Book review: Kim Young-ha – Diary of a Murderer

Diary of a MurdererKim Young-ha: Diary of a Murderer and other stories
Translated by Krys Lee
Mariner Books, 2019, 200pp
Originally published as 살인자의 기억법, Munhakdongne, 2013
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Somewhat rashly, I approach Kim Young-ha’s novels with a keen sense of anticipation, particularly when translated by Krys Lee. Rashly, because with high expectations you usually set yourself up for a disappointment.  No chance of that, however, with this particular collection featuring the title novella and three short stories.

Diary of a Murderer takes us inside the mind of a retired serial killer, Kim Byeongsu, as his cognitive abilities decline with dementia. A new serial killer is in town, and Byeongsu’s daughter is a potential victim. How can Byeongsu protect his daughter when he cannot remember his thought process from one day to the next? When he can’t remember to take his medication because he can’t remember what the reminders he set himself on his calendar mean? Byeongsu’s confused mental state is a source of exasperation for his daughter, who is his only carer, but is something he has to battle with daily in order to survive.

Byeongsu is not a sympathetic character. His idea of a place of safety is a prison, preferably solitary confinement, and imagining being in prison “gives me intense pleasure”. He has never been able to relate to people:

I don’t remember ever feeling happy while doing something with others. I had always turned deep inside myself, and in there I discovered a lasting pleasure. (p58)

But because Byeongsu is the narrator, we live inside his mind, feel his frustrations at his weakness, his hatred for the other killer and his concern for his daughter. We do end up sympathising with him.

Diary of a Murderer is the novella on which Won Shin-yeon’s 2017 movie Memoir of a Murderer is based. That is a film I enjoyed, apart from a strange and unnecessary shock moment towards the end. But if I had read the story first, I would probably have been slightly disappointed by the film.

One of the strengths of both the story itself and its adaptation is the way in which both address the scary prospect of losing one’s memory. But in the novel, we only have Byeongsu’s perspective. The story is a first person narrative, told in tiny fragments, sometimes as little as one line, reflecting Byeongsu’s few moments of lucidity. In the movie, we can see the story from the perspective of other observers.

The original Korean cover of Diary of a Murderer
The original Korean cover of Diary of a Murderer

The movie, perhaps reflecting a need for a satisfying climax and resolution to the cat-and-mouse chase, gives us sufficient certainty as to the agency of the different actors. In the movie, we know who the bad guy is, and we know the threat he poses. The novel however pushes the possibilities of the unreliable narrator, and his unreliable memory, to much further lengths, to the extent that as Byeongsu’s mind and memories disintegrate we lose any certainty we might have had as to the identity of the characters he interacts with. It’s an unsettling story, but one that is highly satisfying.

The Origin of Life introduces us to a man who, like the author himself, as a child moved from town to town as his father, who worked in the military, was posted from one job to the next.  Consequently he lacks a home town, somewhere to which he can return and feel he belongs. The nearest thing he has that gives him that feeling is his friendship with his childhood sweetheart, the former girl next door whose father was similarly in the military. This girl, who thus comes to symbolise his life-giving home town, comes to revitalise his life in a way he wasn’t expecting, in a story that is full of closely-observed detail.

Missing Child explores the scenario of a young couple who had their two-year-old child abducted, only to have the child returned a decade later. What did the experience to do the couple in the interim years as they desperately searched for their child? How can they rebuild a relationship with a child who has never really known them? Finally, The Writer is an offbeat story involving failing marriages, extramarital sex and writer’s block. The fact that it is a first person narrative adds an additional layer of complexity to the tale. And it opens with a nice corny joke.

This is a collection that explores the concept of mental health and human relationships in a refreshing, sometimes quirky way. For someone coming new to Kim Young-ha, it’s an excellent introduction, and it would also be a good book to recommend to anyone who has never read anything from Korea before.

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