This story has been drawn from the translation portfolio in the May/June issue of the American Reader, available here. Translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell.
Editor’s note: The refrigerator plays a central part in Park Min-gyu’s fin de siècle “Castella.” Yet the word refrigerator proves to be a poor actor for the role. In Korean, naengjang (“refrigeration”) echoes naengjeon, or Cold War, a state of permanent tension and, not coincidentally, the ongoing situation on the Korean peninsula. “Cold storage” provides a closer slant rhyme but doesn’t bear repetition. And there is a further secret hidden in naengjanggo (“refrigerator”): when the syllables are reversed, gojangnaeng, they read as “broken down”—gojangnan (intransitive), gojangnaen (transitive). Thus, inside Park’s irreparable refrigerator, we find a cold world, a broken down world, thrown into suspended animation to await the next transformative cycle/siècle.
This fridge must have been a hooligan in his past life.
I bet that’s how it was. March 1985. Brussels, Belgium. European Cup Final: Liverpool vs. Juventus. Excited British football fans rush the Italian cheering section. The wall collapses. Thirty-nine people crushed to death. The fridge was one of them.
When he came to, he was already in Heaven. Stunned. Overwhelmed with uncontrollable regrets. I’ve got to learn to cool my temper, he thought. That’s what I need. So God suggested: How about being a refrigerator? Aha! He slapped his knee. Now that would be a life worth living. And that’s how the man who once loved Liverpool was reborn as a refrigerator. Fast forward in time and he winds up in my possession. I don’t care what anyone says—I bet that’s what happened.
Even now, sometimes, I think back to my first night with him.
It was a night of agony. At first, I considered it a bit loud, but the longer it went on, the more it seemed ready to explode, and in the end, I was too scared to sleep. Woo-oong woo-oong. This one fridge was giving off an entire factory’s worth of noise—it was a sight to behold, a spectacle to beat all spectacles. Slowly, carefully, I pressed my ear against the door: a magma-like something or other was churning violently inside. I yanked the plug. The fridge held six cans of beer, a giant jar of kimchi, and some walnut ice cream left over from dinner. It was a sweltering hot summer night.
How could anyone have thought of selling this piece of shit? Like an Italian man crushed to death by a collapsing wall, I felt angry and victimized. I felt like marching straight over to the shitty second-hand shop where I bought it and smashing in the metal security shutters, but first there was something I had to do. I had to eat the rest of the walnut ice cream before it melted. Between not being able to sleep and a case of diarrhea that reeked of walnuts, I didn’t make it back to the store until the following afternoon. Taped to the padlocked shutters was a note that read: “Closed For Repairs.”
When I returned home, the faint smell of kimchi had already filled the room. What’s done is done. At the sour smell, I gave up and plugged the fridge back in. Woo-oong. A roar, like that of stampeding hooligans, shook the walls. Why me?, I thought, just as a vision of my ill-fated past life flashed before my eyes. Maybe I was an unfortunate Italian man who met a sudden death while cheering for Juventus.
Despite our past lives, I wound up living with that fridge for over two years. You might say that makes no sense, but there was nothing I could do about it. First of all, the shitty second-hand store actually did turn to shit and go under, and the longer I spent with the fridge, the more I was able to tolerate it. Plus, it ran surprisingly well. It really wasn’t a problem, you ask?
It really wasn’t a problem.
In fact, for a single man like me, you could say that the awful noise kept me from feeling lonely. I’m human. It was just a matter of time before I was broken in. I first became acquainted with the fridge the summer of my very first year in college. I remember the humidity was unprecedentedly high that summer. Since I was unhappy at home, I left and moved into a place of my own close to school. The four of us—the fridge, the TV, the radio, and I—lived together in that tiny room. But in truth, it felt like it was just me and the fridge. The noise it made was that outstanding.
I never got any visitors to my studio apartment, which was located up a steep hill about three hundred meters from the main gate of the college—of course, that’s probably why. School had just let out for vacation and, though I’m repeating myself, the humidity was unprecedentedly high that summer. But even if it was a hill, it was still a perfectly paved street, so why didn’t anyone ever come over? The owner of the pub, “Hof On A Hill,” where I was a regular, used to complain about the same thing. Yeah, why is that? I would rub my well-toned calves and pop another peanut in my mouth. On sweltering days and not-so-sweltering days alike, nobody came to see me that summer.
I was always sweltering in my loneliness.
So that’s how the fridge and I became friends. That’s how it felt. Like I said, with that tremendous noise, there was no way I could be lonely. It was just the two of us in that “Studio On A Hill” where no one ever came to visit. Like any other friend in the world, the fridge was a good guy once you got to know him. Nobody is bad once you get to know them.
It was the first case since General Electric manufactured the world’s first modern refrigerator in 1926 of a human being and a refrigerator becoming friends. To think I was the first! How on earth could we have been so inattentive to our fridges? Does anyone in this world truly understand a refrigerator’s self-worth? Of course we always think that human beings are alone in the universe. But if you pay just a little more attention, you realize that “The Fridge” is right there beside you.
A refrigerator has a personality.
Now, listen closely to that sound. Feel it. Compressor and condenser, evaporator and heat exchanger, the circular flow of refrigeration—it’s the cycling of a miracle. My fascination with refrigerators began when I slowly opened my eyes to that endless loop of sound. Of course, I am not saying it was like that from the beginning. I, too, was just a run of the mill kind of guy, one of many who fell under “World Of Refrigerators? Who Gives A Crap?” My departure from the flock began, more than anything, from the naïve desire to turn down that infernal noise. In retrospect, it was narrow-minded of me, but I called the manufacturer and requested some swift and precise after-sale service. I’m not making excuses—anyone else would have done the same.
The after-sale service, which I thought would be swift and precise, dragged on, long and tedious. First there was the inspection of the defrost heater, then the replacement of various parts, followed by the cleaning of the capillary tubes. My room was a disaster area, and the afternoons, right in the middle of the dog days of summer, felt like a sauna. In the end, the repairman came to my room four times, and each time the repairs were finished, he told me something different. Day one: “It’s Fixed Now.” Day two: “Hmm, That’s Strange.” Day three: “Just Get A New One.” Day four, as his voice trailed off until I could barely hear him: “I’m Done With This Shit.”
The noise had not lessened in the slightest.
The second semester began somehow, but there was no refreshment for me. Finally, like a kid who had taken apart his radio and could not figure out how to put it back together, I began to study the principles of refrigeration, the manufacturing of refrigerators, refrigerator repair, and even the history of refrigeration.
It’s strange but, to my surprise, the world of refrigeration sucked me in. It was literally captivating. I started skipping classes, and I had long since stopped going to my parents’ house, where I used to drop by with my laundry. I guess you could say I had been swaggering down the streets of dazzling everyday life that are governed by “World Of Refrigerators? Who Gives A Crap?” when I suddenly dropped down a manhole.
There, the cool, dark, secret world of refrigeration was spread out before me. By day, I wandered along the capillary tubes of that underground world like a puff of Freon gas, and by night, I became a glittery patch of frost stuck to a subterranean wall where I slept fitfully. When I found the exit—though I realized it only after emerging—fall was nearly over. The sunlight was dazzling. And
the world looked completely different.
So, the way I remember it, I obsessed over it for a week. After a thorough diagnosis, I considered every possibility and worked myself into a frenzy trying to fix it, but the noise was as loud as ever. Like the repairman, I could not figure out what was causing it. I should have just gone with “May As Well Get A New One,” or “I’m Done With This Shit,” but I, having already begun to understand the world of refrigeration, was analyzing the problem from a completely different angle from the repairman, which was:
This fridge has a powerful right to speak.
That’s right. A hooligan in his past life, this refrigerator was born with an unusually powerful voice. He must have possessed unusually large vocal chords and a spirited personality. At the final match between Liverpool and Juventus, he would have been the guy who shouted “Headbutt ’em!” while leading the riot. That’s what I think and I don’t care what anyone says. Bravo!
“Headbutt ’em!” Can you imagine?
The history of refrigeration is a struggle against decay.
Humanity has long known that food can be kept longer if it is stored in a cool place. Around 1000 B.C., the Chinese were already practicing a primitive form of refrigeration by using underground storage and ice. Strictly speaking, the world’s first refrigerator was underground—it was the earth itself.
Fourteenth-century Chinese and seventeenth-century Italians figured out that containers of salt water stayed colder than room temperature. When salt water evaporates, it absorbs the surrounding heat. Though rudimentary, it was the first appearance in human history of the modern principle of refrigeration via heat evaporation.
In 1834, a British man named Jacob Perkins succeeded in gaining a patent for his invention of a compressor that created ice artificially. Perkins took advantage of the fact that compressed ether produces a cooling effect as it evaporates and condenses, and his compressor made a decisive contribution to the future birth of the refrigerator.
In 1926, an American company, General Electric, produced the world’s first hermetically sealed refrigerator. Thus began the history of the modern refrigerator and its continuous innovations. In 1939, today’s household refrigerator with separate refrigeration and freezer compartments was born, and this epochal design paved the way for the fantastic era of refrigeration, along with the many frozen foods developed and produced by Clarence Birdseye.
The spread of refrigerators changed people’s lives. One of the most significant results was the dramatic reduction in food poisoning and disease. By eating unspoiled food, fresh vegetables year-round, and fish that was not pickled in salt, modern people enjoyed much healthier lifestyles. Through refrigerators, humanity was finally victorious in the struggle against decay. It was a fantastic victory. That’s why I disagree with those who say the twentieth century was the era of the Cold War. The greatest achievement of the twentieth century was, by far, this amazing refrigeration technology. That’s right. The twentieth century was the fantastic era of Cold Storage.
The famous scholar of refrigeration, Theodore Engel, wrote all of this in his book, “The Fantastic Era Of Refrigeration.” That’s how I came to know that I was living in such “Fantastic” times.
As a result, I started acknowledging, from the bottom of my heart, this man’s “Powerful” right to speak. And I meant it. At the rate he was going, his point of view clearly merited screaming louder than me.
I looked at the fridge and mumbled to myself:
He still has a lot to say.
That was sufficient sympathy from “The Bottom Of My Heart.”
Looking at it from the world of refrigeration,
just how rotten must our world seem?
So then, doesn’t the fate of our world depend on how we each use our “Refrigerators”? That’s what the owner of “Hof On A Hill” asked me.
As for when that was, it was around the time the opportunity had arisen for me to make a huge change in how I used my fridge. It was extremely natural. It was that feeling that says: the time has come. One day, I opened the refrigerator door and, inside, the usual landscape revealed itself. Two cans of beer, a jar of kimchi, a 1.5-liter carton of milk with its mouth agape, and a small carton of eggs. Standing there with my mouth agape, I thought:
This is insane.
It was a sight to shame all of humanity. To think that in this fantastic era of refrigeration, we have been wasting our refrigerators. Are we really this clueless? After a self-criticism session, I took everything out—the two cans of beer and the jar of kimchi and the carton of milk and the eggs—scrubbed the inside of the fridge until it gleamed, and made up my mind once and for all that, from now on, I would put my fridge to some loftier use. It’s my duty to humanity, I thought, as I poured the spoiled milk down the sink.
But despite my great determination, nothing brilliant came to mind. My indecision grew with each passing day. My friends were dismissive—What’s wrong with you, they said, it’s not a multiple-choice question. The older students regarded me with peaceful looks on their faces—Man, you’re more peace-loving than you look, they said. And the girls just got irritated because they thought I was no fun—Say something funny instead, they said. Mouth agape, I thought:
This is insane.
But it wasn’t for nothing. Like I said before, from the owner of “Hof On A Hill,” I was advised, “You Know, At Your Age, The Best Thing To Do Is Put As Much Into It As You Can.” From his wife I learned, “What About Stashing Away The Things That Matter Most To You? You’ll Be Able To Keep Them Much, Much Longer If They’re Refrigerated.” From the young librarian, I was recommended, “Shouldn’t You First Lock Up All The Evil In The World—Like America, For Example—You Know, For The Sake Of Humanity?” And from the owner of the record store where I shopped all the time, I received a small note. I don’t know, he said, just thought it might help. On the slip of paper were the following instructions written in letters no bigger than sesame seeds:
How To Put An Elephant In A Refrigerator
1. Open the door.
2. Put in the elephant.
3. Close the door.
“This’ll Be A Huge Help,” I said.
So in the end, I decided to stuff anything and everything into the fridge—precious things and things that might be evil—regardless of whether it was America or an elephant. I figured, at that rate, wouldn’t it fall under the category of “Put As Much Into It As You Can”?
The first item to go in was Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.” I thought it was a masterpiece, and the refrigerator didn’t seem to have any complaints about that decision. Like Armstrong taking his first step on the moon, I eased the book into the middle of the fridge. Don’t worry, it’ll all be fine. After reassuring Gulliver, who was looking around anxiously at this unfamiliar world, I gently closed the refrigerator door. Success. Now Gulliver would be preserved in cold storage for a long, long time. For the sake of humanity.
That was the beginning. After that, I read the great works of humankind—sometimes diligently and sometimes randomly—judged them, made my careful selections, and stacked them neatly inside the fridge. They were almost all books, with a few classic movies sandwiched in between.
One day, I woke up late and gazed around at my room with a clear head; as usual, the refrigerator, which was making his “Fantastic” noise, caught my attention. The great works of humankind were stacking up, and the fridge was churning away—at that moment, I had this strong feeling that something was going right. It was literally
the cold storage of fantasy.
One Sunday around that time, my father came to see me. Been a long time. Yes, father. Why don’t you come home anymore? I’ve been busy. I see, well, I have to talk to you about something. Not only did he drop by unexpectedly, he took his time beating around the bush. So what you’re trying to tell me is that you ran up a lot of debt? Yes, son, I suppose I am.
To make a long story short, it was an obscene amount of money, and if he couldn’t pay it back, then I would inherit the debt and, to make matters worse, it was all in US dollars. He said he’d spent it with his business partners. They don’t let just anyone into the country club, you know. You have no idea what it costs to stay on top year after year. Anyway, you all have to pull your own weight now, so sell anything you can and, you know, I was thinking maybe if there’s any gold lying around, we could pool it and sell it. What do you think?
I needed time. This “Father” was an awfully complicated being. Everyone calls it precious, but it’s clearly one of the evils of the world. What is wrong with this world?
Step one, I thought, and followed the procedure word for word. When I say I followed it word for word, I mean I literally (1) opened the door, (2) put in my father, and (3) closed the door. And with that, I successfully put my father in the fridge.
I thought the noise would be awful, but to my surprise, it was a quiet night. When I opened the door to see if he was frozen, I saw that he was reading. I asked if the temperature was okay, but instead of answering, he said, lot of good books in here. I’d asked the wrong question. In an administrative voice, I recited from the “Food and Drug Administration’s Recommended Temperatures For Refrigerating Food Items.” Milk (pasteurized), 0-10°C; beef, pork, and chicken, –2-0°C; fish and shellfish, 3-6°C; processed fish and meat products, 10°C and below; tofu and jelly, 0-10°C; fruit 3-6°C; vegetables (cabbage, lettuce), 7-10°C. Which one would you like? Does it say anything about humans? Nope. My father scratched his head and thought about it for a moment. I guess I would be meat, wouldn’t I? Meat.…After adjusting the temperature to -2°C,
I closed the door.
The next day, my mother came to see me. Or was it the school? Anyway, the order doesn’t matter since they both went in, one after the other. Plus, there wasn’t much difference between my mother and the school. Either way, my head was ringing from the fit she threw upon seeing last semester’s report card. Since I couldn’t do anything about it, I pulled a can of beer out of a drawer and took a swig. Look at you. What’d you put it in there for? It’s going to get warm. Why do you even bother having a fridge? I took another swig of the lukewarm beer and jerked open the refrigerator door. What went into the fridge wasn’t the beer. It was my mother.
I closed the door.
That night, while my mother and father were in cold storage, there was a massive meteor shower. It was such a rare occurrence that they were jabbering about it on the news. I sat by the window on the second floor of “Hof On A Hill” with the owner and watched hordes of falling meteors over beer.
How are your parents?
Maybe it’s all for the best.
Sure, I said and ate another piece of beef jerky. Sure enough, refrigeration is a huge blessing for humanity, the owner said. Ditto that, I thought.
Like I said, one after the other. I put in the school; the neighborhood office; a newspaper company; a video arcade; seven conglomerates; five police chiefs; children from an elementary school on a remote island; a Gyeonggi express bus; subway line two; five types of triangle kimbap; eleven broadcasting station production directors; fifty-one venture companies; two movie directors; three novelists; 192 factory heads; five company employees; thirty-one importers; two plastic surgeons; three singer/dancers; two drunks; one pigeon; three private money lenders; two pro-wrestlers; one chicken sexer; 1,800,000 unemployed people; 360,000 homeless people; sixty-seven members of the National Assembly; and the president.
It seems like I put them in randomly, but I followed a clear rule. The rule, of course, was to choose one of two things: something precious or something evil.
Now that I’ve written them all down, I feel like I threw in a whole meteor shower.
Of course, after that, quite a few things went into the fridge. Among those, the decisive one was “America.” My memory of exactly why I chose it has vanished, but I know it was around Christmas time. I was reading the newspaper and, before I could even stop to think about it, I opened the fridge, threw it in, and shut the door. This might be hard to believe, but as soon as “America” went in, the refrigerator became an “International Society.”
Hey, what happened to McDonald’s?
The record store owner, who had come by “Hof On A Hill” a few days later, rubbed his cold hands together and blew on them as he spoke. The one at that intersection. It’s gone. I’m not surprised, the pub owner said calmly. He doesn’t even go to school anymore. Really? Then what’s your plan?
The school’s gone.
I see. Now that you mention it, a lot of things have disappeared lately.
That day, the three of us drank beer together. Not only was it a cold day, it also happened to be both the last day of the year and the last day of the century. I see. So you just put it in, like putting in an elephant? The record store owner was in high spirits. I told you it would help. Hey,
all kinds of things happen in life.
True, a lot has happened over the last hundred years. For the coincidental reason that it was the last night of the century, we were each lost in thought. They say Hitler and Mussolini were the first hooligans. Is that so? Seems true. But what are you going to do about China? Why China? You don’t know? What?
They say if every single Chinese person jumped at the exact same time, the earth would split in half.
What? What would become of my earth then? No sooner did I think it than China was already in the fridge. What can I say? For a refrigerator, it was a fatal entrance. We found that out right away because, of the 1,268,100,000 Chinese people, the two who didn’t make it in showed up at the pub and lost their temper at us. Màn man de! Take it easy! The owner frantically offered them beer, and they started to calm down. Not knowing what else to do, I agreed to put the two Chinese guys into the industrial-size refrigerator at “Hof On A Hill.” So that’s how it works, the owner said, wiping the sweat from his forehead. Now isn’t that something?
That night, we drank a lot of beer before going home.
When I got back to my room, it was almost midnight. The refrigerator was waiting for me in the dark. Woo-oong. The noise struck me as especially arduous. Closing out the century is no easy feat for a refrigerator either, I thought, as I took off my coat. I changed my clothes, washed my face, brushed my teeth, and thought, should I stop, should I stop, and had made up my mind on the second refrain when I opened the fridge door. Though I’d expected as much, it had really happened—all of China was in there, except for just two people. They had no countermoves, I thought, my mouth agape. Everything was topsy-turvy. Even I couldn’t tell what was what anymore. It was
I spread out my blankets and lay down. A cold draft seeped in through a crack between the two windowpanes. The last night of the century was refrigerating our world. Just for tonight, the world will stop rotting, just for a little while, I thought.
I couldn’t sleep. The next century will have its share of problems, too. A lot of people will die, a lot will be born. Random, meaningless thoughts raced through my head and chased each other’s tails.
Where do the souls of the dead go?
Perhaps they go to outer space, where
souls are kept fresh in the refrigerator we call the stratosphere.
And when the time comes, they return to us again.
Anyway, that’s why I think
when they find their way back to us the next time around
we must greet them warmly,
because it must have been cold.
It must have been very cold.
At last, like a massive meteor shower, a long beautiful sleep descended upon my brain’s northern hemisphere. Camels walking across the Gobi Desert of my brain stared up at the horde of meteors that traced their long tails as they fell, and then they weakly lowered their necks again.
It was the last night of the century and, in the darkness, the fridge
was crying out louder than usual.
I opened my eyes the following morning. As always, first I was hungry, then I had to pee. I got out of bed no different than usual. But something was different. I wondered if it was because it was a new century, but that made no sense. What then? I peed, washed my face, and came back into the room. Immediately, I knew what it was.
The refrigerator was silent.
What in the world had happened? No matter how I strained my ears, all I could hear were the usual faint sounds of circulation from deep inside the refrigerator. What happened? My heart sank. What happened to the world? China? America? And my parents! I yanked the refrigerator door open.
To my surprise, it was empty
except for an immaculate white plate
set neatly in the middle of the fridge.
And on the plate
was a single slice of castella.
I picked the sponge cake up gingerly,
as if I were handling the world become one.
To my surprise, the warm,
soft, perfectly square cake
looked and felt real.
I took a small bite.
The sweet, delicate scent passed my nose and mouth
and spread all the way back to my Eustachian tube.
a taste that could forgive all things.
To my surprise,
as I chewed the soft, warm cake,
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Jae Won Chung for his thoughtful consultation on the selection and translation of this piece.