Gone, but Not Forgotten: Korean Crime Hits the German ‘Krimi’ Scene: Your Shadow Is a Monday by Kim Junghyuk

  • onJune 27, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byJen Calleja
Dein Schatten ist ein Montag (Your Shadow Is a Monday)
Tr. Paula Weber

The German Krimi or crime novel is incredibly popular and has been a very successful literary import in recent years, particularly in English translation. I read quite a few Krimis as acting editor of New Books in German magazine, and our editorial committee was always on the lookout for the next Sebastian Fitzek, Simone Buchholz, or Volker Kutscher. It’s actually a very exciting prospect to consider that the next great author to come through the Krimi scene might be the Korean author Kim Jung-hyuk with his bestselling novel Your Shadow Is a Monday in Paula Weber’s German translation.

Kim’s book, set in current-day Seoul, revolves around the former police detective turned private detective Dongchi Gu, who now takes on clients in need of his skills as a ‘Deleter’. Gu tracks down and destroys real objects and digital files that need to permanently disappear from people’s lives – either while they’re still in the world, or once they’ve left it. Computer hard drives, photos, letters, secret USBs. These items belong to the clients themselves, or belong to others, and sometimes a little breaking and entering is required in order to fulfil the job.

Gu’s friend and former colleague, Detective Inchon Kim, helps him out when he can and Gu returns the favour. In the book, their cases align when a client of Gu’s ends up dead, possibly murdered, but Gu has yet to track down the client’s all-important iPad. Suspects start mounting at the client’s place of work, Noble Entertainment, headed up by the imposing Ilsu Chon, who likes to scope out people such as Gu, Kim, and prospective contractors like the nervous Yongmin Lee, on the tennis court. Things start ramping up: a purposefully blunt knife found at the scene turns out to belong to a covert martial arts group; the iPad’s tracking system comes on; someone breaks into Gu’s office.

The Crocodile Building, where Gu has his office (a twenty-four-hour sanctuary where he ruminates over cases while listening to Italian arias), is home to other players who are part of Gu’s daily life. Chan’il Park runs the restaurant on the ground floor of the building by day and plays computer games while eating noodles in the internet café on the second floor by night. Yunjong Oh has an office near Gu’s where she writes scripts for TV romances. The martial arts teacher Cholho Cha on the first floor has a love-hate relationship with Gihyon Baek, the owner of the hardware store on the ground floor, and respectfully calls Gu Sonsaeng, or ‘Teacher’.

What really makes the book is how Kim has created a complex character in Gu – a Deleter who secretly hordes souvenirs from his cases – and has given each minor character a backstory as well as dynamic relationships with each other. Park is not-so-secretly in love with Oh as Oh eavesdrops on Gu’s arias and contemplates writing a movie thriller about him. They all also play their own small roles in helping him solve parts of the mystery before him. Kim has been described as an ‘everythingist’ due to his varied interests in literature, film, music and food, and you can see this refracted throughout the story. Kim also gives us access to the repercussions of Gu’s profession, when the daughter of a client, Soyon Ju, has desperate daydreams about retrieving the photos Gu has taken from the family home and hires the odd and unscrupulous private detective Iri to hunt Gu down.

The book is well-paced, very funny, satisfyingly pokes fun at the crime genre itself, and has moments of beautifully written poignancy on death and the right to be forgotten, the latter being an important topic right now. The ending is almost poetic, and speaks to the very cinematic quality of the book as a whole.

This is no ordinary crime novel, and as one German reviewer put it, it would be better to describe it as a ‘noir’ that’s ‘gritty, but also quite oblique’. I’m not able to speak to whether the book is typical of Korean crime writing, but I can say that it is certainly the most interesting crime novel I’ve read in either English or German, and Weber has created a flawless translation. While reading the book, I even started imagining how I would translate whole passages into English and daydreaming about whether I would work collaboratively with a translator from Korean if I were to translate the book. I don’t know if I can give a higher compliment than that.

by Jen Calleja
Writer, Translator
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (2018)
Shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize


Author's Profile

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.