A dark, headlong dive into suicide

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A dark, headlong dive into suicide

Kim Young-ha’s “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” has everything you could want from a new writer’s first novel: alluring and disturbed women, urban disillusionment, death and lots of sex.

Of course, Kim is no longer a new novelist; this book was originally published in Korean in 1996, and the author has since become a pillar of the local literary scene. In 2004, he cemented his position by racking up all three of the major local literary prizes in a single year ? the Hwang Sun-won Literature Award for “Treasure Ship,” the Yi Sang Literature Award for “The Brother is Back,” and the Dong In Literature Award Prize for “Black Flower.”

But the book just became available to English-speaking audiences last year, having previously been released in German and French. It became a cult hit among the existentialist set in France.

Kim Chi-young’s translation makes you wonder why it didn’t come out in English sooner. The book has undeniably cinematic undertones that draw on American filmic themes, albeit filtered through a smoggy Seoul sensibility. It also steers clear of the saccharine melodrama that pervades much of Korean popular culture and makes it unappetizing to Western tastes.

I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is a sparse, chilling book. It opens with an anonymous narrator analyzing the facial expression of Marat in Jacques-Louis David’s painting “The Death of Marat.” His creepy commentary on David’s portrayal of death suggest that we may be dealing with a serial killer.

We are not, however; our narrator instead walks his “clients” through the process of committing suicide.

He looks at his projects as art, which leads into the tidy trick that Kim drops in next ? the story becomes a novel that the suicide assister is writing about his customers.

The detached guide frequently speaks in artistic terms, and shoots off to Europe when he finishes a contract to sashay around the art galleries of the old world. Cultural cues are all distinctly worldly, giving the story a sense of international artistic weight.

And Kim Young-ha is doing just that when it comes to Korean literature. Korean writers are as yet seldom translated into English, but this dry, riveting little novel is helping open the floodgates.

The characters play no small part in the book’s success. The narrator’s “novel” revolves around brothers K and C and their crisscrossing love affairs with two twisted ladies, who also just so happen to end up as clients of our guide.

While their voices are very Hollywood film noir (“I’m not turned on.” “Try choking me. That’ll turn you on.”), the protagonists are still very much Seoulites, extracted from the city’s sidelines. K drives a taxi at suicidal speeds between Busan and Seoul, and C is a video artist who sulks around the cafes of Daehangno.

The two ill-fated females are Se-yeon, also called “Judith” because of her resemblance to the Klimt painting, and Mimi. Both are painfully sexual, keep the men around them guessing, stare hollowly out of windows and are deeply miserable inside.

The book is full of scenes like this: Judith, after finishing off a car sex session in a snowstorm with C, turns to him and says, “You’ll never be able to kill anyone. ... There are two kinds of people. Those who can kill and those who can’t. The second kind is worse.”

C, understandably exhausted, falls asleep while she’s talking.

These barbs, piercing and dull at the same time, are what makes this book such a compelling read. As you turn the pages, passing between Vienna and Seoul, passion and pain, you feel the endless emptiness of existence open beneath you, and absolutely relish it.

Author: Kim Young-ha

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Harcourt

By Richard Scott-Ashe Deputy Editor [richard@joongang.co.kr]
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