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The Plotters
by Un-Su Kim
Doubleday, $25.95, 304pp
Published: January 2019

I've been enjoying the push by major publishers in recent years to look beyond the usual UK and US sources to bring authors from other countries, often ones where English is not a first language, to wider attention, and as such I jumped at the chance to read this, from South Korean writer Un-Su Kim. He's established in his own country, with a number of books out and a number of Korean awards won, but this is his first novel to see translation into the English language for a western audience.

I liked it and more as it went on as well, but it frustrated me for a while. This is really a look at a Korean subculture of assassins for hire that's told through the way one of those killers struggles to maintain his small but comfortable place in the big picture and finds at least a little humanity in the process. However, it unfolds in vignettes rather than a consistent narrative, which feels like an odd approach. It turns this from thriller or dark drama into literary fiction.

Each of the separately titled chapters, especially during the first half, feels like a short story told in isolation and that really affects the pace. Until everything starts to coalesce perhaps halfway through, I found myself putting this down as I ended every chapter, so I could let what happened within it resonate with me. I rarely found myself hooked and wanting to roll right into the next. And that's a perfectly acceptable approach. It just isn't what I was looking for.

This killer is Reseng, who was found in a garbage can and raised in an orphanage to the age of four, when he moved to the Library, growing up with and working for Old Raccoon, who isn't a plotter himself but a middleman who makes things happen and has done so for decades. He literally grew up as an assassin and he's known very little else. What's more, he hasn't really wanted anything else.

What shakes him up are unseen actions by the plotters of the title, the hidden figures who orchestrate their grand schemes far above his level. We never meet them, though we do hear about one of them after he's taken out in a neatly staged suicide. We merely glimpse their world as there's someone else plotting to take them down and Reseng finds himself increasingly bumping into that story, not least by someone planting a bomb in his toilet.

Reseng is a good character to use here, because he's the personification of this underground world. He doesn't do much at all except smoke cigarettes and read books, when he isn't working a hit, after which he gets drunk for a while before starting all over again. He certainly doesn't question the morality of what he's doing or the business he's in, until such questions are forced upon him and he must figure out where he stands and what he stands for.

Much of this stems from Reseng's peer, Hanja, seeking Old Raccoon's position, a good old fashioned power grab that has him wondering about his loyalties. Has he any, for a start, and, if he does, who or what are they to? Old Raccoon? Or the Library? Other pieces in this intricate puzzle of death that might be considered his friends? Of course, it's not that simple and Reseng is constantly catching up.

What I found was that I liked some of these vignettes a lot more than I liked the novel, the opening one especially. Reseng is in the field, preparing to kill an old man with his sniper rifle, but he waits for the right moment and it doesn't come until after the old man finds him, invites him in for conversation and shares his tea, his whisky and his pork and potatoes.

We have to wonder if this old general knows who Reseng is or at least what he is. Reseng does complete the job, at the right moment, but this chapter does show that he's more than just a finger on a trigger, even if he doesn't know it himself. What it also tells us is that he's a piece in a puzzle and he doesn't have a box to show him what the big picture is. He simply follows his instructions and finds himself in a web of intrigue.

I can't say that I was on Reseng's side, but 'The Plotters' doesn't really play sides. When things seem to become framed as Hanja vs. Old Raccoon, we don't remotely pick one of those sides. We're just onlookers, learning a little about the Korean meat market. Even when the grand plot to take down the plotters comes into focus, we know we're mildly sympathetic to the new player only because we know a little more about her than about her targets and that we hardly know anything about her.

As the thriller that Doubleday seems to be marketing this as, I'd say that it fails. It isn't a thrilling ride. I wasn't rooting for anyone, including Reseng. I remained passive about everything, interested to see how it would all play out but without particularly caring about how it would end up.

As a novel, pure and simple, and it does say "a novel" on the front cover as if it wants to be respected more than it wants to be enjoyed, it's quite a success. It kept me interested throughout, even without all the usual hooks. So there are no cliffhangers keeping me turning from chapter to chapter. I still turned those pages eventually, just leisurely as I was enjoying the prose. Of course, I'm reading a translation by Sora Kim-Russell, but I'd think that, while the words are hers, the mindset of it all is still Un-Su Kim's.

And, as a set of short stories, I enjoyed it all the more. I could see coming back to this not to re-read the novel but to re-read a particular chapter here and there. That's an odd way to leave what's marketed as a novel, but there it is. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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