Recently, in my review of Your Republic is Calling You, I talked about how Kim Young-ha’s work, with some exceptions, hadn’t really hit the spot for me (and how his sometime collaborator, translator Chi-Young Kim, had so far impressed me even less…). However, I’m nothing if not fair, and I was determined to give the pair one last chance, especially as the book I had in mind was one I’d had my eye on for quite some time. So, was this to be the pair’s finest hour, or would it be another disappointment? Let’s find out…
I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is a novella set in mid-90s Seoul, a story in which a shadowy narrator talks about a group of young people going about their lives in the Korean capital. A man with a calm demeanour, he first talks us through his daily routine, frequently alluding to his ‘work’, before introducing the reader to one of his ‘clients’, a young woman known mainly by her nickname ‘Judith’.
As Judith bounces between two brothers, C and K, the writer portrays a woman who seems able to cope with anything life can throw at her, provided she has enough Chupa-Chups to hand. However, appearances can be deceiving. Judith’s life is far from happy, and her reason for meeting the narrator is to cure her problems – once and for all.
After the relative disappointments of Your Republic is Calling You and Black Flower, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself comes as a relief, a story I enjoyed from the very start. A dark, brooding piece full of end-of-millenium angst, it has much in common with works by writers like Park Min-gyu and Bae Suah, and it works much better than Kim’s longer, genre books. This appears to have transferred across to the translator’s work too – the writing here feels far clearer and more focused, the sparse style fitting the mood of the book.
While the narrator’s work is only revealed explicitly late in the book, it’s clear early on what his job entails:
“They call responding to my ad in the paper: “We listen to your problems.” Having read this simple sentence, they wait until nightfall to dial. I talk until early in the morning to people with various problems…”
p.8 (Harcourt Books, 2007)
In a city full of people tired of life, the narrator of the story has taken it upon himself to offer them a way out. He seeks out those who might need his help and counsels them through the path they are to follow, easing their way out of a tiring, depressing world.
Judith is not the only ‘client’ whose story is revealed, with the narrator relating encounters with two other women who cross his path. One is a nameless Hong Kong woman he meets on a holiday in Vienna, a former ‘mannequin’ who has fled a life of voyeurism and sexual domination. The other is a beautiful performance artist called Mimi, charismatic yet withdrawn, wondering where her art is taking her. All three of the women struggle with life, and all feel the urge to walk away from it all. The question is who will finally take the plunge – and how…
The book is also a story of two brothers, Judith’s lovers. Much of our time is spent with C, a video artist, a man cut off from the outside world by his cameras and screens (evoking the brother-in-law in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian). Naturally withdrawn, he has an odd relationship with Judith, one unlikely to be based on love or affection:
“She’s like mildew that has invaded his life. She’s the kind of mold that wouldn’t have appeared if he had lived austerely, the kind that breeds only in the dark, neglected corners of a building. She has infected his life, not caring what he wants. He hates himself for trudging through the snow looking for a woman who was having sex with his brother on the day their mother was buried.” (p.44)
C is unable to give himself fully, a fact that becomes evident when he later meets Mimi as well…
The younger brother, K, is very different. He’s the driver of one of Seoul’s notorious ‘bullet taxis’, a man longing for speed but destined never to reach the velocity he desires. K is unable to understand his brother, or the relationship he has with Judith, but he’s just as frustrated by his own limitations. In their own ways, the brothers are just as unhappy as the women they encounter.
There’s a distinct cinematic feel to the book, with C’s project merely one manifestation of the visual environment. Kim paints striking images of C and Judith stranded in the snow, K blistering down the highway at 180 km/h in the dark, and Mimi feverishly swinging her paint-splattered hair across a white canvas. This visual sensation is enhanced by the narrator’s frequent allusions to art. The three images he describes (Klimt’s Judith and Holofernes, Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus and David’s The Death of Marat) are all evocative and highly relevant to the story.
In short, this is a story of a society where death seems an attractive option. It explores the emptiness of life – cold, hard, impersonal, brutal -, and introduces the people suffering in its midst to a man who can make it all go away. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is an excellent reflection of a soulless modern society, and (I have to say) the cover’s pretty great too 😉 I’m very glad I gave the Kims another chance – it just goes to show that there’s always room for hope. It’s just a shame that nobody thought to say that to the characters…