Like Peoples’ names, Book Titles matter a lot to me because they’re the easiest preludes in getting to know stories and how potentially good or bad they are. Whenever I go paperback-hunting, I’m always on a furious lookout for intriguing, bizarre titles whereas I could easily dispose generic-sounding ones for latter consideration. (Read: I can be such a book-snob sometimes.)
Imagine then, how thrilled I was to find Kim Young Ha’s novel entitled ‘I have the right to destroy myself’, translated in English from its original Korean version first published in 1996. I was drawn to that strong, thesis-statement-sounding title not only because it’s in a lengthy declarative form, but also because there’s obviously something so cynical and defensive about it which, yes, prematurely betrayed a spoiler on the novel plot, but for the most part, intensified its come hither-aura already embodied by its sleek cover design. Warning though: Do not read this when you’re depressed, because…well, you might be toying with the idea that you really have the right to destroy yourself, which is a principle I don’t subscribe to, let alone endorse.
Taking place in Seoul, one of the most urban cities in the world, the book paints a frightening portrait of how death can be such an easy option for those living on the brink of apathy and loneliness. I know, such a massive theme for a sheer 119-pager.
It’s no secret: Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. I really don’t get why first-world people can have such very low tolerance with life. Then again, I’m not on their shoes to judge. One of the enlightening insights I got from this book is that, a convenient, stable life doesn’t always translate to a happy, cheerful existence.
Written in the form of a pseudo-autobiographical confession, the story follows interweaving snapshots of five people and their lives, told and compiled by a nameless narrator—a man who earns a living by encouraging people to die; quite literally, he works by searching for potential clients who may want to avail of his service in aiding them to commit suicide. One of my first thoughts while reading: People pay for Suicidal Assistance??? The sad thing about it though, is there’s actually no vivid justification or reason as to how they take their own lives. They’re simply tired, empty and…bored.
It’s a morbidly, searing cycle which goes something like: Childhood woes-Pain-Art-Sex-Boredom-Suicide. I know it’s quite a shallow way to put it, but yeah, perhaps the author made their lives so intentionally trivial so we could see the bigger picture that loneliness can sometimes be larger than life.
One thing I really appreciated with the book is its usage of famous art paintings both as plot devices and metaphors. There were also bits and pieces about the lives of some artists and musicians, as well as a chapter on the narrator’s trip to Vienna and Art museums. I liked how graphic his analogies are and how it connected perfectly with his insights. Quoting one of the earlier parts of the book in which he describes the process in which he finds his clients:
…they can’t fool me; I catch the glimmer of possibility in their empty words. I unearth clues from the types of music they prefer, the family histories they sometimes reveal, the books that hit a nerve, the artists they love. People unconsciously want to reveal their inner urges. They are waiting for someone like me.
The darkness of it has been so grotesque. But disagreeing with a book doesn’t mean I no longer enjoyed it. In fairness, it was so beautifully written, it’s somewhat painful. Young-Ha Kim has definitely mastered crime aesthetics and the elegance of death as his style and niche. Over-all, I have the right to destroy myself has been an exhilaratingly existential read. It moved me in ways that made me feel sorry for the characters. But above all, it paradoxically evoked a sense of gratefulness in me—I appreciated that I could still appreciate life and all the small things.
Because in as much as the book might have made a point when it declared we have the right to destroy ourselves, I’m standing up for what I believe in: that we also have a right to cherish ourselves, too.