20 May / I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-ha Kim, translated by Chi-Young Kim
In densely populated Seoul, a mysterious man makes a lucrative living by helping “clients” commit suicide. He’s not exactly Dr. Death Kevorkian offering physically depleted bodies reprieve; instead he has a special talent for finding lost, disconnected souls ready to leave behind their unfulfilling existence and ease into death. He patiently goes over the various how-to options, complete with show-and-tell pictures, and he’ll even accompany his clients as long as necessary toward their journeys beyond.
Once the job is done, he goes on a faraway trip, and returns to “write about the client and our time together.” His ultimate goal is even creepier: “Through this act of creation, I strive to become more like a god. There are only two ways to be a god: through creation or murder.” And which is he doing …?
He’s picky about whom he chooses to memorialize: “Not all executed contracts become stories. Only clients who are worth the effort are reborn through my words … But this arduous process bears witness to my sympathy and love for my clients.” Ri-ight. In this short volume, his worthy client is a free-spirited, lollipop-addicted barmaid nonchalantly involved with two very different brothers.
Dispersed through the sparse writing are detailed references to famous works of western art (all by dead white men) that both haunt and enhance the overlapping relationships. The bloodied bathtub, as immortalized by French painter Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat,” begins and ends the sparse novel. The enigmatic narrator’s analytical appreciation (obsession?) for fine art is in ironic contrast to the fake flowers he keeps (and even waters!) in his apartment.
Every page oozes creepy, not to mention the undeniable misogyny within. And in spite of raising nervous goosebumps, award-winning Young-ha Kim certainly draws you into his lurid imagination – yes, like a bad train wreck, you can’t turn away.
I confess this is the first time I’ve chosen to read a title because of its translator: Chi-Young Kim also turned Kyung-sook Shin’s international bestseller Please Look After Mom into haunting English. When (not if) I pick up Your Republic is Calling You, released in English last fall, it will undoubtedly be because both Kims appear on the title page as writer and translator once again.
Published: 2007 (United States)