Mina by Kim Sagwa, translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, Two Lines Press
Mina is a novel by the award-winning writer Kim Sagwa, translated from Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton ten years after its original publication—one can tell, because the text mentions MP3 players that are by now quite obsolete. It is the very first of Kim’s novels to be made available in English. Mina is set in “P City,” which sounds like “Blood City” in Korean, and is a harrowing portrait of the horrors of metropolitan life and the Korean education system. The failures of these social orders inflict despair and desolation on adolescents, exemplified by the trio of main characters: Mina, Minho, and Crystal, all high schoolers, ultimately pushing them over to the deep end of irredeemable apathy, grief, and mental illness.
Like the vicious suggestion of its name, P City is built on an unforgiving system of discrepancy and exploitation. The city is split into two parts: a middle-class suburb propagating a “lifestyle that is selfish, ignorant, and irresponsible,” where apartment blocks are “perfectly square box-shaped cement buildings” on gridded streets, and an old part of town hosting “the lives of the losers,” overcrowded and clogged with traffic. Districts are highly gentrified, their streets flanked by franchised restaurants and chain coffee shops. This sterile status quo bleeds over to P City’s educational system, in which the virtues of submission and conformity prevail over a genuine appetite for knowledge—the marking criteria deem it more important that a student can write an essay on Rousseau using correct nouns and tenses, than to contemplate his philosophy. A commentary on South Korea’s hagwon culture, where students spend excruciatingly long hours at cram school to get better scores in examinations, P City puts students under high pressure and competition, causing the suicide of Pak Chiye, a fellow schoolmate and Mina’s childhood friend, jumping from the roof of a school building.
It is such an environment that Mina, Minho, and Crystal inhabit in their coming-of-age years, in the curious absence of parents and mentors. Any adult guidance is perfunctory—over the phone, or through a public speaker—and at times harmful. What motivates an educator’s work isn’t passion, but remorse: “Life is disgusting, it really is . . . I won’t offer to help you. I’ll just watch as you wade into the rising muck,” thought Crystal’s cram school instructor, upon getting challenged on a mathematical equation.
Despite the novel’s title, Mina is not the protagonist, but represents everything that Crystal, our main focalizer, strives and fails to understand. Mina is the “free spirit [that is] inconsistent with society,” who mourns deeply for her friend and represents the human conscience in a broken world. In contrast, Crystal is the top student who thrives off this system, a “one hundred percent P City soul.”
Acting like every other average teen, Crystal dates boys, craves for cheesecake, smokes when her parents aren’t home, and goes shopping on a whim. After Chiye’s death, Mina grows depressed and withdraws from school, triggering Crystal’s desire to fight for her attention and, unable to understand the emotions Mina is going through, her hate and increasingly erratic behaviour, leading to tragic consequences.
Mina tracks Crystal’s frustration and mental deterioration: “She doesn’t know what to do, which is a kind of torture.” Kim is unrelenting in her depiction of Crystal’s breakdown, at first with her sporadic mood changes, then to her animal abuse as she beats a kitten to death:
“She punches the kitten harder. She can’t believe she’s doing this . . . Her fist crashing against the kitten’s bones makes a peculiar sound. The crack of bone against bone gives her a momentary crude pleasure, a crass thrill that sends her falling down a stairway. The stairway is long and steep. Her free fall will last until she hits bottom.”
This scene, abrupt and graphic, reveals the brutality beneath the cracked veneer of civilized behaviour, a sudden eruption of rage after prolonged repression. Thus begins Crystal’s free fall to rock bottom, her desire to hurt intensifying as she proceeds to break up with her boyfriend—half to get with Minho, Mina’s brother, and half for the heck of it—and murderous thoughts start taking shape in her head: “[T]here are too many people who ought to be killed.” Contemplating her own academic superiority, she wonders, “Greatness means you’re bestowed the right to kill . . . But there’s a small problem—who do I kill first?”
Crystal’s many instances of disturbing behaviour are detestable; however, she is but a product of P City’s education system in which “percent-ality,” a person’s grades, is the sole measure of success and personal worth. For that, Crystal is at once condescending and insecure; she is the cream of the crop, flaunting flawless grammar and perfect scores, but is equally insignificant as a mere carbon copy of the system’s standards, bringing nothing new and nothing contributive, like, in a fascinating comparison from Kim, “mass-produced doughnuts dripping with trans fat.”
What can save these warped teens, the future of the metropolis, is the question the writer seems to be asking throughout the novel. The vision she presents looks dystopian, hopeless. Those who cannot thrive in the system, like Chiye and Mina, dabble in suicide; those who excel are left to fend for themselves. Crystal is as vulnerable as she is violent, alone and unnoticed, despite her antics: “I’m the only one who can really love me.”
Material consumption is the modern-day anaesthesia, encouraging “a lifestyle of shirking both responsibilities and rights,” reducing citizens to anonymous consumers who “pay for a service, get [their] money’s worth . . . go home [to] be left alone and go to sleep.” Not knowing where to go, Crystal goes window shopping and ends up purchasing an Adidas bag beyond her budget, earphones plugged in to tune out the rest of the world—a very familiar gesture for those living in a large city. The track she catches, in sharp contrast to reality, is Madonna’s “Vogue”:
All you need is your own imagination
So use it, that’s what it’s for
Go inside, for your finest inspiration
Your dreams will open the door
There is a strange, claustrophobic disconnection in Mina with its small cast of characters, its made-up city, and its setting of just home and school for the most part, a reflection of the social sphere of Korean students cramming for public exams. Kim’s edgy writing, brimming with detail and run-on thoughts, heightens this hysteria. Metaphors for depression throughout—described as a “dusty black container,” a closet, a soft, warm Jell-O one can sink into and eat—perpetuate the sense of isolation, as do the pages of dialogue between characters, often mundane and unproductive, preventing meaning and true feelings from getting across.
Despite Kim’s unabashed literary style, there are times when her language oversteps and gets too particular. On taking in everything the shopping district has to offer, Crystal is described to have not her eyes, but her “[o]ptic nerves on high alert . . . [registering] each and every piece of merchandise,” followed by a perhaps unnecessarily long passage of mannequins with “For Sale” signs, a cheese muffin, and an unabridged shopping experience at an Adidas outlet. If Kim wishes to illustrate the boredom and sensory overload that is consumerism, this is done in extremely declarative detail, down to the list of products available and the thought process of how a consumer—Crystal—decides to spend money.
Similarly, characterization borders on the didactic. Readers will find in the novel several sections explaining Kim’s authorial intent as to what each character represents: Crystal is the “perfect specimen for life within an organization,” Mina is the “femme tragique,” and Minho is the “archetype of a contemporary kid.” Even Mina’s advice to Crystal at the end, to “be kind,” falls flat as an imperative statement. Mina has presented a problematic society chillingly revealing of the one we live in, but more follow-up beyond the shock factor would have fleshed out the novel.
It is nonetheless a bold illustration of teenage psychology and how our external environment—school, society, peers—affects our formative years. In Crystal’s demise we see our motivations and fears; in Kim’s pessimistic vision we can only hope to know what could be better in our world.
Jacqueline Leung is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong and a manager of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. She graduated from University College London and the University of Hong Kong with degrees in English literature.
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