[Indonesian] Lives in a Space of Necropolitics: Saha Mansion by Cho Nam-joo
- onJuly 1, 2021
- Vol.52 Summer 2021
- byIntan Paramaditha
- Saha Mansion
Tr. Lingliana Tan 2021296pp.
Saha Mansion is a dystopian story about how places and bodies are regulated in a city-state taken over by corporate power. It asks questions about lives that matter and what survival means in a capitalist regime where stability is maintained through necropolitics.
Necropolitics, as conceptualized by Achille Mbembe, refers to the power to decide how some people may live and how some must die or are allowed to die. Refugee camps, prisons, or slums are places to govern populations that don’t fit into notions of productive bodies. Saha Mansion, the name of a poor housing complex in the novel, is about how precarious lives are located on a map. Who will care about your death when you are disposable?
The appeal of Saha Mansion is in the construction of an uncanny world set in the “Town,” a city-state that marks the total victory of capital over the state. As the power of a corporation focusing on IT and biotechnology increases, the city is rebranded, and people start calling it by the name of the corporation. “Town” emerges as a sovereign city-state when it claims “independence” from the bankrupt government. To sustain Town’s strong economy, censorship is key to stability, supported by strategies such as the centralization of media and the closure of some university programs, presumably the ones that don’t fit into the capitalist framework. As Cho Nam-Joo writes, there are songs that must not be sung, books that must not be read, and streets that must not be crossed. Welcome to the marriage between capitalism and authoritarianism, complete with anxieties over borders, as one does not enter or leave Town easily.
Categorization is an important part of Necropolitics. Town residents are categorized into two groups: L and L2. Ls are citizens with the required skills to contribute to Town’s economy, whereas L2s receive temporary permits to stay in Town under particular conditions. Many L2s are citizens of the former state before the corporate takeover but they don’t qualify to be Town citizens. A “Saha” is not even an L2. They’re pariahs with no status, visible but unwanted, deprived of proper health care, education, and social security.
The novel opens with a Saha mansion resident Do-Kyeong discovering that her girlfriend Su is dead. Su’s death anticipates a whodunnit question (the police soon identifies Do-Kyeong as a murder suspect, linking Saha with the crime), yet what is more intriguing is the complex class interaction and mobility behind the lovers’ story. Su, a privileged citizen, is a doctor who loses her license because she helps Saha Mansion residents without a permit. Su leaves her comfortable life to live with Do-Kyeong in Saha Mansion while trying to maintain some “luxury,” which are merely basic necessities such as water pipes and a heater.
While the novel has some elements of a thriller, its real charm is in the stories of people—undocumented migrants, former rebels, victims of violence—who occupy the building. Cleverly structured into apartment units (Unit 701, Unit 214, or Unit 201), the novel resembles a collection of short stories connected through a single place to reveal that the untouchables have histories and reasons as to how they ended up in Saha Mansion. Citizenship status is fleeting. For instance, a resident’s mother was a hard-working citizen in pre-independence Town, but she did not qualify for L status. She received L2 but lost her status and ended up as a Saha.
A feminist viewpoint is not surprising from the author of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. In Saha Mansion, women drive the narrative forward, including Jin-Kyeong, who tries to find her brother and discovers the secrets behind the regime, Su, who defies class rules, and Grandmother Konnim, who helps women to give birth in the mansion. The novel also problematizes access to safe childbirth and abortion, which is not cheap, and highlights how people help each other to survive. In a bleak world, tactics and solidarity give us hope.
Unlike powerful neoliberal states in our contemporary time that depend on global mobility, economic, and political influences, Town strangely limits its connection to the outside world by not taking part in any regional or international organizations. Yet Saha Mansion also reminds us of detention camps in Nauru and Manus Island in Australia, where asylum seekers can be detained indefinitely after risking their lives at sea. Although the novel does not focus solely on refugees, it poses an urgent question of how liveable and disposable lives are managed under capitalist-driven governance.
Some of us are privileged because we’re probably living the lives of L residents, but there is no guarantee that we will always fit the dominant norm of productivity. If we slip, we might end up in Saha Mansion. In a space of necropolitics, unless you can provide value—dead, alive, or in-between—no one will hear you scream.
Author, The Wandering (Harvill Secker, 2020)
Lecturer in Media and Film Studies