I pushed the videotape into the VHS player. I figured it was some movie brought by one of the other tragic Koreans who had stayed at this house. I’d see what it was, then ask Werke if I could borrow it later. I was about to plug in the vacuum cleaner but a man with almost conjoined eyebrows was saying something. I looked closer at him. I stared at the screen with the plug in my hand. Then, I approached the TV and sat down in front of it. I saw that video three times that afternoon. Its contents were absolutely shocking.
Hak is a student activist during the tumultuous Korean democracy movement of the 1980s. He falls in love with a bright fellow activist named Jungmin whose cleverness and sense of humor helps her mask her tragic past. As their relationship develops—over endless conversations, an impromptu train trip to the country, and student demonstrations clouded with tear-gas—the two lovers slowly unravel each other’s secrets, guilt, and desires, drawing closer to each other as the world around them begins to fall apart.
Meanwhile, a young man gets off the bus at Gwangju, recently of the Gwangju Democracy Movement of May 18th, 1980 (see Deborah Smith’s introduction to Han Kang’s Human Acts). He is befriended by an older man, a former activist still scarred from those recent events, and they enter into a tortured, sadomasochistic relationship. The former activist, in protest, self-immolates himself in the middle of Gwangju traffic, and the young man is arrested. Student activists rally themselves around the young man, and he is eventually released as an unwitting hero of movement, but this is just the beginning of his troubles.
Hak, in an attempt to make it into North Korea as a student representative from Seoul, ends up in Germany where he stays with a Holocaust survivor. He meets the formerly imprisoned activist, whose past he finds out is more complicated than he could ever imagine. Along the way to entering North Korea, Hak hears countless interconnected stories about the early coal miner and nurse immigrants to Germany, the brainwashing techniques of the Korean intelligence service, the lives of Japanese-Korean immigrants, amphetamine manufacturing in Japan, the musicians of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and the hope that there is salvation in loneliness after all.
About the author
Kim Yeonsu is one of Korea’s bestselling mainstream literary authors. He has been published in French and Chinese, and his highly successful oeuvre consisting of novels, short story collections, and non-fiction includes Goodby Yi Sang, Girlfriend at the End of the World, and I Am a Ghostwriter. He has won several literary awards including the Yi Sang Literary Prize in 2009.
“A twenty-first century classic.” —Kyunghyang Daily
A Kyobo Bookstore “MD Selection.”
A 2007 Korea Arts Council Excellent Book
*A complete English translation of this novel exists courtesy of the Literary Translation Institute of Korea. Please contact the Barbara J. Zitwer Agency.