South Korean author Cho Nam-joo’s novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was an international bestseller that highlighted the deeply entrenched sexism faced by women in South Korean society. It was sharp-toothed and well timed, becoming part of the cultural kindling that sparked the South Korean #MeToo movement.
In Saha, Cho has once again drawn attention to a quietly accepted societal ill: here, the exploited underclass that keeps the economy running. Saha is a dystopian vision of an authoritarian, hyper-capitalist country strictly divided along class lines. The eponymous Saha Estates is a fenced-off, left-behind housing estate populated by piecemeal workers with no legal rights. It is marooned within Town, “an odd city-state that was not quite company or country”. Town is run by the shadowy, unelected Council of Ministers, who have cemented their position through a period of brutal martial law, and who control the populace by means of a hierarchical citizenship system: you are designated L if you are a citizen, L2 if you have a temporary visa or Saha if you have no chance of either.
Sahas Jin-kyung and her brother Do-kyung are nobodies, not “anyone or anything deserving of a category”. The narrative follows them, and other Saha residents, as they struggle to survive and, later, to uncover a sinister government plan. Cho engagingly describes a world of unpleasant authorities and downtrodden individuals, where cleaning a festering supermarket is a good job (“One of the cleaners retched the moment they walked in”), and an advantageous marriage to an elderly man can’t be turned down (“Just think of the money”). The Sahas exist in an economic and social catch-22: “The hospital said that she could have her job back as soon as she got a cleaner, safer place to live. But one couldn’t find a clean, safe place without a job or money.”
Cho is effective at using dystopia to highlight horrors from our own world. The disasters and injustices are all too familiar: persecuted migrant workers, global pandemics, squashed demonstrations. But she is less good at characterisation, relying heavily on physical deformities to make a character interesting. Things aren’t helped by the prose, or at least the translation, which is both scanty and overblown. “‘Gone berserk’ did not begin to describe Ia’s reaction”; “Eunjin was overcome with a sorrow words could not describe.” Our attention is drawn to a remarkable sofa: “A literally old sofa.” There are a number of abandoned threads, sudden conclusions and forgotten characters. At one point it is implied that drugs and illegal firearms are being trafficked at Saha Estates. Logically, this would make sense, but as the reader has so far been offered a utopia of neighbourliness and compassion, it comes as a shock, and is never mentioned again.
The final third of the novel sharpens as the plot, gestured at early on with unexplained disappearances and whispers about missing children, finally gets under way. We are led into out-of-bounds medical research centres and hidden government buildings in search of answers; helpfully, everyone encountered gives up their closely guarded secrets immediately. The mysterious head honcho, as is tradition, sends his guards away so he can give a long explanation to Jin-kyung.
Disappointingly, these answers are no great revelation; the book is no Soylent Green. What we are left with are some by-the-numbers action sequences (“He lost grip of the gun, which slid spinning across the floor”) orchestrated by swiftly militarised 20-year-olds (“This right here is the barrel, or the muzzle. This is where the bullets come out”). The more intriguing daily lives of the Sahas have been left behind.
Saha lacks the focus and the cultural momentum of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. It is often energetic and compassionate, but the energy is haphazard and the compassion too general: none of the Sahas is brought to life, and all of them are ultimately forgotten in a mad dash for a big finale. The novel is well meant, but unlikely to fire anyone’s political imagination.