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I have the right to destroy myselfI Have the Right To Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim
Translated by Chi-Young Kim

A Harvest Original/Harcourt 2007 (1996)
Trade Paperback
119 pages
South Korean Flag

The nameless narrator of I Have the Right to Destroy Myself has an unusual job. He seeks out people – or lets them come to him – who need help, who are in a rough spot, who contain within them the germ of death but who need just a bit of help getting there. His clients kill themselves, and his kind of therapy helps them do it. He’s no murderer – in that he has never killed anyone himself, he’s never passed over the bottle of pills or slit any wrists – but he’s there, with them, in their final hour. Someone to say goodbye to perhaps. At the end of each “job”, he takes a trip, sees another European country – he must make a lot of money from this “career”.

He styles himself as a kind of god, or a god in the making. He seeks to give these poor souls a voice, and writes a novel recording their stories – and their deaths. And so we learn of Se-yeon, also known as Judith because of her resemblance to the Judith in Klimt’s painting – at least, that is how C sees her when he walks into his apartment after his mother’s funeral to find his younger brother, K, having sex with her on his lounge room floor. Se-yeon/Judith is a runaway, an abused teen being constantly taken advantage of. She possibly has an addiction to sex, which also bore her, and seems to be a compulsive liar. She almost always has a lollipop in her mouth – making sex with her dangerous unless you didn’t mind losing an eye, or so C thinks. Both brothers are sleeping with her, but neither of them seems to really care about her – but both are lost when she dies.

C is an artist who works with video, and for an upcoming exhibition at a local gallery he meets a performance artist, Mimi, who’s never been filmed or photographed and who uses her naked body to paint canvases. She agrees to let C film her and create a piece of video art to complement her own live performance, but seeing herself on film robs her of her soul and she too seeks death.

The narrator, meanwhile, takes a trip to Prague where he meets a young, cynical woman at a museum, looking at Klimt’s painting of Judith, and starts one of his short holiday affairs with her. She only drinks Coke, lots and lots of Coke, and sees water as poison. Finally she tells him the story of why she can’t drink water, a shocking and possibly true story that deeply unsettles him. But he writes his novel, prints it out and submits it to a publisher only with a kind of memorial sentiment.

When I finish a job, I travel. When I come back I write about the client and our time together. Through this act of creation, I strive to become more like a god. There are only two ways to be a god: through creation or murder.

Not all executed contracts become stories. Only clients who are worth the effort are reborn through my words. This part of my work is painful. But this arduous process bears witness to my sympathy and love for my clients. [p.10]

This was Kim’s first novel, published back in 1996, and was received very well apparently. For myself, it was just plain disappointing. I loved the beginning, it started with such promise and a deep and eery atmosphere – that sensation of possibility, of speculation, of wondering and feeling like you’re on the edge of something dark, Murakami-style. I would have loved a bit of magical realism or something, to give it that kind of edge. Instead it turned out very pedestrian and rather dull.

The narrator was the only mildly interesting character, though the woman he sleeps with in Europe was rather curious too, in a manic, obsessive kind of way (she was a bit scary to be honest). You never really understand these people or even what exactly is going on. It’s not that the story isn’t told with the right details in the right places or that the non-linear structure is confusing – it isn’t – but it just, ironically perhaps, lacked soul to me. It was superficial, aiming at the kind of writing that says a lot with few words, but failing to make any real connection or insightful commentary. I couldn’t have cared less about these people, though I did feel sad for them, in a detached kind of way. The superfluous details in a “tell” style – and the narrator’s habit of linking everything to famous old (European) paintings – seemed to be trying to get across a kind of meaningful, philosophical or at least a poetic kind of understanding, like reaching to deeper meaning through mundanity, but never offered any deeper meaning to me. The only thing to come over strongly was how depressing it all was.

C thought back to that snowy day. Judith, who had disappeared five months ago, riding away on the snowplow, seemed more and more real. He felt her absence infiltrating his life, though he hadn’t thought about her in months. He burrowed into the sofa and tried to remember Judith. But he couldn’t remember anything specific, not even her face. Instead, images of the North Pole, Chupa Chups, a snowball and dull sex circled in his head. [p.80]

At the front of the book are numerous quotes from journals and magazines from around the world, praising the novel and the author for “his amazing imagination”, “uncommon creativity” and “grotesque images”, his “joyful cynicism”, for being “manipulative and twisted” and “cool, urban and very clever”. One in particular struck me: “Fast-paced, comic, slick, and heavily under the American influence.” Going back and reading these after finishing the book, I had one of those moments of feeling completely confused. We really do all read in different ways, and it’s great that this book connected so vividly and richly with other readers/reviewers, but sadly it did not happen with me. It lacked in so many ways, failing to resonate with me or even impress me – I don’t know how much the translation affects this, but I didn’t even think the writing was particularly good (even when I dislike a book, I can still be impressed by the writing; not in this case).

All sorts of things could have made this book work better for me, including a stronger sense of atmosphere or even a Korean experience – this book could have been set almost anywhere, for the city was as faceless and nameless as the characters. I often wonder, with books like this, whether that’s the author’s intention, but even if it is it doesn’t make this an interesting or particularly insightful read. The social commentary taking place didn’t interest me, not because I’m not interested in what makes me people take their own lives, but because Kim made it really rather boring and uninspiring (of intellectual thought and even emotion). It’s a subject matter that, when handled well, can be powerful and disturbingly beautiful, but in this case is rendered almost ordinary – not in a commonplace way, but in a (shrug) “so they’re dead, who cares?” kind of way. And that glimpse of something dark and edgy in the beginning – that vanished, and the narrator too became just an ordinary, if slightly creepy, onlooker. In the end, it just wasn’t creepy enough, atmospheric enough, insightful enough, to offer anything new. Such a disappointment.

around the world 2013


Other Reviews:

I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is a short but satisfying weaving together of art, sex and death. It is light on action and has only a slender plot, but it is atmospheric and compelling in its presentation of characters and its evocation of a ‘noir’ Seoul.” Danny Yee’s Book Reviews

“The writing is wonderful. Too bad Kim never hooks the reader with any type of convincing plot or character development. Expanded, it could have had a lot more going for it. I felt like what I read was a summary of a better, fully-realized novel.” Virtual Margin

“Every page oozes creepy, not to mention the undeniable misogyny within. And in spite of raising nervous goosebumps, award-winning Young-ha Kim certainly draws you into his lurid imagination – yes, like a bad train wreck, you can’t turn away.” Book Dragon

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