Dystopia after Death: Incense by Paik Gahuim

  • onOctober 27, 2014
  • Vol.23 Spring 2014
  • byClaire Lee

In author Paik Gahuim’s fantasy novel, Incense, death does not end suffering. Life goes on in a forest called Nemus, and people continue to be selfish and cruel, unaware that they are dead. An intense exploration of sin, death, and redemption, Incense is an illuminating account of some of the darkest of human experiences: rape, murder, and revenge.

Highly flawed and troubled characters fill the narrative, including an exploited prostitute from Amsterdam, a corrupt Korean politician, a Korean pedophile, and an Englishman who constantly suffers from traumatic childhood memories.

They form a rather dysfunctional, and later, almost vicious community, where the cruel continue to torment and the tormented continue to suffer. For those who are not aware that they are dead, there is no motivation to change. It is like the endless Samsara, except there is no Nirvana. Life after death-you are just who you are and the same problems and agonies continue, with no end.

In its haunting meditation on salvation and sacrifice, Incense also includes references to the Bible, especially the Messiah. Paik’s characters–some cruel, some foolish, some beautiful, and all blind to their fate–bring to mind the dying words of Jesus in his hour of suffering on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

The novel’s original Korean title, Hyang, is a homonym for “incense” and “direction.” Both meanings complement the riveting, complex narrative, which revolves around repeated death and mistakes, oblivion, and characters lost in direction, both literally and metaphorically. 

Author's Profile

Paik Gahuim (b. 1974) made his literary debut in 2001 when he won the Seoul Shinmun New Writer’s Award. He is the author of the short story collections, The Cricket Is CryingManager Jo’s Trunk, and The Hint is “Brother-in-law,” as well as the novel, Naphthalene.