What I liked most about Hye-young Pyun’s City of Ash and Red were her observations on the language barrier between her protagonist and his citizens of Country C. Her nameless protagonist has come to Country C for work. He only has an elementary grasp of the language so as Hye-young puts it “he could only express extremely simple emotions and childish, primitive desires” when speaking to Country C’s gatekeepers and officials.
There is an epidemic and a sanitation workers strike plaguing City Y in Country C. As a result City Y’s streets are clogged with garbage and crime is high as people are fired from their jobs at the slightest sniffle and become desperate for medicine. Hye-young’s man is held in custody at the airport as health inspectors determine whether or not he is one of the infected. His suitcase gets stolen and he is beaten and robbed on another occasion shortly after his release.
Her description of her man’s detainment reminded me of stories I read about Angel Island on the West Coast and Ellis Island on the East.
Not that the examiner’s choice of words was particularly difficult, but the man was not very good at the language of Country C to begin with, and he was too flustered to catch the words he did know. He started blankly, feeling like a fish in a tank, as the examiner repeated the same words over and over, until the other examiner, who’d been standing by, lost is patience and went to fetch an electronic dictionary.
There were a lot of comparisons of this book to Kafka. From the first page of Google results that appeared when I searched “City of Ash and Red Kafka,” I felt the Books and Bao review stated the connection most clearly: “Any fan of Kafka will recognise parallels between this tale and more than one of old Franz’s, with the key link being an overwhelming feeling of confusion, fear, and frustration.” The other reviews were either too heavy handed with their analysis or didn’t go into what they meant by “Kafkaesque.”
I read The Metamorphosis in middle school, high school, and college. It was canon in English classes. It wasn’t until I took an Experimental Literature class that I was given a sense of the breadth of Kafka’s writing and exposed to his longer works, The Trial and The Castle. I don’t remember either very well. College was decades ago. However, I read the plots of both books on Wikipedia and, while there are elements of The Trial in City of Ash and Red, The Castle is a better reflection of Kafka’s influence on the story.
Both Kafka’s K and Hye-young’s man are the victims of bureaucratic mix-ups. Both protagonists have put the resolution of their current problems on a single person. K has Klamm and the man has Mol. Both work other jobs in their new environments while they wait to hear from the person they have placed their hopes on. Klamm works as a school teacher in the village. The man works as a city exterminator in City Y. Both are fish-out-of-water stories. According to Wikipedia, Klamm is “unfamiliar with the customs, bureaucracy and processes of the village.” Hye-young’s man is a foreigner in Country C with only a rudimentary grasp of the native language.
Kafka named his character “K.” Even though it’s only just a letter, it is enough of an anchor to keep the reader concerned about the protagonist’s trials and tribulations. Hye-young never gives her man a name – not even a letter! Without a name to hang on to the monotony of pronouns rose to a din at times, making City of Ash and Red difficult to complete. To turn the volume down, I secretly called him, “Mol,” the name of the person in charge of his transfer to City Y. “Mol,” the most popular name in Country C and the name stitched on to the shirt he plucked out of the garbage during his homelessness.
At the start of the story, Hye-young’s man (my secret “Mol”) works at a pest control company. He has recently been ostracized by his colleagues, who are jealous that he has been awarded a highly coveted position at the company’s Country C office. Ever since he was the only employee who stepped up to kill a rat at the company’s office party, his colleagues believe his selection to join the Company C office was the result of favoritism over talent or deservedness. He is unaware of the viral and social epidemics plaguing City Y in Country C.
His first weeks – months? – in Country C are as a detainee – not quite a prisoner — but not free to come and go as he pleases. News of his ex-wife’s gruesome murder and a knock on the door turn him from a detainee to a fugitive, living under a bench with other forgotten men in a local park. At first, I waited for a reveal that City Y was some sort of purgatory where my secret Mol was to live until there was a room in Hell for him. But then his circumstances and the city at large started to improve. A reveal or twist would not come. My secret Mol and the circumstances he lived in were all real tangible experiences instead of an allegorical plot twist to reveal some truth about humanity.
I know it’s wrong to remove an author’s purposeful narrative choice but I needed a name. However, though I gave Hye-young’s man a secret name, I think Hye-young was aware of the strain, carrying a nameless protagonist might have on the story. She paces the life changing events man’s life well and introduces them right before the weight of a nameless protagonist becomes overburdening.