In the depths of winter, a guest arrives at a small hotel in Sokcho, a provincial seaside town in South Korea, not far from the border with North Korea. Old Park’s hotel has seen better days and attracts few guests, especially at this time of year. A young woman who works in the hotel wonders what has brought the latest guest to this remote spot. As she books the newcomer in and shows him round the premises, she finds herself drawn to him, perhaps because he comes from the land of the French father she’s never met.
He arrived muffled up in a woollen coat.
He put his suitcase down at my feet and took off his knitted cap. Western face. Dark eyes. Hair combed to one side. He looked straight through me, without seeing me. With an air of lassitude, he asked me in English if he could stay for a few days while he looked around for something else. I gave him a registration form. He handed me his passport so I could fill in the form for him. Yan Kerrand, 1968, from Granville. A Frenchman. He seemed younger than in the photo, his cheeks less hollow. I held out my pencil for him to sign and he took a pen from his coat. While I was booking him in, he pulled off his gloves, placed them on the counter, scrutinised the dust, the cat figurine on the wall above the computer. I felt compelled, for the first time, to make excuses for myself. I wasn’t responsible for the run-down state of this place. I’d only been working there a month.
There were two buildings. The first housed the reception, kitchen, lounge, and guest rooms in a row, upstairs and down. Orange and green corridors, lit by blueish light bulbs. Old Park hadn’t moved on from the days after the war, when guests were lured like squid to the nets, dazzled by strings of blinking lights. From the boiler room, on clear days, I could see the beach stretching all the way to the Ulsan mountains, ballooning towards the sky like a matronly bosom. The second building was down a few alleyways, a traditional house on stilts updated to make the best of the two rooms with their heated floors and paper dividing walls. An internal courtyard with a frozen fountain, a bare chestnut tree. There was no mention of Old Park’s in the guide books. People washed up there by chance, when they’d had too much to drink or missed the last bus.
The computer froze. While it spluttered, I told the Frenchman what he needed to know about the day-to-day running of the hotel. Old Park usually did this. He wasn’t there that day. Breakfast from 5:00 a.m. to 10:00, in the kitchen adjoining the reception, through the sliding glass door. No charge for toast, butter, jam, coffee, tea, orange juice and milk. Fruit and yogurt extra, put a thousand won in the basket on top of the toaster. Items to be washed should be left in the machine at the end of the corridor on the ground floor; I’d take care of the laundry. Wifi code: ilovesokcho, all one word, no capitals. Convenience store open twenty-four hours a day, fifty metres down the road. Bus stop on the left just past the shop. Seoraksan National Park, one hour away, open all day until sunset. A good pair of boots recommended, for the snow. Bear in mind that Sokcho was a seaside resort. There wasn’t much to do in the winter.
Guests were few and far between at that time of year. A Japanese climber and a girl of about my age, fleeing from the capital to recover from plastic surgery to her face. She’d been there about two weeks, her boyfriend had just joined her for ten days. I’d put them all in the main house. Since Park’s wife died last year, the hotel had been operating at half strength. Park had cleared out the rooms upstairs. What with my room and Park’s, all the rooms were taken. The Frenchman could sleep in the annexe.
It was dark. We set off down a narrow alleyway past Mother Kim’s stall. Her pork balls gave off an aroma of garlic and drains that lingered in the mouth all the way down the street. Ice cracked beneath our feet. Pallid neon lights. We crossed a second alleyway and came to the front porch.
Kerrand slid the door open. Pink paint, plastic faux baroque mirror, desk, purple bedspread. His head brushed the ceiling, from wall to bed was no more than two steps for him. I’d given him the smallest room, to save on cleaning. The communal bathroom was across the courtyard, but he wouldn’t get wet, there was a covered walkway all around the house. It didn’t bother him anyway. He peered at the blemishes in the wallpaper, put down his case, handed me five thousand won. I tried to refuse it but he insisted, wearily.
By Elisa Shua Dusapin
Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins
This article was first published in the Autumn 2017 edition of Asymptote (www.asymptotejournal.com), a free award-winning online portal for world literature that has published work from a hundred languages and eighty countries.
Elisa Shua Dusapin was born in France and raised in Paris, Seoul, and Porrentruy, Switzerland. Winter in Sokcho (‘Hiver à Sokcho’) is her first novel. Published in 2016 to wide acclaim, it was awarded the Prix Robert Walser and the Prix Régine Desforges, and has been translated into Korean, Spanish, and German.
Aneesa Abbas Higgins is a London-based translator and writer. Her first published translation, What Became of the White Savage by François Garde (Dedalus, 2015), was the winner of a PEN Translates award.
Photo of Elisa Shua Dusapin © Romain Guélat