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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


I Hear Your Voice

Kim Young-ha

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To purchase I Hear Your Voice

Title: I Hear Your Voice
Author: Kim Young-ha
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 259 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: I Hear Your Voice - US
I Hear Your Voice - UK
I Hear Your Voice - Canada
J'entends ta voix - France
  • Krean title: 너의 목소리가 들려
  • Translated by Krys Lee

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a compelling modern-Christ-variation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The National . 9/7/2017 Malcolm Forbes
World Lit. Today . 11-12/2017 E.J.Koh

  From the Reviews:
  • "Kim excels with his tour of Seoulís underbelly and his examination, or evisceration, of urban culture. His warts-and-all portrayal of young disaffected, disenfranchised or delinquent misfits recalls Bret Easton Ellisís Less Than Zero, and his charactersí anguished alienation is as palpable as that found in Haruki Murakamiís fiction. Krys Lee deserves credit for her skilled translation." - Malcolm Forbes, The National

  • "I Hear Your Voice is ultimately an invitation for the reader to further seek out Korean literatureóand to truly understand the nuanced distinctions of a people both celebrating and bleeding" - E.J.Koh, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       I Hear Your Voice opens with a brief prologue of sorts, variations of stories of a spectacular old magic trick -- nicely beginning: "A rope descends from the sky, so the beginning itself is strange" and concluding with the narrator revealing his changed perspective, how in one variation of this story the magician disappeared and he used to wonder what became of him, while now what interests him is the assistant who was left behind. The far-ranging novel explores this idea to some extent, focused on Jae, a messianic figure who becomes a popular leader of sorts, and his childhood friend Donggyu, who lives a more conventional life but eventually also abandons it and joins Jae's world.
       The story begins with a very vivid description of Jae's bus station bathroom birth -- and near-death, as his teenage mother tried to smother the newborn. In the mob scene surrounding his birth the child was passed on to Mama Pig, who walked off with the infant and raised the boy as her own.
       Jae grew up in the same building complex as Donggyu -- a boy who spoke normally as a toddler but then: "spoke less and less until eventually I was always silent". Jae doesn't mind the boy's muteness -- and mostly understands Donggyu anyway:

He wasn't the receiver of my desires; he was their interpreter.
       Donggyu's muteness is temporary, and he becomes a normal kid again. He and Jae remain friends, but drift apart as the neighborhood undergoes changes, Donggyu's family moves away, and Jae struggles with Mama Pig's decline and winds up in an orphanage.
       Eventually, Jae becomes a street kid, living rough. Sometimes he joins small communities of others around his age who are also getting by, in different ways, on their own -- a rough world where Jae plays a subservient role, though eventually breaking out from it. As he matures, he becomes more leader than follower -- and eventually he is the de facto leader of a motor cycle gang (though many of those following him are just delivery boys with small-scale bikes).
       As suggested already by his ability to understand mute Donggyu when they were very young, Jae is empathic -- becoming, it seems, ever more so:
     "There's a pattern to it. It doesn't make a difference whether it's an object, machine, animal, or human. If a being experiences extreme suffering, I feel it too."
     Jae's sunken eyes became shiny and glowed with an otherworldly energy.
     "You feel pain ?"
     "Happiness too, if they're happy. But that's less common. It's usually pain."
       Jae is unusual, in a variety of ways -- and:
Ever since he was young, Jae's view of the world was truly his own. He wasn't interested in what schools taught. Instead he saw with his wn eyes and rarely believed anything that grownups said.
He didn't have fantasies of hard-won success. What Jae had instead was a vague sense of mission, though this energy inside him hadn't yet found the means or the right time to emerge.
       Jae is presented as an obviously Christ-like figure, his path one of similar hardship, understanding, and then leadership. There's also a Buddha-element here -- and when the former boyfriend of the girl he becomes somewhat involved with meets them he asks:
     "Who's the homeless guy beside you ?"
     Taeju looked hard at Jae. Jae didn't look away.
     She said, "Siddhartha."
     "Who's Siddhartha ?"
     "Just someone."
       Donggyu eventually abandons his traditional lifestyle, and family, as well, joining Jae's crowd -- but very much as follower, not equal:
     The higher Jae rose, the lower I fell. I felt as if I'd been the king's eunuch all my life.
       Jae's becomes the elusive leader of an enormous motorcycle gang -- "one of the few groups that the entire public could loathe together". Most of the kids who follow him are the hopeless youngsters who don't fit in the system, working for minimum wage, getting taken advantage of. His story culminates in a mass-movement of sorts, a motorcycle rally that ends with Jae's spectacular disappearance -- an arguably simple death that, however, just as easily can be seen as a Christ-like ascension.
       I Hear Your Voice is an odd modern messianic tale, and succeeds best when the Christ-like path of Jae is least obvious. Much of the book is raw, describing considerable hardship and awful casual brutality, but Kim weaves an often excellent story here.
       There are also tonal shifts in the novel -- somewhat awkward, though also justifiable --, an uncertainty about where exactly Kim wants the story to be coming from, culminating in one of the final sections shifting the focus away to a troubled policeman who is eventually on the hunt for elusive Jae -- the story from the other side, as it were -- and then the author himself breaking the final wall, as he describes his struggles writing this novel:
     I began writing the first part of my novel based on what Donggyu had told me and had written down himself. Jae's appearance and Donggyu's aphonia belonged to another part of the book. Up to that point the writing was easy, but after that I got stuck. I ended up putting it aside and focusing on another book. About a year later, I decided that this novel was also going nowhere so I filed it away in a drawer.
       It's an effective almost-undermining of the narrative, Kim refusing to flat out make this simply a modern-Christ-story, limiting it in a variety of ways -- from (changing) perspectives to Jae and Donggyu's (and the policeman's) often incidental or tangential experiences.
       From the powerful opening scenes to many of the memorable episodes, Kim presents a strong but unsettled story -- avoiding the expected paths and moving the narrative in unusual ways. It can be frustrating on occasion, but the overall effect is quite impressive.
       An unusual but interesting work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 August 2017

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I Hear Your Voice: Reviews: Other books by Kim Young-ha under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Korean author Kim Young-ha (김영하) was born in 1968.

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© 2017-2019 the complete review

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