‘It’s been twenty-five years since I last murdered someone, or has it been twenty-six?’
A serial killer suffering from Alzheimer’s attempts to protect his daughter after a new spate of deaths in the village. But might the murderer be himself?
This thrilling premise is – excuse the pun – executed with great aplomb by South Korean writer Kim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer (2019). If you love morbid jokes though, you may well align yourself with this elderly and increasingly forgetful anti-hero, Kim Byeongsu.
Kim Byeongu is likeable in that special way reserved for fictional serial-killers: he’s personable, knowing, with a penchant for dark humour, poetry-writing, and erudite allusions (albeit the unlikely mix of Buddhist sutra and Nietzsche). Childhood abuse too, offers a familiar access-point for sympathy. And there is similar familiarity perhaps, for Kim Byeongsu to recall brutal murders in terms of the modern emphasis on capitalist productivity, as with his lazy observation ‘I was very diligent back then.’
What is psychologically striking is the contrast between ‘back then’ and now, his apparently peaceful village life with his adopted daughter. One might be tempted to see a touch of Silas Marner in old Kim Byeongsu – the solitary bleak man transformed by a child. Kim Byeongsu divides his life into before and after he found Eunhui, worrying clumsily about the impact bullying had on her mental health, as well as the suitability of her suspicious-looking fiancé. Fearful of forgetting his daughter’s face, he wears her photo in a pendant around his neck.
Yet Eunhui is no Eppie. Emotionally distant, preferring plants to human beings, Eunhui is evidently a product of Kim’s
Byeongsu’s inadequate parenting and rightly suspicious in turn. Kim Young-ha’s rather cynical approach to realism is echoed elsewhere in the collection, notably with the disappointing return of an abducted boy to his parents in Missing Child. It’s a pity that the other three stories fall short after the brilliance of the first, with their simpler, greyer, more predictable storylines. Here in Diary of a Murderer however, realism is qualified by Kim Byeongsu’s unreliability. And is this only because of Alzheimer’s or, as Eunhui accuses, because he is ‘purposely making things difficult’ and ‘pretending not to know’?
Kim Young-ha skilfully draws out our capacity for compassion in disturbing ways. In the emotional poignancy of his taut prose, tracking Kim Byeongsu’s futile efforts to grasp memories using post-it notes and voice recordings, Diary of a Murderer has unexpected echoes of Emma Healey’s compelling novel Elizabeth is Missing in which Maude, while struggling with Alzheimer’s, erratically pieces together the mystery of her sister’s disappearance. Glenda Jackson’s harrowing performance of Maude in last year’s BBC adaptation, fully realized the awful vulnerability and loss of control evoked in Healey’s powerful story. But our sympathy for Kim Byeongsu cannot be given freely; it must be qualified. He is not only playing fatherly detective but plotting one last murder – or, as the blurb rather quaintly puts it, he’s coming ‘out of retirement one last time’.
This collection of stories by Kim Young-ha emerges as part of a fantastic surge in translated fiction from Asia, which early this year has seen Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day and Cho Nam-joo’s ‘#MeToo bestseller’ Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, among many others. Kim, however, is already well-established in South Korea as a leading writer, known for such dark themes as with his 1996 debut novel I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.
The rise of Hallyu – Korean popular culture, notably K-pop and K-drama – signals tremendous potential for greater cultural exchange between East and West. This must continue being expanded to include, and enrich, our literature. The recent success of the film Parasite was frustrating as much as it was wonderful – as its director Bong Joon-ho noted, it stepped over a ‘one-inch tall barrier of subtitles’. What impressed me was the newness with which it was regarded, the appeal of its ‘flavour’, ‘local roots’, or ‘otherness’. Having grown up watching subtitled Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese dramas, I wanted childishly to throw it all up crying that there are so, so many more stories which you haven’t found yet but are so very near! So, I proffer forth this Diary of a Murderer.
But then, whenever I go striding with great anticipation into Blackwell’s, I too fall dumb. Just as I was unfamiliar with the glimpses of Korea’s troubled history depicted in Kim’s book, I could not recognise the rising shelves of names before me. Few bookshops present so wide and wonderful a range as Blackwell’s, and I cannot leave this space without also gesturing (slightly frantically) to Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle and Han Kang’s Human Acts.
So many stories! So much to find!