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Published over a decade after its 1996 Korean debut, the English-translation of Kim Young-ha's first novel I Have the Right to Destroy Myself sheds light on Kim's beginnings in the Korean literature scene.
Earlier this year, Harcourt Trade Publishers released an English translation of Kim Young-ha's first novel, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, which was originally published in South Korea back in 1996. In the past decade or so, Kim Young-ha has transitioned from being considered a fresh new voice to being regarded as a respected presence in the Korean literary world. His reputation was cemented in his "Grand Slam" year of 2004, when he took home all three top Korean literature prizes in one year: the Yi Sang Literature Award with The Brother is Back, the Hwang Sun-won Literature Award Prize with Treasure Ship, and the Dong In Literature Award Prize with Black Flower.
Translated by Chi-Young Kim, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is one of the very few Korean novels that have been published by a major American publisher.
"Unfortunately, the American public is not very interested in reading translations," says Chi-Young Kim, citing an National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) study which showed that only 1% of books published in the US are translations. "Conversely, Korean and European readers are much more interested in and exposed to foreign literature," she continues. "In those markets, translations are a large part of what people read."
In fact, before it reached American, British, and Canadian audiences this year, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself had already been translated into German (Das Gottesspiel, literally "The God play") and French (La Mort à demi-mots, literally "Death with half-words"). The book was a hit with the French audience when it came out in 2002. In fact, the film My Right to Ravage Myself, which was based on the book, played in the festival circuits in both France and South Korea before largely disappearing from people's memories.
Set in fast-paced, metropolitan Seoul, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself interweaves four characters (two brothers, C and K, a video artist and a taxi driver, and two peculiar and captivating women, Se-yeon and Mimi) with an ominous first-person narrator who confesses to helping his "clients" commit suicide -- and his desire to document their stories into a novel.
Although I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is the first of Kim Young-ha's books to be translated into English, his debut appears to be a natural choice to introduce US readers to his body of work. Because it's a contemporary story filled with meandering youth, inscrutable relationships, and existential anguish, there are many go-to writers that Western readers and reviewers can compare the novel to for the sake of familiarity (with arguable degrees of truthfulness). For Harcourt Books , it recalls "the emotional tension of Milan Kundera and the existential anguish of Bret Easton Ellis"; Time Out Chicago compares the writing to "the sparse but beautiful prose of Haruki Murakami"; and the Los Angeles Times references Kafka, Camus, and Sartre.
According to Youngju Ryu, an assistant professor of Korean Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Kim Young-ha's Korean may be easier to render into English because the world and sensibility he describes (the urban landscape, the detached and blasé voice, the lonely experiences) are familiar to Western readers.
"Many of the referents that make up Kim's 'urban' imaginary are transnational," says Ryu, "jazz, Western art, consumer culture."
Prevalent throughout the novel are Kim's many international cultural references: from Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath, from Chet Baker's "My Funny Valentine" to Nam Jun Paik's TV Cello, from Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise to TV's Animal Kingdom. In the beginning pages of the novel, the narrator scrutinizes Jacques-Louis David's 1793 oil painting The Death of Marat, in awe of the intricately nuanced facial expression on the just-stabbed Jean-Paul Marat. The pivotal character of Se-yeon is nicknamed Judith, based on her resemblance Gustav Klimt's painting, Judith.
As for cultural references in the novel that were specifically Korean, some of them (such as the bullet taxi) were kept in to keep the Seoul surroundings vivid, and others were meticulously re-appropriated by Chi-young Kim, whose goal was to tease out the most authentic language to keep the reader effortlessly immersed in the story. For example, to make sure the lingo, the psychology, and the strategy of a Korean card game scene were properly and convincingly conveyed into English, Chi-Young Kim had numerous conversations with poker players as well as enthusiasts of the Korean card game.
Kim Young-ha drew a lot of attention when he emerged on the scene in 1996 (with I Have the Right to Destroy Myself and a collection of short stories called The Pager), for being different than the early 1990s writers who were deeply affected by post-democratization disillusionment. His irreverence became iconic for the younger generation who were growing up in the digital age.
According to the 2000 text Twentieth Century Korean Literature, one of Kim Young-ha's defining qualities at the time was that he gave off the impression that "the 'old' is less a thing to be rejected than dismissed as irrelevant." The "old" referred to the psychological wounds that were still being carried around. Instead, Kim experimented with the boundaries of fantasy and reality, focusing on a notion more relevant in the digital age: that "reality can no longer monopolize the realm of experience or serve as the sole guarantee of truth."
I Have the Right to Destroy Myself embodies these ideas through characters that constantly play with different levels of reality. The characters tell each other stories that may or may not be true ("It's funny, the truth makes people uncomfortable, but a lie gets people excited," a character observes). Kim carves out modern characterizations of individuals whose communication is dysfunctionally filtered through art and technology. C, a video artist, "documents" Mimi's performance art show; he films her writhing around naked on a large canvas but can only have a relationship with her if separated by the camera. Also, throughout the book, Se-yeon is only seen through the lens of Klimt's Judith, and in the end, no one really knows who she really is. And to blur the distinction between virtual and real further, the narrator of this entire book (about stories of suicide) speaks to the reader about wanting to write a book about suicides that is based on real life, and we get the sense that he will.
As English-language readers are exposed to Kim Young-ha's I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, we are finally (after eleven years) given access to a work which is widely considered a representative of the "postmodern" turn in Korean fiction. Next up, Chi Young-Kim is scheduled to translate Kim Young-ha's latest novel, 2006's The Empire of Light, which is about the misadventures of a North Korean spy who has been in South Korea for twenty years but has just been ordered to go back North.
*Asia Pacific Arts correction (12/5/07): We originally attributed the US translations statistic to the National Education Association. The stats are actually from the National Endowment of the Arts. Also, the Korean card game scene was incorrectly identified as being substituted for a poker scene. The scene in the novel is still clearly a Korean card game scene, but the translator merely tried to get a feel for the lingo and the psychology behind both of those games.
Date Posted: 11/30/2007