The boat

By Rebecca Giggs
UNHCR boat
UNHCR/Flickr

That was the year just passed, in which silence turned from an absence of information into a palpable presence – a character recruited into the national story by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Silence who balked in press conferences, shrugged at doorstops and sighed in the High Court’s public gallery. Silence who sucked its teeth, said no single thing on the end of the line, and put a hand over the microphone to mute the Minister. To talk around silence meant to talk indirectly: by which I mean, to talk with that curated misdirection known as spin.

It’s a kind of art, spin. Not one to believe in, though few would deny that the presence of silence was a creative agitator that year. Sometimes it felt that political language had become so blurred (spun like a globe on a pivot) that the poles of the public sphere were shifting beneath us. An inch, another. Magnetic, inaudible, irreversible. Those same statements whipping round and around: illegal maritime arrival, Operation Sovereign Borders, deterrent, illegal maritime arrival. At least, it seemed that way where I was: the queasiness of a center giving way underneath it all.

Exhausting, to hear only silence and guess at its taciturn gestures.

What would happen if you took that ethos of misdirection and tried to make it articulate differently – this was what I got to thinking about, not yet prepared to doubt art’s capacity in this context as 2014 closed down. Could you make a tool from misdirection that, acting on a spun world, in fact got closer to some kind of useful truth? (Tell it slant, Dickinson’s maxim.) So while I was listening for what wasn’t being said about the boats that weren’t being talked about, I also begun to pay attention to those that were. Boats that went down in Uganda, Bangladesh, South Korea, in lakes, oceans and rivers. Cruises, tankers, yachts and ferries. Only the ferries made the world news.

I heard that Captain Lee Joon-seok was not at the helm of the MV Sewol when the boat begun to cant into the Yellow Sea. The Third Mate – 25 years old, her first time commanding the bridge – shrunk from the controls. She screamed and did not stop screaming. I heard Lee was in his cabin. Ten minutes later, Lee told his passengers not to move. Two engineers shared a stumbling beer in a corridor grown steeper. No lifejackets were distributed, no lifeboats un-stowed. The expense of the crew’s safety training was recorded in one budget as US$2. This was the price of a paper certificate they filed in a drawer.

A high-school student phoned emergency services in South Korea while the freight deck flooded. Loose cars bumping against the bulkheads. 325 students were aboard: their annual field trip. I heard that afterwards, when 247 of those students had drowned along with 57 others, Lee did not identify himself to the coastguard as the Sewol’s captain. He abandoned the ship while people waited for direction. That student, raising the alarm? He didn’t survive. Though his school’s Vice Principal did, on land he took his own life.

The water was black but not icy. A landmass was dimly visible. Lee was among the first to be rescued. Others were “recovered” afterwards. Bodies, body-parts, that is. Turned blue on the seafloor, some were not recovered. For a long time the Sewol’s intercom broadcast, Do not move. Just stay where you are. It’s dangerous if you move, so just stay where you are. A bump in sea-time, the Sewol had sailed over the anniversary named Titanic – 102 years since that luxury ship’s cold April sinking. A superstitious date. And though the Sewol turned under on the 16th back across the date-line where the Titanic went down it remained a calendar day earlier. While the Sewol sunk then, rituals, wreaths, speeches and contemplations worldwide marked out more distant, historical deaths. It’s the yellow ribbon now, to remember the Sewol lying in the Yellow Sea. Lawyers petitioned on the death penalty for Lee. He’ll do 36 years. Less. As he’s 69, he’ll do the rest of his life.

What sense is tripped when a situation becomes un-rightable? Here in Australia, I have been trying to define the faculties that light that moment up. Below deck the theatre of the yaw is slower and more subtle. E.g. a fork slides, just a little, towards the glasses. Askew, a painting reveals the brighter edge of wallpaper beneath it. Tilt your head. Place the piece of cutlery back on its spot. How quickly we’ve adapted to a slanted life. An inch each day. Is it any wonder it feels like a farce? One part Charlie Chaplin, one part Roald Dahl to two parts George Orwell. Sometimes there’s a yell from above, though the message isn’t clear. In cabins meant for one or two (cabins that are, if we’re honest, plush like coffins or cots are plush) the captain’s voice repeats: stay where you are, it’s dangerous if you move. A machine’s voice. Of course it’s hard – in warm rooms, in a cozy bed or a bath that’s becoming a little deeper at one end – to sustain real empathy with the trauma of those people who you know are up there, out there, screaming. People who have already swung past the axis of no return. Who see their horizon tipping. It’s as if they were on another boat, some entirely other boat. You can see them sometimes, through the porthole: these other boats. Wood, fiberglass and tin. A dark flotilla. There’s no soundtrack to this dream. All drowned, in one way or another, people who steadfast refuse to go down with the ship. When you wake it takes a moment to settle into the fact that this vision isn’t true. They are us, and we are them. Some common humanity is degraded to call this struggling sea a dream. We’re all in the same boat.

The owner of the Sewol was known as “the millionaire with no face.” Before the Sewol I heard he’d started a cult. I heard he’d registered the domain-name God.com; patented types of gadgetry for colonics; gained a seventh-degree black belt in Taekwondo; run an organic lavender plantation; and exhibited his photographs at The Louvre in Paris. (Well. In a pavilion in a garden at The Louvre which he paid for.) He had a face naturally enough, and though he didn’t like to show it, the deduction – ergo: the man was free of vanity – is misplaced. See Yoo Byung-Eun online, one still-image; a light gold suit with a gold necktie and gold-rimmed glasses, satin hair. A headset, gold microphone, reaching its antennae around his soft, golden cheek. The colonic irrigation system he invented was housed in a gold casing. His name is still etched in gold on a marble wall of donors in a Parisian Museum.

When the boat went down, Yoo disappeared. The international manhunt proposed a six-figure reward. Then he turned up dead in a field.

It was a plum field. I heard the words “love like a dream” were handwritten in the lining of his bag, and that he carried a bottle of tablets made from desiccated sharks. One of his hands was supposed to be entirely decayed, the other was all dried out – as though he were stranded between a liquid world and a solid one. Yoo’s photographs (his artistic pseudonym: “Ahae”) speak to this state of intermediacy too, if you consider them, figuratively-speaking, slantwise. Yoo-Ahae shot 2.6 million photographs through one window. The photos are sentimental and a little kitsch – reeds in a river, birds in the clouds, that sort of thing. An artist’s statement posits that he didn’t want to disturb the landscape outside so he stayed indoors. Picture Yoo in the studio. It’s a quiet place. A little overwarm perhaps, he burns incense. Nature stays on one side of the window casement. Yoo stays on the other.

But what would Yoo have done if the ocean came crashing through the glass?

It took two and a half hours for the Sewol to sink. But after 15 minutes it was clear that it would. There’s a feeling in your stomach you can trust, a pocket of air flipping over. I guess what I’m saying is this: you have to get up and leave the cabin. Leave the studio to call out to say things have gone too far. Good captains are few and far between. In the story of the Sewol the golden industrialist turns into a dried out god, facing up to little. It’s a story we hear a lot of these days, though mutinies are still unpopular. Sitting down to dinner in a room that’s rolling, turning a cloth-ear to those voices from the sea; that kind of blitheness calls up the same qualities (ego, cowardice, self-interest, avarice) we fault Yoo and Lee for, doesn’t it?

“Love like a dream” that was Yoo’s hidden testament, and in dreams we’re so often silent, trying and failing to talk. That was the year silence hid screams in the water and hopes of a better polity. But love, love is not like a dream. And neither is rage, and neither is mercy.

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