Belgium vs. South Korea [World Cup of Literature: First Round]
Everybody knows you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and I’m trying damn hard to resist doing just that, but the fact remains that the cover of the St. Martin’s edition of The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst features a cartoon drawing of several drunk men swimming in a gigantic been stein and about to be overtaken by a huge wave of pilsner.
Against that, Kim Young-Ha’s Your Republic Is Calling You offers two creepy, razor-sharp, stylized eyes, one featuring the North Korean flag for its iris, the other the South Korean flag.
So there’s your match-up right there: Cold War thriller versus drunk louts about to be drowned by their own beer.
Ki-yong, the protagonist of Your Republic, is a North Korean spy who has infiltrated South Korea. He’s been there for 21 years, long enough to start up a perfectly dull marriage and even have a daughter. He’s kinda forgotten that North Korea even exists. Except one day he receives a transmission: liquidate everything and return home ASAP.
Ki-yong doesn’t exactly want to do that. He likes it where he is, and who knows what awaits him back north. Thus begins Kim’s story of spy intrigue and identity.
That’s a clever plot and an interesting way to get at identity. Headed into the net, 1-0.
The protagonist of The Misfortunates is a 13-year-old named Dimmy, who is surrounded on all sides by extremely drunk men. Seriously: these dudes are so drunk and so working class that avoiding cancer, cirrhosis, etc., and reaching 60 years of age is regarded as some sort of unthinkable concession to bourgeois values.
Um, what? There are some damn screwy books in this competition (Senselessness, The Map and the Territory, Day of the Oprichnik) but this book’s just as screwed-up as any you will find here. Equalized, 1-1.
And then, The Misfortunates makes a leitmotif out of pissing. Seriously. Rarely in a work of literature will you encounter urination in so many varieties, fit so snugly and inventively into so many scenes, described with such care and, dare I say—yes, I do—artistry. Lobbed (drunkenly) over the goalkeeper’s outstretched hand and into the goal. 2-1.
And then, as if this were not enough, there is a Tour de France of drinking in The Misfortunates. Yes, a drinking game based on the freaking Tour de France, complete with day-long stages and colored jerseys for the lead drinkers. 3-1.
Your Republic Is Calling You has got some things going for it—interesting characters, a good way to look at the two Koreas, some paranoid intrigue. But overall it’s just outmatched by what Verhulst is doing here. This is the difference between the second division and the first, a textbook example of one team being outclassed by the other. Game Belgium.