Talking About Kim Young-Ha on Arirang Radio’s ‘Catch the Wave!’

This is going up on Sunday afternoon, so if you see it, be sure to check into Arirang Radio’s Catch the Wave this evening at 7 to hear my honeyed tones discussing Kim Young-ha. There is a “play” link in the middle of the page.

If you’ve already listened, here is a version of what we discussed, along with some links at the bottom.


Today I’ll talk a about Kim Young-ha, Kim Young-ha was initially important to me because he has a distinctive voice – I brought a little sound clip here so you know what I mean by voice.

download or iPod here

What do you hear there? I hear a voice that I can immediately identify and that is comfortable to me. Kim Young-Ha’s The Photo Shop Murder also achieves this voice.

Kim writes differently from many other Korean authors – he writes in a modern way with an identifiable voice. Much older fiction did not have this, preferring to be flat, and merely descriptive, often wallowing in the Han of the whole thing.

But Kim’s voice speaks to foreigners. Here’s an example from near the start of  The Photo Shop Murder:

I flipped on my siren and emergency lights, and hit the accelerator. The crime scene wasn’t the urgent thing. I mean the dead body wasn’t going anywhere, right?  The urgent thing was something else. With every murder case came tons of paperwork.

…… It was tedious work. I just hoped there was only one corpse. Two would double the paperwork.

This works perfectly to a foreign ear. Of course, it is worth noting that because Kim writes this way, he sometimes comes into the gunsights of Korean cultural defenders who believe he is too “international” in approach. This is one of the funny contradictions in Korean literary society; it wants to be internationally loved for its literature, but it often rejects attempts at internationality. Perhaps what it is looking for is unconditional love?

So.. a bit about Kim (from the Wikipedia and with some screen grabs from his own site)

Kim was born in Hwacheon. He moved from place to place as a child, since his father was in the military. As a child, he suffered from gas poisoning from coal gas and lost memory before ten.[1] He was educated at Yonsei University in Seoul, majoring business administration, but he didn’t show much interest in it. Instead he focused on writing stories. Kim, after graduating from Yonsei University in 1993, began his military service as an assistant detective at the military police 51st Infantry Division near Suwon. His career as a professional writer started in 1995 right after discharge.



His first novel, published in Korean in 1996, was I Have the Right to Destroy Myself. It has been translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Polish, Turkish, Chinese, and Vietnamese

I should note that I have had the pleasure to meet Kim twice, and occasionally talk to him online (he is currently in New York, teaching at Columbia University.

At the moment, Kim has three major translations in English; Photo Shop Murder, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, and his longest work, Your Republic is Calling You.

Jimoondang/KLTI published a slender volume containing the two short stories Photo Shop Murder and Whatever Happened To The Guy In The Elevator.  Like Destroy Myself these stories have a universal appeal.  Kim’s work is existential and Kafka-esque, while also quickly told and efficiently plotted.

Photo Shop Murder is a noirish detective story. It begins, of course, with a corpse, his (now) widow who may be a murderer, but certainly invokes feelings from the detective, a lover with a baseball bat, and a strange character who has seduced the wife with a cleverly deployed series of photographs. The detective is an alienated man, partially because he has caught his own wife in flagrante delicto, a scene that is revealed in flashback and features a brilliant image of soiled sheets and their washing.

The style and translation are outstanding – Author Kim and translator Jason Rhodes (apparently a gifted amateur?) do an excellent job of reproducing the flat, semi-documentary style that westerners associate with Humphrey Bogart or James Rockford. The first line of the story is the deadpan, “Why do murders always seem to happen on Sundays?” The tone is consistent throughout with the narrator snapping semi-wise, even to himself, as in his observation that murder investigations are better than other crimes because, “With murder, at least one side was quiet.”

The crime in Photo Shop Murder ends in near randomness – everything that has been investigated turns out to be meaningless, although the crime is solved – and the detective returns to his unhappy home, where memories overwhelm him and he is semi-accidentally injured by his wife. The story ends with a stark image: “I fell asleep. In my dream, I’d become a fruit, and my wife was peeling my skin. It was a happy dream.”

The second story in the book, Whatever Happened To The Guy Stuck in the Elevator is an absurdist look at day in which everything goes wrong: People reveal themselves to be self-centered, and technology reveals itself to be untrustworthy. The single businessman who narrates, begins his day by breaking his razor, and things continue to go wrong from there.  On his way out of the building he is forced to use the stairs because the elevator is stalled. On the 5th floor he finds the reason, a man is stuck (and perhaps hurt or dying) in the elevator door. The rest of the story focuses on the man’s attempts to notify someone about the man in the elevator and his continually unraveling day. There is an amusing set piece in which the businessman gives an ‘important’ presentation to his colleagues; an argument for increasing toilet-paper efficiency. Predictably, the presentation does not go as he expects. When the narrator finally does reach 911 to report the man in the elevator he is disbelieved and when he returns to his apartment, where the hot water has been turned off, he is still in a state of uncertainty.

The translator does miss a running joke here, though. One of the lesser characters, a secretary who strands the protagonist in a broken elevator, is named Ms. Jeong, in the book, but the name is not translated into an equivalent joke in English, like Harmony, or Hope. In fact, Kim uses these names (Han and Jeong), throughout the book and the translator apparently missed it entirely.

Together, these two works are an amusing but somewhat depressing portrait of a disconnected society and the absurdity of modern life. And what’s better?  Both stories are available free online as a PDF

Kim’s breakthrough work was I Have The Right To Destroy Myself,  a short novel that attempts quite a lot and achieves almost everything it attempts. It is 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 casual 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.

The narrator 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?”

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.

This book was also made into a movie: My Right to Ravage Myself: 나는 나를 파괴할 권리가 있다, which I hope to track down with translations, sometime soon.

There was also  some time ago talk of a TV show in the US based on the book, but it would be a very difficult trick to pull off, because as charming as the narrator is, he’s also a kind of mass-murderer – it would have to be pulled off in a way similar to the way Dexter has been accomplished.

But now it’s time talk about the biggie… his successful novel, Your Republic is Calling You.

Intricately plotted and multiply narrated, Your Republic is Calling You begins a bit angularly, as if Kim is trying to work too many things into too little space. There is lots of expository internal-monologue revealing histories, judgments, and nostalgic presentations of past events.

The  book quickly settles down  however, and as it focuses on characters for longer periods of time, it catches its stride. At about 20 pages in author Kim takes a breath, and the book itself breathes.

The plot is deceptively simple – it follows one day in the life of a North Korean spy who is apparently being called back home.

This call unravels his life in ways that are predictable and unpredictable.

The “spying” metaphor is at the heart the book as all its characters are, one way or another, undercover. It is one of Kim’s skills that he reveals in a matter-of-fact fashion the difference between the public images of his characters and the lives they lead in their heads, in seedy motel rooms, prosaic offices, schools, and even in shootouts on the beach. Kim never shows his cards early, and as he makes each reveal, the tension and angst increase. By the end of “Republic,” the undercover agent in each character has been exposed and each character squirms in the unexpected light.

Readers of Kim’s previously translated works will see much here that is familiar and comfortable. Kim’s writing is semi-existentialist, internationally oriented (his “North Korean” protagonist imports foreign films and drinks Heineken), and socially modern. Kim has been trying these approaches on for size for some time. In this book, with one exception, Kim’s themes and internationalization seem integral to the story and flow seamlessly within the plot.

That one exception is my other slight cavil with “Republic.” Kim works in a strongly sexual vein in this work and at the outset of the book he has a sex scene that does not seem completely integrated into the story. The scene seems hurried in  just to get a sex scene in. This quickly introduced and then discarded scene had the unfortunate effect of making me initially distrust the critically important sex-scene that slowly comes into being through the second half of the book. And this later scene provides one of the most “undercover/revealing” moments in the book.

This is a trivial complaint about a work that kept me riveted as it went along and Kim has also, to some extent, stepped back into more ‘traditional’ modern Korean themes as this “Republic” is strongly premised on issues of separation. A Korean review (from the 한겨레 ) of this work  noted Kim Young-ha’s specifically Korean theme:

Ki-young was born in 1963 and sent to South Korea in 1984 and now gets the order to return to home. His 42 years of life is divided into two 21-year-long periods in two countries. The inner conflict about whether he follows the order is also the one between the former life of North’s 21-years and the latter life of South’s 21-years. The agony of struggling 24-hours implies his complete 42-years of life, or the division of 60 years between two Koreas.

Interestingly, that review later comments on Kim Young-ha’s sexual themes, but focuses on the sex that betrays a marriage vow, rather than a random hookup between a young woman and an older man for a bit of semi-not-really-consensual urination (noted above). To my western eye, the latter seems much less likely than the former and it is revealing that a Korean reviewer would focus on what to me is the much more likely event.

Kim’s writing is razor-sharp. Any reader who has been faced with the threat of loss will recognize Kim’s description of the “premature nostalgia” that such a threat engenders. His writing about this general condition is specific and clever. A good example of Kim’s specific descriptive ability is when he describes the illicit but often silly (and still dead-serious) thrill that comes with youthful rebellion:

For Southern youth in their early twenties, having been indoctrinated in anti-Communist education in schools, speaking this way felt vulgar, much like hearing a prim woman refer to a penis as a cock. At first, it was difficult for them to refer to the two heads of state as Dear Leader or The General, but once they did, they shivered with the excitement that came with breaking the law.

That’s a passage that brilliantly outlines the borders and overlaps between “Big R” rebellion and the “Little R” rebellion of all young rebels. “Republic” is full of this kind of brilliant writing.

This leads to a word related to translation: Kim Chi-young, who translated “Republic,” has done a job that even surpasses her previous excellent translation of “A Toy City. And I Have the Right to Destroy Myself. ” Kim Chi-young is one of the few translators whose name alone, on a dustcover, would persuade me to purchase an unknown book. I counted exactly two instances in which I wondered at a phrase, and that would be a low number for a book written by an English author in their native language. ^^

This is an outstanding book and as the important threads tie together at the conclusion it moves at relentless speed. Your Republic is Calling You is taut, engaging, ironic, scathing, brutal and resigned in turns. The last 40 pages are exceptionally tightly written and the screws tighten, page by page, as life and a history of subterranean decisions conspire to strangle the lives of all the “agents” of the story.

In a brief coda Kim leaves us with a vision of a “new day” that can be read as ironic, hopeful or merely repetitive – In a world where everyone is a tout and ‘hopeful’ is lagging at the rail.

Kim should currently be finishing a work, he hinted at its them to me two years ago, but of course even if that is still what he’s working on, I can’t tell. Let’s just say it is supposed to be done this spring and it should be, as most of his work, nice and dark.^^

Below, please find a list of Kim’s work available online:


Honor Killing

Their Last Visitor

Christmas Carol

The Man who Sold his Shadow



Photo Shop Murder

I Have The Right to Destroy Myself

Your Republic is Calling You

Lizard in Modern Korean Fiction An Anthology (Fulton, Kwon Eds)


2 thoughts on “Talking About Kim Young-Ha on Arirang Radio’s ‘Catch the Wave!’

  1. Very nice — A point that you did not make is that commercially these books are far more likely to be read and sold than poetry etc.

    Genre fiction is the area of most interest to publishers overall.

    A writer whom you should also investigate is Martin Limon:

    His books set in ROK are the types of Korean-set books that can achieve a reading audience.

    Moreover, many of them are very well received by critics.

    As such, Korean language writers (if any) who write noir fiction would be a good bet for translation and sales.

Comments are closed.