A spy living a fabricated life as a respectable businessman, husband and father is the embattled protagonist of this ambitious novel from one of Korea’s most admired writers.
We quickly learn that Kim Ki-Yong, an importer of foreign films living in Seoul, was in fact born in North Korea, where he was trained as a spy and sent to South Korea to lay the groundwork for more “agents” like himself to infiltrate the territory pronounced disloyal to increasingly megalomaniacal dictator Kim Jong-il. But Young-Ha Kim (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, 2007) has even bigger fish to fry, in a subtly layered structure of emotionally complex parallel stories. Disregarding an e-mail message that orders him to “return immediately” to North Korea, Kim Ki-Yong scrambles to stay a step ahead of fellow agents watching (and closing in on?) him while attempting to calm the women who do and do not love him. These are his wife Ma-ri, aging ungracefully and entangled in a bitter affair with a calculating younger man; his mistress Soji, who’s the first to sense the full extent of his remoteness and detachment (“It always seemed you weren’t really from here”); and his adolescent daughter Hyon-mi, a “stellar student” and expert player of the classic game Go, whose inchoate relationship with a male classmate subtly parallels both her parents’ erotic misadventures. On another level, Kim’s secrets and demons are contrasted with those of the allies, observers and enemies who will determine the shape of his ever-narrowing future. This intense novel’s bristling plot—confined to the events of a single day—ironically echoes that of Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, in the experiences of Kim (Leopold Bloom), Ma-ri (his wife Molly) and Hyon-mi (Leopold’s ideal “son” Stephen Dedalus).
Challenging, occasionally forced and turgid, but energized by a powerful sense of the difficulty of “belonging” in a dangerous place and time. Perhaps the most intriguing and accomplished Korean fiction yet to appear in English translation.