Electrifying Reads from the Other Side of the World: Seven Korean Thrillers in Translation [in The Booklist Reader]
Despite my Korean heritage, I don’t read the language well enough to enjoy Korea’s latest, greatest titles. Thankfully, notable Korean-to-English translators, especially Sora Kim-Russell, Deborah Smith, and Chi-Young Kim, enable all Anglophone audiences to discover – and for many of us, become ardent fans of – contemporary Korean literature.
Since May is Booklist’s annual Mystery Month, these chilling thrillers offer quite the gripping introduction to lauded, electrifying authors from the other side of the world.
The Boy Who Escaped Paradise by J.M. Lee and translated by Chi-Young Kim
Lee’s silent protagonist sits in a New York City cell, accused of murder and terrorism. His more notable possessions include four fake passports and 19 pages of mathematical formulas written in an unidentifiable language. The nurse in charge interrupts an aggressive FBI interrogation to care for the protagonist’s gunshot wound. Under her ministrations, the suspect will divulge the details of a quest that originated in North Korea and lands in North America. He moves through a prison camp, casinos, hotel rooms, action flicks, and international markets – all to fulfill a childhood promise of everlasting care (and love). “There’s magic in this world. And miracles,” Lee writes. By the end of the book, you’ll believe him.
City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun and translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Leaving behind envious fellow employees, a nameless antihero known only as “the man” is transferred to Country C to work at “the main office” of a pest-extermination company. Detained overnight at the airport for being a potential health risk in a nation already plagued by a deadly virus, the man finally arrives at his prearranged apartment in a district built over a reclaimed landfill oozing with filthy waste. His suitcase is stolen, including his phone, which severs any connections to his previous life. His attempt to find someone to release the dog he abandoned at home sets in motion a fugitive’s odyssey marked by murder, park-bench wars, sewer hideaways, and rats.
The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong and translated by Chi-Young Kim
The opening sentence – “The smell of blood woke me” – gives way to a young man discovering his mother’s freshly murdered corpse. He’s gone off his epilepsy medications again, and has trouble remembering, but he’s determined to figure out what happened. Initially, the whodunit and howdunit seem obvious. What’s left to solve is the whydunit. The manipulations multiply as details of that horrific night are meted out, interspersed with glimpses of what happened before – the tragic loss 16 years earlier of the father and older brother, a mother’s failed suicide attempt, a psychiatrist aunt with a shocking diagnosis of a six-year-old, the adoption of a lookalike brother – what happens after. Meanwhile, the body count inevitably grows.
The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun and translated by Sora Kim-Russell
When Oghi wakes from his coma, the world doesn’t align with his last memories. He survived a car accident, but his wife is dead, and he’s completely paralyzed. At 47, Oghi is parentless and childless, with few friends and colleagues at the university where he teaches. His widowed mother-in-law is now “his only family and legal guardian.” In her care, silently trapped in his damaged body, Oghi loses all control of what happens around him, to him, and because of him. As Oghi remembers more about the accident, his mother-in-law learns intimate details about the life of her now deceased daughter. The facade of their happy union cracks and crumbles, with terrifying results.
The Investigation by J.M. Lee and translated by Chi-Young Kim
Watanabe Yuichi sits behind bars in Japan’s infamous Fukuoka Prison. After World War II, the former “soldier-guard” is now an incarcerated “low-level war criminal” under U.S. control. His written confession, which highlights two people – “one prisoner and one guard; one poet and one censor” – becomes a chronicle of “war’s destruction of the human race.” The still-teenaged Watanabe was assigned to investigate the gruesome murder of a fellow prison guard, whose treatment of Korean prisoners was particularly vicious. One inmate claims responsibility; another will lead Watanabe to the shocking truth. Inspired by the too-brief life of Korean poet-hero Yun Dong-Ju, whose surviving verses are hauntingly interspersed throughout, The Investigation is magnificent testimony to the profound efficacy of literature and the liberating, lifesaving act of reading.
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin and translated by Chi-Young Kim
The Korean title of this indelible novel, Omma rul put’ak hae, contains a sense of commanding trust that is missing in its English translation: “I entrust Mommy [to you].” That trust is irreparably splintered when ‘Mom’ disappears after becoming separated from her husband on a busy Seoul Station platform. Over the course of the novel, the character of Mom – a rural farmwoman whose “hands could nurture any life” – is depicted by four distinct voices: her eldest daughter, whose books Mom couldn’t read; her eldest son, for whom she could never do enough; her husband, who never slowed down; and finally, Mom herself, as she wanders through memories both strange and familiar. Shin’s breathtaking novel is an acute reminder of how easily a family can fracture, how little we truly know one another, and how desperate need can sometimes overshadow even the deepest love.
The Plotters by Un-Su Kim and translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Reseng has been a professional assassin for 15 years; that he’s survived this long is remarkable. Pulled from a garbage can as an infant and nunnery-raised until he turned four, Reseng then grew up fostered by a killer called Old Raccoon, living in his “gloomy, labyrinthine library” named the Doghouse. Discovering literacy at nine (he never went to school), Reseng avoids boredom and loneliness by reading books, from Sophocles to Calvino, in between his murderous assignments from “the plotters” – the elite, beyond-the-law puppetmasters who control their putative democracy in post-military-dictatorship style. Reseng’s life continues smoothly enough until he finds a bomb in his toilet. His search for the bombmaker leads him to two orphaned sisters and a cross-eyed librarian from his past and onward to an ultimate plot that might save the world – or not.