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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Book Review: Seoul brotherhood that lives life on the margins in Young-ha Kim's I Hear Your Voice 

Young-ha Kim's warts-and-all portrayal of young disaffected, disenfranchised or delinquent misfits of Seoul's underbelly recalls Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero

Seoul, South Korea. Getty images
Seoul, South Korea. Getty images

There is a point in Young-ha Kim’s latest novel when one of its ever-questioning, deeply sceptical and beguilingly contrarian characters airs his belief that authors of books “planted something in the first and last page to draw you in”.

The second part of this is bizarre – and what reader looks to the last page of a book to be drawn in? The first part is surely stating the obvious – and what author doesn’t try to draw in the reader on the first page? What is interesting is seeing how Kim, an acclaimed South Korean writer, snares us with his taut and eventful opening.

After a brief prologue comprising a death-defying magic trick, the first page proper of I Hear Your Voice has a birth followed by a near-death and new lease of life. A young woman staggers past the hawkers, beggars and religious fanatics congregated in Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal, enters the toilet and, entirely unaided, and with maximum pain but minimum fuss, brings a baby into the world. Before she is able to smother it, people appear on the bloody scene. The mother is packed off to hospital. Her child, having narrowly escaped infanticide, is handed to a flower-seller, Mama Pig. The child is named Jae and brought up by Mama Pig in an apartment block. Donggyu, a boy of the same age, resides there and the pair become friends. However, when Mama Pig starts drinking and then spirals into meth addiction, Jae is neglected and maltreated, and eventually forced to fend for himself. He drops out of school and is sent to an orphanage, at which point the once inseparable boys drift apart. What begins as a relatively straightforward coming-of-age tale quickly swerves off into a gritty account of what might best be called trying to survive while sinking.

After fleeing the orphanage, Jae finds an ally in homeless girl Mokran, who is entranced by his uniqueness: “You’ve got a way of seeing inside people. It’s like I’ve been found out.” But Jae’s salvation proves to be short-lived. He lives on the streets eating raw rice, then teams up with other teenage runaways who lure him into a wild and desperate half-lit world of depravity in a series of empty, dirty houses. Kim has created bleak scenarios before – his debut novel from 1996, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, dealt with suicide – but here he goes further, blending dark hues with coarse textures. Jae’s wake-up call comes when he hits rock bottom hard: witnessing the torture of a mentally impaired girl. Revolted, he turns his back on this sordid lifestyle, hauls himself out of his rut and develops an improved outlook.

I Hear Your Voice by Young-ha Kim.
I Hear Your Voice by Young-ha Kim.

This outlook almost derails the novel. We learn that Jae abhors any form of extreme suffering, which is fine and laudable. But he is also able to identify with sufferers, and to feel their pain, whether they are “object, machine, animal, or human”. Contradictions appear when Jae steals things, but Kim steps in to explain his logic: “Because he was able to communicate with objects, he believed that so long as he respected the object’s wishes, there was nothing wrong with taking it and using it for a while.”

Fortunately, Jae’s strange affinity and crackpot reasoning are mere blips in the narrative. Both are drowned out completely in the roar of Kim’s final, furious act. Donggyu, who once believed that “The shadow blocking me from the world was Jae”, reconnects with his former friend. Mokran re-emerges to play their mediator.

But as Jae grows in stature, acquiring influence and infamy as leader of a lawless motorcycle gang, the police pick their moment during a huge rally and close in on their wanted man.

Kim excels with his tour of Seoul’s underbelly and his examination, or evisceration, of urban culture.

His warts-and-all portrayal of young disaffected, disenfranchised or delinquent misfits recalls Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, and his characters’ anguished alienation is as palpable as that found in Haruki Murakami’s fiction.

Krys Lee deserves credit for her skilled translation.

As children, Donggyu and Jae make for an effective double-act, particularly when playing behind closed doors in the “elusive utopia” that is a hostess club. But as they grow up and venture out, the novel belongs solely to the besieged but resilient, flawed yet compelling Jae.

Despite the occasional rough edge, this is an absorbing novel about life lived on the skids, on the margins, and, ultimately, in the fast lane.