The Dead Teach the Living How to Survive: Zombies by Kim Junghyuk
- onOctober 23, 2014
- Vol.10 Winter 2010
- byYi Soo-hyung
Zombies, the first novel by Kim Junghyuk, author of the short story collections Penguin News and The Library of Instruments, does not actually feature that many zombies. Those who do make an appearance are nothing like the ghoulish figures familiar from zombie movies, neither do they prey on human flesh. Zombies explores more profound themes than that: the relationship of the living and the dead, and life and death.
To protagonist Chae Ji-hoon, an antenna reader whose job checking antenna reception takes him all over the country, none of the people he sees in any of the cities and buildings he visits seem to have any purpose in life. The reception of antennas, marked on a scale of zero to 10, is his only interest until his older brother dies and everything changes. His view of life as merely a steady decline from 10 to eight, six, and three, just like the reception of antennas, is shaken to the core by the sudden death of his brother.
Chae Ji-hoon only begins to understand his brother after his death, listening to his old LPs and getting to know his tastes, when one of the records leads him to Fatty 130, and then Hong Hye-jeong, and her daughter Hong Ian. Ironically, it is thanks to his dead brother that his life takes on a new turn.
Among the many changes that occur in Chae Ji-hoon’s life after he moves to Gorio village where Hong Hye-jeong lives, is of course, the zombies. The villagers of Gorio live an isolated, ghost-like life as they attempt to hide themselves from the outside world. The question is, why? It is because their livelihoods at Gorio were bought by selling the bodies of their dead family members who never amounted to much in life and died before their time. The families of the dead, having supplied the bodies without the sense that they had lived their lives in full and were resting in peace, struggle with feelings of guilt and depression.
Any comfort they might have derived by telling themselves that the bodies were being used in medical experiments for the greater good, however, is dashed when it is revealed that the military is turning them into zombies to use in military experiments. Faced with real-life zombies, Chae Ji-hoon begins to ruminate over the once remote issue of death:
I wondered what was the use of everything I was so desperate to hang onto if I died, if everything were to disappear, if nothing I knew existed anymore. I once thought that nothing in this world was of any value. I did not see anything in relationships, love, obsession, despair, hope. I did not feel like starting anything when the end of that path was so clearly ahead. It pained me to think that everything must have a beginning and an end. But maybe the beginning and the end were not what mattered…It felt like a miracle just to be standing here. For all those who are dead and those who are dying, someone has to survive and keep going down that path.
Is death the end of life, the end of all things? Ironically, it is the zombies, animate after death, that lead Chae Ji-hoon to change his outlook on death. If being alive is a miracle in itself, life must be the most precious thing in the world. Zombies is not so much a survival guide in that it teaches how to survive the attacks of zombies, but rather how to live a more meaningful life by avoiding becoming one in the first place.
Kim Junghyuk is a writer, film critic, music columnist, and cartoonist. He has received the Dongin Literary Award and Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award. French editions of his books include Your Shadow Is a Monday (Les ombres du lundi), Zombies (Zombies, la descente aux enfers), Wandering Bus (Bus errant), and The Library of Musical Instruments (La bibliothèque des instruments de musique) published by Decrescenzo éditeurs. English editions of his books include The Library of Musical Instruments published by Dalkey Archive Press.