Vaseline Buddha

Jung Young Moon

Vaseline Buddha

“One achieves a kind of serenity when delving into this book. I find that eccentrics like Jung are needed in literature.”

— ACHIM STANISLAWSKI

Author & Translator Biographies

JUNG YOUNG MOON was born in Hamyang, South Gyeongsang Province, South Korea in 1965. He graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in psychology. He made his literary début in 1996 with the novel A Man Who Barely Exists. Jung is also an accomplished translator who has translated more than forty books from English into Korean, including works by John Fowles, Raymond Carver, and Germaine Greer. In 1999 he won the 12th Dongseo Literary Award with his collection of short stories, A Chain of Dark Tales. In 2005 Jung was invited to participate in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, and in 2010 the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Korean Study invited him to participate in a three-month-long residency program. In 2012 he won the Han Moo-suk Literary Award, the Dong-in Literary Award, and the Daesan Literary Award for his novel A Contrived World, forthcoming from Dalkey Archive, who also published his short story collection A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories in 2014. His works have been translated into numerous languages, and he is widely read in France and Germany, where he enjoys great critical acclaim and popular appeal.

YEWON JUNG was born in Seoul, and moved to the US at the age of 12. She received a BA in English from Brigham Young University, and an MA from the Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

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One day, when the night was giving way to dawn and everything was still immersed in darkness, I sat on a windowsill in the house I lived in, unable to sleep, thinking vaguely that I would write a story. I didn’t know at all where or what the story, if it could be called a story, would head toward, nor did I want to know in advance, and for the time being, there was nothing that told me where to go or what to do. So for the time being I was right to think that it could turn into a story, but it was possible that it wouldn’t turn into a story at all.

Anyhow, something happened a little before I began thinking such things, something so trivial that you could hardly say that anything had happened at all; I heard a very small sound coming from outside the kitchen window, and straining my ears for the sound for a moment, I thought it was the sound of raindrops, but it didn’t continue at regular intervals like the sound of raindrops. After a little while, I went to the bedroom windowsill and looked out the window through the curtains but it wasn’t raining, and with a certain thought in mind I went to the kitchen where the sound had come from, hid myself behind a wall, and saw someone climbing up toward my bedroom window. It seemed that he was climbing up the gas pipes, and he looked like a moving shadow. It was an astonishing sight but I didn’t cry out because I felt as if I were dreaming. He was taking great care not to wake the person inside, whom he thought was sound asleep.

After a little while, I saw him trying to open the window, and I stuck my face out quietly so as not to startle him, but at that moment he saw my face and was so startled that he fell to the ground. I hadn’t had the slightest intention of startling him, so I felt terrible, as if I had made him fall even though I hadn’t, and above all, I wondered if he was all right, having fallen to the ground. He picked himself up at once, but was limping slightly, probably with a strained ankle, and went across the small yard and tried to climb over the wall which wasn’t so high, which didn’t look easy, either. I wished I could help him climb over the wall by giving him a leg-up. After several attempts, he finally clambered up the wall and disappeared into the darkness after throwing one last look in my direction, but I couldn’t tell if he looked at me with reproach as he disappeared into the darkness.

Keeping an eye on the spot from which he had disappeared, I wondered for a moment as to what he was. I concluded that he wasn’t a robber since I didn’t see a weapon in his hand nor a weapon he could have dropped. Nobody but a thief, then, would pay me a quiet visit through my window at that hour. I thought about the great misfortune of the thief who had surely been after something in my house where there was nearly nothing worth taking, if not after me. Everything requires a certain amount of luck, especially in his line of work, but he hadn’t had any luck at all. I smiled, thinking about his circumstances as well as my own, not much better than his. Or I should say, I smiled, aware of the smile that spread across my face, thinking that the man who had appeared out of darkness and disappeared back into the darkness was like a beaver that came out of water in the dark of the night and disappeared back into the water.

And although I wasn’t in a position to worry about his circumstances I hoped that the man, who had elicited feelings of sadness in me about his misfortune as well as a gentle smile from me for the first time in a while, and who hadn’t seemed fit to be a thief and had perhaps had his first experience as a thief that day, would have some luck in the future, and that he, having perhaps chosen a night job because he had trouble sleeping at night as I did, wouldn’t be too angry about his experience that early morning, and would be able to smile, feeling somewhat sheepish.

And I thought I saw in the darkness three cats walking with some distance among themselves, on the wall over which the thief had disappeared, but I wasn’t sure if I actually saw them, or if I was deluded, or if I was imagining them. Yet it seemed that the cats were taking the route they always took and that nothing had happened in the meantime.

I went back to bed and lay down, and suddenly wondered who was at fault for the fall of the thief, who fell because of me although I didn’t throw him down, but who wouldn’t have fallen if it hadn’t been for me, and as I often did when it wasn’t clear who was at fault, I thought I was a little more at fault. But it seemed that no one was at fault for the fall, and I thought that there were things in the world for which no one was at fault, and things that couldn’t really be called a fault, and although I thought that the conclusion wasn’t adequate, that was the conclusion I wanted to draw.

And I also thought that all he’d tried to do was to obtain something he didn’t have, which was quite natural. And maybe it was a good thing that he went away like that, for it also occurred to me that otherwise a strange confrontation might have taken place between the man who came into the house and me in my underwear, leading to unpleasant acts or conversations.

And after a while, thoughts regarding what had just happened faded away, and it seemed that nothing had happened, that it had all been a dream. But as I mused on what had just happened, I gradually became almost glad that he’d come like that, because for some time I’d been staying cooped up at home without seeing anyone. Before he paid me a visit that night I’d been feeling so alone, not having spoken a word to anyone for days, and yet looking at the curtains flapping now and then in the open window and thinking that I wouldn’t go outside unless a gigantic sailboat, with a full load and the sails taut with wind, entered through the window. I had no apparent reason for not going outside, but I had to rationalize my not going outside, even if it meant making up a reason like that. It seemed that something left behind by the man who hadn’t taken anything from me was hovering around me, having faded without disappearing, like a lingering impression, although it wasn’t a lingering impression. The thief, who had come to my place to accomplish something but failed in the end, hadn’t done anything to me or left anything for me, but it seemed that something he’d left behind had been left for me.

For some time, I’d been in a constant state of lethargy — so constant that it was amazing when I thought about it — and had been unable to do anything, and hadn’t been doing anything. But an urge to write was awakened within me as if the thief, who went away without actually doing anything, had done something to me, had provoked me in some way as I thought about him, and thoughts began to squirm in my mind, like a stiffened body attempting some difficult movements. The vague stories that I’d tried to write down but had escaped me began to blossom little by little, and I wanted to give them a vague form that suited them. And I thought that the story I was to write could be like the experience I’d just had, which was really nothing at all, that I could make it that way, and thus write about intangible things, or about making things intangible.

Now there’s no sound coming from outside. I stare for a long time at the darkness outside from which no sound comes, or perhaps I just can’t hear the sound that’s coming. And staring at the darkness outside from within the utter darkness in the house, I think that thoughts on darkness could shed a certain light on what I’m about to write, to make all that’s obscure even more obscure, and if not, make it remain as obscure as it is, that what I’m about to write could turn into ...