Awesome and Horrific: “Straight Lines and Poison Gas” by Lim Chul-woo (임철우)

Straight Lines CoverLim Chul-woo is an author of anguish (Thanks, Onyx!) and Straight Lines and Poison Gas – At the Hospital Wards, is nothing if not anguished. The novella focuses on (indirectly,so as not to get the author in trouble at the time) the Gwangju Massacre and the national attempt to pretend that it never happened. The indirection is because the story was written in the 1980s, a time at which public attack of the government, or even discussion of political dissent or oppression, was extremely risky.

Straight Lines and Poison Gas – At the Hospital Wards drops the reader directly into the life of an ex-cartoonist, who is directly addressing a doctor as the story begins. As the story develops, it becomes clear that the narrator has been dropped off at the hospital by detectives who have been torturing him, and that their return has no particular timetable, but is likely inevitable.

However the story is much more than that. In flashbacks, the narrator reveals that he once lead a quite ordinary life as a cartoonist, but fatefully drew a cartoon that aroused the attention of the authorities. The cartoon is never revealed, but it causes the cartoonist to be taken in for questioning, complete with a very Korean semi-concealed threat by the police that they remember his uncle, who was clearly a political dissident who went into some kind of exile, or died in hiding. This threat and the recognition it brings to the narrator that he is powerless and entirely observable, opens the floodgates in his mind.

The narrator is then overtaken by semi-hallucinations, all of which are barely concealed flashbacks to the Gwangju Massacre. Lim uses symbols brilliantly, including the two in the title and at least two other brilliant ones during the course of the story. The lack of control that the title symbols express in the book is almost palpable: Breath is squeezed, and lines do worse than erode. Lim fleshes the story out with enough family and social background information to both fully flesh out the history (At least one other character lives in the grasp of the Gwangju Massacre mental illness) and Lim does a good job of counterpoising these characters against the characters, including the cartoonists pregnant wife, who are apparently willing to forget the past and try to simply live through the present. With these three sets of characters, the banal day-to-day survivors, the threatening agents of repression, and those who cannot forget and therefore suffer, Lim builds a pressure cooker.

As the hallucinations grow and tighten around the cartoonist, he begins to cartoon again, unofficially, and this leads him back out into the public eye, and to the novella’s ‘conclusion.’

As the end of the story bends back to better explain its beginning , a reader will have a greater understanding of Gwangju, its uprising and massacre, But even better, the reading is enjoyable, even for such a difficult topic, and it is Lim’s skill that readers, by the end of the novella, will have followed the narrator’s journey and will sympathize with it.
The book is well-written and clear enough that specific knowledge of Korea is not necessary to enjoy it. The interrogation scenes have the scent of Kafka, and the descent of the narrator is reminiscent of familiar stories such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper or George Orwell’s 1984, while also exposing a thick slice of Korean and its culture.

This book is volume 18 of the 30 books that have recently been published in the Asia Publishers Bi-lingual Edition Modern Korean Literature collection. These are generally quite good books, crossing genres and styles, and each book includes the Korean text, English text, a summary, critical response (which is often ridiculously funny, as Korean critics are no different than Western ones in their likelihood to have agendas), and an author biography. This approach allows a reader who may not know the complete cultural and historical background of the novella to have a quick course in it, that brings much more understanding to the text.

Lim has previously been translated in the three-novella collection “Red Room,” which takes its title from his contribution. (

About that work KTLIT said:

In “The Red Room” there is no hope of escape from trauma, the cycle is burned in too deeply, and recurs to frequently to break. At its conclusion Detective Ch’oe enjoys/endures an epiphany of revenge featuring the disturbing and vivid sanguinary image “A blood –colored sea filled the room ….As I prayed, I felt with vivid clarity a sacred joy and benevolence envelop me with warmth, before beginning finally to fill the Red Room” (189-90).

As I said, Lim Chul-woo, author of anguish.

This book is available at Amazon and in local bookstores (Try Seoul Selection in Seoul) in Korea.