Sometimes books in translation are very interesting and completely understandable, and then sometimes there’s something like The Cabinet by Un-Su Kim. I feel like either I didn’t quite get on with the absurdity of the central idea of the story, or there was just too much culturally that I just didn’t get. For example, at the beginning of the story we find out there’s almost an entire building of people who don’t do anything all day but still get paid. Is this some sort of social commentary or just some absurdist plot line? It didn’t make any sense and so I started off a bit WTF from the get go.
The Cabinet is roughly a book about ‘Symptomers’ or people who have weird powers or things happen to them, that one of the characters thinks is the next stage of human evolution. Some of them are people who skip forward in time, others who fall into torpors for months or years at a time, or even others who have weird things happen to their bodies like Ginko trees growing out of their finger. None of them are quite normal and the vast majority of them are quite weird or unsettling.
The main character Mr Kong, assists Professor Kwon, a researcher of Symptomers by taking phone calls and filing all the notes of these evolved humans in Cabinet 13. Mr Kong is irritable and lonely and quite hard to like as a person. He just doesn’t seem to help himself at all and I don’t have any real sympathy for him and his plight. There’s something VERY unsettling that happens to him at the end, which is very out of sync with the rest of the book, and I feel it’s more unsettling because it was kind of in the abstract as I didn’t really care what happened to Mr Kong.
The other issue I had with the novel was that the first part of it was these random vignettes of the Symptomers, but then in the second half there’s a slight mystery with one of his colleagues. There’s also a point where his boss is being very sexist about this colleague and no one does anything about it, which annoyed me. Basically half way through it tries to become more of a narrative arc, with fewer vignettes. It just didn’t really work for me and was kind of confusing. I was just getting along with all the different Symptomers and then suddenly it was an entirely different book.
I think the thing that it does have going for it, is that it’s just so weird. The little short stories about people are so bloody bizarre that they are pretty memorable. I think if you like the bizarre and/or absurd, you might get on better with the whole novel. But if you like something with more of a story arc, and still want to read some Korean fiction in translation, I recommend I’m Waiting for You.