fiction, review

Diary of a Murderer

Indonesian edition’s cover

Kim Young-ha’s dementia-themed thriller Diary of a Murderer is sort of unusual in several ways: the way it’s written, the point of view it dares to take, the plot twist it presents at the end―they all, though do not give the reader a thrill this genre should, scream uniqueness and a certain level of darkness accompanying them through its pretty difficult labyrinth. A story of a serial killer is already everywhere in the crime/thriller area, but wait until you have to encounter what’s inside their mind.

Kim Byeong-su started killing at the age of 16 when he decided to end his own father’s life. Since then, he had been going on a killing spree until he was 45, and eventually stopped when he didn’t feel any excitement from it anymore. Now he is merely a 70-year-old retired veterinarian suffering from dementia and unable to remember the most recent things in his life. He only has his daughter Eun-hee at his side, and has to keep her picture in a locket so as to not forget her face. He even writes things down in a diary, especially what he had done in the past.

As the narrative reveals more and more, however, the most interesting thing about Kim Byeong-su’s past murderous activities is that he never got caught, not even once. This was simply because he did that right in the era when South and North Koreas were in an intense war, where the northern parts of the democratic one filled with the Communist spies lurking in forests. There were not enough evidences, there weren’t any eyewitnesses, and so every murder he committed would be right away blamed on the enemy’s people. But it is exactly what makes him regret his peaceful life for the last twenty five years. He finds it so boring and thinks that he should have been arrested. Unfortunately, that never happened.

And now that he is “enjoying” his retirement he becomes unexpectedly restless, not only for the dementia he has but also because of a seeming killer who appears to be targeting his daughter Eun-hee. As an ex-murderer himself, he knows his kind when he sees one, and there is no way he will let that suspicious man get any near Eun-hee. So he makes up his mind and starts tracking Park Ju-tae, the suspicious man he thinks is trying to murder Eun-hee yet in fact, much to his surprise, claiming to be her boyfriend. Things get confusing and unsettling between the three, and Kim Byeong-su, of course, warns his daughter against seeing her boyfriend again. But Eun-hee won’t take it, saying instead that he is being unreasonable and confused. He is sure he is not confused, though his dementia has been damaging his brain more and more. Now, with this state of mind, it becomes all the more unclear what’s real and what’s not, what’s merely his imagination and what’s not. So, how then will he save his daughter?

It doesn’t feel right to say Diary of a Murderer is an intense thriller novel. It doesn’t grip you, it doesn’t haunt you that you want to finish it in one sit. It does, though, make you wonder non-stop how it will turn out and if Kim Byeong-su will be able to save his daughter at the end. But the entire narrative is clearly about what happens inside his mind, not outside it in reality. The writer, Kim Young-ha, invites us to come and play with the protagonist’s suffering mind and memory, to see and guess if what he tells the reader is reliable or the otherwise, and to pity him sometimes. It’s tricky and yet laid-back at the same time. It doesn’t want you to restlessly ask questions and demand answers, it wants you to lazily play the game like an old person that he is.

Kim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer is a puzzle-heavy read with an unusual narrative about a serial killer. It’s neither a whodunit nor a whydunit, it’s more like a mind trap for the reader. That’s said, the writer is not so merciless that he doesn’t give any hints of where the story is going. He does, in a very subtle way, and that’s the strength of this so-called crime novel (if we cannot call it a “mind labyrinth” one). Readers who do not get the hints will probably be angry once they reach the end of the game, but those who are aware from the beginning of what the writer intends to reveal will almost definitely say, “Ah, that makes sense.”

In conclusion, Diary of a Murderer can be or cannot be called a crime/thriller story, but it is undoubtedly enganging and convincingly deceiving. It is highly recommended to anyone who is already bored with the conventional type in this entire serial killer universe.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Human Acts

Indonesian edition’s cover

Humanity and repressive governments will always be interesting topics to discuss in literature, for in this realm all traumatic experiences of living under bad regimes can be perpetuated, forever stay on papers and in people’s mind, if not solved. Books are an effective medium to pass over to the next generation the painful history they should know, though they may not have the capability, or will, to make it right or give justice to those who had been wronged in the past. Human Acts, the wonderfully narrated novel by Han Kang, is clearly intended to do just that, so people will never forget there was a certain dark period in South Korean modern history.

The novel starts—in an atmosphere that’s more than merely depressing and in a somewhat vague manner—with a young boy looking for his missing friend, dead or alive. There has been some sort of a riot, as it is later gradually told, where the government-backed military fired bullets blindly to random citizens on the streets and killed many people, even those who weren’t actually part of it. Dong Ho, the young boy, keeps wandering through the Provincial Office to find Jeong Dae, this friend of his, but to no avail. He lingers there however, still in the hope of finding Jeong Dae, and helps sorting and dealing with corpses. Never does he know that Jeong Dae’s body, dead already, has been stacked somewhere behind bushes and slowly decaying. He only knows that he actually saw Jeong Dae when he was shot, and left him in the middle of the riot.

It needs a string of subtle guilty on Dong Ho’s side and slow paces of storyline to get to what truly happens to the two young boys, and what truly happens to the country. Throughout the next chapters, readers are told how the government becomes more and more tyrannical—tightly censoring books, imprisoning innocent people on false charges and treating them like worthless animals, causing incurable trauma across the nation—and how South Korean people at that dark period have to live their lives where committing suicide and insomnia are not something unusual.

The main event told in the book took place in the early 1980s and 1990, when an authoritarian ruler had been assassinated only for people to see another one coming up and making even bigger chaos. It was a horrible time South Korean people in the past had to experience—and hopefully won’t repeat itself in the future—when even a self-claimed democratic government used an excuse of banishing northern infiltration from their southern part of the peninsula to punish people without mercy and oppress them just to maintain the status quo. It was when university students held demonstrations on the streets and got arrested, when common people were dragged—voluntarily or not—and got shot. In fact, this particular period seems very common everywhere. Here in Human Acts, both innocent and guilty people are imprisoned and being questioned inhumanely, left hungry for days before being released after a very strange, without-any-evidences trial. Traumatized, some of them even commit suicide, or, worse, try to kill people.

Han Kang tells the depressing, goosebumps-giving story from the points of view of those who are involved in, or become victims of, the riot handled with cruelty by the military: from the young boys, the prisoners, the eyewitnesses, to the writer herself. And though Han does make an enough effort to introduce all those characters early in the first chapter (alongside with Dong Ho), but still the plot, and subplots, where they dwell are not easy to deal with. The narrative is so “thick” that readers need to peel it layer by layer in order to see crystal clear where the storyline goes. Han doesn’t make it easy for readers to enjoy her tale—as if she wants them to suffer together with the victims—and forces them to really follow each of the characters to know exactly what happens inside and what effects it has on them.

Han’s writing style in Human Acts is neither truly realistic nor the opposite. To describe all the hardships and violence, Han doesn’t shy away from taking the realistic approach to display horrible scenes as explicit as possible. On the other hand, Han uses an almost surrealistic style to tell about the trauma all the victims have to endure. It is perhaps to make it more dramatic, sharper that readers can’t help but feel uneasy and disturbed upon absorbing the fear, the restlessness, the insanity brought about by dictatorship prevailed in that era. It is really hurtful to see those things written blatantly on the paper, and Han Kang really pulls it off.

All in all, Human Acts by Han Kang is a book that is so depressing, so sad, so hurtful to read, not only for the dark period the reader has to experience through letters, but also for the way Han Kang wrote and presented it to her audience. If anything, it is a book that forces the reader to see inhumanity clearly through its heavy words.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The Vegetarian

34023328233_df89591553_oWhat is our body? A bunch of flesh and blood? A soulless entity? An empty creature devoid of civilization? Whatever you think of your body, it is yours and it is yours to do anything with. At the very least, this is a message that The Vegetarian, a short novel by Han Kang which has drawn an enormous amount of attention in the literary world, seems to intend to deliver. Quite vividly, here Han Kang lays emphasis on the idea that “yours to do anything with” includes harming that body of ours—that if you think harming is not actually harmful—when our traumatic experience leads us to anger and self-hatred resulting in the urge to destroy ourselves.

So many people seems to have already read this book, so let’s be brief. Upon having a horrible dream where she’s got blood all over her hands and mouth, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat and turn herself into a vegetarian. It bothers her family and society, for eating meat has been an inseparable tradition in their culture, and hence their insistence on her getting back to it. But her will is so much stronger than theirs, so she continues with her own way and eats nothing but vegetables and fruits. It costs her everything: her job, her marriage, her family. She doesn’t care, though, and is persistent, even if putting an end to eating meat doesn’t really stop that dream from hunting her nights over and over. Only when her brother-in-law paints flowers on her skin does she stop having such a dream, but that doesn’t mean everything turns the better for her (that if you think so). After a shocking incident involving her brother-in-law, her older sister In-hye is forced to put Yeong-hye into a mental hospital. And there, she starts to refuse to eat at all, because she thinks a tree doesn’t need to.

“I’m not an animal anymore.”

Yeong-hye apparently believes that she is an animal merely because she eats meat. But, are we? Does eating meat make us some kind of carnivore, a cannibal? Does it make us a horrible creature who has the heart to take the lives of other living creatures without mercy? Do you think, really, really think that by being a vegetarian, only eating vegetables, you’re not a killer? Do you not think that plants are also alive, breathing, growing, and breeding? Do you not think that when you eat them it means you kill them, too? Forget about blood, you’ve certainly taken the lives of others. In any way, being a vegetarian is not an answer to the question of our humanity, or will challenge our nature as human beings. Unless you stop eating at all and kill yourself slowly like Yeong-hye, that is.

“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

The broader your point of view on the story, however, the more you will realize that this is not only about being a vegetarian. This is about our body, about oppression imposed on our body. What happens to Yeong-hye—her psychological disturbance—seems to date back to when she received violent behavior from her father. She was weak and didn’t fight it, and was therefore left wounded physically and mentally. In a father-daughter relationship, where the father has more power over his children, more often than not, in any culture, this domestic violence practices occur. And when this happens, it always feels like we don’t own our body, like our body belongs to someone else. Some children cannot endure it, but continue to live with it, with the memory of it. So, eventually, Yeong-hye fights back and seeks revenge for what her body must have suffered from. But then, is it worth it? Does it really solve the problem of physical/emotional violence? Does it stop violence at all? But, of course, a book is sometimes not about finding an answer.

The Vegetarian is composed of three separate novellas, so it somehow reads incoherently. Luckily, Han Kang seems to mean it as one unity, making the next installment the next chapter to explain the aftermath of the previous event. And we can enjoy it thoroughly and easily, what with the smooth translation by Deborah Smith and no particular, skillful writing style. What makes this novel appear more extraordinary than it might actually be is how incredible Han Kang is (supported by Smith, of course) in using diction to build the atmosphere the story needs and in describing her characters. The narrative feels so simple to read yet so artfully created. It brings out a sense of horror in the reader and manages to make them feel as if they plunge into the horrendous world Yeong-hye is living in and witness the psychological torture she has to deal with. Readers will also be able to feel what In-hye feels, see what she sees and follow where her thoughts wander. It is a quite great prose.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang might work for so many people, but it is not for me. Technically, it doesn’t have the writing style I would call genius, and essentially, I have so many disagreements with it. It challenges my thoughts, yes, but not in a way that will change my mind.

Rating: 2.5/5