Jikji, or Baegun Hwasang Chorok Buljo Jikji Simche Yogeuol, is a Korean anthology of Zen Buddhist teachings published during the Koryo dynasty. Printed in 1377, the Jikji is the earliest surviving product of the movable metal type. It is held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

“Tout personne est titulaire d’un patrimoine.”
—art. 2, Code civil du Québec


Dust blows from the Sahara and travels, through the prevailing winds, to the Republic of K. White masks purchased from small pharmacies in the capital provide a layer of protection against this dust, the condensation of breath gathering inside white cotton, humidifying it to make the barrier permeable. Such imperfections of division were, in essence, what the Bibliothèque Nationale had been referencing when it claimed that the French libraries were better suited to protect the Jikji, this proof of the universal heritage of humanity that deserved the protection of French climate control technology; French library protocol; the perfectly darkened enclosures of France. Because I had an aunt who lived in the Republic of K. who undoubtedly sold such masks in her pharmacy, this patrimonial disagreement pertained not only to the still recent memories I had of O. and her aspiration toward French culture – an aspiration that I had begun conceiving, however unfairly or inaccurately, shaped by my idiosyncratic understanding of pain, in terms of the broader project underway in Quebec to maintain its connections to France, the ceaseless maintenance of white infrastructure that took place in our favourite neighbourhoods of Montreal – but also, more improbably, that part of my life that I had imagined was uncontaminated by my memories of O., the interconnected fragments of family history that I tried to recombine with the scraps of free time that remained at the end of each day. It didn’t add up to much. The translation of the article on the patrimoine for which I was employed at the Centre de Recherche was now long overdue. The messages that I received from the director had grown, in recent weeks, terse and impatient, but I justified the office hours that I spent on the reconstruction project for the secondary benefits it might accord to my translation efforts. How could a translator properly work, I rehearsed asking the director, with a tone of indignation, without a full understanding of his relationship to the languages? I had not heard from O. in almost a year, but the humanizing discourses of the French librarians helped me understand the euphemisms she had employed to describe the reasons she did not foresee things continuing into the future. (In addition to future and things, she also spoke of momentum, problems of space and time; she spoke of missing pieces.) I wished to forget these memories and realize that version of the future from which she had deleted herself. My research into the Jikji would thus help my translation of the patrimoine. These scraps of history would reconstitute my knowledge of the French, a language that was first recorded inside my blood, the prestigious cadences lapsed and imperfectly transmitted by the French soldiers arriving at the shores of Gwanghwado, mouths closing over mouths, the proof of my universal heritage of humanity.

From the bay windows of the Victorian building that housed the research offices, one could enjoy a partial view of the side of Mont-Royal, and an implied view, in one’s mind, of the iron cross that overlooked the city, whose steel base resembled that of the Tour Eiffel. I occasionally looked up from the outdated computer station at the Centre de Recherche, trying to find a perfect line of sight between the two gaps of my past and beyond the obfuscations of other intersecting lines – that period of lost time in my family’s history from 1950 to 1953 and the gap in the historical record, between 1866 and 1886, when the Jikji might have first entered French possession. A few years after American state representatives consulted back issues of the National Geographic to draw the 38th parallel, dividing my family history into two clearly demarcated regions of the future, the printed characters of the Jikji would have, I thought, passed under the gloved hands of the librarians at the Bibliothèque Nationale as they catalogued the Henri Véver estate. If the division of my extended family attests to the transformative powers of representational drawing – the straight line at the 38th parallel becoming analogous to other such lines that appear in Soviet and American painting in the mid-twentieth century – then the printed characters of the Jikji, I believed, also possessed the ability to decode the incomprehensible chronology of my life. Victor Collin de Plancy had sold the Jikji to Henri Véver, the collector, in 1911 in exchange of 180 francs; the Bibliothèque Nationale had received it from the Véver estate in 1950, as part of his testament. Perhaps as a rehearsal of those problems of time and space, I attempted to reconstruct the twenty years from the French punitive campaign to Collin de Plancy’s instatement as the French minister to the Republic of K. During those years, the Jikji remained in the climate-controlled archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the city that so many of my colleagues yearned to visit. To hear it from them, the universal heritage of humanity lies not only in the document held in the Manuscrits Orientaux division, but is ensconced in every aspect of the city, from its architecture to the passing gestures of its denizens, the smallest details of the kind of life that is possible only there. I have heard argued that the leisurely attitude of the French regarding the relationship between life and work has an inescapable Frenchness (the extended lunch hours of Parisian bureaucrats described in novels that I began reading but could not finish) and that the liberated attitude toward politics one perceives there also has a specific Frenchness, particularly when compared to North America and those places that are neither North American nor European; I have heard similar theories about the inescapable Europeanness of other European places, as when someone who has recently returned from Sweden commends the Nordic attitude toward child-reading (they single-handedly invented the Babybjörn, for God’s sake), the physical beauty of Nordic people and their beautiful socialism, their wide adoption of cycling culture revealing a sense of stewardship and care of the environment, conjuring up the smoke, dust, and pollution that waft over the Oriental continent, held off by the invisible borders of a unified Europe.

The French diplomat had arrived on the Peninsula in his capacity as a foreign minister in 1884, envisioning a railway between Seoul and Uiju using French railway technology from Fives-Lille. Of course, no French railway has ever connected the cities of Seoul and Uiju; yet, the idea of the application of French technology through French diplomacy existed somewhere in the Jikji’s history, as an alternative vision of the past that included my grandparents’ hometowns in the French empire, a hypothetical example of the European interconnectedness that is so venerated by the tourists who travel the continent. On their return from Europe, these tourists often express astonishment about the ease with which one passes through the borders between countries (Germany, France, Switzerland), a fluidity made possible by the technology of the Fives-Lille corporation, which, in this alternative Peninsula of Victor Collin de Plancy’s colonial vision, would have connected those place-names that were now lost on one side of my family to the European continent. Although I felt a certain disgust at these celebrations of interconnectedness, I could not help but wish to be a part of it. A tourist who rides a train through this version of the French countryside might, if she were to fall asleep or consciously attenuate her indifference to that part of the world, wake up to find the train arriving in the town in which my grandparents had met, before the division of the Peninsula. Because of their unknown status, the towns that were never connected by the French rail technology enjoyed in my mind the simple geometry of farm landscapes that are made familiar to us by certain canonical paintings, although logic and history suggest that people lived and continue to live there. These lines intersected across acres of a land I could not imagine, an abstract shape constructed of shaded regions and one-way mirrors that contained, inside of its impervious structure, the hundreds of thousands of people who continued in their ordinary lives since my grandparents might have last seen them in the 1950s, their daily habits conducted not in their capacity as relatives to me, or, as implied by the questions my colleagues asked, people living under a particular political regime, but in a dailiness that existed merely as a form of dailiness, their invisible faces that looked like mine as it might in the half-reflected window of the train.

The uncertainty of the twenty years between the French punitive campaign and Victor Collin de Plancy’s arrival reminded me of the photographs taken from outer space of the Peninsula, which showed the yellow glow of the Republic of K., the network of highway, city, and information, against the constructed darkness of the D.P.R.K. When I saw such maps in childhood, the darkened area reminded me of a cushion separating the Republic of K. into an island, framed on one side by that darkness and what my colleagues today called the Sea of Japan on the other. Previously, the diplomat’s career had fallen into question – could you remind me of your real name? – when it was discovered that the diplomat’s father, a person whose work continues to cast a shadow over events today, had, it was discovered, appended the title de Plancy to the family name against the rules of French aristocracy, referring to Plancy-l’Abbaye (a minor region of France which nevertheless would invoke, in the minds of my colleagues, the charms of the French countryside to which they were eager to ingratiate themselves). Following the diplomat’s career, the Jikji would pass, through the robust rules of the transmission of property under the Napoleonic Code (the name that is passed down without change, and which, to the historic individual who is alive today, presents a rope connected to some darkened region in the past), passing to the jeweler and art collector of the Orient, Henri Véver, who, in his own will and testament, would transmit his possessions to the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1950, on the eve of the war that would separate the Peninsula into two parallel realities. This much I could easily ascertain from the Centre de Recherche in Quebec, another node of the French symbolic empire.

What I couldn’t discern was the connection between the Jikji and my own history – a connection that, I thought, against better judgment, would prove the universal heritage of humanity within me if it could only be described accurately enough. The modernizing efforts of Collin de Plancy were, undoubtedly, a continuation of the Hungarian and French Catholic missions of the nineteenth century, and the efforts to design a railway merely one current in a general flow that included the English lessons that my father had taken in the army and the English lessons that I had taken as a boy during my brief time in the Republic of K. – could you remind me of your real name, I imagined Victor Collin de Plancy being asked at the École des langues orientales vivantes – the English teacher who had, like the French diplomat, been on the Peninsula on some mission that was now lost, the window looking out onto the lights of nighttime Seoul, a city that, among the people I knew now, remained a symbol of historical division (as if the demilitarized zone were a landmark one could visit on a tour of postwar architecture or en route to a party around the Ringbahn) or simply a layover to another destination that was more frequently visited, Vietnam or Japan. I, too, have visited that country, I have heard world travelers say about the Republic of K., referring to extended layovers that were scheduled in Gimpo in the past and now in Incheon. I landed in Gimpo the way there and came from Incheon on the way back, these travelers might say, as if they had entered a room in a house by mistake, I experienced the history of the Peninsula in its entirety, from the roots of the old airport’s existence as Keijo New Airfield under Japanese occupation, built with the boulders that were carried over by manual labourers from neighbouring mountains and fields, to its fully modernized airport in Incheon, voted one of the best airports in the world. Having devoted a polite amount of time on the topic of the country that I came from, the traveler would then extricate himself from our conversation about airports to direct, across the circle, to someone who originally comes from Finland, questions about that country’s geography and culture. Was it a Nordic country, he might ask, as if he were suddenly relieved of a burden, or a Scandinavian country? These were places that, for reasons that were inscrutable to me, inspired a vigorous line of questioning, not to the political situation of a place but pertaining to the people, language, and food there, the half-remembered traditions of snatching puffins out of the sky and biting into their heads and baking Nordic breads whose recipes precede the global trade of sugar, that concentrated version of sweetness naturally found in berries indigenous to that region of the world, the berries’ tartness whose sugary enzymes would linger on the tongue as a faint aftertaste in their smiling bites. From the point of view of the tourist who visits the Republic of K. on a layover to somewhere else, landing for a few hours in the old airport that I still remembered, and, on the complicated route back, stopping over at the new airport made of glass, the country might have seemed to modernize between the three weeks that made up a trip to Vietnam or Japan, providing a glimpse of that wonderfully titillating experience of disorientation that my colleagues in the faculty celebrated in their discussions of global citizenship.

Improbably, even this limited vision of the Republic of K. – reduced to the old airport and the new airport and the transposed rocks that are around those air fields – seemed to contain my entire life, as those hours waiting in the respective air fields contains the view of the mountains that separate the halves of the Peninsula (the seasoned travelers in the faculty preferred to stay in one city over a week rather than string together multiple short visits, changing hotel rooms each night). In this way, it was as if the six months that a colleague spent in the Villa della Torre, studying sixteenth-century food and architecture (it was pure arrogance, this colleague said, describing his travels, to imagine that one can learn the ins and outs of Italian culture – a culture that spanned thousands of continuous years – in a week-long visit to that country, as so many visitors do, for it took a lifetime of dedicated eating, touring, and fornicating within a single small village simply to begin understanding its depth of culture), were telescoped into the three hours between airplanes experienced in the old airport and the new airport in the Republic of K., two places that seemed endpoints of my family history. Space itself seemed to transform according to the imagination of my colleagues. The airports that exist in the Orient behaved, in their minds, and therefore in my own, like ballrooms and apartments, places where coincidences are free to happen, where one might run into a friend or a neighbour unexpectedly, as in the story that I had once heard in my childhood, after my family had emigrated from the Republic of K., about a classmate who ran into the family of another classmate in the terminals of Narita International, the families approaching each other in the long concourse of the Japanese airport, and, unable to believe it, collapsing into laughter as the smiling women in kimono next to the duty free shops turned their painted faces to the family, the white neighbours laughing, shaking hands and hugging in astonishment at the coincidence, as in those passages of the Divina Commedia in which the poet looks down and recognizes distant cousins and old teachers in the preliminary stages of hell. This was the only part of the three-week tour of Japan the classmate seemed to remember, recounting his summer travel in front of the room at the teacher’s invitation (I pretended as if I had not visited the Republic of K. with my mother and my brother to visit my father, making up the story of an uneventful summer). By contrast, airports like Charles de Gaulle and Heathrow are rarely discussed other than as places of passing misery. They are not experienced as destinations intrinsically, but as pathways to somewhere else, a well-designed corridor exists to be forgotten, while the airports of the Orient can determine the traveler’s entire experience of a country.

I could imagine each of my colleagues passing through the airport in the Republic of K. as temporary visitors who would eventually make their way to somewhere else, conveyed from arrival to departure, the glass partitions of empty concourses, escalators that will continue to run into the middle of future nights. On the day that both sides of my extended family gathered at the airport tables, a temporary visitor to that country might have looked down from the continually moving steps as he was transported into a higher dimension of the structure and witnessed a scene that is remembered by no one else in my family who is alive, and which will be deleted through my work at the Centre de Recherche. In the scene, my grandmother from one side of the family asks my grandfather on the other side of the family, the author of our plans to leave the Republic of K., why he decided to disturb our lives. I don’t remember the particulars of his answer, though it involved some aspect of the collapsing economy, the freedom afforded by education, erziehung zur freiheit – even, improbably, the International Monetary Fund. What I could recover from this forgotten scene was not my grandfather’s answer but the question that incited the answer, I mean the timing of the question that incited the answer, delayed until the last moment. Minutes later, my parents, brother and I slipped behind the paper screen that blocked the view into the international security area, as a printed character disappears when a page is lifted and turned, bleached fibers tearing against the motion of the hand, the vaulting lines of steel that would remind someone, under different circumstances, of those great cathedrals of Europe, burned and rebuilt with international capital, as my brother and I take off our sneakers to board the airplane that will disappear into the atmosphere.

With a hand on the elastic railing of the rising escalator, the visitor looks down into the food court. He sees, through the layers of glass, the entirety of my life in that moment. The years are ground up in the unseen gears of the escalator and recombined into a passing impression that barely registers in his memory (I’ve been to the old airport and the new airport, the new airport is nice…). Outside the window he sees the edges of Gwanghado, where the French had arrived to the Peninsula on their punitive campaign, the pillaged documents attesting to my universal human heritage conveyed, through a pathway as unattractively tangled as my own, to the Bibliothèque Nationale, where the secular values of the Republic remain stored. In their peculiar practice of politics, my colleagues spoke of their split identities between the French and the English languages, a split that ran through the foundations of the faculty of law, which spoke to us in long flowing emails that would lurch suddenly into the French language partway through a paragraph or even a single sentence, tracing the airflow behind a jet’s passing wake or the air-conditioned chambers preserving the Jikji in the Manuscrits Orientaux division, a relatively unpopular section of the Bibliothèque Nationale which by that very fact was all the more essential, setting the stage for the discovery of the document by a librarian who was a foreigner in Paris the same way I was a foreigner in Montreal. In 1989, the French president had promised the return of the universal human heritage on the condition that French rail technology be sent to the Republic of K. in a second chance at transforming the infrastructure of the Peninsula in Victor Collin de Plancy’s vision (the portico installed at the Saint Antoine entrance of the metro Square-Victoria was, like O.’s distorted perception of me, a gift that originated in Paris). There never was a French railway in the Republic of K., but the universal human heritage remains in the archive, preserving the Frenchness that O. saw everywhere except for the places associated with me. The railway, she once said to me, remains an obsession of mine, recalling the journeys by train that she had taken across Europe, her national identity card proving European status and the steel interconnections below expanding the world in which I did not exist to more distant zones of the continent: fields of lavender blurring into olive groves and crumbling sections of Roman masonry, the lost cargo of the Mediterranean sea.

Jeff Noh was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1987, and grew up in New Jersey, New York, and Southern Alberta. He lives in Montreal, where he is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at McGill University. “Jikji” is an excerpt from his novel in progress.