‘Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories’ by Kim Young-ha (Review)

Diary of a Murderer: And Other StoriesI haven’t been able to read much Korean fiction this year, owing largely to one month of Japanese reading and two almost completely devoted to the Man Booker International Prize shadowing, but that’s about to change, with June having a distinct K-Lit focus.  I’ll be reviewing at least one book from Korea each week, with a mix of new books and classics, and that starts today with a recent release from a familiar face.  The main event here is a story narrated by an old man with memory issues – which is just as well given some of the things he’s done in the past.  This is a narrator that’s not just unreliable, but downright lethal…

Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories (translated by Krys Lee, electronic review copy courtesy of Mariner Books) is the latest work by the ever-versatile Kim Young-ha to make it into English.  While there are three other stories included, it’s the title piece that most readers will be here for, a short novella narrated by an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer’s.  Don’t feel too sympathetic, though – he probably deserves all he gets:

It’s been twenty-five years since I last murdered someone, or has it been twenty-six?  Anyway, it’s about that long ago.  What drove me back then wasn’t, as people usually assume, the urge to kill or some sexual perversion.  It was disappointment.  It was hope for a more perfect pleasure.  Each time I buried a victim, I repeated to myself: I can do better next time.
The very reason I stopped killing was because that hope vanished.

‘Diary of a Murderer’, p.5 (Mariner Books, 2019)

Our narrator, Kim Byeongsu, has no regrets, and is content to live out the rest of life in his remote house with a pleasant bamboo grove at the back (which has thrived on the bodies of Kim’s victims).

However, this ease of mind is threatened when he encounters a man in an SUV one dark night and notices blood dripping from the boot.  It takes a killer to know one, and Kim is convinced that Pak Jutae is a dangerous person indeed, so when he finds out that his adopted daughter Eunhui has a new partner, he’s horrified to find out that it’s Pak.  It looks as if the old man might have to make a comeback – if only he can keep his addled mind together long enough to remember who he’s supposed to bump off, and why…

Kim (the writer) loves to play around with different genres, and ‘Diary of a Murderer’ is a typically inventive, entertaining story that takes the figure of a serial killer and shows him in a different (if not altogether sympathetic light).  By placing the man’s daughter in danger, and by providing glimpses of his backstory, including his father’s abuse, the writer almost appears to be siding with the old man (and there will be many readers secretly urging the killer on).  At times, the story is less about the crime element and more about the struggles of an old man with his memory, forgetting faces and large swathes of time, having to be told what he said and did yesterday.  Reduced to writing himself notes and recording his intentions on a small MP3 player hung around his neck, Byeongsu does his best to remain lucid long enough to protect his daughter.

The story contains much of Kim’s usual playful nature, and the further in we get, the worse the old man’s memory gets – and the less we feel we can trust him.  The occasional inconsistencies that can often be glossed over become more and more frequent, and the reader is forced to consider how much of what we’re being told is actually true.  Of course, there’s the small matter of listening to the story of a mass murderer, but the possibility of the unreliable narrator is intertwined with a suspicion that Byeongsu isn’t actually lying to us on purpose – it’s just that he really doesn’t remember.  It’s all very cleverly done, and while at just over fifty pages it’s a little short to really impress, ‘Diary of a Murderer’ is a piece that most readers will enjoy.

Even the title suggests that the other stories here are included primarily to bump up the page count, but the three pieces supplementing the main story each have their own attraction.  ‘The Origin of Life’ continues the theme of violence with a story of a man catching up with a childhood friend, only to discover that she’s being beaten by her husband.  However, when another man starts to trail our friend, he wonders if he might be better off staying well out of the woman’s life – until, that is, he receives a teary phone call.

‘Missing Child’ covers a slightly different topic.  In this one, a couple are devastated when their infant son is abducted during a visit to the supermarket, with their relationship and careers put on hold in a desperate attempt to find him.  When they receive a phone call from the police ten years later, the initial feeling is one of celebration, yet the reality of the moment is somewhat different to their expectations:

The boy had a strong southern accent, which made him seem even more of a stranger.  Yunseok slid open the plastic door; he noticed the boy frown as he entered the narrow, moldy bathroom.  Yunseok flushed with embarrassment.  He had gotten used to putting life on hold.  He had delayed wallpapering the house and doing repairs, even neglected his annual health checkups, until they found Seongmin.  Problems piled up.  He never had enough time or money; printing costs for flyers and gas prices inevitably rose, never fell.
He waited for Seongmin.  He had so much he wanted to share with his son, but he didn’t know where to start.  He was ready to stay up day and night answering Seongmin’s questions, if he would just ask.  But Seongmin wasn’t interested.

‘Missing Child’, p.82

To make matters worse, the son who returns is far from the image they had in their minds all those years, and the man finds his life spiralling out of control.  This one is a chilling tale of what happens when what you’ve wanted for so long finally comes true, and then blows up in your face.

After such a depressing piece, I was in the mood for something a little lighter, and luckily the final story included here, ‘The Writer’, was the perfect remedy.  This one is a typical Kim Young-ha story, reminiscent of the slapstick style of ‘Whatever Happened to the Guy Stuck in the Elevator?’, with a series of scenes involving a lazy writer being pressured to get on with his next novel (by an editor who happens to be his ex-wife):

“So, any chance you’re working on something right now?”
This is her playing the role of editor.

“Well.  I’ve got some words down, but it’s still a secret.”
“It must be pretty good if it’s a secret.”
“I won’t know until I’m done.  Meanwhile, I’m working hard.”
All writers tell their editors the same lie.
“What is it?  I’ll keep it to myself.”
All editors pretend to believe what their writers say.
‘The Writer’, p.98

After a series of conversations with various friends, he somehow ends up in a grotty New York apartment, where the story gets really interesting.  I won’t give too much away, but let’s just say that it involves sex, drugs, guns and an intriguing way of putting an end to writer’s block (albeit one I wouldn’t recommend!).

Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories isn’t Kim’s best book in English (I’d probably still go with I Have the Right to Destroy Myself), but it’s a fun little collection of stories and a nice introduction to his work.  As was the case with Kim’s previous English-language release, I Hear Your Voice, Krys Lee has done an excellent job, and I hope that she’ll continue on translation duties as Kim deserves a consistent, competent voice in English (as is the case with Han Kang/Deborah Smith or Hwang Sok-yong/Sora Kim-Russell) to build up his profile.  I enjoyed this, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Kim’s work in the future – after suicide consultants, sleeper spies, migrants and serial killers, I wonder what else he’ll come up with 😉

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