There is little enough modern literature from South Korea in translation that any new book at all is worth paying attention to. I am not sure how much Young-Ha Kim’s I Have The Right to Destroy Myself reflects what’s going on in that country’s literary scene right now, or if it’s even wise to assume one can reflect the state of the other. What I do know is that while not being a great book, I Have The Right is interesting enough on the face of it to make me want to read another Young-Ha Kim novel.
The unnamed narrator of Right is hard enough to pin down. On first reading, it seems that he’s a kind of assisted-suicide agent: he puts cryptically-worded ads in the papers that allow the suicidal to gravitate towards him. He does not kill them himself, but provides them with all the justification they need to complete the act. People are surprised by what he turns out to be, but as he says — no less cryptically — “Nobody really knows much about a god.” On a second reading, I came to believe the narrator is nothing less than a personified version of the suicidal impulse itself — a savage god, to borrow Al Alvarez’s term from his own book about suicide. Right’s narrator talks about death in the same way Yukio Mishima did — as a great artistic summing-up, a pruning-away of the dead wood to produce the real meaning of one’s life.
These few pieces, when they do come, are tantalizing, and kept me reading far longer than I might have. What’s curious is how most of the book is entirely to the left of, and several steps behind, this whole idea. It’s mostly about how two women (pseudonymously) referred to as “Judith” and “Mimi”, both involved with a man named C. C’s brother, K, a cabdriver, also has obliquely self-destructive impulses of his own. The way they connect, or do not connect, part, and re-connect with each other in different combinations is not so much the plot as it is a canvas on which their various failings are plotted. Eventually the book drifts to a close, with the narrator putting the finishing touches on his stories about these people and hinting that those who read them will also be drawn, mothlike, towards his flame of sad destruction. But these bracketing and flanking pieces are not enough to transform the whole.
There is a tendency amongst modern writers to avoid, perhaps at their own deficit, direct treatment of the very things their stories are allegedly “about”. I suspect this is because they don’t want to write things which in their eyes are too obvious. To a degree they’re right. I can see a very badly-written version of this story coming off like cheap thriller. But Kim’s gone too far in the opposite direction, giving us something that comes off more as a series of notes for a far more substantially developed book. The characters and their preoccupations, whether art, literature, or suicide, seem dutifully imposed on them by the author’s need to do so. And while any author’s creations are going to be just that — inventions, not “real” — they can either pull us further into the invention of the book or only remind us all the more painfully that it is a contrivance.
I admire how modern Korean cinema even in its most commercial implementations (Oldboy, Mother) peers fearlessly into dark places and uses pulp and pop conventions to bring us all the way home with them. Right holds back so much that it barely seems to be willing to be about the very things it most wants to be. I’m curious about Kim’s new book, though, Your Republic Is Calling You, which gives us a day in the life of a North Korean spy going about his business of pretending to be just another South Korean. That has the potential to benefit from a restrained approach in ways this didn’t.