Written in London in the midst of World War II, Irish-British author Elizabeth Bowen’s short story “Mysterious Kôr” (1942) follows Pepita and her lover, a soldier named Arthur, who fantasize about taking refuge in an abandoned city called Kôr. Kôr refers to a city from a poem recited by Pepita, which represents an alternate, post-war version of London that is devoid of civilization but free of the endless strife plaguing Europe. The imaginary world Pepita and Arthur imagine together contrasts starkly with their reality: in London, they are neither alone nor free, and can only be together briefly, in the home Pepita shares with her friend Callie. The short story is well known for its powerful examples of irony
and its exploration of humanity’s ability to deny reality and alter its own memory in order to escape from suffering.
The story takes place on an unusually peaceful night in London, which for months has seen regular nightly bombings. Pepita and Arthur enter the scene; they have decided to go on a moonlit walk because there is nowhere else private for them to go. Pepita compares the silent London night to the abandoned city of Kôr, lamenting that she and Arthur cannot be alone together forever, for they are bound to their jobs and the demands of others. As she speaks of Kôr, the city around them takes on the appearance of this fantastical city. The illusion is short-lived; they inevitably return to Pepita’s cramped home and meet Callie.
Next, the story shifts to Callie’s perspective. She lies in bed, awake, listening for the sound of Arthur and Pepita returning home. A virgin, Callie does not fully understand why Arthur and Pepita want to spend time alone together. Nonetheless, she savors their love vicariously, interpreting it as a quasi-religious bond. Moonlight suddenly breaks into her room, and she connects the moonlit world outside to the unfamiliar realm of love. When they finally arrive in the apartment, they do so quietly, hoping to remain alone without interacting with Callie. Callie bolts out of bed, feeling a duty to be hospitable to her roommate and her guest. Arthur and Pepita quickly realize that Callie is unaware of their desire for each other. When Arthur leaves briefly, Pepita speaks harshly to Callie, who cries. After Pepita falls asleep, Callie and Arthur speak. Arthur talks about Pepita’s fixation on the city of Kôr, suggesting that it is an unfortunate hallucination and expressing doubt about his relationship with Pepita. However, he eventually agrees that Kôr is worth imagining when there is no real place for a couple to go.
The moonlight subsides, and with it, the shroud of mystery and hope that has embraced London lifts away. Telling Callie that he is too sleepy to continue philosophizing, Arthur goes to sleep on the couch. Pepita, falling asleep in bed, realizes that she has lost faith in the idea of love. She recalls Arthur saying that to be human is one of the worst possible lots in life, and realizes that being human during a war is even worse. While thrashing in her sleep, she accidentally strikes Callie in the face. Callie wakes, but Pepita continues dreaming. Callie imagines Pepita dreaming that she is still wandering through Kôr, clinging to its transient refuge.