The Cabinet by UN-SU KIM Translated by Sean Lin Halbert
Angry Robot, pb, £8.75
Reviewed by I. Rosenfeld
When I started reading this South Korean novel, I was taken in by the absurd and hilarious claims it made. Pseudo-scientific, grandiose, highly original and often ridiculous, I put them down as surreal – until I realised that some were based, at least partially, on facts. The author, I soon discovered, mixes fact and fiction, giving equal weight to myth and science, inserting and re-inventing real-life figures and syndromes. Then he adds Mr Kong’s (the narrator’s) life in the mix. The result is a series of weird, funny and thought-provoking short stories unified by Mr Kong’s sufferings.
The slightly Kafkaesque narrator, a wise fool, innocent and hopeful, finds himself in a workplace where everyone pretends to work when there is no work to be done. Bored out of his head, he stumbles upon Cabinet 13, a collection of files about people whose bizarre talents, abilities and disabilities become the subject of Mr Kong’s curiosity, concern and, increasingly, frustration. But then Mr Kong cares. Like so many inhabitants of mega-cities, he may be isolated, friendless and cut-off, but, unlike many others in his alienated world, he cares.
At first, I thought Un-Su Kim writes in the tradition of Latin American authors who exaggerate, embroider and delve into fantasy that always teeters on the edge of reality. But as the stories slowly morphed into a novel of sorts, I found the underlying commentary to be incisively modern. The tales are about people who, like the majority of Mr Kong’s colleagues, manage to fit in; ones who, like the Cabinet 13 ‘cases’ manage to evade the demands of capitalist mega-city conformity and never do – though they often pay a heavy price; and ones who, like the narrator himself, try to clumsily bridge the gap between increasingly dangerous conformists and the ‘symptomers’ of Cabinet 13, to the detriment of their own sanity and liberty.
This novel will appeal to readers who enjoy something less Eurocentric but universal, wittily different and thought-provoking.