Review of Un-Su Kim, The Plotters (Doubleday, 2019), translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Assassination has been an integral part of Korean history. So many leading political figures have been felled by assassins – or, at the very least, threatened by them – that you might think that plotters are constantly at work behind the scenes of Korean politics, drawing up and executing conspiratorial plans.
Assassins were present at the very dawn of modern Korea. In 1896, for instance, the Japanese dispatched 50 assassins to storm Gyeongbok Palace and kill Queen Min, helping to pave the way for Japanese control of the peninsula. In 1909, in part to avenge the death of the queen, An Jeung-gun killed former Japanese Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi in Harbin on the eve of Japan’s annexation of Korea.
Assassins have also defined the post-Korean War era. In 1974, a North Korean sympathizer attempted to kill South Korean strongman Park Chung-Hee, but succeeded only in killing his wife. Five years later, Park was felled by one of his own colleagues, the head of the KCIA, over dinner inside the Blue House compound. A North Korean bomb plot in Rangoon in 1983 failed to take out Park’s successor, Chun Doo-Hwan, but did kill four cabinet members. Future Korean president and Nobel Prize winner Kim Dae Jung survived several assassination attempts, including a famous 1973 abduction by government agents that was foiled largely by U.S. government pressure.
This list doesn’t even include the assassination plots targeting North Koreans, such as the killing of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia in 2017.
Given the disproportionate influence of assassins on Korean history, the plot of The Plotters does not seem so far-fetched. Kim Un-Su’s latest novel imagines a Korea in which rival bands of assassins compete for contracts, rub out a large number of both the wealthy and the obscure, and even take each other out in bloody battles. A shadowy network of plotters, meanwhile, draw up the plans and hire the assassins. The killings often look like accidents or suicides – “as silent as snowfall in the night” – so that society at large remains ignorant of the mayhem that lies just beneath the surface.
Reseng, the protagonist of The Plotters, is an orphan brought up by the head of a leading assassin ring who runs an obscure library as his cover.
Had Reseng continued to grow up in the orphanage, where divine blessings showered down like spring sunshine and kindly nuns devoted themselves to the careful raising of orphans, his life might have turned out very differently. Instead, he grew up in a library crawling with assassins, hired guns, and bounty hunters. Just as a plant grows wherever it sets down roots, so all your life’s tragedies spring from wherever you first set your feet.
Reseng is thus destined to become an assassin himself. Although he is a skilled killer, he has a fatal flaw, just like Achilles in The Iliad, one of the many books he devours growing up. Reseng doesn’t like to follow orders. He asserts his free will – or, at least, what he believes is his free will.
At the very outset of the novel, Reseng hesitates to kill his target for no reason other than it just doesn’t seem the right time to do so. He ends up having dinner with his erstwhile victim and then decides to kill him the next day, along with his dog. On another assignment, he’s supposed to break the neck of a prostitute but instead allows her to take an overdose of pills.
Plotters hated it when lowly assassins took it upon themselves to change the plot. It wasn’t about pride. The problem was that if the plot changed, then the people waiting at their various posts would need new cues, and everyone’s roles would get out of sync.
Reseng, a lowly assassin, then commits the worst sin possible. He starts to wonder about the plotters themselves. Who is pulling the strings that make assassins kill this person or that one, use this weapon or that one, and provide precise instructions on how to clean up the mess?
Reseng initially resists pursuing this line of enquiry, for he imagines that plotters come and go but the position of authority remains the same. Someone would always occupy the chair. But then he meets a plotter who wants to upend the whole order to avenge the assassination of her parents. Reseng is drawn inexorably into her world: will he become her puppet or will he assert his free will to change the plot?
The Plotters is a not-so-veiled critique of Korean society: its hierarchies, its corrupt structures, its ruthless efficiency. At one point, Reseng chucks his life as an assassin and becomes an anonymous factory worker, with a repetitive job, a tiny apartment, and a girlfriend who wants to start a family. Ironically, it’s the part of the book that feels most real as Kim brings alive the monotonous life of a minor cog in Korea’s vast industrial system. This is Reseng’s grim choice: a soul-killing job in the factory or a job killing other souls. He opts for the latter: he refuses to accept the narrative that Korean society has laid out for someone of his education and background.
As you might guess from the location of Reseng’s upbringing, The Plotters is ultimately a meditation on books. Reseng is raised among books: he is the child of the library. The plotters in the novel are much like writers themselves, coming up with elaborate scenarios that rely on action and drama. The assassins are the characters, who set in motion the often-fickle whims of the plotters. The novelist is a serial murderer, killing off numerous characters in the service of plot development. The ultimate plotter is none other than Kim Un-Su himself.
As in an experimental novel, Reseng is a character who becomes aware of himself as a character, someone manipulated by unseen hands – the puppet-master, the plotter, the author. He attempts to assert his free will by disobeying orders. He joins hands with a character who aspires to destroy the very structure of society – the narrative – that fixes them in place. He rebels against the universe that has given him a fatal flaw and pushed him inexorably toward his doom. And, in the end, he smirks at the sky – at the author-god who has created him and will ultimately destroy him – in his final, futile attempt to break free of the bonds of the story into which he’s been thrust.
The Plotters is an engaging novel that shows the influence of European modernists like Joyce and Flann O’Brien as well as postmodern writers like Haruki Murakami. But it is anchored in the smells and tastes of Korean reality, from the spicy tripe lunch enjoyed by the characters to the string of assassinations that form the backbone of the book’s structure. It is an existentialist tale, Gangnam-style, nimbly translated into rhythmic English prose by Sora Kim-Russell.
Reseng rebels against the notion that he is just the plaything of unseen actors. So, too, does Korea push back against the notion that it can be endlessly manipulated by more powerful forces. Reseng, alas, cannot really write his own story. But Korea, at this time of greater interKorean engagement, still has a chance to do so.
Korean Quarterly, Spring 2019