Hye-young Pyun’s City of Ash and Red is a more impactful book after a worldwide pandemic lockdown. We all experienced firsthand the frustration and tribulation Pyun’s nameless protagonist endured as he attempted to begin his new life in Country C during an epidemic.
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 started 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 is patience and went to fetch an electronic dictionary.
I first reviewed City of Ash and Red at the end of the Summer of 2019, eight months before New York City closed it schools and municipal offices, mandating a citywide “stay-in-place” lock down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hye-young’s description on how a language barrier stunts the progress of her protagonist’s citizenship in Country C could be seen and felt by New Yorkers trying to guess the lip-language and mouth-shapes under their neighbors’ surgical masks. Were they smiling, “Hello” or were their lips curled to show sarcasm?
Many reviewers mentioned Franz Kafka’s work in their assessments of City of Ash and Red. The New Gothic Review noted, “If Kafka ever had written a novel about a pandemic, this would be it.” Pile by the Bed observes, “As in Kafka, the rules are never quite clear and just as the man works them out he finds he is on the wrong side of them.” Finally, Books and Bao states, “Any fan of Kafka will recognise parallels between this tale and more than one of old Franz’s, with the key link being an overwhelming feeling of confusion, fear, and frustration.”
I think it would be accurate to say that Kafka has become the universally accepted standard on which no-frills narrative styles are measured. A no-frills narrative is a colorless narrative where the author may include a simile but has avoided metaphor and purple prose.
I do not remember either Kafka’s The Trial or The Castle very well. I read them as a college undergrad decades ago. However, I read the plots of both books on Wikipedia and feel City of Ash and Red is a better example of The Castle’s influence.
Both Kafka’s K and Hye-young’s man are the victims of bureaucratic mix-ups. Both protagonists have put the resolution of their current problems on a single person. K has Klamm and the man has Mol. Both work other jobs in their new environments while they wait to hear from the person they have placed their hopes on. K works as a schoolteacher in the village. The man works as a city exterminator in City Y. Both are fish-out-of-water stories. According to Wikipedia, K is “unfamiliar with the customs, bureaucracy and processes of the village.” Hye-young’s man is a foreigner in Country C with only a rudimentary grasp of the native language.
While Hye-young paces the events in the man’s life well and introduces them right before the weight of pronouns became overburdening, I needed a name to help me better engage in the story. Even Kafka named his protagonist!
Even though “K” is just an initial, it is enough of an anchor to keep the reader concerned about the protagonist’s trials and tribulations. Hye-young never gives her man a name – not even a letter! Without a name to hang onto, the monotony of pronouns rose to a din at times, making City of Ash and Red difficult to complete.
I gave Hye-young’s man a secret name. I called him, “Mol” under my breath and alone to myself. It’s the most popular name in Country C and the name of the person in charge of his transfer to City Y. “It is also the name stitched on to the shirt the man plucks out of the garbage during his homelessness. It is my secret Mol that held my hand and walked me through the story of the City of Ash and Red.