Excerpt

Diary of a Murderer: And Other Stories

Young-Ha Kim, translated by Krys Lee

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Diary of a Murderer, a short story collection by Young-Ha Kim, translated from Korean by Krys Lee. Finding humanity in unexpected places and comedy in tragedy, the titular novella follows a retired serial killer with Alzheimer’s who is convinced his daughter will be victim to another killer.

It’s been twenty-five years since I last murdered someone, or has it been twenty-six? Anyway, it’s about that long ago. What drove me back then wasn’t, as people usually assume, the urge to kill or some sexual perversion. It was disappointment. It was hope for a more perfect pleasure. Each time I buried a victim, I repeated to myself: I can do better next time.

The very reason I stopped killing was because that hope vanished.

***

I kept a journal. An objective report. Maybe I needed something like that at the time. What I’d done wrong, how that made me feel. I had to write it down so I wouldn’t repeat the same gut-wrenching mistakes. Just like students keep a notebook with all their test mistakes, I also kept meticulous records of every step of my murders and what I felt about them.

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It was a stupid thing to do.

Coming up with sentences was grueling. I wasn’t trying to be literary and it was just a daily log, so why was it so difficult? Not being able to fully express the ecstasy and pity I’d felt made me feel lousy. Most of the fiction I’d read was from Korean-language textbooks. They didn’t have any of the sentences I needed. So I started reading poetry.

That was a mistake.

The poetry teacher at the community center was a male poet around my age. On the first day of class he made me laugh when he said solemnly, “Like a skillful killer, a poet is someone who seizes language and ultimately kills it.”

This was after I’d already “seized and ultimately killed” dozens of prey and buried them. But I didn’t think what I did was poetry. Murder’s less like poetry and more like prose. Anyone who tries it knows that much. Murdering someone is even more troublesome and filthy than you think.

Anyway, thanks to the teacher I got interested in poetry. I was born the type who can’t feel sadness, but I respond to humor.

***

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I’m reading the Diamond Sutra: “Abiding nowhere, give rise to the mind.”

***

I took the poetry classes for a long stretch. I’d decided that if the class was lame I would kill the instructor, but thankfully, it was interesting. The instructor made me laugh several times, and he even praised my poems twice. So I let him live. He probably still doesn’t know that he’s living on borrowed time. I recently read his latest poetry collection, which was disappointing. Should I have put him in his grave back then?

To think that he keeps writing poems with such limited talent when even a gifted murderer like me has given up killing. How brazen of him.

***

I keep stumbling these days. I fall off my bicycle or trip on a stone. I’ve forgotten a lot of things. I burned the bottoms of three teapots. Eunhui called and told me she made me an appointment at the doctor’s. While I yelled and roared with anger, she stayed silent until she said, “Something is definitely not normal. Something definitely happened to your head. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen you get angry, Dad.”

Had I really never gotten angry before? I was still feeling dazed when Eunhui hung up. I grabbed the cell phone to finish our conversation, but suddenly I couldn’t remember how to make a phone call. Did I first have to press the Call button? Or did I dial the number first? And what was Eunhui’s phone number? I remember there being a simpler way to do this.

I was frustrated. And annoyed. I threw the cell phone across the room.

***

I didn’t know what poetry was, so I wrote honestly about the process of murder. My first poem, was it called “Knife and Bones”? The instructor remarked that my use of language was fresh. He said that its raw quality and the perceptive way I imagined death depicted the futility of life. He repeatedly praised my use of metaphors.

I asked, “What’s a metaphor?”

The instructor grinned— I didn’t like that smile— and explained “metaphor” to me. So a metaphor was a figure of speech.

Ah-ha.

Listen, sorry to let you down, but that wasn’t a figure of speech.

***

I grabbed a copy of the Heart Sutra and began reading:

So, in the emptiness, no form,

No feeling, thought, or choice,

Nor is there consciousness.

No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind.

No color, sound, smell, taste, touch,

Or what the mind takes hold of,

Nor even act of sensing.

No ignorance or end of it,

Nor all that comes of ignorance.

No withering, no death,

No end of them.

Nor is there pain, or cause of pain,

Or cease in pain, or noble path

To lead from pain.

Not even wisdom to attain!

Attainment, too, is emptiness.

The instructor asked me, “So you really haven’t studied poetry before?” When I responded, “Is it something one has to learn?” he said, “No. Rather, if you have a bad teacher, it’ll ruin your lines.” I said, “That so? That’s a relief.” Then again, there are at least a few things in life you can’t learn from others.

***

They took an MRI. I lay down on a medical table that resembled a white coffin and went into the light; it felt like a kind of near-death experience. I floated in the air and looked down at my body. Death is standing by my side. I understand. I am going to die soon.

A week later, I had some sort of cognitive abilities test. The doctor asked questions and I answered. The questions were easy, but answering them was hard. It felt like putting your hand in a fish tank and trying to catch a fish just out of reach. Who is the current president of Korea? What year is it right now? Please repeat the last three words you just heard. What is seventeen plus five? I was sure I knew the answers, but I couldn’t remember them. How could I know but not know? How was this possible?

It’s been twenty-five years since I last murdered someone, or has it been twenty-six?

After the exam, I sat down with the doctor. He looked grim.

“The hippocampus has atrophied,” he said, pointing at the MRI scan of my brain.

“It’s unmistakably Alzheimer’s. We can’t be certain at this point how far it’s progressed. We’ll need to keep watch over time.”

Next to me, Eunhui sat quietly, her mouth firmly shut. The doctor said, “Your memories will gradually disappear.

Your short-term memory and your recent memories will go first. It can be slowed but it can’t be stopped. For now, take the prescribed medication regularly.  And write everything down, and keep those notes on your person. In time you may not be able to find your own house.”

***

I’m rereading a yellowed paperback copy of Montaigne’s Essays. Reading it as an old man is surprisingly enjoyable: “We trouble life by the care of death, and death by the care of life.”

***

On the way back from the hospital, we were stopped at a checkpoint. The policeman looked at Eunhui and me like he knew us, then sent us off. He was the youngest son of the village association leader.

He said, “We’re running a checkpoint because there’s been a murder. Working day and night with no end in sight is killing us. What do people think, that murderers wander around in broad daylight saying, ‘Please catch me’?”

He then told us that three women had been murdered between our district and the neighboring one. The cops had deduced that it was the work of a serial killer. The women were all in their twenties and had been killed late at night on their way home. They had rope burns on their wrists and ankles. The third victim was found soon after my Alzheimer’s verdict, so naturally I asked myself: Am I the murderer?

At home I flipped through my wall calendar and checked the suspected dates. I had foolproof alibis. I was relieved it wasn’t me, but I didn’t like knowing that someone was kidnapping and killing in my territory. I warned Eunhui that the murderer could be lurking among us. I told her what precautions to take and never to be out alone late at night. It would be over for her as soon as she got into a man’s car. And it was dangerous to walk with headphones on.

“Please don’t worry so much,” she said.

At the front door, she added, “It’s not as if murders happen every day.”

***

These days I write everything down. There are times when I find myself somewhere unfamiliar and stay confused until I get back home, thanks to the name-and-address tag hanging from my neck. Last week someone took me back to the local precinct.

The policeman greeted me with a smile. He said, “Sir, it’s you again.”

“You know me?”

“Of course. I probably know you better than you know yourself.”

Really?

“Your daughter is on her way. We’ve already contacted her.”

***

Eunhui graduated from an agricultural college and was hired by a local research center. She works on improving crop varieties. Sometimes she takes two different varieties and grafts them to create a new species. She practically lives at the research center, in her lab coat, and occasionally pulls all-nighters. Plants aren’t interested in what time humans arrive at and leave work. Sometimes the pollination has to take place in the middle of the night. They grow this way, brazen and fierce.

These days I write everything down. There are times when I find myself somewhere unfamiliar and stay confused until I get back home, thanks to the name-and-address tag hanging from my neck.

People think that Eunhui is my granddaughter and act surprised when I say she’s my daughter. That’s because though I turned seventy this year, Eunhui is barely twenty-eight.  The one most curious about this is none other than Eunhui. When Eunhui was sixteen, she learned about blood types at school. I’m type AB, but Eunhui is type O. For parents and their kids, that’s an impossible combination.

“Dad,” she asked, “how can I be your daughter?” In general, I try to be as truthful as possible.

I said, “I adopted you.”

That was around the time Eunhui and I started growing apart. She wasn’t sure how to act around me anymore, and in the end we couldn’t bridge the distance between us. After that day, we were no longer as close.

There’s a condition called Capgras syndrome, which is caused by an abnormality in the part of the brain that controls intimacy. If you suffer from it, you’re able to recognize the faces of people close to you, but you no longer feel you know them. For example, a husband will suddenly start to distrust his wife, saying, “You look just like my wife and act exactly like her — who are you really? Who put you up to this?” No matter the evidence, he’ll think she’s a stranger. She looks like a stranger to him. Before long, the patient will be forced to live with the feeling that he has been exiled to an unknown world. He will believe that these people with similar-looking faces are lying to him.

After that day, it was as if Eunhui began feeling that the small world surrounding her, the family that was made up of the two of us, was an unfamiliar one. Still, we continued to live together.

***

When the wind blows, the bamboo forest behind the house makes a clamor. I become tangled up in thoughts when that happens. On these windy days, even the birds go quiet.

I bought the tract of bamboo forest long ago. I never regretted it— I’d always wanted my very own forest. In the mornings I head out behind my house for a walk. You can’t run in a bamboo forest. If you accidentally trip on something, you might even die. If you cut down a bamboo tree, its sharp, firm roots remain. That’s why you have to constantly watch your feet when you’re surrounded by bamboo trees. On my way back to the house I listen to the crackling of bamboo leaves underfoot and think about the people I’ve buried below. Those dead bodies become bamboo and shoot up toward the heavens.

***

When Eunhui was younger she once asked me, “Where do my birth parents live? Are they still alive?”

“They’re dead,” I said. “I brought you home from an orphanage.”

Eunhui didn’t want to believe me. She seemed to have searched the internet for information, even sought out the relevant government building, before locking herself in her room and crying for days. Then finally she accepted it.

She asked, “Did you know my parents?” “We’d met before, but we weren’t close.”

“What kind of people were they? Were they good people?”

“They were wonderful. You were their main concern till the very end.”

***

I pan-fry some tofu. I have tofu for breakfast, tofu for lunch, tofu for dinner. I drizzle the pan with oil and add the tofu. Once one side is cooked, I turn it over to the other side. I take out some kimchi, then have my meal. No matter how bad the Alzheimer’s gets, I hope I can manage at least this much alone. A basic rice with tofu.

***

I was in a minor car accident. It happened at a three-way intersection, and the bastard’s jeep was in front of me. These days, bad vision is part of my everyday life. It’s probably the Alzheimer’s. I didn’t see the guy’s car at a standstill, and before I knew it, I ran right into him. It was one of those jeeps custom-designed for hunting. As if searchlights on the roof weren’t enough, he’d also mounted three sets of fog lights on the bumper. Such cars are remodeled so the trunk can be rinsed down with water. He’d also added about two extra batteries. When hunting season starts, guys like him flock to the mountains behind the village.

No matter how bad the Alzheimer’s gets, I hope I can manage at least this much alone. A basic rice with tofu.

I got out of the car and walked over to the jeep. The driver didn’t get out. He had his windows rolled up, so I knocked on the glass.

“Look here,” I said. “Let’s talk face-to-face.”

He nodded and gestured as if to say, Just go on your way. That was odd. Didn’t he at least want to check his rear bumper? When I didn’t budge, he finally got out of the jeep. A short, stocky man in his early thirties. He quickly scanned the bumper and said it looked fine.

It wasn’t fine. The bumper was dented.

He said, “Don’t worry about it, sir. It was already dinged. It’s really fine.”

I said, “Just in case, let’s exchange numbers. So there won’t be trouble later.”

I handed him my number, but he wouldn’t take it. “There’s no need.” His voice was low-toned, expressionless. I said, “Do you live in the neighborhood?”

The guy didn’t say anything. But for the first time he did look me straight in the eyes. He had the eyes of a snake. They were cold and cruel. I was positive: in that moment we recognized each other.

He neatly printed his name and number on a piece of paper. It was a kid’s handwriting. His name was Pak Jutae. I returned to the rear of the jeep and checked the damage one more time. That’s when I saw it: the blood dripping from the trunk. I also felt his gaze. That gaze studying me as I listened to the dripping blood.

If blood drips out of a jeep made for hunting, people tend to think it’s carrying something like a roe deer. But I begin by assuming there’s a dead person inside. It’s safer to think this way.

***

Who was it again? A Spanish writer, or was it an Argentinian? I don’t remember stuff like a writer’s name anymore. Anyway, in some writer’s novel, an elderly man walks by a river and ends up sitting on a bench, talking to a young person he’s just met. Only later does he realize what’s happened: the young person he met by the river is actually himself. If I had the chance to meet my younger self, would I recognize him?

***

Eunhui’s mother was my last offering. On the way back from burying her, my car crashed into a tree and flipped over. The police said that I was speeding and had lost control around a curve. I had to have brain surgery twice. Lying in the hospital bed, I felt so completely at peace. It wasn’t like me. At first I thought it was because of the pills they gave me. Before, I became uncontrollably irritated if I even heard someone being loud. Noise had been almost unbearable. The sound of people ordering food, the sound of kids laughing, the sound of women gabbing — I hated it all. But now this sudden peace. I’d always thought my constantly seething mind was normal. It wasn’t. Like a person who has gone deaf, I was forced to get used to this sudden stillness and peace. Whether it was from the impact of the crash or the surgeon cutting me up, something had happened to my brain.

__________________________________

From DIARY OF A MURDERER. Used with the permission of the publisher, HMH. Copyright © 2019 by Young-Ha Kim. Translation copyright © 2019 by Krys Lee.




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