Diary of a Murderer by Kim Young-ha

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Delving into Diary of a Murderer, one is filled with a curious sense of unease. Despite holding short stories of definite direction and plots, one wanders around inside them as if in a David Lynch movie. We have characters, progressions and plot twists, but they somehow the tone of these stories supersedes their storylines. There are beatings and blood, terror and tears, but these images are surprisingly quiet and constrained. It is like watching an action movie on mute: explosions of red and yellow, but no boom; guns kicking-back but with no pop; fates of the sweaty protagonists rendered inconsequential by the silence. Kim Young-Ha’s stories encapsulate a certain sense of detachment, like we look into these plots from a peep-hole in the wall, rather than by standing at the protagonist’s side. There are dramatic events, but no drama. Fates seem to haunt these characters, rather than chase them. This collection is an experiment in the uncanny, where much is set at sharp angles and pieces can’t quite come to sit together.

The title story, perhaps best reflects this mode of storytelling. In it an aging serial killer considered leaving his retirement from killing to fulfil one last kill. The story is broken up into brief and scattered diary entries. We encounter a person who has committed gross crimes, but we see him in a vulnerable state – his memory failing as Alzheimer’s sets in. The contrast of the calculatedness of planned murder against the chaos of a brain unravelling from the inside-out makes for a fascinating read, but it is the emotional interactions which prove the most interesting aspect of this story. The murderer cares for his adopted daughter, Eunhui (adopted in the sense that he stole she when he killed her parents), but their interactions are strained, punctuated by silence, full of unelucidated sentiments. Characters do not pour their emotions out, they are stated quite plainly in the text, exposing wrought emotions quite starkly. The same technique is employed with violence. It populates this and the other stories, but it happens with no build-up, bluntly, boldly, without any crescendo. Pain is laid quite bare, even as the situation in the murderer’s head becomes more and more confused.

The other stories are similarly dark and sparse. One that stands out after the title story is ‘Missing child’. The story again finds us exposed to sharp emotions and brutal violence. A family loses a child, but unlike most missing child stories we follow the plot when the boy is returned ten years later. A family has to deal with the consequences of being reunited just as much as it dealt with being apart. Young-Ha is particularly adept at dropping in a sentence at the end of paragraphs that relays dark news to you as if it is a comment on the weather. We again find ourselves in the uncanny. The lost child doesn’t want his old family back, the father doesn’t know he if even wants this new version of his son despite looking relentlessly for him. Resentment and anger drips into the text, quietly like it is dripping from a leaky tap and a constant sense of uneasy hangs over everyone involved until its closing sentence.

Violence is a prominent theme in these stories. We have the violence of murder, domestic violence and of suicide. Its prominence makes for pessimistic reading. Another recurring theme is trust, or the inability to trust. There is an emphasis on a lack of trust in all these stories, a sense of people not truly knowing one another to the point where their fragile relationships fall apart. In fact, the problems of trusting another is so pronounced that it often seems to hint at questioning the very point of the relationships in the first place. The daughter doesn’t know her father, the missing child cannot trust the father he is reunited with and the adulterer does not know his lover has a lover -these relationships are barely relationships at all and they are all too ready to be pulled apart.

Diary of a Murderer, stands out in the sense that outwardly seems to commit to the psychological drama, but to a certain extent forsakes the tension that goes along with the genre. These are well-plotted stories, exploring novel ideas, set in among modern metropolitan life, but the key to their interest is not their violence, or plot-twists, but the uneasiness with which these stories wash through the reader. This is an interesting mode of story-telling and it works particularly well in the short-story format. We await to see what strange and uncanny tales Kim Young-Ha will tell next, and prepare in earnest, as we expect that they won’t be a relaxing bath-time read

Diary of a Murderer is published by Allen & Unwin and is available here.

Kim Young-ha

Kim Young-ha is the author of seven novels, including the acclaimed I Have the Right to Destroy Myself and Black Flower. He has won every major Korean literature award, and his works have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Reviewed by Jessica Gregory


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