Book review: Cheon Un-yeong — The Catcher in the Loft

The Catcher in the LoftCheon Un-yeong: The Catcher in the Loft
Translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton
Codhill Press, 2019, 191pp
Originally published as 생강, Changbi Publishers, 2011
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This book came almost out of nowhere. Cheon Un-yeong’s Ali Skips Rope was one of the short stories in the excellent collection The Future of Silence – very approachable, but not one of the standout stories, or one that made me remember the author’s name.

When offered a review copy of The Catcher in the Loft, I did not even recognise the author’s name as someone I’d read before. But having checked the synopsis on Amazon and the publisher’s website, I was intrigued: a novel about a former police interrogator / torturer who has to go into hiding and how he is perceived over time by his university age daughter. Having been impressed by Cha Hyun-suk’s stage play Black and White Tea Room – Counsellor, which also looks at the past of a former police interrogator, I wondered how the novel would measure up.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a book where I’ve been so torn: torn between wanting to turn the pages as fast as possible because the story is so immersive and enthralling that you want to know what happens next; and wanting to hold back because the writing is so impressive – sometimes delving deep into the psychology of the two central characters, sometimes turning slightly poetic – that you don’t want to miss a single detail.

The first chapter introduces us to torturer An: a man who takes pride in his work; a true artist. An waxes lyrical about the beauty of the process of breaking down a prisoner by various techniques until he submits and provides the required information. Either the passage is well-researched or the product of a superbly rich imagination: either way, it comes across as startling, believable and immediate. From this virtuoso piece of scene-setting, events build momentum and spin out of control. In a torture cell down the corridor a couple of novice interrogators overstep the mark and there is a fatality.

Though the story is not specific about the precise year this is set, it feels like the early stages of Roh Tae-woo’s presidency. The infrastructure that established the secret police who hunted down communist and labour movement sympathisers is still in place, but becoming a thing of the past and no longer able to rely on the support of the country’s leadership. Torturer An has to take responsibility for the unfortunate death caused by his careless trainees and, at breakneck speed, has to escape and go into hiding, a price on his head. And although for a while his former bosses are able to protect him, soon he has no-one he can trust apart from his wife and daughter, who are under constant surveillance from those who are trying to track him down.

The chapters alternate between first-person narratives by father and daughter. And after the adrenalin and machismo of the first chapter, the second chapter opens with an abrupt change of pace as the daughter gets her ears pierced. She is soon to go to university, and she is full of enthusiasm and anticipation for the next phase in her life. She goes to the shops to buy clothes that a grown-up girl wears, and discusses her hopes with her best friend Chini.

Over the course of twelve and a bit chapters, the torturer, formerly a powerful bear of a man, shrinks into a shadow of his former self, cooped up in a tiny loft for what turns out to be over a decade. Meanwhile his daughter, who once looked up to her father, whom she always regarded as doing his patriotic duty, meets some of his former victims and learns of the damage he has wrought on other people’s lives. The balance of power and dependency is completely inverted, and the daughter is able to start inflicting torture in her own special way.

While the story is exciting and interesting, it’s hard to imagine the book being turned into a movie. Part of the pleasure of reading the novel is something that’s difficult to present on-screen, namely the author’s delicate portrayal of the daughter’s internal life: the thrill she gets from her first feelings of sexual attraction, the disappointment she feels when friendships don’t stand the text of time.

I can’t remember a novel that I’ve wanted to reread immediately to re-experience the pleasure of the first encounter, and maybe to find new pleasure in detail that I have missed. This is one such novel, and if it’s not my book of the year for 2020 then I’m going to have an enjoyable reading schedule over the coming months.

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4 thoughts on “Book review: Cheon Un-yeong — The Catcher in the Loft

  1. Just finished writing a review of this myself, but I hadn’t twigged that it was by the author of the Ali story! Yes, an excellent read, although I’d probably say that the father’s parts are generally better than the daughter’s (especially the early ones).

  2. I look forward to reading your review. I didn’t pick up that this was the author of Ali until I was a couple of chapters in. Confession: given the excitement and energy of the first chapter I assumed it was a male author, and therefore I was surprised at the tenderness and deft change of tone in the second. I’m interested in your comment that her depiction of the father’s perspective is better than the daughter’s. I think I probably agree: maybe the daughter’s change of attitude came a bit quickly – though maybe I missed something in the detail and need to go back and read more carefully. It’s a book where I’d be happy to do that.

  3. Just about to start this one based on both your reviews.

    One quick comment is that this is based I believe on a real story – 이근안 the torturer of 김근태 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Geun-tae), who was in hiding for 11 years until 1999 when he was arrested. The movie National Security (남영동) also tells a fictionalised version of the torture episode.

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