Elías Garcilazo is forty, comes from a moderately well-off family, wears Italian suits and considers himself something of a seducer. He is a writer, the kind who is ‘capable of winning a municipal prize or negotiating a spot on the cover of a cultural supplement’. Thoroughly mediocre, he is convinced, at forty, that there’s always time.
Except there isn’t, of course. But this is not a story about accepting – or rejecting – time and its ravages. No, instead, Sun-Woo is about an erotic abyss, a dark, stifling horror where imprisonment can provide release, and freedom is crippling.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Garcilazo celebrates some of his stories being translated into French by visiting Paris. He is unimpressed at the lack of enthusiasm at bookstores (he his fewer admirers and readers than he would like, and wants for critical appreciation. He likely deserves this neglect, though this is something he isn’t quite ready to admit to himself). At any rate, he goes ‘to the Far East’, specifically to South Korea, where he is lost among the unfamiliar foods, letters, signs, people.
Now here, a woman. She enters his life without fanfare, though she will soon come to encompass it totally. Sun-Woo is sitting across from him in an inexpensive restaurant, though she oozes sophistication and elegance. He’s swept up, and very soon they are engaging in passionate, hours-long sex.
He wakes the next morning alone. The door to the tiny apartment is locked, the windows are sealed, and there is food in the refrigerator to last some time. He cannot escape, and – decides he doesn’t really want to. Not yet. It’s striking how, at least initially, Garcilazo takes his imprisonment in his stride. He perceives it as freeing, and here Oliverio Coelho plays his hand:
He let out a bitter laugh: he had no time left to be a genius. Sun-Woo nodded, as if she understood. Forty years. Roberto Bolaño died at fifty. Ten years were not enough to cultivate a genius’ submissive state and die victim to an absurd disease. Ten years were not enough for his writing to warm his death. If he couldn’t be a genius, he at least could extend his life expectancy by giving up writing. He’d never thought of it before…
What to make of the man who was always going to be a genius, just not yet? When does ‘not yet’ turn into never? Earlier than you think, I expect, however horrible the realisation might be. Garcilazo, by being trapped in the sex dungeon of a mysterious Korean woman, is able to side-step all of this. He never needs to bother with any kind of self-actualization and instead can simply succumb to mouth, breast, vagina, orgasm. There’s nothing to it.
Garcilazo accepts all of this easily, too easily. He wonders, briefly, if anyone is, right now, reading his books while he is contained within the apartment. But then he forgets about it. He never panics or becomes overly concerned, and in fact remains quite calm throughout. His composure remains collected even when he is bound and blindfolded, and then sexually abused by two unknown women. Whatever alarm he may feel remains clinical, detached.
What does it mean to have a sudden escape from whatever ambition we have shackled ourselves to? Coelho seems to suggest that while there is relief, there’s no fulfillment, either. Garcilazo is as exactly as satisfied and content as he was beforehand, which is to say – not much. He’s a mediocre man living a thoroughly ordinary life, and has so little imagination, really, that falling victim to Sun-Woo reads as no more interesting than having a write-up about his work in a magazine, or boarding a plane to Europe in order to sample the riches of the Old World.
The story ends with Garcilazo injured and able to escape, and this is when, finally, his mind starts to break. To be free – whether again or at all – is a humbling burden, and perhaps its true that for far too many of us it’s simply too great a challenge. For Garcilazo it is. If he escapes his confinement then the clock starts again, and as he gets older the likelihood of replicating Bolaño’s success, of being recognised as a genius and valued highly for his work, becomes slim. And nobody wants to have to admit failure. It’s hard enough to fail an afternoon, or a day, or have a bad week. But the failure of a complete life? How can someone possibly admit that to themselves and continue living? Better, then, to accept your confinement in whatever form it takes.
Sun-Woo is a short story by Argentinean writer Oliverio Coelho, and was translated by Janet Hendrickson. This short story was published in the Open Letter collection, The Future is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction.
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