Twentieth-century South Korea has promoted itself as a highly developed, affluent, and coherent society, but not quite everywhere in the country, and not even everywhere in its showcase capital, yet conforms to the official image. Son Hong-kyu sets The Muslim Butcher in the Seoul that the official branders would prefer visitors didn’t see: the grimy hillside slums crowded with illegal dwellings and their occupants too poor, disturbed, disgraced, or foreign to dare emerge from the margins.
But Seoul’s redevelopmental churn has obliterated most of these areas that existed in the 1970s or 80s in which Son sets his novel, a time with the cop show Chief Investigator still at the height of its popularity and enough Korean War veterans still alive to regularly gather in reunions by the hundreds. If its particular neighborhood ever did exist, it hasn’t for a long time; the book ends with its young protagonist awaiting the bulldozers that will clear away the only home apart from orphanages and churches he’s ever known.
From the perspective of adulthood, the narrator recounts his early adolescence in this milieu of societal outcasts without futures as he struggles with his own lack of a past. Having lost all memory of an apparently harrowing early childhood that left him without parents and a body inexplicably covered in scars, he rebels against the structure of each institution in which the system places him until the day the Muslim butcher of the title, an aged Turk named Hassan, shows up to take him in.
“Uncle Hassan,” as he becomes, runs one of Seoul’s countless pink-lit butcher shops. There he spends all day carving up pork, a surprising occupation for a Muslim but one whose low status suits his own as an outsider. “Of the customers, the local Koreans pretended they didn’t know Uncle Hassan if they ran into him outside the shop,” the narrator remembers. “The threshold of the butcher shop wasn’t merely a threshold but a border that divided this world from that.”
The other denizens of “this world” include Aunt Anna, the proprietor of the blood-sausage soup restaurant at the center of the tumbledown community, a middle-aged woman apparently without a family, and Uncle Amos, the Greek who lives upstairs, penniless and a compulsive liar to boot. Not long after settling into Hassan’s apartment (the only home in Korea he’d ever seen, he notes, without the presiden...