‘The Catcher in the Loft’ by Ch’ŏn Un-yŏng (Review)

With the stunning success of the Korean movie Parasite at the Academy awards and BTS’ continued march towards global musical domination, you could be forgiven for thinking that South Korea is a magical paradise with music and celebrities on every corner.  Of course, if you actually watch Parasite, you’ll know that this is very much not the case, and this is just as true for the country’s recent past as it is for its present.  Back in the 1980s, despite the apparent improvements in society, some rather nasty things were going on, and today’s book attempts to bring all of this darkness to the surface.

Ch’ŏn Un-yŏng’s The Catcher in the Loft (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of Codhill Press) takes us back to Seoul in the late 1980s.  Here we are introduced to Sŏn, a young woman preparing to start university.  Celebrating with her proud mum, she wishes her absent Dad, who is working hard away from home, could be there to enjoy the occasion.

But where is her father, and what exactly does he do?

It’s a thing of beauty.  Inevitably.  You’ll see – mastery of technique is beautiful, and triumph makes beauty its own.  And absolute triumph requires unconditional surrender.
p.1 (Forsythia, 2019)

Well, as it turns out, he’s a torturer working for the government, an expert in making ‘reds’ crack in these anti-communist (and anyone else who doubts the government) times.  Sadly (for him), though, an error on the part of one of his underlings brings severe repercussions, and his face and identity are made public.  Suddenly, he’s the one being pursued, and after a failed effort at hiding away outside the city, he decides that it’s time to head home – to his family…

The 1980s in South Korea was a time of stark contrasts.  The country made huge economic strides, and the hosting of the 1988 Seoul Olympics took national pride to new heights, but the decade also witnessed mass protests against government harshness and police brutality, with any hint of opposition seen as communist meddling and treated ‘appropriately’.  In much Korean literature (such as in Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll Be Right There, or in Hwang Sok-yong’s The Old Garden), we see these times through the eyes of the ordinary people.  The Catcher in the Loft takes a different stance, examining a family on the other side of the fence in a story inspired by a real-life example.

The novel consists of two accounts told in alternating chapters.  In the first strand, An, the policeman, introduces his work and his expertise until it is time to run, eventually going home to hide out until the heat dies down.  The other half of the story is told from Sŏn’s point of view, and her youthful joy at the start of a new life is crushed when she sees her father’s face in the newspaper.  Her initial disbelief turns to confusion and loathing, so she is devastated when he returns and she is given the task of keeping him safe in the loft above her mother’s beauty salon.

This may all seem like the set-up for a thriller, but The Catcher in the Loft isn’t your average plot-driven novel.  Once the scene is set, Ch’ŏn gets to work on a psychological piece that switches from the thoughts of the father to those of the daughter, and back again.  The focus is on how the situation affects them both, with Sŏn learning the hard way that the sins of the father tend to be paid for by their children.  She’s forced to grow up quickly, her childish nature crushed amost overnight, and she becomes much more hardened and, as a consequence, less willing to be subservient to her father.

All the while, up in the loft An, a man renowned and feared for his strength and skills, is slowly rotting away, forced to go for days with little food, reduced to pissing in a container.  Described as a monster of a man, able to crush his victims both physically and psychologically, he begins to shrivel up, his body softening, ageing.  Sŏn is the one who sees this happening, but she’s not inclined to pity him:

What’s up there isn’t my dad, it’s a beast, a growling, agitated beast, bare fangs dripping.  No actually it’s the rotten meat of an animal slaughtered by a beast – what’s left of the carcass after the eyeballs and innards have ben devoured.  No, actually it’s the clouds of shitflies buzzing and swarming around that rotten meat.  What’s up there in the loft is the maggots hatched by those shitflies.  Wiggling, crawling, sickening little maggots burrowing into flesh.  They reek of decay. (pp.120/1)

Meanwhile, An’s plans to simply wait the trouble out are thwarted, as the statute of limitations on his crimes is repeatedly extended.  With no end to his suffering in sight, and the man in the loft getting weaker all the while, the reader isn’t the only one wondering whether this is all really worth the effort.

The Catcher in the Loft is intense and compelling, a superb work of taut, psychological fiction.  It’s full of restrained, yet powerful scenes, such as a chilling moment where Sŏn remembers her father gently using a pen to help a loose tooth come out when she was younger (which immediately reminded me of a certain scene in Han Kang’s Human Acts, and how these pens were often used by the police for very different purposes…).  The pacing is excellent, and the sparing use of the more violent acts works well, with the reader often shocked by the abrupt switch to brutality, both in the case of torture and certain other graphic moments.

The original Korean title, 생강 (Saenggang), actually means ‘Ginger’ and comes from a conversation Sŏn has late in the book with one of her father’s former ‘clients’.  This English version has gone for something very different, with obvious allusions to The Catcher in the Rye, and it’s easy to see why the translators and publisher went in this direction.  It’s a title that indicates the menace lurking unseen right above our heads.

Yet towards the end of the book, there’s another phrase that I think provides an even better title.  Sŏn mentions her ‘ghost in the loft’, and this ghost is one that haunts not only her, but the entire country.  You see, while it would be easy to be horrified by those who tortured and killed during that period, the reality is that they thought they were on the right side of history, protecting the innocent from those seeking to destroy the country:

We’re at war.  We’re fighting for our lives.  Our enemy is armed with the power of evil, and they’ll attack us unless we crush them first.  They lie and they cheat and they steal, they’re pawns of the devil, a wicked mob with fantasies of violence and struggle and subversion, minions of darkness who wish to taint and contaminate our world order.  And we are warriors who combat the power of evil with good. (p.3)

As twisted as it may seem, this is truly what An believes.  These years in the loft, then, represent the efforts of both Sŏn and her father to come to terms with the full implications of a troubling period in Korea’s history, something that many people are still struggling with today.

Philip, of London Korean Links, also reviewed the book recently, mentioning something I’d overlooked in his post.  As it turns out, I had actually tried Ch’ŏn’s work before, in the form of a short story (‘Ali Skips Rope’) in a collection called The Future of Silence: Fiction by Korean Women.  In their introduction to that book, the Fultons (who translated all the stories) mention The Catcher in the Loft, so it’s nice to see they got to bring Ch’ŏn’s novel into English, too 🙂

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