박민규 The Sponge Cake
Translated (all the difficult work) by Ed Park, edited (the easy graft) by Charles Montgomery
(NOTE: We don’t have any rights to this story, so let’s just see what happens^^)
Indeed, it must have much to say at this very moment,
I mumbled, staring at the fridge.
Deep within myself I deeply sympathized with it.
Do you know how putrid the world is
if you see it from the eyes of a refrigerator?
In a past life this fridge must have been a hooligan
I, at least, suspect it must have been so. For instance, let’s imagine it is Brussels, Belgium, May 1985; the European Championship soccer game between Liverpool and Juventus. Hysterical English supporters make a mad dash toward the Italian seating. The fences collapse. 39 get trampled, literally 6 feet under. The hooligan is among the trampled.
When the hooligan comes to, he stands before St. Peter.
I fucking don’t believe this!
Untamable regrets, naturally, crash down upon his soul.
“I need to learn to chill out,” he thinks, “that’s what I need.”
St. Peter gives a suggestions: how about being a refrigerator?
Indeed! He slaps his knee. That has to be a worthwhile life! Consequently, the hooligan who once loved Liverpool is born again as a fridge. And after a few changes of hands, I own him. No matter what others might say, I think the fridge was once a man.
At times, I think of my first night with this…man.
It was a night filled with turmoil. At first I thought the fridge was just damn loud. Then, I was afraid that it was certain to explode into pieces. I became panicky and couldn’t sleep. Vvvooong, vvvooong. The fridge cranked out noise worthy of a smelter—it was dreadfully magnificent. I cautiously put my hands and ears on it and felt surges of magma gushing through its interior. I immediately unplugged it from the wall. 6 cans of beer, a large bottle of kimchi, and a container of half-empty walnut ice cream were in the fridge. The summer night was as hot as a steam pot.
Where the hell was the conscience of the guy who sold me this crap? I was as upset and mortified as an Italian football fan crushed under a toppled fence. All I wanted was to pay a visit to the used appliance store from which I bought the fridge and pummel down their night shutter, asking for my vindication in the form of a refund. Yet, I had an urgent business to attend to first—I had to eat the walnut ice cream before it melted! Because I couldn’t sleep much during the night, I ended up paying a visit to the used appliance store in the late afternoon of the next day. I suffered from diarrhea that reeked of walnut. To my dismay, the used appliance store was firmly shut, with a note on the shutter: RENOVATION.
When I returned to my studio unit, the pungent tang of kimchi had already permeated the room. It is what it is. Despairing, I plugged the fridge back into the wall. Vvvoooong. A ferocious blare—once again the hooligans began charging—resounded and shook the studio sheetrock walls as well as the outer brick fences. Why me? What the hell did I do wrong in my past life to deserve this? Had I been,, one of those Italians who met his untimely demise while rooting for Juventus?
Irregardless of my previous life, I ended up living with the fridge for more than 2 years. You may think that this is absurd, but that’s just how it turned out. That fucking used appliance store went bankrupt, which meant that I was stuck with the fridge. Once I realized that there would be no refund, I gave up and tried to get used to living with the noise. And the fridge was unbelievably sturdy. Was it really okay to live with?
It was okay, really.
I mean, it was okay because I could almost bury my loneliness in the noise. I lived alone, and no one visited me. Also, being a human being I am susceptible to desensitization and adaptation. I first met my fridge in the summer of my freshmen year in college. It was the hottest and muggiest summer I could remember. The temperature-humidity index was at a record high. I had some issues with my family at the time, so I rented a tiny studio unit near school. In this rat hole, I lived side by side with the fridge, a TV and mini audio system. But it felt as if I was only with the fridge because the overwhelming noise was rather…unique.
The studio was located on a very steep hill, about 300 meters away from the college. The incline of the hill discouraged anyone from paying a casual visit. Moreover, it was during the summer break, and, as I mentioned, the temperature-humidity index was the highest ever. I know that we are sitting on a steep hill, but the road is paved—why won’t they come around?
The owner of Hof on the Hill, which I frequented, harbored the same thoughts. He often spoke them out loud. Well, I don’t know. What do you think? I chewed on peanuts while massaging my calves, which had recently doubled in thickness. No one came up the hill during the summer, whether the temperature-humidity index was high or low.
I was lonely to the point of depression.
So, I became friends with the fridge. That’s how it was. Really, I felt less lonely because of that overpowering noise. At the Studio On The Hill, no one visited; it was just the two of us. Like it is with all friends, the fridge became a good friend once I got to know it better. There is no such a thing as an evil person, you know.
So, as unusual as it may be, I was the first person to make friends with a fridge since General Electric began manufacturing the world’s first modern refrigerators in 1926. I WAS the first! How negligent have we been towards refrigerators! Indeed, is there anyone who properly understands the significance of their existence? We tend to think that human beings are the only ones who occupy this whole wide world. But, if you pay just a bit of attention, you will certainly discover that a refrigerators exist right next you.
A refrigerator is the same as a person.
Perk up your ears and listen to the sound. Try to feel its existence—the flow of the coolant cycling from the compressor to thermo-exchanger via the condenser and evaporator. How miraculous that circulation is! I was captivated by this phenomenon from the moment my ears no longer regarded the sound as noise. Of course, I am not saying I was like that in the beginning. Then, I was more like, “what-in-the-hell-is-the-world-of-refrigeration?”
In fact, my initial reaction was a simple yet sincere desire to reduce the overwhelming noise the refrigerator made. In retrospect, the desire was selfish at best, but I admit that I called the manufacturer and asked for immediate repair service. Anyone would have done the same, wouldn’t they?
The service was immediate, but tediously long and exhaustive. The repairman checked the defroster, changed many parts and even cleaned the condenser coils. My studio became messy, and the afternoon heat of the dog day summer was becoming unbearable. The repairman ended up making 3 more visits to my place and made a different comment each time he left. The first day was it will be okay now, the second it’s just weird, the third why don’t you buy another one, and the fourth I’d better fucking find another job, in a voice that trailed off to a long sigh.
The noise did not die down at all.
Time flew and the second semester began, but I was still battling with the fridge. Like a boy who disassembles a radio and tries to put it back together, I endeavored to study everything about refrigerators. I started with the principles of refrigeration and then covered structure and repair. I even studied the history of refrigeration.
As odd and unexpected as it was, the world of refrigeration absorbed me. I was mesmerized in the new world I had found. I often skipped school and even forgot to go back home to wash my duffle bag full of laundry. How shall I put it…it was as if I abruptly fell into Alice’s rabbit-hole while walking around on the streets of a blindingly ignorant world, while being prone to saying things like, “What-the-hell-is-the-world-of-refrigeration?”
At the bottom of all this the dark, secretive and cool world of refrigeration unfolded, Like a cloud of freon gas, I slithered through the coils of the underworld during the daytime. I became a small patch of shining frost, and fell asleep stuck to a wall at night. It was the end of autumn when I finally found the exit from the underworld. The sun was blinding.
And the world looked completely different.
I was knee deep in the fridge for an entire week—I was neither eating nor sleeping. I diagnosed every detail, and contemplated all possible angles in fixing it. Still, the noise remained. I was as helpless as the previous technician in determining the cause. I was on the brink of giving in to my exhausted state and taking the approach that “I might as well buy another one” or “I’m done with this piece of shit.” But, then, I began seeing the situation from a totally different angle, different than that of service technicians: I saw the true world of refrigeration.
I understood that the refrigerator possessed a strong desire to speak.
Of course it did! This refrigerator was born with a strong desire to express itself because it had been a hooligan in its past life. The fridge was probably a vociferous person with a gregarious personality. I bet he had been the one who shouted, “Fuck them all” and led the riot. I am convinced of this no matter what others might say.
“Fuck them all!” How altruistic he must have been!!
And the history of refrigeration has been nothing more than a progrom against putrefaction and rotting.
We humans have long known that foodstuffs can be preserved for an extended period of time if kept cold. Chinese people achieved a primitive form of refrigeration one thousand years ago by using ice in their underground cellars. Technically speaking, one can say that the first refrigerator of humankind was the Earth itself.
Then, the Chinese in the 14th Century, and the Italians in the 17th Century, discovered that salt water kept at room temperature is slightly colder than plain water kept in the same condition. This is because the salt water takes away more heat from the surrounding than plain water when it evaporates. The finding, though primitive, marked the introduction of the modern refrigeration principle in human history.
Since then, much progress has been made. For instance, in 1834, Jacob Perkins invented a compressor that made ice, and earned a patent for inventing it. Perkins used the principle of compressed ether evaporating, hence taking away heat, and condensing back down through the coils to start the cycle again. His compressor later played a key role in the birth of a refrigerator.
In 1929, the General Electric Co. of the United States of America produced the world’s first airtight refrigerator. Since then, unceasing innovation drove towards the perfection of the modern refrigerator. In 1939, the freezer was separated from the fridge to form the basic shape of a refrigerator as we see them in our kitchens today. Along with numerous frozen entrées developed by Clarence Birdseye, this new type of domestic purpose refrigerators opened up a fantastic era of refrigeration.
The invention and distribution of refrigerators made huge contributions to the quality of our lives. The most important contribution is to keep us from certain diseases, such as food poisoning. With refrigerators, we can keep and eat fresh vegetables throughout the year. And we no longer need to preserve fish by salting, which is wonderful news to those who suffer high blood pressure. The fridge has allowed us a healthier lifestyle—with it, modern men have won the war against decay. I mean, it was a fantastic victory. I do not agree with those who look at the 20th Century as the Cold War era. The single most important achievement of the mankind in the 20th Century was the incredible technology of refrigeration. I mean, HALELUIYA! The 20th Century has been the Era of Refrigeration.
A world-renowned scholar on refrigeration, Theodore Angle said as much in his book, The Era of Fantastic Refrigeration. It is absolutely true. Now that I know, I realize that I have been living in the Era of Fantastic Refrigeration, without ever paying due appreciation to it.
Hence, I began acknowledging from deep within the powerful voice of him, the refrigerator. Of course, I was serious about my acknowledgement. With the history he has, I’d say he has more bragging rights than I.
Certainly, he must still have lots to say.
I muttered this, admiring the human-doppelganger.
It was truly a sympathy from deep within.
How putrid this world must look,
through the eyes of this refrigerator!
So, the fate of world depends on, let’s say, how people use their fridge, doesn’t it? The owner of Hof on the Hill once asked me.
It was at that moment that I made a quantum leap in understanding the true use of a refrigerator. I mean, it was only a natural progression, almost an evolution, of my perspectives: You know, come what it may! …and it did. One day, I opened the fridge door, and found the contents pitifully ordinary: two cans of beer, a container full of kimchi, a 1.5 liter milk carton, (with its mouth open wide), and a row of eggs. My jaw dropped in utter dismay:
Slap me hard and call me Charlie!
It was the most pitiful sight I could imagine. In the Era of Fantastic Refrigeration, the only use I had for my fridge was just…that? Was I that preposterous a person? I slapped my own cheeks and took out the beer cans, kimchi container, milk carton and eggs. I polished outside of the fridge until it shined. And all the while I told myself repeatedly that I would, from now on, use my refrigerator in a manner that befitted its destiny. That is the least I can do for all mankind. I steeled myself as I poured the spoiled milk down the sink drain.
Then, again, even with such lofty determination, I couldn’t immediately think of a good use for my refrigerator. The agony of trying to find a noble use for it deepened each day. My friends, of course, denied my suffering itself on the grounds that the answer I sought couldn’t be found in a multiple-choice format. My school seniors simply thought I had too much time on my hands. And girls were pissed off over my earnest anguish, because it wasn’t about them. They asked me to tell them jokes instead. Their ignorance baffled me.
I should slap them hard and call them all Charlies!
The cause, however, wasn’t entirely lost. I did receive some valuable advice. For example, as I mentioned earlier, the owner of Hof on the Hill advised to try to put anything in it— he said that considering my age experimenting with the contents would prove more good than bad. Also, the landlady told me to keep what is really important in the fridge because low temperatures might help the important stuff last longer. A young reference librarian advised me to use the fridge to contain the evils of the world, such as the United States, if, indeed, its use was for the world. Most importantly, the owner of a record store where I frequented gave me a small note. He said it might help. Small letters were written on it with the utmost care, as one would use when engraving letters on a grain of rice. The note read:
How to put an elephant in a refrigerator
- Open the door
- Put the elephant in
- Close the door
This will be extremely helpful, I answered him.
Consequently, I decided to put anything that was either very important for, or very evil to, the world into the refrigerator; regardless of whether that ‘anything’ were to be the United States or an elephant. Such a standard, I thought, would also certainly qualify as being ‘experimental.’
The first item was Gulliver’s Travel, by Jonathan Swift. I put it in because it is the epitome of what I think of as a masterpiece. The refrigerator didn’t seem to have a particular objection to my choice. I put the book in the dead center of the fridge with the utmost care, like Mr. Armstrong taking his first step on the moon. Don’t worry. Everything will be okay. I reassured Mr. Gulliver who looked around the strange world with bewilderment in his eyes. And, then, I carefully closed the refrigerator door. It was a success: Mr. Gulliver will forever be preserved in a refrigerated state for humanity.
That was only the beginning. Since then, I read, evaluated, and, with the strictest criteria, chose some of the masterpieces of mankind and stored them in my fridge. My progress was diligent at times and sporadic at others. Most of the masterpieces were books, and I remember including a few movies as well.
One day, I woke up from a restful nap and looked around my room with fresh eyes and ears. The ‘fantastic’ noise and the reassuring look of the fridge permeated my senses. With those masterpieces of mankind accumulating in its belly, the fridge was running powerfully as ever. At that moment, I was enveloped in a strong sensation that everything was how it is supposed to be.
Everything was completely in the ‘Fantastic Refrigeration’ zone.
It was one of those many Sundays when my father visited me.
It’s been a long time.
Why aren’t you dropping by home at all lately?
I’ve been busy. I see. I came to see you because we need to talk.
He then related to me a series of his recent experiences that circled around fruitlessly.
So you are saying that you are deep in debt, right?
Yeah, he said, it ended up that way.
The amount of his debt was beyond anyone’s imagination. As far as I could tell, I might end up with the liability in case my father were to die before paying it off. On top of that, the debt was in U.S. currency. So iff the exchange rate were ever to shoot up, I would be fucked double time.
I had to chip in for my business partners…and the Country Club membership was not free, you know. And being a responsible head of the household takes a lot of spending in more ways than you could comprehend. At any rate, you may need to bear some liability in this. So, I was thinking, maybe we should sell what we can and put together some cash or gold you may have…what do you think about that?
I needed some time to think because any issue involving a Father (as in, “I am your father” as the Dark Lord puts it so eloquently) is always a very complicated issue. A Father is, of course, an important person to everyone, but he can clearly be an evil force as well. What a devil’s advocate he is!
I decided to follow the ‘elephant’ procedure; literally, 1) open the door 2) put my father in , 3 close the door. That’s how I succeeded in storing my father in the fridge.
I suspected the night might be rowdy with my father in the fridge, but it turned out to be very quiet. I became worried that he might have died of hypothermia. I opened the door to check, and I found him reading the books.
Are…you cold? Is the temperature okay?
He answered in a mocking tone that there were lots of good books to read. I shouldn’t even have asked, let alone checked on him. In a rather administrative tone, I read out loud the FDA Recommended Temperature for Storing Food Products: the optimal temperature for milk (pasteurized) is 0~10ºC, beef, pork and chicken –2~0ºC, fish and shells 3~6ºC, processed fish product 10ºC or below, tofu and other gelatin products 0~10ºC, fruits 3~6ºC, vegetable (green lettuce) 7~10ºC.
Now which of these temperature setting would you prefer?
Well…isn’t there a setting for humans?
He weighed his options for a while, then made his choice: Wouldn’t it be close to the meats? The meats, of course…I set the temperature at -2ºC.
Then I closed the door.
Mother came to see me the next day. Or, was it the school? Well, the sequence didn’t matter because they all eventually went in, one after another. Now that I think about it, I don’t see much difference between a mother and a school. Whichever the order was, I remember having a terrible headache when Mother started nagging me over my GPA. Out of my frustration and headache, I took a beer from my desk drawer and drank it.
See, what I mean, she asked? Why do you keep your beer in the drawer? What do you use your fridge for?
After chugging the warm bear, I opened the fridge door. What went in there was not my beer, but my mother.
I shut the door.
Later that day, with both of my parents in the fridge, there was a large-scale meteorite shower. The scale was so large that TV stations were featuring it. I watched groups of falling stars with the owner of Hof on the Hill in his bar, second floor window table. We had some beer.
How are your parents?
Maybe it was for the better.
Indeed, I told him and shoved a large piece of beef jerky in my mouth.
Refrigeration is definitely a blessing for all mankind, he muttered.
I feel the same way, I thought to myself. I feel the same way.
As I mentioned, the process was sequential. I put the school in the fridge. Then, I put in a local district government office, 1 newspaper company, 1 game arcade, 7 conglomerate headquarters, 5 police commissioners, a group of elementary school students from a remote island, 1 bus from the Kyunggi Transportation Company, 1 train from #2 subway line, 5 types of seaweed-wrapped triangular rice balls, 11 production directors of broadcasting companies, 51 dot-com companies, 2 movie directors, 3 authors, 192 factory managers, 5 salary men, 31 importers, 2 plastic surgeons, 3 pop-singers, 2 drunkards, 1 pigeon, 3 loan sharks, 2 professional wrestlers, 1 chicken sexer, 1.8 million unemployed, 360,000 homeless, and 67 Congressmen and Presidents.
The list may look rather random. But it is not so. I definitely adhered to the core principle: preserve what is important for, or put away what is evil to, the world.
Still, the list seems quite as exhaustive as the groups of shooting stars I saw that night.
Many more things, of course, have been stored since I first made the list. In particular, I stored the United States. I don’t quite recall the exact reason for it, but I remember closing the door after popping it in there. Was it around Christmas time? I was reading a newspaper, and, on the spur of the moment, I opened the fridge door, put the U.S. in, and closed the door. You might not believe this, but when the U.S. entered, the fridge instantaneously became an international community.
Hey, what happened to the McDonald’s?
The record-store owner asked me this when he dropped by the Hof on the Hill. He was rubbing his frozen hands and blowing on them.
You know, the one at the intersection. It has disappeared.
The Hof owner responded indifferently: I believe it. He must have been very busy because he doesn’t even go to school anymore.
Really? What are you going to do now?
The school disappeared, too, you know.
I see. Lots of things have vanished lately, now that I think about it.
Three of us drank together that cold day. Ironically, it was the last day of the year, as well as the last day of the century.
I see. So you put it in like you would an elephant? The record-store owner sounded immensely delighted at my collection. Didn’t I tell you that the memo would help a lot?
I guess crazy things DO happen.
That’s true. Many extraordinary things have happened in the last 100 years, too.
All three of us were melancholy and solemn as anyone would be on the last day of the century. I heard that the first hooligans ever were Hitler and Mussolini.
Really? I can see that. Interesting. By the way, what are you going to do with China?
What about China?
Don’t you know?
The Earth would break in half if all the Chinese people jumped up and then landed at exactly the same time.
What the fuck are they trying to do to my planet? Who do they think they are? I only had to think this thought, and China was already in the fridge. And with that, the fridge was too full. I knew that only because 2 Chinese out of the 1 billion 268 million 100 thousand of them came to the Hof, complaining that they couldn’t get in the fridge with the others.
Knee how, knee how! The owner did his best to appease them. The two drank beer, and that seemed to put them in a better mood. I had no choice but to put them in the walk-in refrigerator behind the bar.
Wow, you can do that, too? Not bad! The Hof owner wiped the sweat off his brow.
We parted that night after drinking like fish.
It was near midnight when I returned to my room. The refrigerator was waiting for me in the darkness. Its powerful noise sounded quite belabored. Digesting the last 100 years in one night is probably not an easy task, I bet. Not even for this fridge. I took off my coat, washed my face and brushed teeth. Then I resisted, twice, the urge to open the door to see China in there. Then, at the third urge, I pulled on the door bar. It was as I expected it to be: All of China, except for the two people, was packed in it. Seeing it in person, however, left me speechless. It was just a mess in there. I didn’t know what to do or think, or…yeesh!
It was a world in itself.
I unfolded the comforter and lay down. Frosty wind leaked in through the crack between the window frames. The very last night of the century was refrigerating our world with its frostiness. Perhaps, the world would stop rotting just for tonight.
I couldn’t sleep. The next century would be eventful, I was sure. Many would die, and many more would be born. All kinds of thoughts jumbled up inside my head.
Where do the souls of the dead go?
Perhaps they go up to the outer space because the souls
Will be preserved better in the fridge called the stratosphere.
Then, when the time is right, they will return back to us.
I’ll warmly welcome everyone
Who returns to us in the next Century
Because they must have been cold,
Very cold up there.
Eventually, like a group of large meteors trailing their tails across the night sky of the northern hemisphere, sleep descended on my brain. The camels that walked the Gobi desert of my gray matter gazed upon the meteor tails and wearily dropped their heads.
It was the last night of the Century.
In the darkness, the refrigerator vooo-ed louder than ever.
I woke up the next morning. As it had always been, my stomach was empty and my bladder full—a usual routine. But, something felt out of place. Is it the new century? No, way. What is it, then? I realized what was wrong the instant I came back from the bathroom.
The refrigerator was quiet.
What the hell happened? I pressed my ears to the metal, and all I heard was a faint sound of circulation through the coils. The sound was as weak as any other refrigerator. What the fuck…? My heart dropped to my stomach. What the fuck happened to the world inside? China, America…and my parents?! I yanked open the door.
The inside was empty
except for a white saucer
in the center.
And on the saucer
was a piece of sponge cake.
As if handling the world itself,
I cautiously picked up the cake.
The surprisingly warm,
smooth and soft cube reached me
through my hands and eyes.
I sank my teeth into it.
The sweet and creamy aroma spread through my mouth, nose
and reached even my Eustachian tubes
That was the taste which
can forgive all sins.
as I chomped on it, I found myself