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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


City of Ash and Red

Pyun Hye-Young

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To purchase City of Ash and Red

Title: City of Ash and Red
Author: Pyun Hye-Young
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 245 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: City of Ash and Red - US
City of Ash and Red - UK
City of Ash and Red - Canada
Cendres et rouge - France
  • Korean title: 재와 빨강
  • Translated by Sora Kim-Russell

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Our Assessment:

B+ : mesmerizingly grim

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 10/9/2018 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The parallels between the manís new life and the lives of rats are a bit heavy-handed, and once Pyun reveals that the man has committed marital rape, some readers will lose interest in his fate. Still, those with a taste for creepy suspense will be rewarded." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The protagonist of City of Ash and Red is referred to simply as 'the man', appropriately nameless as a character with a limited sense of and hold on any kind of identity. (Meanwhile, several other characters in the novel are referred to by name.) The man is, officially, a product developer at a pest control firm -- though, in fact, he doesn't actually develop any of their products. The firm specializes in rat extermination, a Sisyphean undertaking in a world overrun by the rodents; each iteration of the company's poison is made more toxic, but it's never enough to wipe out all the rats. Indeed:

So the harder you try to eradicate them, the better the environment you create for survivors. Threats of extinction only strengthen the species.
     It is the same for humans. No virus can kill the entire population. Even if 99.99 percent of people were to die, the survivors who have natural immunity would live. Epidemics are like rat poison: they strengthen the race by leaving behind only the strongest rats. And just like rats, the human species is not easily exterminated.
       The man gets what sounds like a great opportunity: his company chooses him to go abroad, "a temporary detachment that was to include management training" in the company home office in City Y, in the Country C. The transfer makes him the envy of all his co-workers, especially since the man doesn't seem like the obvious candidate for this opportunity; indeed, it later turns out no one is exactly sure how he came to be the one who was sent off. As to how temporary the detachment is meant to be, a term of anywhere from six months to five years is apparently possible; flexible (and/or indifferent) from the first, the man accepts whatever is asked of him. The man didn't even prepare much for his trip, only packing in the last minute -- and even going out and getting drunk with, of all people, Yujin, his ex-wife's second husband, on the night before he left.
       The novel opens with the man's arrival in C, still feeling the aftereffects of his drunken binge the night before. He's ill prepared for what he has to face -- though he is aware that C, aside from being "at the juncture of two tectonic plates" and thus an earthquake danger zone: "was facing both a garbage crisis and a spreading epidemic". Soon enough, he's knee-deep in both .....
       It begins with him being quarantined upon arrival, the authorities concerned that he might be infected. They let him go soon enough, but when he tries to head to where an apartment has been arranged for him, District 4, he has difficulty finding a taxi driver willing to bring him anywhere close. When he does finally get there he can understand why: the district is an island built on reclaimed land built on top of buried industrial waste and garbage, and is currently covered with garbage that isn't being collected. It's all not very welcoming, but the man has some hopes, imagining C's dirigiste regime might have some advantages, too:
Walking on top of the garbage strewn across the sidewalk on the way to his new apartment, the man thought, as long as he was in Country C, he too would soon enjoy compulsory leisure, cultural refinement, and a dignified life, and he began to cheer up.
       This does not last long.
       The man find his apartment but loses his luggage, including his cell phone -- the only place he has all his contact telephone numbers -- and the charger to his laptop, as well as his clothes. There's a phone in his apartment, but he doesn't even know the number; when it rings, it's not great news: the head office wants him to stay put for the time being and not come in to work yet -- and soon enough that's not even an issue, because the whole area is under quarantine and he is essentially locked in (though that at least has the advantage of food regularly being delivered to his door by the authorities).
       Worse news comes when Yujin reaches him, as there was a mess of a situation back home -- something the man can't even remember, though given how much he had to drink that last night, he can't completely ignore the possibility that he played a role in it. Regardless, everyone holds him responsible, and he sees his situation is pretty bleak -- this is serious enough that he has reason to fear he'll be arrested and sent back home; panicked, he makes a run for it. With limited language skills in the strange country, and no resources, he essentially becomes a street- (and eventually sewer-)living bum -- anything to escape the fate he's sure he'd otherwise face:
If caught, he would be deported, arrested, tried, branded a criminal, and punished. To avoid being caught, he had shoved his way through garbage and curled up and hid like garbage among the garbage.
       His abasement is complete. He does continue try to contact his company -- the only contact-person he has in the country --, but faces insurmountable hurdles -- and conditions that, like everywhere else in C, are hopelessly opaque.
       The fear of the spread of disease has changed the way people act and live -- holing up in their offices, for example, and ignoring it when someone no longer shows up for work, for example. Yet life also goes on much as always:
     Despite the high rate of infection, the increasingly high death rate, and the continuing lack of a vaccine, everyday life itself remained immune. People kept reporting to work and going to school and selling products. They may have been living in an age of contagion, but there were still clients to be met to ensure the continuation of business. There were things to learn and schools to get accepted to, and other schools and after-school classes that had to be attended in order for that to happen.
       Pyun's is a grim dystopian vision of a society that seems functional yet sinks also in its own filth and poisons. This is a books full of smells and tastes and sights that are bleak and stomach-turning. The man finds himself hitting rock-bottom -- yet, like the rats, he simply continues in his blind struggle for survival -- indeed, he adapts to each new situation he finds himself in:
     Though he could not compete with the rats and the other homeless, he liked the dump. It had everything he needed
       Regardless of his situation, the man simply plods on; his general sense -- about almost everything -- seems to be one of befuddlement, from what he is doing in C in the first place to what happened back in his home country to the day-to-day hardships of living on the street. But:
     He wasn't worried. The future was far to distant a thing to worry about now, and the present was filled with survival. All he could afford to do was think about the past.
       In a useful change of scenery, quite a few scenes from back before he came to C are interspersed in the story, including from his original workplace and concerning his relationship with his ex-wife -- most adding to the creepiness of the story, but a welcome shift from the almost constant abject dreariness of his life in C.
       Eventually, the man resurfaces into at least the periphery of society again, conscripted into a job and eventually working his way back into a more traditional lifestyle. Cleaned up, with his own apartment, he is part of the small-scale rat race again .....
       There's a lot going on here, and Pyun presents it quite effectively. The man tries to remain in contact with his homeland -- though he really has few personal ties there -- and his difficulties in reaching anyone there are an amusing constant in the novel. He stands out as a foreigner in C, and struggles with the language -- and the bureaucracies, office and otherwise. His isolation is not complete, but he is only superficially a social creature, part of these societies, yet not really significant to those around him; his absence or presence changes little (for him or anyone else). He's an oddly resilient character, with Pyun also intentionally not making him particularly sympathetic: he is not mean or evil, but goes with the flow -- which can lead to acting-out with terrible results. Overall, he is presented basically like a little rat ..... (Yes, Pyun's picture of humanity is a terribly bleak one.)
       Some questions are left unresolved -- which mostly works, though perhaps Pyun could have offered a bit more about how things continued to unfold in the man's homeland; as is, the blank here remains very large. As to the picture of the man and his life in C, it is impressively done, and surprisingly engaging. A lot of this is hard to read, simply because Pyun is so vivid in her descriptions of the sights and smells -- rank, foggy, poisonous -- but beyond (and also because of ...) that, it packs quite a punch.
       City of Ash and Red is a disturbing but impressive little dystopian work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 December 2018

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City of Ash and Red: Reviews: Other books by Pyun Hye-Young under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Korean author Pyun Hye-Young (편혜영) was born in 1972.

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© 2018 the complete review

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