The World of the Text

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Vol.23 Spring 2014
  • byKim Young-ha

How a Murderer Remembers
Kim Young-ha
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2013, 176p, ISBN 9788954622035

Kim Young-ha's recent novel, How a Murderer Remembers, ostensibly the story of a retired serial killer in his 70s suffering from Alzheimer's, is also an elaboration of the various ways in which one can not know. From simple ignorance and forgetting, to repression and disavowal, to neurological conditions such as dementia, Capgras delusions (delusional misidentification syndrome), and ultimately Alzheimer's, How a Murderer Remembers is a cautionary tale for those who believe what they are told, for whom memory is reliable, knowledge is certain, and language is a transparent vehicle of communication.

Over the course of the novel, the figure of the forgetful killer comes to stand as a more universal, if ironic, figure of loss and forgetting. The fragility of the main character's powers of memory yields the familiar "unreliable narrator," and the capacity of the text to deliver the truth to the reader is in doubt from nearly the beginning of the book. Yet at the same time that Kim's meta-fictional prose questions its own capacity to communicate, the narrator finds ways to "tell the truth" about things— about his identity as a serial killer, about the killings themselves, and about his more recent experiences of memory loss and confusion. He writes poetry (where he discloses his murderous methods with total candor, misunderstood by his poetry instructor as clever metaphor); utilizes the double language of situational irony (when his adopted daughter asks about her real parents—whom the protagonist had killed when she was an infant—he is able to answer honestly that "they were good people—they were worried about you to the last moment"); and reads the rustle of leaves in the wind as an expressions of the lost, buried, long-dead, forgotten—enigmatic transmissions from a distant world.

According to the "Author's Afterword," the author himself is caught up in this world of the text. Kim notes that while he used to believe the author created the fictional world from a position of mastery, he has lately come to feel that the author is a sort of traveler or tourist in that world—a visitor lacking autonomy, who is directed by the world of language that he or she set in motion by first putting pen to paper. The author enters this world and subordinates him- or herself to its space and time, to the exigencies and rhythms of its inhabitants. The world of fiction, alien and not subject to mastery, presents us with something other than the world "as we know it." This sense of powerlessness before language, of being a visitor in a linguistic world that itself (in the case of Kim's fiction) calls attention to deep deficits in knowledge and memory, could be regarded as a figure for translation itself. Translation is in this sense a visitation—the arrival of a stranger or strange language as a visitor (albeit cloaked in the familiar sounds of a local dialect); but also in the more radical sense of visitation as an appearance, an unheralded arrival from a different world outside of familiar space and time.

This idea of translation does not immediately fit within two dominant models by which translated literary texts and their circulation in a global marketplace are currently understood: the text as exemplary of a particularly national cultural identity; and world literature as "multi-"—a collection of texts from different (but ultimately homogenized) linguistic or cultural contexts that, as Emily Apter points out in her recent Against World Literature (Verso, 2013), "ignores the deep structures of national belonging and economic interest contouring the international culture industry". Against these, the world of the translated text as doubly alien instead "signifies language in a state of non-belonging, or nationalism degree zero".

This is a remarkable time to be teaching Korean literature in the U.S. While ten years ago it might have been difficult to teach a reasonably comprehensive course on modern and contemporary Korean literature, today not only canonical texts but also contemporary and cutting-edge work is available, giving readers access to current trends and developments in Korean letters. Yet what Kim's novel suggests, however obliquely, is that all utterance requires translation, and that the world of the text thus consists not of certain knowledge or cultural information but of enigmatic messages, expressions of a world alien to author, reader, and translator alike. Kim's fiction, often seen as unmoored from the particularities of national context, insists on the world of the text, resisting the common sense designation of "world literature" (in both its national-particular and global-universal senses). It stands instead as a sort of "literature of world," adjacent to but autonomous from the mastery of the translator or critic.


Christopher P. Hanscom is an assistant professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. He is the author of The Real Modern: Literary Modernism and the Crisis of Representation in Colonial Korea and co-editor of Imperatives of Culture: Selected Essays on Korean History, Literature, and Society from the Japanese Colonial Era. His research interests include the relationship between social and aesthetic forms, comparative colonialism, and concepts of race and culture under Japanese empire.