"This deliciously absurd novel unwraps the mundanity of everyday life and the strangeness of the human condition with unique and compelling verve — what a zesty tonic."
Un-Su Kim’s The Cabinet is a mind-bending literary marvel. Winner of South Korea's most prestigious literary prize, the Munhakdongne Novel Award, mention must be made of its translator, Sean Lin Halbert, who’s rendered a strange, intriguing, comic story of existential crises into fabulously fresh English, with an amusing droll tone and unforgettable turns of phrase that befit the book’s themes and absurd subjects.
Opening with a jaunty, outlandish account of a survivor of the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée volcano in Martinique (a figure from real-life here given a crazy alternate history), we’re introduced to the notion of “symptomers” — people who “exist between the humans of today and the humans of tomorrow”. In essence, symptomers are people who’ve been “physically and mentally devastated, and who have willingly or unwillingly lived a lonely and melancholic life away from the rest of the world”. People “left on the peripheries of the world”. And case notes on such individuals are filed in Cabinet 13 under the stewardship of Mr Kong.
While Mr Kong is not a symptomer, his personal story shows him to be a person on the periphery, a man who came into this bizarre post as result of being “desperately bored”. After years in a mind-numbing administrative job, his “soul was as empty a dry cornstalk in late autumn”. He admits the boredom was so bad, “if someone had actually given me a dog treat, I really would have eaten it”.
Outlandishly surreal, The Cabinet is incisive on the soul-destroying mundanity of ungainful employment, modern workplaces, and alienation. It’s also very, very funny, if you’re tickled by dark humour with edgy bite.