Hye-Young Pyun’s 2010 City of Ash and Red is a standalone horror novel. The 2018 translation is by Sora Kim-Russell.
Although in no way a remarkable worker, the unnamed protagonist is promoted to a post in the head office of his pest extermination company. The office is located in an unfamiliar city, Y, in even more unfamiliar country, C.
He finds himself a figure of envy for his co-workers. But the loss of his friends (if grudgingly tolerant co-workers can be considered friends) is just another blow, following upon a nasty divorce. He can only hope that the transfer will let him rebuild his life.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps the transfer is merely the first step in another, even more epic catastrophe.
The man has the bad luck to arrive in country Y when it is dealing with an epidemic disease. He is singled out for a medical examination upon entrance. He does not appear to have the disease (or if he does, he is asymptomatic). He does have some impressive bruises which he cannot explain. The previous day is a blank.
When he reaches his new accommodations in District 4, he finds that he has lost nearly all his possessions, including the cell phone with all of his contacts (and the charger for his laptop computer.). His apartment has a phone so people can call him, but he has no idea what the phone’s number might be.
It is at this point he realizes he made no arrangements to have his dog fed or walked while he is living in country Y.
Our protagonist manages to contact someone from his previous life: Yujin. Yujin isn’t really a friend; he happened to marry the protagonist’s ex-wife, who later divorced Yujin as well.
The man doesn’t actually like his dog (which he kept only to irk his ex-wife, who wanted to keep it) so he asks Yujin to abandon the dog somewhere. Yujin phones the man to explain the task was beyond him. Not because Yujin is too kind-hearted, but because the dog is dead, hacked to pieces.
As is the protagonist’s ex-wife.
The protagonist is the obvious suspect. When he hears a knock at his door, the man flees out into District 4. In a strange country, during an epidemic that has reduced the city to chaos, in a nation whose language he speaks only very poorly. Without a single friend in the nation.
Ah, well. I cannot like everything.
Dorothy Heydt coined the Eight Deadly Words: “I don’t care what happens to these people.” My reaction to the unnamed protagonist of City of Ash and red is a bit stronger than that: I actively wanted something bad to happen to him. Something worse than having to live on the street for a while.
The protagonist lost my sympathy when he finally realized that he had left his dog behind to starve. Was he worried about the dog? No, he thought that coming home to a dead dog would be inconvenient and unpleasant. The solution? Have an acquaintance abandon the dog somewhere. What a jerk.
This wasn’t the worst thing he had done. We later learn that his ex-wife divorced him is because he raped her in a fit of pique. Was he also her murderer? That’s not clear1. Yujin might have framed him. But to my way of thinking, a man who would kill a dog with neglect and rape his wife would probably murder as well.
The novel is written competently enough. It was plausible enough, in that the epidemic kills only a small fraction of the population. I’ve previously complained (at great length) about books that posit epidemics that kill off 90% or more.
But … the main character is so comprehensively unpleasant that no amount of fine prose or believable setting could make the book palatable. To me at least.
1: By the end of the book the man is unsure if his wife really is dead, even though her murder has been reported on the news.