Trigger warnings for rape and violence to animals.
The beginning of Hye-young Pyun’s novel, City of Ash and Red, (translated by Sora Kim-Russell), terrified me because it presents one of my worst fears. An unnamed man arrives in a foreign city to take up a job, only to end up without his phone, documents, most of his possessions, and eventually the apartment his new employer set up. He doesn’t speak the language well. All the phone numbers he might call were stored in his phone. He’s on his own. Meanwhile, an epidemic and a garbage strike are making conditions in the city district he’s fetched up in downright hellish.
At first, I felt a strong sympathy for our unnamed protagonist. He’s in desperate straights in the first chapters, especially as the epidemic gets worse and he is quarantined to his apartment. But then, I started to learn things about the protagonist that flipped my sympathy on its head. Throughout the first chapters, the protagonist alternately laments and puzzles about his broken marriage and how his wife left him for a man he doesn’t like. But when the protagonist does manage to call home after an arduous phone directory search, we learn that not only is his ex-wife’s dog brutally murdered in the protagonist’s apartment, so his his ex-wife.
The hits keep coming after that. The protagonist is visited by police officers and jumps out a window to escape, becoming homeless. While the protagonist digs through trash for edible food and scraps for a park bench to sleep on, more is revealed about his violent outbursts. The early chapters lead us to think that the protagonist is a put-upon, quietly suffering man. The rest of the book shows us the lie, complete with shocking examples of what happens when he loses his temper.
The wheel of Fortune lifts and drops the protagonist more than once in City of Ash and Red. So much so, that it’s hard to know what to make of the story. On the one hand, it would be easy to read the novel as a version of a man’s justifiable descent into hell for his deeds. On the other, the ending doesn’t make sense in that reading because the protagonist’s luck seems to be on the rise. City of Ash and Red left me feel angry for the way the protagonist repeatedly escapes justice. I suppose that’s the question this book presents for me. Is there an amount of suffering that could make amends? If not, what is a fitting punishment? Can suffering and deprivation even be considered a punishment if the sufferer thinks they’ve escaped justice?
Longtime readers of this blog will know that these are the kinds of questions that fascinate me in literature. It’s entirely possible that other readers will get something completely different from City of Ash and Red. Every reader, I think, will be unsettled by the strange city where the story takes place and the even more unsettling revelations about the protagonist. Kim-Russell, the translator, preserves the way Pyun withholds names and identifying details from us so that this city and this protagonist could be anywhere and anyone. Because this story could take place anywhere with any number of abusive characters standing in for the protagonist, the novel is just that much more chilling.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 6 November 2018.