A Greater Music by Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith). Open Letter Books. 132pp., $13.95
Recitation by Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith). Deep Vellum Publishing. 280pp., $14.95.
Somehow, South Korean author Bae Suah weaves the strangest and most human narratives from the events of our lives. In her two recent titles, A Greater Music and Recitation, she finds the mysterious border where life and dreams, travel and place, the past and future merge.
Readers that rely on plot will find themselves on unpredictable ground. Bae Suah is a circular writer, and a circle, as we know, has no end. Recitation, especially, whose protagonist is a wandering actress, whose stories and memories become the stories and dreams of other characters, seems akin to gazing at a beautiful painting without a point of focus. Perhaps this is the point; where does one draw a map of life? Or art? Where do these things start and end? Are they supposed to start and end? García Márquez insisted that intuition was fundamental to writing fiction; Bae Suah seems to support this belief, demonstrating how this conviction shapes their work. As the characters in both these books wander through their lives, their pasts, and their memories, so too does the reader.
The main character of Recitation, Kyung-hee, is stateless, traveling across Europe and Asia, between Vienna and Seoul and several other cities, staying at stranger’s homes or hostels. As she tells her stories to different hosts and old friends, her listeners interject, often with their own stories, and soon the contrast between plot and story is evident; plot is altogether absent, but Recitation is replete with stories, awash with characters eager to disclose their theories on life and travel, destiny and family. Describing the wandering actress in Recitation a character tells Kyung-hee: “I marvel at you, you who skip so easily from one city to the next. You’re like someone reciting a story which has neither beginning nor end, someone who lives inside such a story. You’re as dizzying as the indivisible universe.” The same could be said for the book itself, a chorus of voices that meld into a narrative about the mysteries of existence.
Another instance of the circular nature of Recitation (as well as the circular beliefs of its characters) is when an old friend, enigmatically named Mr. Nobody, has breakfast at Kyung-hee’s rented flat with her landlord, a healer. At one point Mr. Nobody says: “Given that the sun has intercourse with the body of the mother, what this amounts to is that the sun can be thought of as both its own father and its own offspring. A relationship in which it becomes, at one and the same time, ancestor and future. We can say we are born from a gushing fountain over and over in an endless repetition, remaining all the while on the feedback loop of eternal life.” Conversations like this feel utterly natural in the setting of the story, and they occur throughout the novel; in fact you could describe this novel as merely a continuation of this belief.
Something to consider: A Greater Music was written in 2003 and Recitation in 2011. That eight-year difference displays not a different writer but a different approach. A Greater Music has more of a what some call a “traditional” plot, although the themes of memory and travel are still strong throughout. The main character, a young Korean student, falls into an icy river in Berlin, instigating a series of memories and reflections. After an absence of three years she returns to Berlin as well as revisiting two profound relationships from her past; Joachim, a sensible and sober metalworker and M, an older woman and private tutor. Thus the novel works in the present, but mostly by wandering through the past.
The narrator’s relationship with Joachim is cold and detached, while her relationship with M and their shared love of classical music and literature is almost an exercise in contrasts. Looking back she says: “That was a happy time for me. That whole period of my life seems to have passed by in a flash, but if asked whether my happiness was purely the result of being with M, I would have to say yes, it was. I spent a long time denying that fact, but without success. Now, though, the only place where that happiness still remains is in fossilized memories.” The narrator’s relationship with Joachim is isolated and without a morsel of human warmth; conversations between the two characters are strictly about practical concerns, such as dinner or walking the dog. A visit to Joachim’s family during the winter holidays is brutal in its awkwardness. While the narrator’s affection for M has little to do with their both being women, and more to do with passions, as gender identity seems superfluous to the novel’s aims.
The fluidity of genders matches the fluidity, almost arbitrary lives of the characters. Whether her people move throughout life for the briefest of moments or for a while, Bae Suah always seems to tell us that we’re all moving. We can’t help but to move. Both of these novels are akin to wise travelers or philosophic vagabonds, and once readers leave their expectations behind, the novels wander through a beautiful and contemplative landscape, at once familiar and strange, concerned with movement and stillness, with action and reflection. The translations, both by Deborah Smith, are elegant and seamless. The writing alone is pure joy; a patient and thoughtful reader will be richly rewarded. As Mr. Nobody says at one point in Recitation, “what it means is that though the individual is small and nameless, each of us is walking endlessly on, leaving footprints in the sand of eternity.” It seems a luxury to have more of Bae Suah’s work in English. Her novels are thoughtful, original, and, though difficult to categorize, equally hard to forget.
Mark Haber is the store manager of Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas. He has been a juror on the Best Translated Book Award for 2016 and 2017. His criticism has appeared in The Rumpus, Music & Literature, Literary Hub, and The Quarterly Conversation. His debut collection of short stories, Deathbed Conversions, was published in 2009.
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