Winner of the Munhakdongne Novel Award, South Korea's most prestigious literary prize.
Cabinet 13 looks exactly like any normal filing cabinet…Except this cabinet is filled with files on the ‘symptomers’, humans whose strange abilities and bizarre experiences might just mark the emergence of a new species.
But to Mr Kong, the harried office worker whose job it is to look after the cabinet, the symptomers are a headache; especially the one who won’t stop calling every day, asking to be turned into a cat.
A richly funny and fantastical novel about the strangeness at the heart of even the most everyday lives, from one of South Korea's most acclaimed novelists.
Translated by Sean Lin Halbert
Release date: October 12, 2021
Publisher: Angry Robot
Print pages: 400
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Listen to a sample
It is called Cabinet 13. But there is no particular reason for the number 13. It only means it’s the thirteenth cabinet from the left. This would probably be a better introduction if it had a fancier name. But then again, what would you expect from a cabinet?
There is no need to imagine anything grand. If by some chance you intend on reading this book to the end, it would be best if you rid yourself now of any fanciful or romantic expectations, because if you have such expectations, you will only see that or less.
No, this is an exceedingly ordinary cabinet. The kind that was in vogue in government office buildings during the 80s and 90s. It is an unsightly, dilapidated cabinet, mind you. The kind perfect for stashing away smelly gym clothes, lonely tennis shoes, deflated soccer balls, and expired documents. The sort of cabinet that requires no imagination to think of. Yes, that thing you just thought of now, despite saying to yourself, “No, you can’t mean this.” Yes, that. That is precisely the kind of cabinet we’re talking about.
WHY, LUDGER SYLBARIS, WHY?
May 8, 1902. Martinique.
It was here, on this island in the West Indies, that the most violent and powerful volcanic eruption of the last century occurred. When the eruption began, lava and fragments of volcanic rock were launched into the air at 200 kilometers per hour from the crater of Mount Pelée, which towered 1463 meters above the sea. Shortly following the explosion – which resulted from the buildup of high-pressured volcanic gases inside the volcano – the earth and rock that had once constituted the ash-covered summit of Mount Pelée began to fall on the southwestern face of the mountain, enveloping the beautiful city of Saint-Pierre, which stood only eight kilometers from the summit.
For the people of Saint-Pierre, the whole event was over in a blink of an eye. They didn’t even have the time to identify the source of the sound. Nor did they have the time to say in warning, “Papa, this is not time to be in the bathroom. Pelée just erupted!” They didn’t have the time to make tear-filled farewells such as the ones a grandma might say to her old and decrepit husband: “I know we had to live together out of necessity in this world, but in the afterlife let’s go our separate ways.” Nor did they have the time to gather their clothes hanging in the yard or jump out of the tub naked and throw on a robe before running for their lives. Sitting on the toilet or lying in the bathtub, unable to fulfill their promises, with perplexed eyes wide open – that’s how the people of Saint-Pierre were buried alive.
There had been several eruptions in the past, and there was always volcanic activity in the crater, but it never bothered the people of Saint-Pierre. In fact, because they held the absurd belief that the volcano was their protector, they looked at the smoke coming from the crater like a beautiful landscape painting. Every time a rumbling came from the faraway mountain, the grandmothers of Saint-Pierre would place their terrified granddaughters on their laps and rub them on the back, just as their grandmothers had done for them.
“My child, do not worry. The volcano will not harm us. In fact, it protects our town from the evil spirits. They say having a volcano next door is good fortune.”
But nothing fortunate came from the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée. Nearly all of the town’s 28,000 inhabitants died, including the tourists who had come from afar to see Martinique’s beautiful crater lake. Numerous flocks of sheep, and the dogs that chased those flocks of sheep, and lactating cows, and birds who couldn’t fly away fast enough, and wagons carrying milk, and the fountain in the town square that gave free droplets of water, and streets paved with fine rocks, and the church tower that rang its beautiful bells every hour – all of these were buried in ash, desperately hanging on to their last breath.
The thick, heavy lava marched down the mountain blanketing all of their possessions, and, as it dried, it transformed all of the memories, jealousy, joy, anger, and passion of the people of Saint-Pierre into a giant heap of stone.
But amidst this pandemonium, there was one person who miraculously survived: the prisoner Ludger Sylbaris. This sole survivor’s good fortune was thanks to a curious prison located in the middle of Saint-Pierre. Usually prisons that house vile inmates are located on the outskirts of a city or in some dark and damp underground pit. But not in Saint-Pierre; for some odd reason, they decided to erect a tower in the middle of the city, and at the very top of this tower, they put the most despicable prisoner in all of the town. Ironically, it seems that Ludger Sylbaris was saved by being a vile criminal.
The prison tower of Saint-Pierre was very tall. It soared forty-eight meters into the sky, and this dizzying height was enough that there was no need for iron bars on the prison windows, something all other prison windows needed. Indeed, for the last several hundred years, there wasn’t a single prisoner who was able to escape from that tower, despite it not having any bars. Of course, that’s not to say there weren’t escape attempts. In 1864, Andre Droppa the sailor, who was as brave as he was stupid, attempted to escape the prison. Droppa used bed sheets, prison clothes, underwear, belts, socks, and several towels to fashion a rope long and sturdy enough (or so he thought) to reach all the way to the base of the tower. A rope, in other words, that was at least forty-eight meters in length. In order to get materials for his foolish plan, he tore up all of the fabric he could find in his cell. And because he had torn up everything that had even a bit of fabric on it – that is, his pants, drawers, prison clothes, bed sheets, and blankets – he was forced to sit naked on the cold stone floor as he wove the rope. At night, a chilling sea breeze blew through the tower. Butt naked, Droppa endured the cold sea breeze and lonely night, thinking of the rosy future in which he would be sitting next to a beautiful woman as he ate hot beef soup and drank rum. Finally, when not a single thread of cloth was left in the cell and the rope had been finished, Droppa was so excited he was moved to tears.
It goes without saying that Droppa’s rope did not reach the ground. But with no more fabric to increase the length of the rope, Droppa naïvely thought to himself, “How short could it be? If I get to the end of the rope and I still haven’t reached the ground, I’ll just jump the remaining height!” and decided to go through with it anyway. Who knows? Such a plan might have even seemed feasible when he looked down from the top of the tower. But deciding to risk it all was the most foolish decision of the many foolish decisions Andre Droppa had made throughout his life. Sure enough, when Droppa got to the end of his rope, he realized that it wasn’t even half the length of the tower. And because of the layers upon layers of moss that had grown on the stone, there was no way he could climb back up the tower wall. As Droppa hung from his rope and struggled to not let go, he realized something.
“So this is why they don’t have bars on the windows!”
In the morning, it was the old shepherd taking his flock of sheep out to the mountains who discovered the prisoner wrapped up in his rope like a cocoon and hanging on for dear life. Looking at the spectacle, the old shepherd called out to Droppa.
“Andre! What are you doing up there? And why are you butt naked?”
Droppa tried to give the old shepherd a polite answer, but because he had been hanging on to the rope all night, not a single word was able to escape his throat. Instead, the only thing left his mouth before he plummeted to the ground and died was two grunts. Perhaps they were grunts of lament or resentment or regret. Indeed, what could he have said just before dying? I like to think he might have said something like this:
“You old coot! What kind of question is that in a time like this?”
After that incident, bars were installed in the windows of the prison tower of Saint-Pierre. But it wasn’t to prevent prison escapes; rather, it was to prevent the foolish conclusions that prisoners often came to when they were bored and stared at things for too long. In other words, it was to remind prisoners both that any rope they could fashion from their sheets and drawers wasn’t going to be long enough, and that things were much farther than they appeared.
* * *
French prisons treated prisoners like fine wine. Just as wine is aged in dark, damp cellars, criminals are aged in dark, damp cells until they become sweet and tart. But in Saint-Pierre, they treated prisoners like wet laundry or fish to be dried. They hung criminals up in high places where there was good sunlight and plenty of wind so that the dampness of their crimes would evaporate in the warmth of the sun and be blown away by the breeze.
Thanks to this, the people of Saint-Pierre were able to look up at the prison tower and see the town’s most vile and despicable human being every time they took a break from work and straightened their back or laughed so hard from a joke that they had to grab their stomach. Each time they did this, they would take turns saying mean things: “Even if you stabbed that man in the ass with a harpoon it wouldn’t be enough”; “They should castrate him and leave his balls out to dry so that he won’t be able to spread his bad seed”; “Why stop at that? You should cut off his dick while you’re at it and feed it to your dog Wally”; “Don’t say that about my dog. What did he ever to do deserve such a thing?”
To the people of Saint-Pierre, the prison tower was a symbol of evil, an object of scorn and resentment. It was also the source of all their misfortunes, both natural and manmade. If your pig ran away, you looked to the tower; if your daughter got pregnant, you looked to the tower; if you lost a wager, you looked to the tower. The people of Saint-Pierre blamed everything on the prisoner at the top of the tower – everything from the largest of natural disasters to the smallest of inconveniences. Whatever the reason, regardless of whether it was reasonable or not, all of the evil and bad things that happened in the town were hung on that one prisoner. The town’s priest would even say, “Why curse your neighbors, your lovely wife, your beautiful children? If you really want to curse something, just look to the tower!”
The cell at the top of the prison tower was almost never empty. And that was because if there was no prisoner in the tower, the entire town’s moral law would collapse – at least, that’s what the town’s elders thought. Not to mention the fact that people would become exceedingly bored. So, if there was no suitable successor for the current tenant, that inmate would sometimes have to spend a much longer sentence than he or she deserved – and this was despite the fact that they had probably already turned crispy from years of hanging on the windowsill to dry in the sun.
Now let’s return to the story of Ludger Sylbaris, the sole survivor of Saint-Pierre. Ludger Sylbaris was locked away in the prison tower for twenty-four long years. He was put in prison at the age of sixteen, and it wasn’t until he turned forty that he was able to leave its confines. In fact, he was only able to escape with the help of the volcano, and not because he had served out his sentence.
The charges against Ludger Sylbaris were for raping nuns and insulting a priest. They claimed that Ludger Sylbaris had snuck into the convent each night to rape several nuns and that he had insulted a priest in a public place. Despite admitting to the second charge, he denied to the end ever raping any nuns. But before Ludger Sylbaris had time to defend himself, the judge had already sentenced him to eighty years in prison.
In truth, the claims of rape against Ludger Sylbaris were dubious at best. The accusation of blasphemy also did not make much sense. Although insulting and shaking your fist at a priest in a public space was worthy of punishment, it wasn’t the type of thing for which you would lock up a sixteen-year-old for eighty years.
In spite of the charges’ ambiguous and nonsensical nature, Ludger Sylbaris was locked away in the prison tower for a total of twenty-four years. Then on May 8, 1902, Mount Pelée erupted. A mountain’s worth of volcanic ejecta and ash were spewed into the air, and Saint-Pierre was razed to the ground in a matter of seconds. Sticking his head through the iron bars of the tower, Ludger Sylbaris watched as the pyroclastic material from the summit of Mount Pelée engulfed all of Saint-Pierre’s 28,000 inhabitants. From that tower in the center of the carnage, he saw all of the city’s death and tragedy. And just before the tower was swallowed up by the poisonous steam from the lava, Ludger Sylbaris was saved in dramatic fashion.
How it was that the tower was able to survive the countless number of large and small pyroclastic projectiles that were flung across the sky, and how it was that Ludger Sylbaris was not suffocated by the volcanic gas, remains a mystery. For whatever reason, Ludger Sylbaris, who endured everyone’s hatred and ridicule from the top of that lonesome tower, was able to survive with the power granted to him by that very same hatred and ridicule. Because both the laws and customs that had defined his crimes and the people who remembered those crimes were all buried in lava and turned to stone, and because Ludger Sylbaris’ crimes were in turn also buried in lava and turned to stone, Ludger Sylbaris was now a free man.
Many journalists wanted to interview him, but Ludger Sylbaris would say nothing of what had occurred. Instead, quietly escaping through the disordered crevices created by the disaster, he disappeared into the night. From time to time, you could hear rumors about a miraculous survivor, but as with all things that garner the interest of the world, the existence of Ludger Sylbaris was soon forgotten.
Saint-Pierre was frozen in time. But Ludger Sylbaris’ watch kept ticking. He crossed over to Mexico. And there at the edge of a desert where no one lived, he lived in seclusion for thirty long years. By then, no one was even slightly interested in who Ludger Sylbaris was or what he had endured. But then, some ten years after his death, a book was published in his name in the state of Louisiana. The book – which was five hundred pages long, written in miniscule font, and titled The People of Saint-Pierre – recounted in detailed, calm prose from a relatively objective perspective the history of Saint-Pierre, the lives of its people, and the eruption of Mount Pelée. Ludger Sylbaris probably wrote the manuscript one section at a time, day by day over the duration of his thirty years in isolation. But in the pages of this book, there are several questionable sections. You could call them somewhat preposterous, or even illogical. Let’s take a look at one such section:
Father Cleore had a badger tail on his ass. Bishop Desmond also had a badger tail on his ass. Bishop Desmond’s tail was slightly larger and longer than Father Cleore’s. Because I only saw it from a distance, I couldn’t be sure whether they were really badger tails. They could have been flying squirrel tails or fox tails. Actually, so much time has passed that I now wonder if they weren’t wolf tails or hound tails. But regardless of what kind of tails they were, people should never have tails on their asses. I was only sixteen at the time, but I knew enough to know that badger tails only belong on the asses of badgers.
As Father Cleore and Bishop Desmond were standing in front of the holy cross, they rubbed their asses together and stuck their faces in each other’s butts and made grunting sounds as they took large whiffs, and when they got tired of that, they lay down and started fiddling with each other’s tails. It looked just like how monkeys pick at each other’s fur. As Bishop Desmond started petting Father Cleore’s tail, Father Cleore looked pleased and wagged his erect tail several times.
At that moment, the railing I was standing on lurched forward and let out a loud creak. Bishop Desmond looked my way. I was so scared I didn’t look back even once as I started to run out of the church. From behind me I could hear Bishop Desmond shouting at me. But I didn’t stop. I ran and ran until I reached the Zelkova tree on the hill. Shaking with fear, I waited there for my lover Alisa until night came. But when darkness fell, it wasn’t Alisa who came for me, but the police.
This wasn’t the only odd thing that Ludger Sylbaris wrote. He also wrote that the town butcher, Mr Billy, had four testes and two penises, and that because he was unable to suppress his huge sexual appetite, he used one penis for his wife and the other for the pig. There was also mention of the Daley family who, every other generation, gave birth to a child with talons. According to Ludger Sylbaris, to hide this fact from the world, the family cut off the toes when it was a boy and killed the baby when it was a girl, secretly burying the body in the family graveyard. These are just a few examples of the many stories about the eccentricities of the people of Saint-Pierre, each one being depicted in shockingly graphic detail.
Was this Ludger Sylbaris’ revenge? Was it his way of getting back at the people of Saint-Pierre who had ridiculed him and locked him away in a tower for twenty-four years for having done nothing?
Many believe so. They say it was Ludger Sylbaris’ pettiness and deranged desire for vengeance that wrote these stories. But I have a different opinion. After all, is this really how a man who spent thirty years as a recluse at the edge of world would think about the people from his hometown – people who were so tragically obliterated in a volcanic eruption?
“You locked me in a tower and spat at me. Good riddance! Now you’ll get a taste of your own medicine. I’m the only survivor of Saint-Pierre, so I’m going to pin badger tails on all of your asses. With this record of mine, you will all be remembered for eternity as priests who had badger tails stuck to their asses. Hahaha!”
Honestly, wouldn’t that be a little childish even for a man in his position?
I sometimes go into my study and take out The People of Saint-Pierre to read a few pages. Each time I do this I think about those thirty years Ludger Sylbaris spent away from people and what a lonesome life it must have been. A life in which all the people and places he knew had disappeared. A life in which there were never any visitors, nor anyone to ever visit. A life in which you grew corn and potatoes in a vegetable garden,
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