The Plotters by Un-Su Kim

Strangely satisfying…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In modern, democratic South Korea, governments can no longer get rid of political enemies as easily as they did under the military dictatorship, but fortunately there’s a whole hierarchy of assassins willing to do it for them, for a price. Not to be left out, the world of big business finds this a convenient way to rid itself of competitors too. So, up until recently, there’s been plenty of work for our lead assassin, Reseng, and his employer, Old Raccoon. But now there are new kids on the block, using modern business methods to attract all the customers. Things are about to go very wrong…

I doubt there’s anybody in the world who knows less about South Korea than me, so I can only hope this book doesn’t give an entirely realistic picture of life there, especially given it’s the bit of Korea we’re all supposed to like! Part satire and part surreal, this is one of the oddest books I’ve read in a while, and one of the most violent, but the quality of the writing and storytelling kept me totally intrigued and absorbed. It reminded me a little of Haruki Murakami, in that the world seems almost real but a little off-kilter – not quite the world we live in but close. However, unlike Murakami, there’s no overt fantasy or supernatural element to it. It’s told in the third person (past tense), but exclusively from Reseng’s point of view, so everything we see is filtered through his clearly abnormal outlook.

Reseng was taken in as a child by Old Raccoon to live in the library which provides cover for the real business of assassins for hire. With no formal education, he has picked up everything he knows from the books on the library shelves, so is full of little snippets of information but has no grounding in normal life. Brought up to be an assassin, he sometimes wishes he could do something else but when it comes to the bit, he acts without remorse, though occasionally with a passing pity for his victims. Oddly, he feels like a rather sympathetic character despite this, with just enough ambiguity about his morality to keep the reader more or less on his side. He seems to be a symptom of the problems in this society rather than the cause.

Basically, this is a tale of turf wars among the assassins, and we are restricted to their small subset of society. When Reseng carries out a contract, he doesn’t know the reason the victim is to be killed or who wants the job done. The plotters are the middlemen – someone who wants a person killed hires a plotter, who plans the details and then in turn hires an assassin to carry it out. Assassins are expendable and have a short life-expectancy, and they all accept this. But when assassins begin to be killed by competitors, this seems to go against the code and things get personal. Plus assassins aren’t quite so easy to kill as ordinary victims. And then things get more complicated when Reseng becomes the target of a woman who seems to have an agenda of her own…

Un-Su Kim

The satire element seems to be saying that the major difference between the old dictatorship and the new democracy is merely the need to do the same old dirty deeds secretly rather than openly. It also pokes a little fun at modern business methods creeping into a profession that is as old as time. There’s a surprising amount of humour in it, and the violence, while frequent and extreme, is largely kept this side of graphic and has an almost cartoonish quality to it, or maybe a stylised feel like the violence in a Tarantino film. And Reseng’s naivety about the world beyond the business has an unexpectedly endearing quality – I found myself hoping for some kind of redemption for him.

The translator, Sora Kim-Russell, deserves special mention – the translation is smooth and seamless, never jarring, and allows the excellence of the writing to come through. I could easily have forgotten it was a translation, which is the best praise any translator can earn.

I’m not sure if I’ve made this sound as appealing as it deserves. I found it compulsively readable and, despite the apparent bleakness of the subject matter, full of humour and emotional warmth. I highly recommend it as something different from the usual run of things – well written, well plotted and ultimately strangely satisfying.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, 4th Estate.

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37 thoughts on “The Plotters by Un-Su Kim

  1. I read your review and thought maybe I can stand aside from this book, good as it seems to be. Then I had a look at Amazon and found everyone agrees with you in valuing the uniqueness of this book – I’ll be missing out – how can I not check it out! The tone you describe reminds me of a very engrossing Korean film ‘Burning’ that I saw last year.

    • It was one I was sent unsolicited and I always have mixed feelings about those. At first I wondered why on earth HarperCollins would think it was my kind of book, but once I started reading I got totally sucked in – presumably that’s why they’re sending out copies! I hope you manage to get hold of it – I’d be intrigued to hear if it has the same effect on you. Korean literature and films seem to be having a big moment…

  2. Sounds fascinating! For some reason an aspect of the plot of this book reminds me of the plot of a movie from a different country (China): Hero (directed by Zhang Yimou, which is about an assassination attempt.

    • I haven’t seen that movie and usually wouldn’t be attracted to stories about assassins. But I was sent this book unsolicited, started it warily and then got totally sucked in – good stuff! 😀

  3. This does sound like a fascinating story, FictionFan. And I think part of the reason is that it’s a different sort of story. It’s ‘not your mother’s detective novel,’ if that makes sense. And it is interesting to ‘meet’ a main character who is, on many levels, unsympathetic, but whom we actually care about. This really is intriguing! Not sure I would go for the violence in it, but still, I can see how you were engaged.

    • The violence is odd – it is quite extreme but somehow manages not to be too graphic. It’s an odd book all round, in fact, and one I wouldn’t have picked up from the blurb, but although I was a bit wary about it to begin with, it totally sucked me in. Not sure that the South Korean Tourist Board would be recommending it though… 😉

    • I don’t get many unsolicited books sent to me but sometimes they turn out to be great surprises – books I wouldn’t necessarily have picked for myself based on the blurb. This is one of those – I’d never have expected the humour or warmth either…

  4. Not my cup of tea, but that’s why we’re fortunate to have so many options in book selection. Glad you found plenty to like about this one, and it’s great to start a new week off with a five-star review!

    • I wouldn’t have been attracted to this one from the burb either, which is why it’s so much fun to receive unsolicited books for review sometimes – jolts me out of my comfort zone! It doesn’t always work, but this time it did… 😀

    • Oh, I hope you enjoy it! It’s one of those ones that I think might only succeed through word of mouth – it’s hard to explain what makes such an apparently off-putting subject matter work so appealingly…

  5. This made me think of one of the characters in a book I read a few years ago called The Cellist of Sarajevo, one was an assassin but she begins to ask herself about AL, that’s happening around her.

    • I haven’t read that one so don’t know how well they compare. The main assassin in this one has been so indoctrinated he doesn’t question the rights and wrongs of it much, but somehow I kept hoping for redemption for him – he seemed as much a victim as his victims in some ways…

  6. This sounds interesting. I’m not sure if I’d read it but it does fascinate. I’m not sure that South Korea is quite this full of assassins but I guess I could be wrong.

  7. This does sound good, I’ve read other glowing reviews of it so it’s definitely on the list! I’m not really one for violence but the way you’ve described it makes me think I might manage it here.

    • I’m not into violence either, but there’s something about the way it’s done in this that makes it feel not quite real somehow. More Tom and Jerry than Jack the Ripper, though with added murder… 😀 It’s well worth reading though – something a bit different from the usual…

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