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Un Su Kim: 벗 캐비닛 (The Cabinet)

It is a very ordinary cabinet. It is Cabinet 13 but only because it is the thirteenth cabinet from the left. It is a typical government office cabinet, dilapidated – the kind perfect for stashing away smelly gym clothes. Our hero Deok-geun Kong discovers it when wandering round the office as he has not got much else to do. It has a combination deadlock but, as he has time, Mr. Kong tries all possible combinations till he is able to open it. All it contains, it seems, are musty old papers. Mr Kong decides to read them.

However, we start with Ludger Sylbaris. Although you may not know the name, you may well have heard of him. In May 1902, Sylbaris was imprisoned in the city of Saint Pierre on the island of Martinique. He got involved in a drunken bar fight and was jailed overnight for assault, not the first time he had been in trouble. That night the volcano Mount Pelée erupted. Everyone in Saint Pierre was killed, except for Sylbaris. His jail was partially underground and had only one opening to the outside, away from the volcano, so he survived. At least that is what happened according to the Wikipedia article linked above.

According to this book, however, Sylbaris was imprisoned in a very tall tower in the middle of the town and had been there twenty-four years, allegedly for raping some nuns (which he denied) and insulting a priest (to which he admitted). After the volcano erupted and the lava had dried, he was able to get away and went to Mexico, where he later wrote a book over a period of thirty years. The book was published in Louisiana and was about the people of Saint Pierre, all portrayed as monsters, giving them animal appendages and characteristics. Why? the narrator asks. Why? We get an idea by the end of the book but it also shows us that this book is certainly not going to lean heavily on the realist tradition.

Back to Deok-geun Kong… He had not had a particularly happy life. His father left when he was a baby and he had not seen or heard from him since. His mother died early in the book, her last words urging her son to get a job. He had studied Korean at university but had applied for numerous jobs without success. Finally he gets a job at a research institute, coming top out of 137 candidates,. However, he finds the job is not in the slightest bit demanding. His sole task could be done in a very short time first thing in the morning, leaving him the rest of the day with nothing to do. He stares out of the window and twiddles his thumbs. Eventually, he learns no-one else has anything to do, either. His boss spends the day reading trashy novels. Another colleague makes model boats. Kong decides to explore.

The papers in the cabinet are about people who can best be described as being somewhat different in behaviour, physical and/or psychological make-up or in their life in general. Kong reads a lot of them and is fascinated. He will continue to read them over the next few days. However, one day he is summoned to the office of Professor Kwon. He has no idea who Professor Kwon is but when he mentions it to his colleagues, he learns that the last person summoned to Professor Kwon was viciously assaulted. Kong reports in fear and trepidation.

Kwon shows him a TV video. It is a video of Kong opening the cabinet and reading the papers. Kwom informs him that he will be fired and that Kwon will sue him for a large sum of money for revealing his secrets. Kong defends himself, saying he has told no-one. Kwon gradually forgives him, on condition that Kong comes to his office every day to tidy up and assist him. Gradually Kong gets involved and, eventually, Kwon has him answering the phone from various symptomers.

Professor Kwon’s project involves collating details of people who, as mentioned above, are somewhat different in behaviour, physical and/or psychological make-up or in their life in general. Much of the book is taken up with the stories of these people. Symptomers are people who show what Kwon describes as strange symptoms. We follow these people throughout the book.

There are apparently 1400 people who have a diet of petrol. These are not the people who drink a small amount in rural areas to kill parasites. These are people whose diet is petrol and who live in industrial countries in large cities and are generally educated people. Terry Burns, an accountant in London, wants to get more mileage than his BMW. Others eat glass, steel, newspapers (I avoid tabloids at all costs. I can’t stand the taste), books and even electricity. It is not just diet. There is the man who has a gingko tree growing from his little finger. There are are the time skippers. These are people for whom whole periods of time – three years in one case – just disappear. They have no idea what they did or what happened in these missing periods, not least because they are not aware of what happened. There is the man who wants to become a cat. Torporers sleep for very long periods – up to two years in some cases – and feel very refreshed and invigorated when they wake up. Then there are the doppelgängers. People meet other people who are identical to them. The memory mosaicers wipe out their past memories and create new ones. And the toothpicks.

With all of these (and many more) examples of symptomers, we may get a short description of their issue or we may get a long story. In some case they phone up for help and Kong tries (often unsuccessfully) to help them. In some cases Kong and/or Kwon go and visit them, where we learn more. Kim comes up with a host of variations and issues.

But what does it means? What is Professor Kwon’s involvement? Kwon believes that Homo sapiens is evolving into a new species. He refers to the idea of punctuated equilibrium, the idea that most evolution is slow and gradual but, in some cases there is a rapid burst (the term rapid is relative – it could means over a period of several thousand years). Kwon takes the view that Homo sapiens could evolve into a new species in a thousand years. These anomalies are evidence of it.

However, though as well as Kwon’s concern, there is something else going on in this book. Seoul, where the book is set, is a large city of 25 million inhabitants. Many, not surprisingly, are lonely. Kong himself has few friends. He had a a girlfriend but, one day, when he phoned her up, she told him she has married someone else. There has been no-one else in his life. Kwon has no family and, seemingly, no friends. The only other person in the office who plays a role is Son Jeong-eun, a solitary woman. People dump work on her when they want to leave early for a date, as they know she has no friends. In the canteen (where, according to Kong, the food tastes like shit – his words,not mine), she sits on her own. She and Kong briefly become friendly, if not close. Several of the symptomers have this problem, particularly the man who wants to become a cat.

Kwon has both cancer and cirrhosis of the liver and is dying. He wants Kong to continue his work but Kong is not interested, even when he is left money in Kwon’s will (You’re perfect because you’re outlandish and stupid. And you’re terribly sincere.) More worryingly, the Syndicate wants to get hold of some of Kwon’s work. With Kwon dying, Kong is the obvious source and they are prepared to use whatever means it takes to get what they want.

This a very inventive book. Kim must have spent some time thinking up all the various type of symptomers and the stories about them. The book and the stories are part outlandish, part funny and part sad. Few of the symptomers seem happy with their lot. The stories coupled with the story of lonely Koreans and Professor Kwon and his views make for a thoroughly original work.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Munhakdongne
First English translation in 2021 by Angry Robot
Translated by Sean Lin Halbert