I’ve just finished reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms again but this time as an e-book. I used to have a copy, but I must’ve lent it to someone and forgotten who it was. I wouldn’t have thrown it away because it had sentimental (or rather, personally historical) value. I was given the book as a “farewell and good luck with the Army predicament” present by a co-worker at the hagwon I was working at during my first year in Korea. I started drinking heavily once I found out I had to go, and I shared my plan of escaping to Japan to John over many a glass of soju.
I wish I had read the book while I was writing the memoir. I had meant to, but I couldn’t find my copy of the book and would often get distracted while I was looking and forget all about it. The aspect of the book that I think would have been helpful is Hemingway’s descriptions of the setting and background. Too often as I read, I thought to myself, “Damn, I wish I could write like this.” I’d post some examples, but there are too many to choose from. It caused me to think about how successful I was in describing the setting in the book, settings which were so utterly nondescript and unremarkable to me at the time. Without reading over my book again (I’m so sick of reading it), I know that I could’ve done better.
The book was meant to be a source of inspiration for me. It was probably around November 2003, and I was fired a month before my contract ended so that the hagwon wouldn’t have to pay me my one month’s severance. I was in the process of talks with a recruiter at the US Army garrison at Yongsan, but prior to that, I had been seriously considering escaping under the cover of night by boat to Japan. I heard that there was immigration on the ferry so the order preventing me from leaving the country meant that the ferry wasn’t an option. I’d have to go down to the southeastern coast and try to bribe a fisherman to take me or buy a boat and navigate the channel on my own, avoiding the Korean navy/coast guard.* A motorboat would be preferable, but I hadn’t saved much money so I might have had to row the 50 kilometers to Japan,** assuming I navigated correctly and managed to row in a straight line.
In A Farewell to Arms, the protagonist Lieutenant (Ital. “Tenente”) Frederic Henry is an American serving in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army during the First World War. In the fourth section, he makes the decision to row the 35 kilometers to Switzerland under the cover of night to leave behind the Italy and the war. An American in a foreign army who is plotting to escape the service by rowing to a neutral country, it resounded with me at the time, and a similar situation arose when I was in Afghanistan and offered a trip to the US embassy in Kabul. In that case, my rowboat would have been the trunk of the American officer’s car.
Needless to say, I never followed through with the plan. The process with the US Army was going well, assurances were made, and so I didn’t re-visit the plan in my mind until I was stopped at Osan Air Base and I had less than 48 hours until I was supposed to report for military service in Korea. At that point, I figured I didn’t have enough time to figure out the logistics of the plan. I didn’t have much money, and I had no idea how to find the people I needed to find and to explain that I wanted to be smuggled out of country or just buy a boat with my extremely limited Korean. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had thrown that Hail Mary. That would’ve been a book in itself.
* This part of the plot is more similar to the plot of another Hemingway book, To Have or Have Not, in which the protagonist Harry Morgan runs contraband between Cuba and Florida. Of course, the fisherman would have been Harry Morgan, and I would have been one of the Cubans who pay to be smuggled to Florida.
** The shortest distance between Korea is between Busan and Tsushima Island, which actually lies in the middle of the Korea Strait. It is still far from the four main islands of Japan, but all I would have had to do is make it into Japanese territory, away from Korean jurisdiction.