Korean Literature
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Korean Literature

“The leftover hours of life” — Review of Kim Young-ha’s ‘I Hear Your Voice’

A motorcycle takes on different styles for different drivers” writes Kim Young-ha, “Taeju’s driving was like an effortless, dashing cursive”.

The adrenaline and the professional subtleties of the road, cars, speed, noise, engineering, and oily exhilaration, are not new themes for Kim. A near-Freudian repression forcing itself into his mind and pen, he’s been here before in I Have the Right to Destroy Myself as well as Your Republic is Calling You. But never before has he tried it on so thick and mushy.

Through simple, clumsy, unpolished prose — all childishly decorated with twists and gimmicks — of those few novelists in Korea today that can claim international audiences, Kim is by far the worst. He is also the most interesting!

It is tempting then to boil his success down to a matter of selection: a Korean slave labourer shipped to Cuba (Black Flower), a reactivated North Korean spy living a quiet, comfortable life in the South (Your Republic is Calling You), a suicide consultant on the prowl for new clients (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself), an elderly serial killer with the onset of dementia, waking each morning to news reports of murder and trying to remember what he did last night (Diary of a Murderer).

All poorly written (aside from the short and experimental I Have the Right) — all wonderfully playful and the type of subject matter that sells itself. Now we have a world of street kids turned motorcycle gangsters, and the disaffected yet sharply romantic life of the social outcast.

Kim steps into all of his novels through the same door, with the same dirty feet. Latching onto alienation, musing over the details of personality and micro-behaviour, he grovels around in common pain… until it becomes just a little bit beautiful. Until the reader is left seeing themselves in the agony and purpose of such a life.

I only want to draw out morbid desires, imprisoned deep in the unconscious” the suicide entrepreneur in I Have the Right tells us, “the lust, once freed, starts growing. The caller’s imagination runs free, and she soon discovers her potential.”

Gang books, gang stories, gang TV shows, gang movies are a dime-a-dozen here in Korea. A country torn down and built new, the chance for everyday nostalgia is lost to most people without the correct map or memory. That is until you hear an over-cooked engine, then two, then twenty. It’s unusual, it’s loud, and it’s a little bit cheap. The mafia are gone, but the outcasts remain.

There is nothing all that impressive about the bikes, plastic-looking, factory-made, and brightly coloured. There are no imposing figures here, no beards, no leather, no sweat nor dirt… no Harley Davidson’s; they cost too much and these gangs don’t have the stomach for real violence and real crime. Instead these bikes deliver food from poorly paying restaurants to the doors of impatient customers.

Writing in the 1970’s about the Hell’s Angels, Hunter, S. Thompson put it like this: “There is an important difference between the words ‘loser’ and ‘outlaw’. One is passive, and the other is active.” The Hell’s Angels that Thompson saw were definitely outlaws… their Korean cousins are losers.

But there is a story here, and an original one at that. The characters’ inability to actually live it tough — camping in the dirt, living beer-to-beer, disconnecting from all social comforts, and only seeking the straight-and-narrow in order to rob or extort it — adds a juvenile smear to them. Not people to fear — no matter how hard they try to convince you of it — but only to pity.

Without the liberation of the Angels nor the rubbed-in embrace of hardship, these Koreans are pathetic in completely new ways. Moaning about the fast-paced consumer culture around them, whimpering-on about not being understood, all the while wanting secretly to be included. They are children in need of parents… the Angels are parents who abandon such children.

What sifts-down and settles on the page is a kind of umbilical-attached nihilism; a hatred for a world that you desperately want to be part of. Kim writes his characters light and on the fringes — people looking up beneath the neon glow and wanting a subtle hug, preferably one that no one sees. He does for Korean literature what Michel Houellebecq does for French:

I read novels when I am travelling but I don’t read them in Seoul. Novels are food for the leftover hours of life, the in-between times, the moments of waiting.

And just like Houellebecq, Kim is at his best when thinking about violence and about sex… ideally violent sex! The more perverse, hedonistic and cruel, the better. “Leaking body fluids” Hanna is tied to a chair, molested and tortured. She is intellectually disabled. But when our hero tries to save her, she begs for him to re-tie the knots so that she can wait for another round of humiliation from her captor: “I love him. Because he loves me, he’s doing this. I can bear it. Tie me up again”, “[s]he kept stubbornly whining, then she cried. She began to hit Jae. She stank of urine.

The real problem with I Hear Your Voice breaks down to naivety and translation. Jae is a rough and tumble gang leader remember, and yet every time he speaks it is in the tones of a new age spiritual healer, nattering-on about god, the devil, souls, and holy numbers (“3,6,9 and 15” apparently). And everywhere that the chance presents, Kim throws-in an allusion to Jesus: “The first time they laughed; the second, they approached him; the third they paid attention. Then, silently, they began to follow him.”

When it’s not Jesus, Jae is also a conduit for Native American wisdom:

They [Native-Americans] didn’t have any concept of money — they were directly connected to the objects around them. The act of accepting money to work blocked you from your awareness.

Or backyard philosophy:

I remember how as a kid I’d make shadows when the lights had gone out in the house, my hand becoming a wolf or a rabbit. Maybe Jae was one of the shadows I’d made.

And Buddhism:

‘Siddhartha also left home as a teenager’

‘Siddhartha? Who’s that?’ Mokran asked

‘Buddha’

‘So Buddha was a person first?’

‘He was once a teenager, like us’.

Imagine if you can, a hardened street gang listening to this drivel from their leader, and still choosing to take up arms for him each day! Well they do! The boys follow, the girls fawn. It’s all a little hard to get through, and makes you think that Kim doesn’t personally know any wayward youths; and was too scared to do any close-up research.

But most, if not all, of the real derision here should be held for Kim’s Korean-to-English translator, Krys Lee. It is the first time that Lee has done this job for Kim, and the stain of her own prebaked novel, How I Became a North Korean, is thick across these pages. Everywhere you look there are inexplicably lazy turns of phrase: “Jae avoided the patrol cars with his dazzling manoeuvres”,

And basic errors in punctuation (emphases added):

This new Seungtae[,] who wasn’t considered gay by any of his family members or friends[,] explored the sexual identity buried deep inside him.

This kid was more disgusted by[,] than afraid of[,] Seungtae, as if he wasn’t even worth hating.

The role of the translator is always heavy with moral hazard. Authors own their art, they suffer and bleed for it, fighting into the small hours for evermore slight edits of language; poking desperately for just one more minuscule improvement before it is all parcelled-up and sent for publication; exposed to the world.

Good translators do this as well. They make the story their own. But there is a different incentive structure on the table, something that easily corrupts. When a translator finally gets their hands on a project, they too are often paid a proportion of the sales, but they don’t carry much of the risk, if any. If the book fails in the market place, it is not their reputation on the line, at least not in the same way as that of the author.

So, all too often, translations are spat out to publication; the next project quickly in hand. What you get is the destruction of good literature through shoddy manufacturing. But there is still some good literature sneaking-out through the circling gloom here. What Kim does so well is still there on the page, just diminished in quality and much less of it.

Thankfully the fifth, and final, section of I Hear Your Voice takes an intriguing and insightful twist back towards its author. Suddenly Kim is writing in near-autobiography. The speed changes, the characters re-discover themselves, and a flat-lining story breathes again through an honest look back down the lens. As well as from the warm, connected feeling that you get from seeing the writing process affect its author in the same way as the reading process did for you:

[S]ummer was coming to an end, and tourists returning from their travels waited for taxis at Incheon International Airport, holding duty-free shopping bags,

I got in, started the car, and returned home. As I exited the airport expressway and entered Seoul, I began spotting motorcycles. Delivery service men in black helmets and protective gear sped ahead as soon as the lights changed.

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