Kim Young-ha’s “I Have The Right To Destroy Myself” is a short novel that attempts quite a lot and achieves almost everything it attempts.
A good story, cleverly told, and one that will prove very entertaining to a casual reader as well as a critical one.
The story features multiple narrators.
Kim has a rather tricky way with narrators.
In the three translated stories of his I have read, and in “I Have The Right To Destroy Myself” he sometimes pushes narrator believability to Nabokovian limits. Like Nabokov, though, he does it in such a way that a reader puts blinders on, happy enough to go for the ride directly before their eyes.
Kim never directly lets his narrator lie, but he does give his narrator a certain approach toward versimilitude:
Sometimes fiction is more easily understood than true events. Reality is often pathetic. I learned at a very young age that it was easier to make up stories to make a point. I enjoy creating stories.The world is filled with fiction anyway.
“I Have The Right To Destroy Myself” features a “narrator within a narrator” structure, in fact it features some chapters of triply embedded narrative as the omniscient “author/narrator” writes a fiction using the internal narration of characters he cannot, in reality, be in the heads of . The meta-narrator is allegedly novelizing events in which he has participated and thus using his authorial power to represent the lesser narrators. Close reading reveals that similarities exist between the meta-narrator and one of the characters, C. They are both artists, the narrator is, in a sense, a performance artist and C is a video (fairly close to performance in one sense) artist. Both are also deeply interested in aesthetics, as artists would be. Then, there is the point that their lives overlap entirely with respect to the two suicidal women who feature in the narrative.
There is also the issue of the narrator’s job. He is, by his own account, a literate and friendly version of Dr. Kervorkian. His job, more of an artistic avocation, as he explains it, is assisting suicides. The meta-narrator goes to great pains to explain his techniques for acquiring clients, and these techniques represent an ultra-winnowing effort. In fact, the meta-narrator explains his winnowing techniques both as a moral and artistic tactic to … well… create art. The narrator remains, of course, unnamed, but he speaks with the smooth assurance of a true-believer – or one who wants you to believe.
A reader gets the sense that the narrator is a true believer, but by the novel’s end the reader might still be asking themselves, a “believer of what?”
The narrator, as noted above, is an omniscient one, and he only waits until page 10 to elevate his own status (as only the all-powerful narrator can) from omniscience to Godhood. It is Kim’s skill that this monomania seems perfectly sensible, given the geography of the novel. It is also Kim’s skill, that he litters the novel with clues that the narrator is untrustworthy.
The narrator begins his tales with an ellipsis in quotation marks. As a non-Korean reader I can’t tell if this is accurate translation, but if it is, it suggests irony in the inverted commas, and editing in the ellipsis. This is all before the tale is properly begun. Perhaps the most stunning assertion of narrative omniscience the narrator makes, and one I completely missed on my first reading of the novel, is that he narrates the stories of his clients’ deaths solely through the voices of the brothers, which only the clients have met. This is an epic jump of narrative stance, from outside the narrator, through the stories of those who he has met, and to the characters who they have met – and their story represented as that of the narrator.
Then there is the issue of how and why these two, of the narrators few suicides, are related to the brothers. If the brothers were marked off, in any way, as a common thread that would push women towards suicide, this might make sense, but as it is it seems verging on the conspiratorial. Judith, the first suicide, is a troubled woman who shares (sexually) the brothers. Mimi, on the other hand, seems to be a stronger character and her connection to the brothers is finally revealed to have been through the hand of the narrator himself – if the narrator can be trusted in telling his story at two removes from himself, and even then tossing in an obscurationist meeting of the two, “He went back to the gallery. At the entrance, he saw a very familiar man, but he couldn’t place him.” The two should be very familiar, because they are separate voices of the same narrator, placed in the same time and place.
It is brilliant writing, because it pulls this hall-of-mirrors self-referentiality in an effortless and naturalistic way.
There is a hint of Mishima in Kim’s work. He does not describe mere existential angst, rather it is the point that one should live the right way which includes, particularly if bored or pointless, dying the right way. In a perverse way the unnamed narrator of the book echoes John Randolph of Roanoke’s philosophy that “life is not so important as the duties of life.”
It should also be noted that the novel is bookended by discussions of paintings of two famous death scenes, The Death of Marat and The Death of Sardanapalus. My review is on Kim’s book, so I will only note that the world gained something when Kim went into writing, and lost nothing when he did not go into art-criticism. His reading of the visual pull of Delacroix’s work is dead wrong.
I end with one of Kim’s concluding symbols – fake flowers. The author describes Mimi’s death and then says the novel he will write (the very book we hold in our hands) “will be a beautiful fake flower arrangement that will be place on their graves.” The fake-flower notion is introduced late in the novel and it, as Kim does throughout the novel, seems to interrogate the notion of the narrator as an artist and as someone whose aesthetic decisions can be trusted.
Still, you close the back cover of this book and you wish that, maybe, there had been a bit more. The clever balances, the counterpoised aesthetics, the omniscient narrator whose omniscience is possibly unmoored from reality, the brilliant narrative itself, the alternately propulsive and comfortably numb plot, all of these combine in a uniquely satisfying way.