and arrive at the name Lee Woo‑cheol in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale where am I running? Japan? Korea? in‑hale ex‑hale it’s pitch‑black, I can’t see anything although any country must have a sky  I can’t see one here  is it the middle of the night? why am I running and not sleeping?  am I running while I wait for the dawn? why? in‑hale ex‑hale I feel like step by step I’m expanding the night in‑hale ex‑hale what if I’m not getting closer to anywhere but instead getting farther from somewhere? in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale  my feet make no sound  like I’m running barefoot  in‑hale ex‑hale  grass?  soil?  gravel?  sand?  I can’t feel anything on the bottom of my feet where am I running? in‑hale ex‑hale I can’t feel my legs either is it because I’m not in pain? in‑hale ex‑hale the spit wells up in my mouth in‑hale ex‑hale I gulp it down in‑hale ex‑hale it tastes like swamp water in‑hale ex‑hale I want to drink cold water and calm down  my breath is speeding up  Woo‑cheol!  Calm down!  breathe deeply  in  out  and again  in  out  tighten up your shoulders  lift them now relax loosen up yes in‑hale ex‑hale in‑hale ex‑hale the wind  the wind is blowing  don’t slow down  lean forward a little  clench your stomach muscles  hana, dul  hana, dul  attack the wind  hana, dul  hana, dul  let your iron voice ring out  carry the smell of blood oh, you wind that spreads fire!  “Mahabanyabaramildasimgyeong gwanjajaebosal haengsimbanyabaramilda . . .” the sound of sutras and a jing wind their way into my eardrums hana, dul hana, dul “Grandfather, when you died  none of your family was there  such a sorrowful way to die  being beaten to death is not the only sorrowful way to die  a death witnessed by no one is also sorrowful.”  it’s a woman’s voice  talking about me  “Mahabanyabaramilda  Lee Woo-cheol, born December 19 in the year of the Black Rat in Gyeongsamnam-do, Miryang, Ne-il-dong, number 75  aje aje bara aje.”  who is calling my name?!  “She has come from a foreign land thousands of ri away  grasping tens of thousands of ri of rope  to ask  what did my grandfather’s face look like  what kind of person was my grandfather  your halbi will be here soon  so while we invoke the teachings of the Buddha we do not need any other ancestors.” that’s my granddaughter there!  the oldest daughter of my daughter who lives in Japan  I must go to her  ggeumjadonga  eunjadonga  uri baegokdongi!  (a child like gold  a child like silver  a child like white jade)

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From The End of August by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles. Used with permission of the publisher, Riverhead. Copyright © 2023 Yu Miri/Morgan Giles.

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