‘I Hear Your Voice’ by Kim Young-ha (Review)

Of the young(ish) Korean writers translated into English, Kim Young-ha has fared better than most, with several novels available from reputable American publishers and a few shorter works brought out in Korea floating around in second-hand bookshops (or in the form of bootleg PDFs in the digital realm).  To be honest, though, he’s never quite managed to make it into mainstream consciousness in a way that might have been expected after the positive reception of I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, so it’ll be interesting to see if his most recent work in English manages to relaunch him in the Anglosphere.  It’s the story of two boys, one city and a hell of a lot of motorbikes – so now that I’ve got your attention…

I Hear Your Voice (translated by Krys Lee, review copy courtesy of Mariner Books) focuses on the lives of Jae and Donggyu, two boys growing up in the Korean capital.  Despite coming from very different worlds, their paths cross when Jae and his adoptive mother move into one of the flats owned by Donggyu’s family.  The boys make an instant intimate connection, but events conspire to separate them, with Jae eventually ending up in an orphanage.

It’s only when he gets out and returns to the big city that the two youths meet again, with Donggyu gradually being drawn into his friend’s life in Seoul’s shadows, becoming part of a gang of motorcyclists who take over the streets of the capital after dark once the normal folk have abandoned them.  Jae’s legend starts to grow, and his gang rises in status until his position as the leader of the nightly cavalcades is unquestioned – at which point, Liberation Day rolls around, with plans for the biggest (illegal) motorcycle rally the city has ever seen…

I Hear Your Voice unrolls at its own pace, and we’re never quite sure where it’s going until we get there (and even then we’re not completely sure if we’ve arrived).  Told by a detached narrator, it’s the story of Jae, who from his humble beginnings (he’s born in the toilets of the Seoul Express Bus Terminal, a true Seoulite if ever there was one) rises through adversity, years at an orphanage and life on the streets to become a charismatic leader.  From an early age, his main character trait is empathy, and when he first meets Donggyu, who suffers from selective mutism for a short time, he becomes his mouthpiece, communicating his ideas to others.  This connection to people and objects only intensifies with age, enabling him to experience other people’s suffering:

“You felt pain?”
“I’m often in pain these days.  It feels like someone’s squeezing my heart, like it’s a dishtowel.”
“Do you think you’ve got heart problems or something?”
“There’s a pattern to it.  It doesn’t make a difference whether it’s an object, machine, animal, or human.  If a being experiences extreme suffering, I feel it too.”
Jae’s sunken eyes became shiny and glowed with an otherworldly energy.
“You just feel pain?”
“Happiness too, if they’re happy.  but that’s less common.  It’s usually pain.” (p.117)

This gift is what sets him apart, and when he decides to join the bikers in their nightly gatherings, people come to hear him speak.  His favourite book, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, guides his path, and we sense that the Christlike parallels in Jae’s story are no coincidence.

The character of Donggyu provides another side to the novel.  A fairly normal middle-class kid, he’s intrigued by what he sees when he re-enters Jae’s world, and we get to experience it through his eyes.  It’s a glimpse of the other Korea, the streets you don’t see in K-Dramas, with nightclub dancers and pizza delivery boys scrambling to make it to their destination  in thirty minutes (otherwise, they don’t get paid…).  As we take to the nighttime streets, we must be wary of the truck drivers speeding through the night, doped up on pills to help them avoid sleep – and then, of course, there are the biker gangs.

Perhaps the most confronting scenes in I Hear Your Voice come when Jae is on the streets and falls in with a group of young men living together in a house.  Many readers will struggle with this part of the novel, which is replete with casual, brutal violence, group sex and the rape of the schoolgirls they pick up.  It’s not easy reading, and yet the next day all is forgotten, and as it turns out, the youths end up living off the proceeds of the tricks the girls pull when they leave the house…

Jae must learn from his experiences, using the lessons in violence and suffering to lift himself in the hierarchy of the outcasts.  When he eventually becomes the leader of the bikers, he explains the reason for their actions by referring to their dissatisfaction with society:

“So what is it we’re feeling?  It’s rage.  Shit, it’s fucking rage.  That’s right, we’re so angry, we drive because we’re so pissed off, and what’re we angry about?  About this fucked-up world.  What’s the meaning of the root pok in pokju?  The root’s meaning is ‘violence’.  If you’re well behaved, you’re not a biker.  Only when we make a lot of noise, smash up signs, and bring traffic to a dead stop will the world notice us. (p.147)

It’s a matter of reclaiming the streets and putting fear into the hearts of the ‘normal’ people, and that’s exactly what they plan to do.  When the sun goes down, the downtrodden fight back, taking the streets from the rest of society.

The first book that came to mind after reading the first part of I Hear Your Voice was Ryū Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies, a novel that also follows a couple of boys growing up on the mean streets of a big city, but this one has all the hallmarks of Kim’s work.  He manages to skilfully blend the first person anecdotes, descriptions of Jae’s life and the narrator’s comments, with the sudden introduction of another main character half-way through (a policeman who is presented as Jae’s alter-ego,or nemesis) bringing a welcome change of pace.  Kim also manages to contrast the fates of the two main characters; as Jae’s fortunes rise, Donggyu begins to lose status, and this will have consequences for the dramatic climax, when thousands of bikers take to Seoul’s streets to face off with the police.

When reading Kim’s earlier books, I haven’t always been completely convinced by the translations, but I’d have to say that Krys Lee (author of a couple of books in her own right) has done an excellent job here.  I never felt the style faltering, and she manages to convey the almost cinematic feel that Kim enjoys using at times into her version of the text:

When I breathe in deeply, I can smell the hostess club even now.  Just down the stairs to the club’s basement location, the smells formed a wall that separated it from the rest of the world. (pp.20/1)

As was the case with I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, there’s a wonderful mixture of rather unpleasant scenes with excellent writing, pulling the reader onwards through Jae’s story, and luckily the English-language reader is able to experience it all.

I Hear Your Voice is a book I’d really like to try again soon, as I’m not sure I got it all first time around.  Is it mainly a description of another side of Seoul life or a portrait of a charismatic biker messiah?  It’s clearly a story of friendship and betrayal – and very entertaining, too.  It may not turn out to be the huge literary success that fans of Korean literature are hoping for, but I’m sure it’ll be popular with most readers who give it a go – and encourage the publishers to continue to publish Kim’s work 🙂

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