Diary of a Murderer is a powerful piece of writing, a breath of fresh air in a pretty breezy field of fiction anyway. It strides the gap between contemporary fiction and literary crime writing. Genre fiction is only relevant when it grows ideas and develops the form. In the case of crime fiction growth often entails a blurring of the lines between contemporary literature and murder mystery, and this book certainly does that. There’s no more extreme environment for exploring the human condition than witnessing the effects of crime on the survivors/perpetrators.
Diary of a Murderer is a perfect example of original writing that combines fine character, psychological insight and radical storytelling, this is also a fine social critique. Recent Chinese and Korean crime novels have demonstrated a desire to explore the mind of a killer, the titular story here deals with a murderer who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, it’s not totally unique but it’s not a device here whereas it sometimes is in British/American fiction. This is a psychological novel totally unlike the spate of western books in the same vein, more grown up, more realistic. Reading Young-Ho’s latest book, a collection of four stories, is like being caught up in an earthquake, everything around you shakes. Stylish and dark, a trait of Korean fiction, this book is loaded with atmosphere, it induces foreboding and dread. The individual weight of each of the stories is underpinned by an oppressive sense of history and the political background, this from Dairy of a Murderer:
“I began killing when I was sixteen, and I continued until I was forty-five. I lived through the April Revolution and the May Massacre. President Park Chung-Hee proclaimed the Yushin Reforms as he dreamed of making himself dictator for Life. First lady Yuk Young-Soo was shot to death.”
The themes are heavy but The Diary of a Murderer is also wickedly funny, these stories are infused with wry humour and mild flights of surreal fancy. These are profoundly sad stories of pain and emotional dysfunction, of dislocation; grief pervades everything, (memory is lost, people are lost, direction is discombobulated), and yet, this is deliciously entertaining.
The first story, Diary of a Murderer, is narrated by a seventy year old man experiencing the early onset of dementia. His account is at times crystal clear, particularly when dealing with the past, but it is often confused or wrong, (he is a deeply unreliable narrator). His last murder was twenty-five years ago. He didn’t kill out of need or because of a sexual perversion, he says, rather disappointment each time the deed was done, driven by the desire to do better next time. In the end he gave up on the futile search for fulfilment. He kept a journal, logged every detail, every mistake, every step on the steep learning curve but it never led to any joy. He took up poetry, that might have cost the teacher his life but for a fortuitously chosen moment of praise which saved his life; murder is ‘prose not poetry’. When it becomes apparent that a killer is loose in the community again, young girls are being killed, he can’t be sure he didn’t do it but he also can’t be sure of the people around him, or the things he thinks are happening. ‘My head is turning to a sea of cucumber’, he muses. He goes to the doctor with his daughter, Eunhui, the only person he is close to or at least feels obligated to because of a promise he made many years before. The diagnosis is confirmed: Alzheimer’s. In the midst of everything Eunhui announces she is in love with Pak Jutae, he wants to marry her, but Kim Byeongsu mistrusts the young man. This story is a comedy of manners, a dark meditation on dementia, murder, and society. The fragmented structure of the story plays to the theme beautifully. This story is a novella in itself.
The Origins of Life is the story of Seojin, when life gets to be too much for him he wants to retreat to his origins, his hometown, he’s been a drifter since he was young. It leads to a reunion with a girl he grew up with Ina:
“We should never have met,” said Ina.
And it’s true nothing good will come of the two rekindling a friendship that deepens very quickly. There are moments of bliss, regret of lost time, but Ina has a life, she is a married woman. Their understanding of why they are together is different. Their relationship is not what Seojin thinks it is.
Now twenty years after the two children of military men are reunited they begin an affair. In bed Seojin sees the bruised inflicted upon Ina by her husband. He offers advice, suggesting she reporting her husband. She says:
“Just stop it. These moments together are the only times I breathe freely, so why are you making the problem worse? Even if it’s only for a short while, being with you makes me happy. Can’t we just stay the way we are?”
“How can I do nothing with the person I love being pummelled every day?”
This story isn’t quite going where you think.
Missing Child – Yunseok, his wife, Mira, and their three year old boy, Seongmin, are on an ordinary shopping trip. Yunseok would rather have stayed home to watch the baseball, in which case nothing would have happened. Mira forgot the loyalty card but they aren’t going back for it, she stops at the cosmetics counter. Seongmin is in the trolley being pushed by Yunseok but the father is distracted by a discussion of a new phone with a vendor. When the pair turn to the trolley Seongmin is gone. Ten years later Seongmin returns, where has he been? is it really him? The effect on the family of the crisis, and the re-emergence of the boy is devastating. The ending is both surprising and redemptive.
The Writer is the story of a blocked writer. He becomes desperate, he needs to fund his daughters education. A publisher offers him the loan of an apartment in New York away from his family. That is where Mansu meets the beautiful wife of the publisher, a muse to unblock his writing but . . .
Brilliant writing, gripping drama, exotic locations, a real winner of a book.
Paul Burke 4/4*
Diary of a Murderer by Kim Young-Ha
9781838950040 Atlantic pbk 2nd January 2020