City of Ash and Red is a novel for 2020, even though it was originally published in 2010. Inspired no doubt in part by the SARS outbreak of 2002-3, Pyun Hye-young imagines a world where a virus has the potential to shut down whole countries, in which visitors are tested for infection on arrival at an airport and forced into quarantine.
The central character in this imagined world is known only as “the man”. Like many of Pyun’s characters, particularly those in her excellent short story collection Evening Proposal, the man is trapped by a mundane job, swept along by events beyond his control. He works for a company that makes pest control products and finds that his boss has singled him out for promotion and a coveted transfer to head office in Country C not because of his management potential or other office skills – he is worse than mediocre – but because he once killed a rat. Having won the enmity of his colleagues, jealous of his unjustified success, his escape to Head Office will bring a welcome relief, but events take a hand. Like an extended episode of Mister Bean, mishap piles upon mishap and the nightmare darkens. On arrival in Country C, Head Office doesn’t seem to know anything about his transfer, his suitcase containing all his necessities is stolen, he is in a spartan apartment in a desolate, rubbish-infested district of a country in lockdown, and he finds he is the chief suspect for the recent bloody murder of his ex-wife.
More than once, the man muses that when you’ve hit rock bottom, things can’t get any worse. In the situation he found himself, “where plundering and pillaging were a means of livelihood, then the only true asset was to own nothing” (p48). It was like when he went on a trip with his wife a few years back, when the two of them went to visit a temple deep in a tropical jungle only to be beset by an army of foul-smelling thieving monkeys who were intent on stealing anything on their person: in that nightmarish scenario “he knew when it would end. It would end when he had nothing more to lose” (p149). He does indeed hit rock bottom. He, the rat-killer, ends up living in the sewers like a rat. It as if Pyun is experimenting with him, like a rat in a laboratory, to see what he will do next. But Pyun’s world is one where the characters almost have no agency of their own, and again it is by chance that the man gets hauled out of the sewers back to a mediocre life above ground, to do what he does best.
Despite all evidence to the contrary though, Pyun insists that agency is possible. Maybe it’s just her central character who finds it hard to gather the wherewithal to influence events, but looks instead to blame the overwhelming power of external forces:
He could not accept the idea that his marriage had fallen apart and that he had caused pain to the person he loved – in other words, that he alone had ruined everything – because of a mistaken idea. What drove him to that failure had to be something outside of himself, if not his wife’s infidelity then a society that had driven him to suspicion. (p66)
As if to emphasise this point, once the man eventually emerges from the sewers and begins to lead a life of some normality in Country C we find him taking a questionable course of action that makes us think that maybe he was responsible for his wife’s murder after all. Nevertheless even here we find ourselves feeling slightly sorry for him, almost exonerating him because of the circumstances in which he finds himself. Maybe it’s not the man, the laboratory rat, that Pyun is experimenting with, but with us, the readers. Whatever, it’s an interesting experiment and we look forward to more from her pen.
Pyun Hye-young: City of Ash and Red
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Arcade Publishing, 2018, 223pp
Originally published as 재와 빨강, Changbi Publishers, 2010.