From the Shirley Jackson Award–winning author of The Hole, a Kafkaesque tale of crime and punishment hailed by Korea’s Wall Street Journal as “an airtight masterpiece.”
Distinguished for his talents as a rat killer, the nameless protagonist of Hye-young Pyun's City of Ash and Red is sent by the extermination company he works for on an extended assignment in C, a country descending into chaos and paranoia, swept by a contagious disease, and flooded with trash. No sooner does he disembark than he is whisked away by quarantine officials and detained overnight. Isolated and forgotten, he realizes that he is stranded with no means of contacting the outside world. Still worse, when he finally manages to reach an old friend, he is told that his ex-wife's body was found in his apartment and he is the prime suspect. Barely managing to escape arrest, he must struggle to survive in the streets of this foreign city gripped with fear of contamination and reestablish contact with his company and friends in order to clear his reputation.
But as the man's former life slips further and further from his grasp, and he looks back on his time with his wife, it becomes clear that he may not quite be who he seems. From the bestselling author of The Hole, City of Ash and Red is an apocalyptic account of the destructive impact of fear and paranoia on people's lives as well as a haunting novel about a man’s loss of himself and his humanity.
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About the Author
Hye-young Pyun was born in 1972. She made her literary debut in Korean in 2000 when she won Seoul Shinmun 's annual New Writer's Contest with her short story "Shaking Off Dew." She has gone on to publish four short story collections and five novels. She has received several of Korea's most prestigious literary awards, including the Dong-in Literary Award in 2011, the Yi-sang Literary Award in 2014, and the Hyundae Munhak Award in 2015. City of Ash and Red was named Book of the Year when it was published in Poland,. Her novel The Hole is the 2017 winner of the Shirley Jackson Award. She has published short stories in The New Yorker , Harper's Magazine , and Words Without Borders.She lives in Seoul, Korea.
Sora Kim-Russell is a literary translator based in Seoul. Her translations include Hwang Sok-yong's Princess Bari , Suah Bae's Nowhere to be Found , and Kyung-sook Shin's I’ll Be Right There. She teaches at Ewha Womans University and the Literary Translation Institute of Korea. Her full list of publications can be found at sorakimrussell.com. She lives in Seoul, Korea.
Read an Excerpt
Danger warnings are more common than actual danger. And yet when danger does finally strike, it does so without warning. That was why the man thought nothing of the quarantine notices and infectious disease prevention regulations posted all around the airport. He knew the more caution signs there were, the less danger he was in. As if overhearing the man's thoughts, a health inspector in a hazmat suit who was scanning the temperatures of disembarking passengers looked hard at the thermometer and gave him a warning frown. Was it the man's slight fever? The stink of alcohol wafting off of him? He clamped his mouth shut and slipped a hand up to his forehead. It felt like the lid of a rice cooker set to warm.
The flight had been short but exhausting. Not only had he been working overtime every night to prepare for this trip, he was still hungover from the night before. His hand felt even warmer than his forehead. His wrist ached and his palm throbbed as if he had been squeezing something hard. He took a closer look and saw that his palm was bruised. Even the slightest clenching of his fist brought on a tingling pain.
This time, the health inspector placed the thermometer directly against the man's right ear. An electric hum buzzed in his ear like an alarm. He barked out a loud cough as if in response to the sound, and the health inspector jumped back.
The inspections were due to the recent outbreak. An illness had been spreading fast, from country zero to most of the rest of the world, like fire jumping from roof to roof. No one knew exactly how it was spreading, treatment was still in the developmental stages, infection rates were high, and there was talk of a growing feud among countries to secure the limited supply of vaccines. And yet, luckily, there'd been few fatalities so far. The man figured the news back home was right: no matter how strong the virus was, he had nothing to worry about as long as he kept his hands clean.
On the way there, the man had been seated next to another passenger who had coughed nonstop, right up until they were lined up in the aisle to exit. The coughing man had shivered uncontrollably, despite the unseasonably heavy, old-fashioned tweed coat he'd kept on, and complained of a severe headache, swallowing three or more aspirin during the five-hour flight to Country C. The flight attendant had brought two extra blankets and covered the sick passenger up herself, and blamed it on the air conditioning. But the aspirin seemed to have no effect on the fever, as the coughing man's face stayed the same deep shade of red. If the man had known how strict the airport's health inspection would be, he would have taken some aspirin himself before getting off the flight, and if he'd known how high the infection rate was, he certainly would have asked to change seats.
The health inspector gave the man a look and said something into his walkie-talkie. A reply came back, mixed with static, and abruptly cut off. Instantly, two men came walking towards the checkpoint. With their puffy suits and face masks, they looked like rubber lifeboats bobbing towards him. Their suits were clearly stamped with the words DISEASE CONTROL CENTER. He assumed they were public hygiene medical examiners attached to the airport. Their suits were identical, and they were even similar in height, which made it difficult to tell them apart. The masks covered their eyes, but the man knew they were watching him closely. His heart began to race. He did not know why but he felt he should not let them take him away. He quickly scanned his surroundings, but before he could make a move, the inspector who had checked his temperature grabbed his arm. He stood there powerless, trapped in the other man's suspiciously strong grip.
The inspector held onto his arm until the two men were on either side of him. They did not touch him, but standing there between the two large men and sweating profusely, he felt hog-tied. The other people waiting to go through health inspection and passport control stared at him. Maybe it was all those eyes on him, but his sweat turned cold and he grew so flustered that he swallowed wrong and started coughing uncontrollably until the blood rushed to his face and his cheeks burned.
The two medical examiners took him down a long, featureless corridor and into a room that looked as if it had just been dipped whole into a bucket of white paint. The floor was tiled in white, and the walls and ceiling were painted white. There was a small cot covered in white sheets, and a table and chairs that were also white. Everything gleamed like a freshly bleached and disinfected sink. All that white made the room look frigid, and indeed the air conditioner was set so low that he caught a chill and coughed several times while rubbing the goose bumps that broke out on his arms.
One of the medical examiners directed him to sit and slowly sat down across from him. The examiner's friendly, polite tone put the man at ease. He had pictured himself being thrown to the floor the moment he stepped into the room. The examiner apologetically explained that the man had an unusually high temperature and was being detained so he could receive a complete checkup. The man barely understood a word of it. Not that the examiner's choice of words was particularly difficult, but the man was not very good at the language of Country C to begin with, and he was too flustered to catch the words he did know. He stared blankly, feeling like a fish in a tank, as the examiner repeated the same words over and over, until the other examiner, who'd been standing by, lost his patience and went to fetch an electronic dictionary. Between the dictionary and a mix of speaking and writing, the man finally understood that he was being detained for quarantine. He felt a deep sense of relief that had nothing to do with whether or not he was infected.
The first examiner had him change into a hospital gown and lie on the cot, and then inspected him from head to toe, searching for symptoms of the illness. The man kept raising his head from his prone position and straining to keep track of the two examiners.
"There's nothing to worry about," the examiner said gently. "This is just a preventative measure." He seemed to sympathize with the man's anxiety.
"Yes, just think of it as a regular physical. Most of the time it's nothing, and you can laugh about it later."
"I've felt a cold coming on for some time."
"Oh, then you're definitely infected."
The man sat bolt upright in shock, but the examiner laughed and gently pressed him back down by one shoulder.
"Calm down, I'm only joking. As a matter of fact, the illness that's been going around is no different from the common cold in that they're both caused by unknown viruses. The only difference is that a cold responds to aspirin, while the new virus does not. Don't worry. Most of the people who come in here with fevers turn out to only need some aspirin."
Though he struggled to understand the words the examiner kept repeating, the man was relieved to recognize "nothing" and "aspirin." This incident would soon be just an amusing anecdote from his time spent working in Country C. He found himself suddenly craving an aspirin as if it were some delicious food. Just one aspirin, small and round as a button, he thought, would not only take away his faint headache and his cough but also cure his hangover and his anxiety.
Instead of an aspirin, the examiner held out a cotton ball soaked in alcohol. He rolled up his sleeve to make it easier to draw blood. His forearm was black and blue.
"That's an unusual color," the examiner said as he searched for a vein.
The bruises on the man's arm seemed to turn a darker blue by the minute, like a shy little girl whose cheeks turn redder the harder she tries not to blush, he thought. After several failed attempts to find a vein, the examiner finally managed to slide in the needle. Meanwhile, the man struggled to remember what had happened the night before. Had he gotten in a fight? Judging from the bruises, it was obvious someone had hit him. He'd never won a fistfight before in his life. Pure, red blood filled the syringe. He wasn't sure if it was the color of his blood or the fact that he could not remember a single thing from the night before, but something made him frown.
The results weren't ready until the next day. During his overnight detention, the man had examined the mysterious marks on his arms one by one. The stark white of the room made the blue of his bruises even more conspicuous. But no matter how he stared at them, he could not remember how he'd gotten them. It wasn't the first time he'd blacked out while drinking, but he had never woken to find himself injured. His lost memories of the night before had vaporized without a trace into his bruises, into the ache deep inside his bones, in the unexplained fear and unpleasantness he felt every time he tried to search his memory. He grimaced as he fingered the large, distinct marks and then gave up on trying to recover his memories.
It was evening by the time one of the medical examiners returned, carrying a large envelope. Excited, he nearly ran to embrace him. But he worried it might be a bad sign that the results had taken so long, so instead he greeted him in the small voice of a student who knows he is about to be scolded by his teacher.
The medical examiner handed him his clothes with a friendly, reassuring smile. He got dressed and looked over the documents in the envelope. One was a detainment consent form. It seemed unreasonable to have him sign it after the fact, but he was just happy to get out of there and hurriedly signed the paper. For the physical examination certificate, he listened to a brief explanation and signed that as well. The gist of it seemed to be that he would need a follow-up exam since it was too early to make a definite diagnosis, but for now he was released from detention and allowed to enter the country. He knew he could have taken this time going over the documents and asking questions, to understand in detail what it all meant, but the thought that he was free to leave made him suddenly anxious. The examiner put the signed documents away and asked where the man was staying. He showed him the rental contract that Mol, his contact at the main office, had sent him. Mol had included the keycard to his new apartment and a map drawn in such detail that anyone could find it easily on their first try. It showed how adept Mol was at his job, and this made the man, who was not quite so meticulous, all the more nervous.
The medical examiner dialed a phone number on the contract — to confirm that it was valid, the man assumed. He didn't know who the examiner was calling until he heard him read off the name of the branch manager back home, who was listed at the bottom of the contract as a personal reference, and ask to be put through. The man slowly folded his hospital gown as he listened in on the conversation. The name of the city and the area where his new apartment was located were mentioned, and he thought he heard something about his high temperature and about being detained, but the words he did not know outnumbered the words he did know.
He was grateful for the phone call. He'd been unable to notify the branch manager about his detainment. There had been no way to contact anyone on the outside, and he was too flustered at the time to even think about the company. If not for that call, he would have been seen as a deadbeat, an untrustworthy and unreliable employee who skips out on the very first day of work. He was supposed to start that day. But right up until his arrival at the airport, the idea that something might prevent him from showing up for work never once occurred to him.
The medical examiner hung up and handed him his passport, then repeatedly told him not to change addresses or leave his place of sojourn, as he would be visited for a follow-up diagnosis. Excited to be released from detention, he forgot to ask if they knew when the follow-up would happen. He did not discover until later, after arriving at his new apartment, that next to the entry stamp in his passport was an unfamiliar red stamp.
The examiner also presented his black suitcase with the baggage label still attached, and said something that the man interpreted as "thank you for your cooperation" and either "take care" or "work hard." He took the suitcase with a smile. Work hard and cooperate. That was exactly what he wanted to do.
At last, he entered Country C.CHAPTER 2
The smell. It was so foul that it forced itself all the way to the bottom of his lungs and rattled his intestines. He gagged before he could get the taxi door open. The driver pulled to a hasty stop in front of the bridge. The man leaped out of the cab and vomited on the curb, long strands of sticky saliva dangling from his mouth, while the cab driver, who still needed to be paid, stood off to one side and covered his masked mouth with a gloved hand to keep from breathing in the stench. As soon as the man was able to staunch his nausea and pay him, the driver sped away, as if he dared not stay a moment longer.
The man had a difficult time catching a cab at the airport. That is, he had gotten one right away at the taxi stand. But the driver took one look at the address on the slip of paper the man showed him and sternly shook his head. Several times, the man got into a cab only to have to get right back out again, and was even refused a ride before he'd gotten the door open. It did not take long for him to realize that all of the drivers were trying to avoid District 4, where both his company and his apartment were located. Every city had its places where the roads were very narrow, or the road signs were bad, or the road conditions themselves were terrible, or there were few people around, making it unlikely for a taxi driver to get a return fare. The man thought District 4 might be one of those places.
Instead, District 4 turned out to be a lone island created from reclaimed land during the building of a river levee on the outskirts of City Y, the capital of Country C. It was connected to the mainland by several long bridges that spanned the river. But during construction, it was discovered that the island had been built on top of buried industrial waste and household garbage, and the politician who had backed the project was kicked out of office and his political career ended. As rumors spread that the island, first intended as a posh commuter suburb for the capital, was in fact a landfill, the land price plummeted, the market value crashed, and most of the residents fled. In the aftermath, it was converted into a business park with relatively affordable rents, and for that same reason, residents had slowly begun to return.
At the airport, the man had been starting to wonder if he would have to stay in a hotel instead, and he told himself he would try just one more taxi. This time, the driver took the slip of paper with the address on it and gave the man a longwinded explanation that he could not follow. The driver spoke slowly and had to repeat himself several times, but the man finally understood that the driver was telling him he could not go all the way to the address but could drop him off somewhere close. He had no idea how close was close, but he figured, once there, he could catch another taxi the rest of the way. He nodded in consent.
The whole way there, the driver listened grimly to the news on the radio and did not say a single word to him. The news alternated between the urgent voices of an announcer and a reporter on scene who sounded like they were reporting the same story over and over. They talked so fast that it was safe to say the man understood exactly none of it. But that meant he could sit back and listen indifferently to the unfamiliar language as if it were only so much music and gaze out at Country C submerged in darkness. His face floated like a ghost against the lights of the city speeding past outside the window. A ghost — a disembodied being that hides its true existence. That seemed like just the right word to describe his presence in that city.
He had left his coworkers, with whom he had had a falling out because they thought he had been granted special favors, and he had left his ex-wife, who had practically become a stranger to him despite having once been his closest friend, to come to this place, in the mood for a fresh start, confident everything would go his way, as one receiving the gift of a new life. But each time he thought about his home country, the premonition that he would never again set foot on native soil rushed over him, and he felt that he had been banished rather than having left of his own free will. His heart pounded from the muddled sensation of being an outcast and the pride of starting a new life. As the taxi passed through the dark center of the city, he raised his hand and pressed it against his strangely racing heart.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "City of Ash and Red"
Copyright © 2010 Hye-young Pyun.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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