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Hye Young-Pyun: 재와 빨강 (City of Ash and Red)

If you have ever spotted a rat where you live, then know that forty-eight more were hiding just out of sight. Or fifty-six. Or sixty-seven. In fact, whatever your least favourite two or three-digit number is (the higher the number, the likelier the odds) that’s the number you should think of. But the exact count doesn’t really matter. You will never catch every hidden rat.

This book is not just about rats, but rats certainly figure highly. Like 홀 (The Hole), published in Korean six years after this novel but in English one year before, this novel is grim. Our unnamed hero – referred to only as the man in this book – comes from an unnamed country where he works for a pesticide company. We learn that the company is a branch of the main company, located in Country C. We do not know much about Country C, except that its capital is City Y and that they speak a different language from the country of our hero.

Our hero is in product development and used to get on with his colleagues, though he no longer does. He is now divorced. His wife enjoyed partying and was frequently out, often for more than one night, and often turned up drunk. Indeed, he would often get phone calls from her students’ parents – she ran a piano studio – who had arrived at the studio to find the doors locked and no lesson for their children. He suspected her of having an affair but could find no evidence of this. One day when she came home very drunk, he raped her. That was the end of the marriage. It turned out that she had been having an affair, with Yujin, an acquaintance of his. She married Yujin but, by the time the novel starts, they are divorced.

Fairly early on in his career, he and his colleagues were invited to the new manager’s house for a barbecue. During the barbecue, a woman saw a rat in the garden and screamed, as did other women. Our hero valiantly seized the designer handbag of a woman sitting next to him and threw it at the rat, killing it. The owner of the handbag and, indeed, most of his colleagues were not terribly impressed.

Some time later, he is told that he is being considered for promotion. As he was far from being the most senior in the office, he asked why he had been selected. He was told that it was because he killed the rat. He is surprised that this is the basis for the decision and most of colleagues are very bitter about it, to the extent that he becomes isolated, is given the worst tasks and finds his work is often sabotaged.

A key part of this possible promotion is to spend some time in the head office in Country C. The book actually starts with his journey to Country C. We later learn that he had been out drinking the night before and had had a long chat with Yujin who may or may not have helped him home.

Much of the book is about his time in Country C, specifically in District 4 of City Y, which starts off badly and gets worse, much worse. There has been some epidemic, which primarily affected Country Y. On the plane, he is sitting next to someone who is clearly not in good health and he himself has a cold or something similar. As a result, he is detained at the airport – everyone is checked – and held over night. He is allowed to go the next morning. Our hero has learned something of the language but only the basics, and will struggle with it during his stay.

He soon discovers that District 4, where his flat is located, is not desirable. Apparently it was built on a former landfill and the rich, who were to live there, do not. It now has now been used as offices and flats for those who work in them. However, taxi drivers generally refuse to go there. Eventually a taxi driver will take him to the edge but he will have to walk the rest of the way, which, apparently, is not far. He soon finds out why the taxi drivers were so reluctant. There is a dustbinmen’s strike and the area is full of piles of rotting, stinking, burning rubbish.

From here on, thinks get worse. His case is stolen. When he goes to the pharmacy, he finds that it has been attacked and looted. Mol, his contact with head office, tells him to stay away for a while – he assumes that it is because of the quarantine but there may be other reasons – but he forgets to ask Mol for his number and, indeed, does not know his own number. His charger is in the stolen case and his phone is running out. It appears that there is someone infected in the building – the police do not know who, but it may be him – so no-one can leave and food, edible but inadequate, is left outside the door. He learns from Yujin that he is wanted by the police back home and, when they turn up at his door, he flees. He is now down and out in a foreign country, with no-one to help him, an epidemic raging, and soon becoming a pandemic, a possible earthquake imminent and wanted by the police. What could get worse? Oh yes, rats.

Hye Young-Pyun tells a wonderfully malevolent, Kafkaesque tale of a man who is completely and utterly lost in what is, on the face of it, a fairly normal, civilised country, but which is facing huge problems and where he is a stranger, an outcast, with no friends, wanted by the police, with no-one who can help him and where there are many infected people, down-and-outs and lots of rats. Hye Young-Pyun’s skill is to make you think that, just when it could not get worse for him, it does. How could a fairly normal, ordinary person get caught up in this Kafkaesque situation in a fairly normal, ordinary country? This books shows you how.

Publishing history

First published by Changbiin 2010
First English translation by Skyhorse in 2018
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell