Desire for a Proper Life: On Cho Nam-joo’s “Saha”

By Sheila McClearDecember 15, 2022

Desire for a Proper Life: On Cho Nam-joo’s “Saha”

Saha by Cho Nam-joo

SOMEWHERE, IN AN imaginary literary world, lies a place called, simply, Town. It is a prosperous city state that sorts its citizens into a hierarchical system of classes: there are happy, healthy Citizens, followed by lower-class semi-citizen L2s, and then by blue-collar laborers who do the hard work and survive on two-year work visas. And finally, there are the untouchables, the illegal residents, a group whose existence is barely eked out on the outskirts of Town in an enclave called the Saha Estates. This collection of broken-down buildings is not just a place to live but an identity: its residents are called Sahas.

There are many more details provided about how exactly Town and the Saha Estates operate in the 2019 South Korean novel Saha. Its author, Cho Nam-joo (the text was translated from the original Korean by Jamie Chang in a 2022 edition), clearly means these settings to be seen as very real, providing a visual layout of the Saha Estate buildings in the front of the book, complete with custodian’s office, vegetable garden, and parking areas. Sahas live in miserable conditions: they have no plumbing and no electricity (although there are solar panels). Residents can’t afford heating or cooling. Water gathered via a communal tap is used for cooking, washing, and laundry. The overall effect is reminiscent of life in a slum or a dilapidated housing project.

Saha opens with a murder followed by a failed double suicide, but those are surprisingly secondary plots. The heart of the narrative concerns the government, a shadowy cabal of seven ministers who rule Town. But who is in charge of the residents of the Saha Estates? And how much power, precisely, do they have over the Sahas? The plot really begins when two people disappear and a lone heroine decides she must act. Her experience is the focus of the later part of the book’s narrative.

The themes of the novel echo those of Cho’s celebrated debut, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. Both stories are populated with characters whose lives are hard and unfair, with no one to listen to them or care what happens to them. The eponymous, perfectly ordinary heroine of the first novel goes to school, gets a job, gets married, and becomes a stay-at-home-mom. But that’s when things begin to go wrong. After facing a cavalcade of indignities related to motherhood — including being called, in one translation, a “mum-roach,” a slur denoting a certain type of entitled and demanding mother who lives off her husband — Kim loses her head. When she has to travel across the country to cook a huge feast for her husband’s family, as she does every year, she asks him why she can’t spend time with her own family, an incipient rebellion that earns her a visit to a shrink. The novel acutely analyzes the sexism of South Korean society — its pervasive lack of gender equity, both at work and at home.

Published in 2016, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was translated into over a dozen languages and adapted into a film. More importantly, it set off a public debate in South Korea about gender inequality. For some readers, the story wasn’t about Kim Jiyoung; it was about a stubbornly backward nation. In her review for Washington Independent Review of Books, Alice Stephens wrote:

Half a century after I was separated from my birth mother by the profoundly misogynistic policies of the South Korean government, Cho Nam-joo has drawn a portrait of a country stuck in the past. Through her plain, straightforward, detached analysis of an unsustainable situation, Cho has brought South Korea to a long-overdue reckoning.

Cho’s new book is unlikely to have such an effect on the public conversation, not because it doesn’t deserve it, but because it isn’t quite as singular, not as much of a primal scream, and because the themes it explores address an array of complicated social issues rather than one central wrong: financial precarity, housing injustice, citizens’ and immigrants’ rights (including the right to work), and the depredations of capitalism. Saha reveals a reality perhaps even grimmer than the slow suffocation of sexism.

Saha is very much a novel of character development, although it does have a plot. In the double suicide gone wrong, lovers Do-kyung (a Saha) and Su (a Citizen) take pills and lie back in their car, parked in a lot. Su, a well-off doctor from Town, was recently fired from her job for secretly giving medical treatment to Saha kids. Unable to find new work, she falls into despair. Deciding to end things, she persuades Do-kyung to join her, but while she falls deeper into sleep, Do-kyung vomits up his pills and lives.

Before meeting Su, Do-kyung had lived with his sister, Jin-kyung, on the top floor of the Saha Estates. The siblings were unusually close — sleeping side by side in the main room of their flat, even though there was a bedroom available. These three characters — along with Woomi, a young woman who survives by serving as a test subject in a nearby research hospital, and Granny Konnim, who raises wayward children — are the main drivers of the plot. Other characters we see only in brief vignettes that detail a certain type of life in the Saha Estates (e.g., “she would simply live out the rest of her days until a fatal accident or disease took her life. That was all there was for an L2”). In these small portraits, Cho is sometimes tender with her subjects, while at other times playing an authorial god who rains down hardships. Initially, the welter of minor characters makes it difficult to discern which ones will turn out to be important later in the story.

Women are the protagonists and the heroes of Saha. Jin-kyung is saving her strength for her final moment. Woomi is heroic simply through her survival as a lab rat. Su, a full citizen in Town, is fired from her job for using supplies from her clinic to treat sick Saha children, who don’t have full access to medical care. Granny Konnim, a former midwife, saves and raises foundlings and other unwanted children, including Woomi. Do-kyung, the only male main character, is more conflicted: he killed a man over something said about his deceased mother and is now on the run; he lets himself get talked into a suicide plot; women have to look out for him.

A major theme of the novel is the desire for a better life — nothing extravagant, just decent. “I want a proper life,” says Sara, a minor character, after being attacked by the police. “Not to be merely alive like a worm, or a moth, or a cactus, but to really live.” She’s not the only character to yearn for a “proper life”; Woomi says the same at the medical center when she learns of what the researchers have been doing to and taking from her: biopsies, blood, stem cells, eggs. “I want a proper life,” she complains. “Not to be merely alive, but to really live.” The grimness is relieved by unexpected gestures of kindness, as when some of the workers at the research center help Woomi escape from a dreaded appointment. They feel sorry for her, they tell her. “It’s the outright and the specific that move people,” one explains. “Belief, in itself, has no power.” 

Saha is not an easy read, nor a particularly fun one, not to say that a novel should be either of those things. But the precarity of its characters’ lives, the no-way-out poverty they endure, and the suffering that is visited on them on a daily basis can be anxiety-provoking, if not overwhelming, for the reader. The bleakness is unrelenting, and while that is certainly the point, one thirsts for relief. There are few stolen moments of happiness amid the squalor. A scene where Jin-kyung can’t even bring herself to admire some cherry blossoms seems almost like a parody of the saddest girl in the worst place in the world.

Reading the book in English translation, and from an American point of view, makes it easy to view the rigid class hierarchy — and the stark contrast between Town and Saha Estates — as the only slightly exaggerated results of a capitalistic system. What other system so naturally creates such stunning disparities in wealth? Yet, while Saha effectively depicts the almost feudalistic outcome of rampant capitalism, no real critique is offered. We don’t even know who’s finally in control — the Council of Ministers, supposedly, though no one has ever seen their faces. The residents of Saha all long for better lives, for an escape from fear and poverty, but that doesn’t quite unite them, and they don’t rise up together. It takes the disappearance of Woomi and Do-kyung, and the rumors that the Saha Estates will be torn down, for a single character to act — but as she pockets a gun and departs on her journey, it’s impossible to know whether she will find some hidden power behind the curtain of injustice, or nothing at all. As we have learned throughout the book, Sahas are not afforded even basic things, and definitely not luxuries like answers.


Sheila McClear is a freelance writer and author based in New York City. She contributes to Los Angeles magazine.

LARB Contributor

Sheila McClear is a freelance writer and author based in New York City.


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