Community as Character in “Saha” – Chicago Review of Books


Welcome to the hero’s story. The hero suffers, the hero overcomes. The hero is plucky, quirky, strong against all odds. The hero is in almost every book you’ve picked up and put down again. Many times, the hero is one narrator that tells you the story from beginning to end. Contrary to this norm, Cho Nam-Joo’s new dystopian Saha features community as the hero. A community suffers, and each character contributes something necessary for the community to overcome.  

Saha rides the beginning of what will hopefully become a wave of collectivist fiction. Western cultures are most often individualistic, which translates to individualistic fiction—the single narrator and single adventure. Individualistic cultures prioritize the individual above the community. Collectivist cultures prioritize the community over the individual. In Saha, the community of the Saha estates—a collection of manual laborers residing in a building with no power or water—is the protagonist. While there is a main narrative thread for the readers to follow, it acts more as an inciting incident for the community’s development than a plot that drives the actions of the narrator. The main character, Jin-Kyung, must avenge her brother’s wrongful murder conviction and stop his death if possible. 

The story follows two siblings, Jin-Kyung and Do-Kyung. The siblings moved years ago to a mysterious and protected city state, called Town, that was bought and governed by a mysterious biotech and research company. The company accepts only the most “useful” members of society to become citizens- those with degrees and academic prowess. Manual laborers are assigned to do the rest of Town’s upkeep, either listed as second-class citizens or unlisted entirely. 

The unlisted are referred to as “Sahas” for the name of the abandoned apartment complex they are forced to call home. The complex has sporadic electricity and residents must collect water from the communal spigot each morning. Sahas receive no medical care, no fair pay, and no rights or privileges equal to the other citizens of Town. Jin-Kyung and Do-Kyung are resigned to their life as Sahas until Do-Kyung is found next to the dead body of a Town citizen. He’s assumed to be her murderer and must go on the run. Jin-Kyung is distraught with fear for her missing brother and begins to bristle at the treatment she experiences. She and other Sahas receive inadequate compensation for grueling work and they are blamed for any crime, no matter how implausible. Furthermore, Sahas are barred from receiving any benefits afforded to the higher classes, despite being the workers who break their bodies for Town. Jin-Kyung takes all of this in stride until the Town media paints her brother to be a murderous stalker emblematic of all Sahas. 

The book delves into the stories of many of the other Sahas—from the one-eyed beauty in love with Jin-Kyung to the old caretaker of the estate’s children. With each new story comes another puzzle piece; another mystery of Town unravels. Through each character’s eyes, we see alternately how the world as the Sahas know it came to be and how it can be changed. We see the birth of Town, the relegation of manual laborers to non-citizen status, and the cracks in Town’s infrastructure that Jin-Kyung will use to carry her along her mission. The other characters lend strength, weapons, and motivation to Jin-Kyung on her eventual mission to assassinate the officials in charge of governing Town. Jin-Kyung is complacent until the disappearance of her brother. She keeps her head down, works to keep herself alive, and enjoys the company of what friends she has been able to make. When her brother disappears, is wanted for murder, and is eventually captured and sentenced to death, Jin-Kyung snaps. She procures a weapon, finds the elusive governing officials, and engages in a last stand to kill the officials or force them into sparing her brother.

This book could have easily become just another underdog protagonist that takes down an oppressive government. Instead, it is a reminder that anything worth doing cannot be done alone. The individual is responsible only for the final fight, while the community is responsible for carrying the protagonist this far. Jin-Kyung and Do-Kyung would have died without the Saha custodian’s initial medical care. They would have starved without the vegetables from the caretaker’s garden. Jin-Kyung would not have gotten access to the gun without help from the agent that found the community its under-the-table jobs.  

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Additionally, the ending separates this book from others in its dystopian genre. This is not a happy ending. In fact, this is not an ending at all. The last words suggest that the reader should turn the page, search for more, and the story will resolve. Instead, we are left only with the implication that Jin-Kyung succeeded. In reality, she is undertaking a fight that she could just as easily lose. Whether Jin-Kyung overpowers her assailant and frees her friends, or she dies a terrible death is up to the reader’s interpretation. The meaning of the story differs wildly with either read. If Jin-Kyung wins, Saha’smessage is an inspirational one: all can be done and overcome with the power of community and human resilience. If we are witnessing Jin-Kyung’s futile attempts to change an unjust system, then this book is warning us to do everything in our power to stop a society like Jin-Kyung’s from existing. Jin-Kyung is locked in this struggle, leaving it up to us to decide whether she will survive. 

While the translation is rough and the syntax choppy, ethnocentric ideals of literature should not stop Saha from jumping onto library shelves everywhere. Translated literature allows people to see how the world operates outside their country and culture. As translated literature begins to make its way into the ranks of popular media, European literature is no longer the only option for learning about other parts of the world.  Additionally, as major companies grow and establish their monopolies in the real world, it is no longer a suspension of disbelief that a monetized city-state could soon exist. The coal towns and mill towns that largely fell out of favor in the early-1900s are reincarnated in the company towns that corporations like Amazon are currently attempting to create. The memories of those who lived in the controlling and monopolized world of one company overseeing every aspect of consumption are dying out. Thankfully, with books like Saha, the warning will live on. Literature like Saha gives a cautionary tale of what happens when people are valued only as the output they can produce. Emphasis on job and career has grown, along with judgment for working in a job or career that our society frowns on. A concerning trend continues to rise- one in which people put their personal worth into the quality of their job and job performance. The type of money-making occupation a person takes up is not the whole of who they are. Saha invests narrative time in who the characters are rather than what they do. Community supersedes company.  

By Cho Nam-Joo
Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Published November 1, 2022


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