As published in Volume 11, NO 2, June 2014

by Niki Marangou

On the plane to Dubai a girl from Singapore was sitting next to me, with a Louis Vuitton bag and reading “Glamour.” Dubai airport is a huge shopping centre, all the French brands, like ants’ nests. On the eight-hour flight to Seoul I watched “Marigold Hotel,” a film I had been wanting to see for a long time. The aeroplane was huge, with two decks, a lot of Koreans returning from summer holidays in Europe.

At Seoul I missed my connecting flight and after some hardship reached Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla dynasty, where letters, science and the arts flourished for a thousand years. The 78th PEN Conference was being held here. The town, which is an open museum, has been declared a Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The Hundai Hotel is on the lake. An enormous water-jet reminds me of Lake Geneva.

At the opening ceremony, hundreds of Korean women in hats and lovely national costumes. Some of the men are wearing a grey kimono fastened at the front with a large bow. Some women are wearing the wonderful pleated silk dresses reminiscent of the Japanese designer Issey Miyake.

“In 958 A.D. one had to be able to write a poem in order to get a government post,” Lee Gil-Won, president of PEN Korea,  told us in his address of welcome. A very good poet. I am copying one of his poems at the end of this text.

The president of PEN International John Ralston Saul said in his opening address:

“This is a remarkable city. I have been coming to Gyeongju for fifteen years. It is a city not only of history but of ideas; a city built on the idea of a humanist civilization, both Buddhist and Confucian. I think often, wherever I am in the world, of The Divine Bell of the Great King Seong Deok from the 8th century, which sits a short distance from here. It is covered in script: the philosophy of the day. ‘The Absolute Truth,’ it says, ‘embraces all of creation, here and beyond. We cannot see its real form, nor can we trace the path to its origin.’ Here is a profoundly anti-ideological idea, an idea of doubt and of creativity, which writers can embrace today. And then this line: ‘The people [of the Silla Kingdom] admired literature and art over gold and jade.’

Here is an idea which would mystify many of those who control policy around the world today – the belief that the imagination needs to trump mere self-interest.

PEN is stronger in its 91st year than it has ever been. Why? Because we function on the fundamental principle of the Divine Bell. Creativity, imagination, language may be forbidden, battered, turned into propaganda in the short term. But creativity, the imagination, prevail.

I say this even if over 800 of our colleagues are in prison or in danger. We prevail because we recover from all blows, even as the lives of writers, our colleagues – our members – are lost or ruined.

There is a central point about literature and its freedom of expression that must be continually reiterated. These words may contain beauty, be transformative, or offer pleasure or innocent thrills or anything else.

But there is nothing inherently respectable about us or about literature or about freedom of expression. Literature is not designed to reassure or to make people comfortable. That is the role of propaganda in all its forms.

Literature is thousands of years of making people uncomfortable, of encouraging uncertainty – whether in public or private lives. That is its strength. Literature is not about smoothness or agreement. We may cause discomfort or shock in any number of ways, whether in love or families, politics or religion. Civilizations at their best are built with the consciousness of discomfort. As for us, in Wole Soyinka’s words – “I/We have failed in [our] ambition to grow old gracefully”…

We work with literature in schools, especially in Africa; developing free expression summer schools, beginning in Bishkek in Central Asia.

Our 144 centers in over 100 countries mean that we can be an Asian centered organization. Today the centre of PEN International is here in Gyeongju. On another day we could be centered anywhere else in the world.

But through all of this work we must constantly remind ourselves that our cause is literature. Literature and freedom of expression are neither a nicety nor a legal technicality. They are a way of imagining the relationship between peoples. Between people. People who may disagree or dislike each other or, in fact, know nothing about each other.

What is PEN? Why do we exist? Because literature and freedom of expression are a way of imagining civilization. How do we live together? Through words.”  

Next to speak were the Nobel Laureates Wole Soyinka from Nigeria and Le Clezio from France.

One of the speakers showed us a video of his two-year old daughter. She was playing with an iPad. Then she picked up a book. She pressed desperately on the pictures, which did not react. “A book,” said the speaker, “is in danger of becoming an iPad that has broken down.” An interesting thought.

A poetry reading the next day in a pavilion built on the ruins of an ancient temple, at a high point from where the whole town and the surrounding mountains are visible. It is here that the wild geese come every winter and it is known in Gyeongju as one of “the three wonders and the eight mysterious things.” The girls serving the tea are wearing traditional costume, women’s clothes ironed and starched to perfection. The arrangement of the cups is incredibly harmonious.

The Korean poems are simple, easily understood, with a human depth.

At midday a huge buffet with Korean dishes. They do not resemble anything I know. Particular flavours, sauces produced by fermentation. I try everything. I don’t know, perhaps you have to get used to these flavours.

The bus takes us to a temple outside the town. Dense greenery, ivy climbing up the trees creates shady rooms, the greenery is so dense that the earth is not visible, streams flow everywhere, fields of rice and of lotus. A beautiful landscape. “In the war of 1950,” the guide tells us, “all of South Korea had been burnt, there was nothing, a massive effort of reforestation was made.” Everybody was planting trees.

A wooden monastery, with wonderful carvings, roofs constructed with great mastery. Some faithful pray. In a small lake a frog raises its head out of the water and stares at me. My presence does not alarm him. On the path to the temple, stones piled one on top of the other form little towers. They are the prayers of the pilgrims.

On the beach at the southern tip of the country, opposite Japan, there is the tomb of King Mun-Mu on an islet, under the water. He built his tomb there to protect Korea from Japan. Vendors are selling dried octopus, seaweed, salted fish. I take off my shoes and go into the sea. The water is very warm.

In the cave of Seogkouram is one of the finest statues of Buddha, of white granite, 8th century. A path leads to the temple, it’s drizzling and there is a fine mist, the weather perfectly suiting the landscape, which is very beautiful. Steps lead upwards, stones placed like a prayer, the natural rock left untouched. At the equinox the first ray of the sun falls on the third eye of Buddha, then it reflects onto an ancient temple which the Mongols destroyed in the 13th century. From there the light travels to the underwater tomb of King Mun-Mu. I like these games with the light.

One afternoon, writers who have defected from North Korea described their sufferings under the regime. One woman described how she was condemned for listening to the South Korea radio station. “To simply express how I spent nine years in the camp. I ate everything that flew or crawled, and I ate every grass on earth. It was intolerable. Prisoners in the camp are treated worse than animals until their death.”

There followed a dramatized description of the concentration camps of North Korea. There is great bitterness about this subject. As in Cyprus.

I arrived in Hong Kong late in the evening and so I spent the first night in a hotel. From the window of the hotel, the harbour and the skyscrapers that take your breath away. It is a totally futuristic picture which beats all description.

The next day I saw Hong Kong in sunlight as I went onto the ferry to go to Lamma island, where some friends had made their flat available to me. Hong Kong is built on various islands. Lamma is thirty minutes from Hong Kong. There are no cars, mainly small houses with two storeys, fish taverns and beautiful beaches.  I leave my things in the flat with the hundred steps and go back on the ferry to pier Number 4 to see the city. Steel bridges, air-conditioned, lead to the city centre. Huge skyscrapers compete with one another, the Bank of Hong Kong, the Bank of Shanghai. Girls in shorts and  sandals with thongs, young bankers with leather briefcases, but mainly young people going around, all with an iPhone or Samsung in their hand.

Opposite, the Mandarin Hotel, which continues to wear the crown as the best hotel in the world. All the French brands; in the Apple store hundreds of customers are trying out the new products.

As I walk along the road with the antique shops, which has the strange name of Hollywood Street, I come across one of the most ancient temples of Hong Kong. Man Mo temple. It is dedicated to two deities: the god of literature and the god of war. In front of the god of literature there is an enormous hand holding a pen, and in front of the god of war a sword. Students come here when they have exams, to pray to the god of literature. Although I am not particularly interested in temples, when I went in I found myself in a magic atmosphere. The roof was covered with coils of incense which were burning slowly, sending the supplications of the faithful up to the gods.

Before the two statues some believers were offering fruit: apples, grapes, nuts. A woman on her knees was holding a wooden box which contained sticks of wood the length of a pencil. She shook them rhythmically and after some time one of them fell onto the floor. The piece of wood had a number on it and when she gave it to the priest she received a piece of paper with the prophecy.

I watched a row of believers shaking these sticks and the strange thing was that it was always only one stick that fell to the floor.

The next morning I decided to try out the island’s beach. When I enquired they said it was about a ten-minute walk. I walked for more than half an hour through a dense and beautiful tropical forest. Ivy, clematis and other climbing plants I did not know climbed up and fell on the tall trees, creating a dense mass of green. The beach with fine sand, a power station on the right spoiled the landscape. I went into the water, very warm, as in Korea. I swam, but having read about the pollution around Hong Kong, I kept my head out of the water.

The only internet on the island was at the Bookworm Café. A friendly establishment with second-hand books and good food. So every evening, tired after going around, I took the ferry back to the island with all those who were going home from work. I went to the Bookworm Café, read my messages, had something to eat for my dinner and climbed the hundred steps.

I had seen in the kiosks on the pier Richard Mason’s book “The World of Suzy Wong.” The title rang a bell and I bought it. Girls in a Hong Kong brothel. I started to read it and could not put it down. An incredibly tender book, which says a lot about the place. In the flat there were also copies of the Asian Literary Review, the owner is its editor. And so I read other interesting things about the place. On my return to Nicosia, I chanced upon a Korean film which I watched all night on YouTube. Ki-duk Kim’s “Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall.” I think that this film rounded off perfectly the images of this journey, which was an opening to the East.

One day, I too will be alone
Like the wrist of my mother, who, 
Waking from a dawn slumber,
Turns up the lamp and
Fingers the rosary.
Today too
I practice staying behind all alone
In a boisterous street-side bar
Like an abandoned wine glass. 
– Lee Gil-Won

Translated by Christine Georgiades


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