Source: Review copy
Publication: 21 February 2019 from 4th Estate
Plotters are just pawns like us. A request comes in and they draw up the plans. There’s someone above them who tells them what to do. And above that person is another plotter telling them what to do. You think that if you go up there with a knife and stab the person at the very top, that’ll fix everything. But no-one’s there. It’s just an empty chair.
Reseng was raised by cantankerous Old Raccoon in the Library of Dogs. To anyone asking, it’s just an ordinary library. To anyone in the know, it’s a hub for Seoul’s organised crime, and a place where contract killings are plotted and planned. So it’s no surprise that Reseng has grown up to become one of the best hitmen in Seoul. He takes orders from the plotters, carries out his grim duties, and comforts himself afterwards with copious quantities of beer and his two cats, Desk and Lampshade.
But after he takes pity on a target and lets her die how she chooses, he finds his every move is being watched. Is he finally about to fall victim to his own game? And why does that new female librarian at the library act so strangely? Is he looking for his enemies in all the wrong places? Could he be at the centre of a plot bigger than anything he’s ever known?
I know very little about Korean literature, but I loved The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong, so was more than happy to take a look at The Plotters. What a surprising book it turned out to be. The Plotters is dark, violent, and very funny. It has a beautifully dry satirical wit running all the way through and even as people are being knifed or shot to death, their bones ground down after cremation in the local pet crematorium to avoid detection, I found myself laughing at the ironic, observational humour.
The setting is modern, democratic Seoul, South Korea. And it is democracy that has created its own problems. After three decades of military dictatorship, when troublemakers were disposed of by a few highly trained government assassins, Korea now has democratically elected politicians and an administration that needs to be seen to have clean hands. So beating potential oppositionists to death in military or government basements just won’t do any more. Fortunately, this is the modern era, so like any difficult problem, this one is now outsourced to private contractors. Assassination has become much more popular and soon Corporations are getting in on the act and work for contractors grows exponentially until it is Corporations who are the primary clients.
In turn, this leads to differing styles and quality of assassins’ organisations. There are those like the one run by Old Raccoon which our protagonist Reseng belongs to. Raised as an assassin from a young age by the Old Raccoon, this is the only family he has ever known. The Library of Dogs is the place where Old Raccoon’s contract killing business is run from, colloquially known as The Doghouse. Here, the Plotters visit old Raccoon and make their after which Reseng, or one of his colleagues is sent out to perform the dispatch. He doesn’t know who the Plotters are or are or what their targets have done, he just carries out the work.
But as in other areas of life, nothing is quite that simple. The growth in work has led to a growth in the number of firms carrying out such work and one in particular is quite greedy. Hanja, with his MBA from Stanford, has set up a flashy security company with his own team of plotters and assassins. His is the ‘supermarket’ approach, clean, convenient and a one stop shop for all your killing needs.
Reseng is a lover of literature, his companions are his cats, Desk and Lampshade and he spends his evenings with them, drinking beer and contemplating his existence. What happens to old assassins? If he were to stop doing this killing (can he stop?) what would he do? Then one day he finds an explosive in his toilet. Is he now the target of a plotter? If so whom, and why? A woman now enters the picture. Mito lost her father to a plot. When she approaches Resang with her own scheme to upset the plotting world, all bets are off.
In a remarkable and offbeat satire, our anti-hero sets out to find what he stands for and whether he might be capable of redemption. Loyalty and love play a part in a dark and violent book that turns assassin against assassin, and soon this is a deeply personal business for Reseng.
Written with verve and genius touches of humour – kudos to the translator – The Plotters is both chilling and at the same time laugh out loud funny; no mean feat. The characters are vividly drawn and the writing is superb.
Verdict: An intelligent satire that is at once both profound and has a subtle, stiletto like wit.
Un-su Kim was born in 1972 in Busan and is the author of several highly praised novels. He has won the Munhakdongne Novel Prize, Korea’s most prestigious literary prize, and was nominated for the 2016 Grand Prix de la Littéraire Policière. He lives in Jinhae-gu, South Korea.