Review: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim

book cover 2I Have the Right to Destroy Myself [1996] – ★★★★ 

This will be my first book review as part of The Year of the Asian Reading Challenge 2019. Kim Young-Ha is a South Korean author and this is his debut novel, which was first translated into English by Chi-Young Kim in 2007. The book is set in Seoul and deals with rather dark and uncomfortable issues. Death is a prominent theme of this little book, and, even though it delivers a curious read, it is also rather shocking and racy at times, so giving a warning is justified. In the story, our unnamed narrator helps his clients to commit a suicide, and we also follow the lives of C and K, two brothers, who compete with each other for the attention of one enigmatic woman – Se-yeon. The author packs many thought-provoking messages into this novel, reflecting on art and popular culture, but also on the nature of truth, loneliness and dying. The enigmatic structure of the book, as well as the ambiguousness related to the identities of the characters in the story, guarantee that the read is interesting, even if morbidly appealing.

I Have the Right to Destroy Myself scores high on the existentialist crisis level. Its characters seem to grapple with their existence, while living in a large city, and are unable to connect properly with others. Not everyone succeeds in coming to terms with their existence or loneliness. The book opens with the observations on the painting by Jacques-Louis David – The Death of Marat. These observations set the tone for the nature of the plot to come. The Death of Marat is a gloomy work, but its power is undeniable, especially its power of the moment and suggestion. We follow the trail of thoughts of one narrator whose daily job is connected with the most controversial and grim subjects ever – helping people to kill themselves. It is as though the author himself has the desire to provoke and shock his readers, and those who are into some morbid reading material, for example, Jean Teulé’s The Suicide Shop [2006], will find much to interest them here. The personality of the narrator is one enigmatic point of the story. He appears cold, detached from the daily life, and cynical. With a God-complex, he has much to say on art and his clients. Therefore, he writes his book on some of them. “…The artist’s passion shouldn’t create passion…the artist’s supreme virtue is to be detached and cold” [Kim Young-Ha, 1996/2007: 4], and “sometimes fiction is more easily understood than true events. Reality is often pathetic” [1996/2007: 52], says the narrator. He also seems to be an expert on human nature, commenting at one point [all] “people unconsciously want to reveal their inner beings” [1996/2007: 6].

When we are not following our anonymous narrator (and his observations on Sylvia Plath and Chet Baker), we follow two brothers, one – a taxi driver and another – video-editor/producer, who both come into contact with a mysterious woman – Se-yeon or Judith. The brothers have a complicated relationship with each other, but both know that they cannot resist Se-yeon and her sexual advances. In this respect, the plot even resembles a short story by Haruki Murakami – Barn Burning [1983], on which Chang-dong Lee shot his recent critically-acclaimed film Burning [2018]. 

I Have the Right to Destroy Myself feels a bit incomplete and too racy, but it has other thought-provoking elements to redeem itself overall. The first one is structure. The book does not seem to follow a linear plot, and it makes the reader put together some pieces of the plot presented earlier to fully get the message hinted at by the end. The other fascinating element of the book is that the characters’ identities remain strangely ambiguous. Not everything is as straightforward in this story as it is first assumed, and the author makes the reader question whether even the unnamed narrator could be hiding in plain sight. Also, two women presented in the story may in fact be one and the same.

The merit of the story is that it is enigmatically delivered. The book’s controversial and dark theme guarantees to alienate some readers and the book remains unflinching in the presentation of its depressing topic. However, the novel’s boldness and succinctness in discussing some taboos are also praiseworthy, and its observant, vain narrator is the one to remember. The book’s existential nature sometimes resembles American Psycho [1991], while at other times the story reminds of Hermann Hesse or Ernesto Sabato’s works, such as Sabato’s The Tunnel [1948]. In sum, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is unlikely to leave any reader indifferent – the book will either be hated or loved; and seeing its attempt at constructing a thought-provoking timeline and a “characters’ identities” conundrum, the hope is that the book will at least be appreciated for what it is.

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6 thoughts on “Review: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim

  1. Nice review! It interests me when authors play with characters’ identities, especially that of the narrator. One book I read recently, Duras’ The Ravishing of Lol Stein, “revealed” the narrator halfway through the story, and I’m still thinking about why the novel was written that way. I’ll have to look into reading this in August for #WITmonth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It was definitely a big plus in this story that the identities of the characters and the narrator were not exactly revealed or disclosed fully. I have not read The Ravishing of Lol Stein, but it sounds intriguing. I have only read and seen the movie The Lover. Btw, that’s a man who wrote I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, in case you’ve been wondering.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It is an unusual book. Like the narrator, it can even claim to distance itself from the story it describes and to be too succinct in laying down the plot. Therefore, I don’t think it is too hard to read. I can see people “not getting it”, though, but I also believe something was lost through the translation.

      Liked by 1 person

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