The Achievements of Contemporary Korean Literature: Memoir of a Murderer by Kim Young-ha

  • onMarch 22, 2018
  • Vol.39 Spring 2018
  • byMizuhito Kanehara
殺人者の記憶法 (Memoir of a Murderer)
Tr. Nagi Yoshikawa

In the past few years the number of translations of Korean literature into Japanese has increased noticeably. Four works by Park Min-gyu, whose novel Castella won the Japan Translation Prize in 2015, have been translated into Japanese, as have several by Han Kang and Kim Yeonsu. Furthermore, whereas the majority of Korean novels used to be published by small presses such as CUON, Crane, and Shoshikankanbō, medium-sized publishers like Kawade Shobō, Hakusuisha, and Shōbunsha have now recently started to publish Korean literature, suddenly increasing the number of works available in Japanese. The novels being published are full of variety, from humorous to serious and running the gamut from mysteries to literary fiction. And while all of these works are fascinating in their own right, Kim Young-ha’s Memoir of a Murderer (translated into Japanese by Nagi Yoshikawa) is particularly intriguing.

The novel is set in a rural village in contemporary South Korea. The main character is a seventy-year-old veterinarian, Byeongsu Kim. In his past, Byeongsu murdered dozens of people and buried their corpses. He stopped killing some twenty-five years ago, and currently lives with his twenty-eight-year-old daughter, Eunhui. Between their county and the neighboring one, three women are kidnapped and murdered in quick succession. The police begin investigating these crimes as the work of a serial killer. The story begins with Byeongsu driving. He bumps into a jeep. Blood drips from the trunk. The driver is a man in his early thirties. His name, Jutae Park. Byeongsu intuitively senses that he may be the criminal at large. A fourth woman falls prey to the killer. Byeongsu repeatedly spots Jutae, discovers that he’s seeing Eunhui, and begins plotting his first murder in a quarter of a century.

In form, this novel is a mystery that tells the story of an old man who has himself killed dozens of people and who now plots to murder again for his daughter’s sake. But it is also more than that. The main character suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and has already undergone brain surgery. His memories grow increasingly incoherent. This fills the entire work with an uncanny tension. Amidst those vanishing memories are the ones of murder. They stretch from Byeongsu killing his father when he was sixteen to his last murder at forty-five, to a truly bizarre scene where a small-time yakuza cuts his finger off at an anti-Communist Party meeting. But those powerful and solid bits of the past intersect with the crumbling present, and amidst it all, the instability of Byeongsu’s mind becomes clear. The reader is drawn into the darkness. Then, another woman’s body is found. Here, the development of the story, the cutting between scenes, the creation of the narrative, is truly astounding. This is not just a carefully crafted mystery, but also a detailed psychological novel, and a horror story about memory as well.

The depiction of Byeongsu also sets this novel apart. The first lines he speaks are:


The force that moved me was not what the people of this world think. It wasn’t the urge to kill or deviant sexual desire. It was the lack. It was the hope that there must be a more complete pleasure. Whenever I buried my victims, I’d whisper to myself:

Next time will be better.

I stopped killing precisely because that hope vanished.


Byeongsu lacks something funda- mental to being a human, but he’s also a talented poet, well-versed in both classical and modern literature, and often quotes the classics to express his emotions. He starts with The Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra, moves on to Montaigne’s The Essays, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Shakespeare’s Othello. He draws on these works to talk about himself. Toward the end, he compares his own predicament to Oedipus’s return to Ithaca, claiming that “My plan to kill Jutae Park is also a kind of return.” But the moment he sees a dog with a woman’s hand in its mouth, he makes a decision. “Oedipus finally achieves enlightenment when he’s old and dragging his leg. He becomes a mature human. But I will become a child.” And then, at the very end, he returns again to The Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra.

Byeongsu may be an utterly unsympathetic character. But by placing themselves in his position, following him along the path he chooses, and watching his powerful will clash with reality, readers, I believe, will experience relief and a certain peace of mind along with the hopelessness.

This work certainly speaks to the achievements of contemporary Korean literature. 


by Mizuhito Kanehara
Professor of Sociology, Hōsei University

Author's Profile

The English editions of Kim Young-ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy MyselfYour Republic Is Calling You, and Black Flower were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who will also publish his latest book in 2017. Kim was a resident writer at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2003, and a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times from 2013 to 2014. His books have appeared in more than twelve languages.