From one of Korea's literary stars, a novel about two orphans from the streets of Seoul: one becomes the head of a powerful motorcycle gang and the other follows him at all costs
From one of Korea’s literary stars, a novel about two orphans from the streets of Seoul: one becomes the head of a powerful motorcycle gang, and the other follows him at all costs
In South Korea, underground motorcycle gangs attract society’s castoffs. They form groups of hundreds and speed wildly through cities at night. For Jae and Dongyu, two orphans, their motorcycles are a way of survival.
Jae is born in a bathroom stall at the Seoul Express Bus Terminal. And Dongyu is born mute—unable to communicate with anyone except Jae. Both boys grow up on the streets of Seoul among runaway teenagers, con men, prostitutes, religious fanatics, and thieves. After years navigating the streets, Jae becomes an icon for uprooted teenagers, bringing an urgent message to them and making his way to the top of the gang. Under his leadership, the group grows more aggressive and violent—and soon becomes the police’s central target.
A novel of friendship—worship and betrayal, love and loathing—and a searing portrait of what it means to come of age with nothing to call your own, I Hear Your Voice resonates with mythic power. Here is acclaimed author Young-ha Kim’s most daring novel to date.
A rope descends from the sky, so the beginning itself is strange. But since it’s only the beginning, the audience withholds judgment. A solemn-faced magician tells his assistant to go up the rope, and at his command, the fearful, hesitant young man begins climbing. He climbs and climbs. He continues upward, his small frame becoming even smaller, until he disappears from view.
The magician shouts into the air, “Now it’s time to come back down!”
There is no response. The magician says, louder, “I told you to come down. Can you hear me?”
When he still gets no response, the audience grows even more curious. Where on earth does this rope lead? And what happened to the kid who went up moments ago? Has he arrived at another world, reached the mysterious place that we call heaven?
The magician angrily grabs the rope and begins pulling himself up until soon enough, he also disappears from view. Those gazing up begin to get neck pains and start to feel how heavy the distant sky is. Then, from that high-up place, the young assistant’s arms, legs, head, and torso fall ?— ?one at a time, without warning. Straight after, a dull thud, and blood splatters on the marble floor, as if a wineglass was just knocked over on a white tablecloth. It is red and violent and dizzying. The audience recoils, shocked. Then the magician returns down the rope with his hands coated in blood, his face frozen with anger. He retrieves his assistant’s scattered body parts and puts them into a bucket. After shoving it behind him, he gazes contemptuously at the terrified audience, as if to say: What else do you want?
Just then a sound comes from behind the magician. The straw mat covering the bucket lifts, and ?— ?as if emerging from a long nap ?— ?the boy rubs his eyes as he arises. The magician is more nonchalant than shocked, as if crossing the boundary between life and death is no big deal. The boy vanishes; the vanished boy dies; the dead boy comes back to life. For the sake of audience members still skeptical of his resurrection, the limber boy does some handsprings until everyone feels reassured that he is definitely alive. Blood is coursing through his arms and legs, and his muscles and joints are functioning properly. Only then does the audience begin clapping wildly.
The first person to document this magic act was a man named Ibn Battutah. The Marco Polo of the Islamic world, he witnessed this amazing feat in Hangzhou at the end of the Yuan dynasty and wrote about it in his massive travelogue. Although the secrets to countless tricks are now known, the rope act is still a mystery.
A similar tale also exists in China. It is said that a young Chinese emperor witnessed and was deceived by the same act. He was delighted to be so thoroughly tricked and, captivated by the astonishing act of magic, he wanted to see more. So when he turned his attention to the eunuch fanning him, his guards dragged the trembling eunuch forward.
The emperor reassured him, “There’s no need to worry. The magician will soon bring you back to life.”
An aged attendant spoke up and tried to dissuade the emperor, saying what had happened was nothing more than a trick of the eye. But the emperor ignored him, and said, “We will only know for certain if we try.”
Overwhelmed with curiosity, he ordered a massive soldier to approach the eunuch and brandish his sword. A rainbow flashed in the fountain of blood. The magician turned away from the bloody scene and quickly climbed up the rope. After he hid behind the clouds, the rope fell twitching to the ground. It resembled a legendary serpent that had tried to become a dragon and ascend to heaven, but failed.
When I first heard this old tale, I only wondered where the magician had gone. But now I think about the assistant and what happened to him after the magician vanished, leaving him there alone, soaked in the eunuch’s blood.
A fresh-faced teenager strained to push the shopping cart. In some ways it looked as if the cart were dragging her. She had zipped shut the backpack in the cart and had her earphones on. She would have resembled one of the homeless people living in the bus terminal if it weren’t for her age; she lacked the hard-boiled look of someone who had lived a long, difficult life. Though her arms were thin, her upper body was on the plump side, and her carelessly slipped-on sneakers dragged across the ground.
The Express Bus Terminal was a nightmare dreamed up by the massive city of Seoul: a place of hoarse-throated religious fanatics and male prostitutes selling themselves for small change, beggars missing both their legs singing hymns, con men targeting the simple-minded from the provinces, prostitutes without a regular beat, teenage runaways, a cult leader who believed in the coming of aliens, hucksters, and purse snatchers; all of them loathing one another. Behind the fake monk who begged while tapping at a wooden gong, a man traded in his kidney, and another man ?— ?whose early ejaculation problems made him unable to satisfy his hot-blooded wife ?— ?paid an unlicensed Asian medicine doctor for a white, powdery treatment with dubious powers. Doomsday believers, who trusted that on Judgment Day only the faithful would be saved, positioned themselves throughout the terminal. According to their prophet, October 28, 1992, would be Judgment Day. Back then, many of the prophets stank of overripe, rotting fruit. News of establishing diplomatic relations between longtime enemies, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea, came trickling in from the large TV installed in the waiting room. Thousands of buses came and went and hundreds of thousands of people swerved past one another.
Almost no one paid attention to the girl. A sole elderly drunk man leered at her, but as soon as she pushed her cart into the bathroom, he lost interest.
She went to a handicap stall and pushed the cart inside. After locking the door and grabbing her backpack, she sat on the toilet seat and withdrew a disposable adult diaper from the pack. She struggled out of her sweatsuit and put it in the cart. As soon as she released the mercilessly tightened maternity belt, her swollen belly sagged out. She pulled off the wet diaper she’d worn beneath her underwear and tossed it into the trashcan. A foul stench overwhelmed the stall. She wiped her sweaty forehead and checked her watch. She took some short, deep breaths and an occasional deliberate heave, but her breathing soon turned irregular. It was as if a skilled torturer occasionally left her alone then returned on impulse.
Used diapers piled up in the trashcan as hot fluid continued seeping from her. The floor became wet. The girl went limp as she watched the amniotic fluid soak her knees and ankles, then finally swirl down a drain clogged with hair. She screamed as pain swept over her again.
Before her echoing screams faded, someone opened the bathroom door and entered. The girl held her breath and stopped up her mouth with her fist. The person went into another stall and immediately flushed the toilet. A lighter was flicked, then smoke drifted over into the girl’s stall. Finally the person flushed the toilet again, slammed the stall door shut, and hurried out.
The pauses between contractions beca...
Included on TIME's "What to Read Now: Summer Reading"
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“Kim, an acclaimed South Korean writer, snares us with his taut and eventful opening…a gritty account of what might best be called trying to survive while sinking… Kim has created bleak scenarios before… but here he goes further, blending dark hues with coarse textures…Kim excels with his tour of Seoul’s underbelly and his examination, or evisceration, of urban culture. His warts-and-all portrayal of young disaffected, disenfranchised or delinquent misfits recalls Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, and his characters’ anguished alienation is as palpable as that found in Haruki Murakami’s fiction. Krys Lee deserves credit for her skilled translation…An absorbing novel about life lived on the skids, on the margins, and, ultimately, in the fast lane.”
“The plight of an orphan whose teenage mother disappears after giving birth to him in a bus terminal sets of Kim’s dark tale about teenage gangs and the underside of Korean city life… Donggyu, though still a teenager, leaves the comforts of home to join him, and his feelings about Jae, which waver from adoration to murderous jealousy, are vividly portrayed… Kim casts an unwavering spotlight on the gritty street life of teenagers, capturing their angst, ennui, and vulnerability.”
“Elegantly rendered into English by Lee, author of How I Became a North Korean (she is also translating Kim’s next novel), this is a wrenching examination of discarded youth, abuses of power, and the irreparable disintegration of societal structures.”
"Kim (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, 2010, etc.), a prolific and eclectic Korean novelist, has found artistically fertile ground in the broken lives of his country’s misfits… Like the shifting gears of an engine, Kim’s narrative changes perspectives from Donggyu’s first-person recollections to wide-screen omniscience to the point of view of an enigmatic police officer and even to that of the author himself, following a climactic motorcycle rally whose stunning denouement leaves behind many more questions than answers… [Kim’s]own empathetic gifts applied toward even the quirkiest and seediest of his characters evoke a vivid panorama of what life along the edges is like in Seoul."
“I Hear Your Voice is compulsively readable—it zips along on light feet, relating sad and often horrifying events without judgement. Young-ha Kim is kin to those writers of more experimental times than ours: Daniel Defoe and Thomas Nashe, writers who followed their stories and themes into whatever haunted, humid dark corners they found, and who weren't afraid to linger in those places to see what else might be there. Kim shares their unmoored curiosity as well as their deep discipline—usually, you have to pick one. In a relatively short space, Kim accomplishes much, and saves his very best work for the book's miraculous final act: a rare treat.”
—JOHN DARNIELLE, New York Times bestselling author of Universal Harvester and National Book Award-finalist Wolf in White Van
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