Diary of a Murderer by Young-Ha Kim
As a reader, I’m calibrated by default toward artful, literary prose, but then a particularly talented writer with a spare style comes along and rocks my boat in the best possible way. Korean author Young-Ha Kim as read in his Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories is one such talent, if still a somewhat unpolished one. Built around the titular story, this collection of work is dark, pithy and unexpectedly droll, full of the twists so well known and beloved in the short-story genre.
To cut to the chase, the novella-length “Diary of a Murderer” is creepy as f*ck and I loved it. The story unspooled in my head like an indie film — a medium in which I think this story would shine, if you’re listening, Netflix. The insights recorded in this killer’s diary are singular and memorable. For instance, he studies and writes poetry, verses about murder that his readers believe to be metaphors:
There isn’t much I do well. I excel at only one thing, but it’s the kind I can’t brag about. Think of the countless people who end up in the grave proud of something they can never share with others.
That insider’s perspective alone could fuel an interesting story, but wait: Kim adds the fascinating challenge of a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Our murderer, who hasn’t acted on his deadly talents for many decades, is losing his memories in order of most recent to least, eroding closer and closer to his younger self as his life unravels around him. Of special interest to this American was the accurate detail that South Korea had a 25-year statute of limitations on murder until 2015. (Before 2007, the limit was 15 years, meaning if you got away with killing someone for that long, you were clear forever. My mind boggles.)
With such interesting reading, I may have lamented the simple sentence structure in a few places, but was otherwise swept along from one story to another, learning other bits of Korean history and culture along the way. In fact, any translated book deserves leeway for awkward or simplistic language. These stories also reveal a few unflattering female characters or stereotypes I could have done without. Even so, while some stories seemed less inspired than others, none were regrettable.
“Missing Child” was a particularly rending tale that follows the consequences of parents losing their 3-year-old son in a supermarket. The kid was there one minute and gone the next, leaving the parents without answers.
Ignorance imprisons man in darkness. The couple entered that darkness and began hurting each other. The vanished two or three minutes of their lives existed inside that darkness. ‘You’re such a careless mother. You should’ve said that you were buying make-up.’ Mira retorted, saying, ‘Who’s the man so crazy about mobile phones that he neglected his son?’
No spoilers, but suffice it to say no character in that drama emerges clean and smelling fresh. At the end of the day and by the end of the book, the disturbing but entertaining taste of Kim’s fiction I got in Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories certainly makes me want to read more of his work. Four of his seven novels are published in the United States! This fresh and unique collection is a great choice for anyone interested in dark, surprising fiction or in expanding their horizons with international authors.