Kim Young-ha is an acclaimed writer in Korea. His works have been translated into English and other languages. Diary of a Murderer is a collection of four short stories ranging from suspenseful thrillers to ruminative explorations of human nature.
The book opens with a thrilling titular story about a seventy-year old man, Kim Byeongsu, who is a former serial killer suffering from a severe case of Alzheimer’s disease. Kim Byeongsu has not killed in a while, and when he meets his adopted daughter’s new boyfriend, he knows exactly what he is—a fellow serial killer. Battling with short-term memory loss, he makes it his mission to protect his adopted daughter and to kill one last time. “Diary of a Murderer” portrays a person who is slowly losing control of his faculties. Written in short snippets that resembles diary entries, one can get a sense of the paranoia, claustrophobia, obsession, and neurosis that is gradually seeping into the protagonist’s psyche.
It is evident that Kim has a knack for creating captivating and flawed characters. He enthralls by letting his readers into the troubled mind of his characters. For instance, in the second story, “The Origin of Life,” Kim interweaves unrequited love and abusive relationship with human’s need to survive. When the romantic protagonist, Seojin, comes back to his hometown, he begins to wonder the origins of life and gets involve with his childhood friend, Ina, who is married to an abusive husband. Then, in the third story, “Missing Child”, Kim explores how environment can mold a person’s identity by delving into parenting. The story chronicles the tragic journey of a married couple, Yunseok and Mira, whose child was kidnapped while they were in a supermarket. Ten years later, they discovered that their child was alive, living under a different name, and was raised by another woman who had committed suicide. Together, these two stories and the struggles of each characters add pathos to a book filled with visceral fervor, creating a riveting page-turner.
To make Diary of a Murderer more compelling than it already is, Kim crafts a final story where the search for passion and inspiration takes on metaphysical concepts. “Once there was a man in a mental hospital convinced that he was a cob of corn” is how “The Writer” begins. Kim subtly pokes fun at the relationship between the writer and the publisher as well as the writer and his works. At one point, the titular character, “the writer,” receives an advice from an old friend to “write an unintelligible, chaotic book that’s unpublishable. Write something like James Joyce’s Ulysses”. “The Writer” questions what makes a writer a great one. The story ends with characters transforming into two enormous chickens and the protagonist repeatedly saying, “I’m not a cob of corn.” “The Writer” is a well-told mind-bending narrative with searing black humor and uncanny surrealism.
Kim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer is unconventional, original, and refreshing. It taps into the intrinsic instinct of human nature, and it depicts a distorted reality where serial killers are lovable fathers, where love stories become survival stories, and where obsession and passion don’t have a definitive distinction. Diary of a Murderer is only 200 pages long with the titular story taking half of the book; and yet, each story feels as though it could have been turned into a standalone novel.