Un-su Kim’s 2006 The Cabinet is a surrealist novel. The 2021 English translation is by Sean Lin Halbert.
Kong Deok-geun is a boring bureaucrat, someone whom nobody would ever expect to do anything interesting. He would have been perfect for a position requiring decades of meaningless paper-shuffling. Instead the unfortunate paper-pusher finds himself working for Professor Kwon. Kwon’s project sounds mundane, but it isn’t.
As documented in Cabinet 13, there are living amongst normal humans the so-called “symptomers,” folks with peculiarities. Some can drink copious amounts of gasoline without dying or slumber for months at a time. There is a man who subsists entirely on glass and a man with a small ginkgo tree growing from his finger tip.
Perhaps the symptomers are the next step in human evolution, Homo Superior, if you will. Perhaps the bizarre gifts and handicaps are merely the side-effect of the unending frustration and stress of modern civilization. Whatever the peculiarity, Kong must document it for the Cabinet 13 project.
Professor Kwon is no bald telepath with ambitions of forging youthful mutants into a child army. For that matter, the symptomers lack gifts that lend themselves to conflict. They are merely people with unusual (and in the case of the ginkgo tree man, ultimately fatal) traits.
When Kwon dies his research is left in Kong’s care. Too bad for Kong. There are those who are utterly convinced the so-called “chimera files” are potentially valuable. Kong must be convinced to part with Cabinet 13. If he refuses to comply or worse, is unable to comply? Well, his captor will simply snip bits off the astonished bureaucrat until either the syndicate get what it wants or poor Kong is a pile of scattered body parts.
People who dislike torture and dismemberment will not enjoy this book.
I often have stupid reasons for failing to engage fully with books. In this case, you might think it was the last-minute swerve into torture porn. Not so. Long before that plot element is introduced, at the very beginning of the book in fact, Kong rambles on about the last survivor of the 1902 Mount Pelée pyroclastic flow. As it happens, the annihilation of the town of Saint-Pierre was one of my childhood tales, and I know a little bit about it. Aside from date and location, essentially everything Kong claims about the eruption, the town, and the survivors is wrong. Perhaps this ramble was intended to signal that Kong is unreliable; I found it annoying.
I am not entirely sure what to make of this book1. The author didn’t seem to have clear intentions either. The structure rambles, the characters seem flat and often unpleasant, and while the whimsical bits are very whimsical, the unpleasant elements (of which torture is but one part) are just as unpleasant. I don’t know if the issue is the translation or if I’m just failing to grasp something fundamental about the text. Very much not my thing. Your mileage may vary.
1: This review was a patron request. Although … I already owned The Cabinet and it’s been on my to-read list for a while, so it could have turned up in the natural order of things.