Young-Ha Kim (2007), I have the right to destroy myself, Harcourt
[Translated by Chi-Young Kim]
So, as you’ll notice in this review, I am so extremely under-read in Korean literature that all my frames of reference for this book are non-Korean. I have read a paltry handful books by Korean writers, but not enough to notice resemblances or traditions. Certainly none of the Korean books I have read resembles this one in any way. This does not, however, lead me to suppose that Young-Ha Kim’s novel I have the right to destroy myself is unique among Korean books. My reading is just shamefully, miserably lacking. That said, I do think that the novel works well even for a reader who is not acquainted with the larger cultural and literary contexts. One reason for this is that many of the literary allusions and references are actually European and American ones. For a European reader, it’s interesting to see Europe treated as a geographical other, which allows the book’s narrator to take a break from his life, and implicitly compare & contrast with his life back in South Korea. There’s an almost Irvingian whimsy to the role that Vienna plays in the novel’s structure. As a whole, the book is certainly worth reading. It’s a dense narrative about a love triangle and suicide, about ekphrasy and life, and it’s also a -possibly unintentional- meditation on the misogyny that underwrites our narratives on each of these things. There is an air of immature disaffection throughout the book, but apart from the occasional banal meditations on life, much of Kim’s novel is fairly exact, all of its parts serving a purpose. If anything, it’s too overdetermined, too focused. It lacks a certain levity, a certain creative freedom. For a short book that I ended up enjoying quite a bit, all told, I came remarkably close to abandoning it mid-way. It can appear to be nothing more than a smug intellectual exercise, a kind of book that I’ve only ever seen men write. I recommend sticking it out. The final discussions of suicide ring remarkably true to me and I feel that the book does an exceptional job of tying together its various threads without actually offering a resolution to most of its characters.
So as I said on the outset, I have not read a ton of Asian literature, in part because I am wary of translation, in part because of availability issues, in part because I dislike some of the popular writers. So when I read a book like this, there’s a temptation to read it in some vague pan-Asian context. The harshness – is this like Murakami and his use of American noir? Clearly, Western literature is an influence, but my mind, instead of reading is broader, considering Handke, maybe, or French existentialism or the roman nouveau, immediately went to American crime fiction, one of the few cultural touchstones that’s not actually dealt with in the book. So why? The only reason coming to mind is some dim connection to one of the few other Asian novelists I’ve read, Murakami. Similarly, the desolation and bleakness of the book made me think not of other Korean writers, or of one of the many explicit literary references, or, again, the Austro-French cohort of darkness. It made me think of Osamu Dazai, whose novel No Longer Human has been a touchstone to me for many years. There is, to my reading, no obvious textual element in the book that would make me connect it to Dazai and not to some other writer of despair and suicide. The only connection, again, is the shared ‘Asian’ heritage of their authors. If I were to review Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s recently finished trilogy, and I was discussing the parts set in Asia, my mind wouldn’t associate the spareness of the book with Japanese writers, at least not primarily. Toussaint’s roots are elsewhere, in a tradition that includes Robbe-Grillet. But for French literature, I can access -correctly or not- a context. For Asian books – especially Korean – I cannot.
That’s actually what makes this book -for me- so rereadable. It’s like the first read, for me, helped to wash off my first wave of associations and then try to look at the text again in a second or third reading. And despite its spare writing and the sometimes flat pop-cultural discussions and quasi-philosophic statements, the novel is intricate enough to warrant and reward rereads. As I said earlier, it’s a bit lacking in energy and inspiration, but its construction is frequently remarkable. Take this example: the novel tells us two stories. One is of two brothers who fall in love with the same woman, Se-yeon, who is also called Judith for her resemblance to Adèle Bloch-Bauer in Klimt’s painting of Judith and Holofernes. The other strand of narrative is about an unnamed narrator who sidles up to sad, lost-looking people, primarily women, and offers them a way out, for a fee. A curated suicide, if you will. He listens to their stories and gives them advice regarding methods, means and timing. Once his task is completed, he takes a trip abroad and writes a book telling the women’s stories. So it’s basically two novels in one, but they are connected through the women, as the two brothers, and the narrator both encounter Judith/Se-yeon. So the struggle, silent, unspoken, between the two brothers is mirrored in a struggle between the brothers and the narrator, a struggle that serves as a larger conflict between life and death. A second woman, later in the book, even goes back and forth between one of the brothers and the nameless narrator, similar to how Judith slept with both brothers. In this literary game, women have very little agency. When Mimi picks death, she says about one of the brothers “He couldn’t save me.” The narrator does answer “Nobody can save anyone,” but the novel never makes the alternative explicit: that we have to save ourselves. That it is this passivity that allow death to enter the lives of all the people in the book, even, if only in the form of a death wish and a contemplation of suicide, the lives of the two brothers.
The narrator is the only one completely untouched by this. That is certainly in part due to the fact that he is the only truly active person. He literally writes the story of the lives he touched. They blink out, and he puts out a book. This is an unsubtle, but nifty allusion to the way society generally structures narratives between the powerful and the powerless. It is no accident that the novel starts with a contemplation of Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat.” That picture was meant to stir up revolutionary fervor, and it draws heavily on Christian iconography. Marat was murdered by a woman, Charlotte Corday, but she’s not in the picture. She’s not really important. A letter in his hand records her anger, but the final word, unwritten, belongs to Marat, who is shown to have died pen in hand, asking the revolutionaries implicitly to finish that reply for him. Corday is really unimportant to the larger picture which is about a great man dying in the manner of a saint. Even the knife she stuck in Marat has been removed by the artist. Similarly, I have the right to destroy myself is about the actions and passions of men. Women may appear, but of the three women featured prominently, only the last one’s emotions and passions are actively discussed in even minor detail, and that only serves to illuminate the ineffectiveness of one of the brothers’ efforts and entreaties. I have no idea whether the title (titles are often not even picked by translators but by the publisher) is accurately translated, but if so, it’s the oddest inversion, given that the only person consistently speaking in first person singular is the unnamed angel of death, who is, by far, the person least likely to destroy themselves in the whole book. I have difficulties deciding whether what I see as a more or less explicit spin on gender and misogyny is intentional or accidental. The title’s interesting spin on the book makes me think intentional. Other elements of the book are more ambiguous.
The reason for this is the general air of comfy laddish existentialism. You know the kind. It’s not atypical of debut novels written by men. It starts with all these inane, flat, faux-insightful phrases like “An artist’s supreme virtue is to be detached and cold.” or “There are two kinds of people. Those who can kill and those who can’t. The second kind is worse.” Most of these are spoken by the nameless narrator, but some, like that second quote, are given to the other characters – that suggests a lack of control. Or rather: a lack of awareness of the flat properties in these statements. Another element typical of the laddish ‘bleak’, detached style is an almost dismissive, derisive treatment of female sexuality. Now, it’s true that none of the book’s characters are bundles of joys between the sheets, as far as I can tell, but quotes like the following have a certain haut goût that’s a bit brazing, especially because it’s reserved for the female characters:
I thought of something fun to do,” she says, packing the snow into a small ball, the size of a golf ball. She parts her legs, giggling. The snowball slides up inside of her. She still has a lollipop in her mouth. She shivers. Her brow is furrowed for a long time, as if she can still feel the snow on her skin.
Nothing slides up in any of the male characters. Other female characters are given water that makes them vomited, filmed intimately etc. Female bodies are used as symbols, as objects, as means to a narrative end. Finally, it’s the language itself that feeds into this perception of laddish misogyny. That quote represents the book overall fairly well. Short sentences without the depth that we find, say, in Hemingway’s early work, and a disaffection without the stylistic control that Bret Easton Ellis’ good books exhibit. I have not mentioned the translator so far, because I have no idea how good Chi-Young Kim’s work is. I’m inclined to believe it’s good, because in this book, style and content complement each other. It’s plausible that this book would be written in this style and the book overall is short enough for this writing not to become grating. What’s more, the style is similar to the sparse writing that the poems of Ko Un exhibit, in a collection that was translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach.
That previous paragraph offers some evidence, I think, for the book’s faults to be the author’s and not elements that Kim was aware of and critiqued. At the same time, I was never able to shake the feeling that the book as a whole was a kind of performance. The final chapter is the only one where we really see the narrator accompany a woman to her death, and in it, the narrator offers us a third painting and his description of it. That painting is The Death of Sardanapale by Delacroix and in his enthusiastic description, the narrator ends with this dubious but interesting statement: “Delacroix understood the inner thoughts of a person presiding over death.” That is it – but that sentence is so absurd, so self centered and unaware that it’s impossible not to read this description as really being an unflattering description of the narrator’s state of mind – after all, this is a common function of ekphrasis. What’s more, his books, the ones we are told are being written and published, the books that contain the lives of the women whose death he has supported – I find it interesting to consider those books, to their audience, to be part of a canon with a particularly enduring tradition, starting in the 19th century: of men writing books on the desperate lives of women, frequently ending in suicide. The most famous, at least for this German reader is Arthur Schnitzler’s masterful novella Fräulein Else (collected in English in Desire and Delusion: Three Novellas, translated by Margret Schaefer), a book generally praised for its intense yet nuanced psychological portrait of a woman driven to suicide. Kim shows us the commonalities among those books and what they share with that more modern or postmodern laddish literature of disaffection. It is, finally, the title, after all, that, for me, unlocks the book. The odd inversion that I mentioned carries all the weight of balancing so many ambiguities. Jean Améry, still the author of the best book on suicide, despite the awful, harmful pap recently published by Jennifer Michael Hecht (Stay) and Matt Haig (Reasons to stay alive). In contrast to these writers, Améry points to the validity of making such a decision for yourself. In making the title the one space where the suicidal women of his book get to really express an active wish, Kim exposes the gap at the root of so many books on suicide, men or ‘modern society.’
And yet – is this enough? An intelligently structured and clearly written book does not great literature make and the flatness of the style, while fitting the structure of the book, does not transform into an aesthetically pleasing object for all that it is well considered. I liked reading this book, and rereads enhanced my pleasure, which is a good sign. But I, as a reader, am biased. I have been in the headspace of women like that, and I’ve had a friend who took the role of that nameless narrator – and despite squandering that opportunity, the few things we learn about the women, the few words they get to speak about their death, they ring true to me. So take what I said with a grain of salt. But if you want even less ambivalently positive takes on the book, you could read this one from Tony and this one, by MAO himself.
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