I feel I should have heard of Kim Young-Ha before Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories turned up given that several of his many books have been translated into English. He’s well known in his native South Korea, having won every notable literary prize going, apparently. That alone would have piqued my interest but it was the promise of dark humour that clinched the deal. Each of the four lengthy stories in this collection is deserving of a synopsis to itself.
Diary of a Murderer – Kim is a poetry-loving, ex-serial killer with a long career behind him, now diagnosed with dementia but determined to protect his daughter from the murderer who’s on the loose. When she introduces him to the man she wants to marry his suspicions are aroused but now that he’s incapable of remembering whether he’s had lunch will anyone believe him? And why are the police so interested in a string of murders committed so long ago?
The Origin of Life – Seojin feels cursed by his rootlessness, beginning an affair with the only person he feels connected to, horrified by the bruises inflicted by her violent husband. Soon, he finds himself caught up in a tangled emotional dilemma.
Missing Child – A couple’s three-year-old disappears during a moment of inattention. Ten years later he’s returned to them but a decade of searching for their lost child has taken its toll, and it seems their son is traumatised.
The Writer – A blocked writer hatches a plan to fund his daughter’s education. Taking up his new publisher’s offer of the loan of a New York flat, Mansu finds himself unblocked by the appearance of the publisher’s beautiful estranged wife.
All four of these smartly turned out stories impressed me. Diary of a Murderer, the longest by far, is a particularly clever piece of writing. As Kim’s mind becomes increasingly scattered, unscrambling his confusion becomes almost impossible, both for him, and for us. Young-Ha has created a supremely unreliable narrator, vividly evoking Kim’s mental disarray often with the blackest of humour. The Writer sees the return of that humour, this time bordering on the farcical, with a few playful twists slotted in as Mansu wonders whether he’s the victim of an elaborate plot far superior to any he could devise himself. Both The Origin of Life with its shocking epiphany and Missing Child are more sober although the latter ends on a much-needed note of hope. There’s much to admire in each of these stories but it was the writing in Diary of Murderer that stood out for me:
Each time I read a sentence, it feels like I’m forcibly assembling a machine that’s missing a few crucial parts.
Maybe death is a stiff drink that helps you forget the boring night out that is your life.
How smart is that?
Atlantic Books: London 2020 978183950040 200 pages Paperback