The Dark Lives of Men: Diary of a Murderer by Kim Young-ha

  • onJuly 15, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byJung Yun
Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories
Tr. Krys Lee

An elderly serial killer with Alzheimer’s disease keeps a journal to hold onto his rapidly deteriorating memories. A coward fails to protect his lover from her abusive husband. 
A father of a kidnapped child struggles to reintegrate him into a family torn apart by his disappearance. And a novelist with writer’s block pens a wild, erotic manuscript after an affair with his publisher’s wife. These are the four male protagonists in Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories, the fourth work of fiction by award-winning author Kim Young-Ha to be translated into English.

The title novella, which comprises nearly half the slim volume, is the undeniable star of this collection. It centers around Byeongsu Kim, a retired veterinarian who spent thirty years of his life murdering people and eluding capture before quitting “cold turkey.” Now seventy and suffering from Alzheimer’s, Byeongsu keeps track of his daily comings and goings in a journal to help keep himself grounded in reality—a form that is highly effective at creating momentum and existential angst. The journal entries detail his growing obsession with his daughter’s new boyfriend, a man whom Byeongsu believes to be a serial killer intent on killing her. They also allow readers to experience the same halting, terrifying doubt that he does, wondering if what he wrote only days or weeks earlier actually happened. As a result, matters as simple as whether or not Byeongsu ever owned a dog become tight-fisted moments filled with tension.

Given his many past misdeeds, Byeongsu is not a likeable character. In fact, none of the protagonists in this collection are. They murder and cheat, treat their wives and lovers unkindly, and often act in their own best interests at the expense of others. However, Kim has a unique talent for creating situations that elicit sympathy for these men, surprised as one might be to feel it.

In “The Origin of Life,” Seojin breaks up with his lover, Ina, because he fears her violent husband. When she reaches out to him for help during an argument gone awry, the best he can do is tell her to call the police and an ambulance. Later, after Ina’s death, a grief-stricken Seojin stalks the husband, intent on destroying his life. Despite knowing that he’s not capable of this, it’s hard not to root for him, to hope that he might finally muster the courage to act instead of retreat, if only for Ina’s sake. Similarly, in “Missing Child,” Yunseok and his wife, Mira, spend a decade looking for their missing son, all the while blaming each other for not keeping a better eye on him. By the time the boy turns up, the couple’s resources have greatly diminished, Mira has full-blown schizophrenia, and Yunseok frequently says, “This isn’t a life worth living.” Because he has already lost so much, one can hardly blame him for feeling no sense of excitement or emotion when the police finally return his son and an all-new series of hardships begin.

In “The Writer,” arguably the quirkiest story in the collection, a once-lauded novelist finds himself broke and suffering from writer’s block at the worst possible time. Mansu, who is divorced from his former editor, needs to produce a long overdue manuscript in order to pay for their daughter’s college tuition and avoid being sued. Mansu convinces himself that his ex-wife and her boss, the new owner of his publishing house, are sleeping together, so he decides to fulfill his contract by submitting an unintelligible, Ulysses-like tract that will be an embarrassment to the publisher. However, when he meets the publisher’s stunningly beautiful ex-wife in New York and becomes involved with her, he’s consumed with an uncontrollable urge to write that which he’s never felt before. Over a period of mere days, in between sexual encounters, he drafts an “erotic, abstract, avant-garde novel . . . about a protagonist embarking on bizarre sexual adventures while staying in New York’s Chinatown.” So furious is the energy with which Mansu writes his novel, one hopes that he’ll actually have a chance to see how critics and readers receive it, although his publisher has other plans in mind.

The English translation of this collection by award-winning author Krys Lee captures the precision of Kim’s crisp, concise prose, which allows readers to become fully engrossed in his characters and the punishing situations they find themselves in. With the success of his first translated novel, I Have a Right to Destroy Myself, and now this excellent collection, Kim is an author whose readership and name recognition will surely continue to grow outside of South Korea, and deservedly so. The stories in Diary of a Murderer are dark, occasionally depraved, and nothing short of thrilling.

by Jung Yun
Author, Shelter (2017)
Assistant Professor of English
George Washington 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.