North Station by Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith). Open Letter Books. $15.95 212pp.
To tell a story, then, is to relate, in narrative, the occurrences of the past, retracing a path through the world that others, recursively picking up the threads of past lives, can follow in the process of spinning out their own.
(Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History)
It’s hard to know where to begin with Bae Suah’s latest book, North Station. These stories do not readily yield to summary because they scatter across dimensions of memory, association, dreams, and imagination. They don’t begin and end so much as they open and close, like a shutter; one enters into them freeze-framed, midflight. Characters and narrators step through years and across continents, moving with the associative non-logic of dreams and memory; storylines split, double back, unclip from the forward vector of time. They blink. They hint.
Hints bubbling hot as lava inside the cold red hole, the thought that worldly relationships are in actual fact almost all formed through fragmented, anonymous hints. Hints that self-generate from someone’s offhand remarks, or from metaphors that coalesce entirely at random: hints from which all sense of genuine premonition has been removed….
. . .[Hints] flutter, flowing against time, and I follow after them.
Hints abound, vibrate, resonate throughout these stories—hints that seem to foretell or forestall events, occlude and disclose meanings far-reaching and mundane. They hyperlink these stories across their boundaries, suggesting the hand of a highly associative writer attuned to the pulses of intensity and memory.
In these stories, Bae Suah is a writer thinking through the phenomenology of memory and correspondence, and and also one who is persistently inscribing the act of writing itself. Her stories accrete resonance and self-reference, often verging toward metafiction. Her recurring concerns are with communication and correspondence, with the subtle operations of desire and distance in literary influence, and with the mnemonic function of literature.
Bae Suah seems to know that writing is a kind of time travel, and in each of these stories, brought deftly into English by Deborah Smith, the caroming and hyperlinking movements that characterize this traveling raise such questions as: what does it demand of me when I reach out to you? Where does my memory of you end and your reality begin? Why do I remember only that which I remember? And, as I write all of this, do I move any closer toward the answers?
In “North Station,” a man and a woman, hand on hand, anxiously await a train at the eponymous platform. Their anticipation is so high that it frays and tears at the sensory reality and temporality of the scene, such that “if a blind and disoriented pigeon were to nose-dive in front of them, they would mistake it for a passing train—the train they will have missed, the train they will have failed to catch.”
Affective tension bursts from Bae’s prose—her pacing and detail at once dilate the moment under focus while rapidly moving into metaphor and memory. Throughout the prolonged duration of the man and woman’s waiting—then the arrival of the train, then the her departure aboard it—memory and speculation continuously crash into and erode the boundaries of the event. “For god’s sake stay like this!” the man cries out, a refrain he will intone repeatedly through the story’s twisting travel through years and across continents of his memory, a desperate and impossible wish for fixity in the relentless movements of memory and time.
And yet, “at some later date, when this present-now resurfaces in his memory” when he circles back through his memories, it lies “outside the flow of time.” Bae’s narrative moves in palimpsestic iterations, reinscribing moments and symbols that emanate a multiplicity of meanings—until, some time later, the long-gone woman writes him a letter, and time goes linear. That is, his plane touches down in Chiang Mai, and he moves forward with his life.
Written correspondence—letters, emails, words that pass between people over long distances—figure prominently throughout these stories. “First Snow, First Sight,” the opening story of the collection, begins with the arrival of a letter from Yang’s former lover, Mira, from whom he’s heard nothing in eight years. Her letter brings into sudden focus the solitude that it punctuates, the affectless isolation to which Yang has surreptitiously immured himself during that time. Moreover, it reminds Yang that Mira, its author, lives and breathes with a specificity that he can not conjure from the distance of his reading. In short, he is forced to remember that Mira is real—alive with a reality that eludes his memory and that remains foreclosed even by the handwritten text that reminds him of this, a text to which he can only respond equivocally. Only when Mira herself arrives some days later—quietly, surreptitiously, while Yang sleeps, such that one can’t be sure if she is really there—can he let his long-withheld tears flow.
Often, Bae’s characters are authors, whether in vocation or narrative function—the flights, leaps, and links of their memories, dreams, and spontaneous associations form the very substance of these stories. But Bae’s oneiric transgressions of chronological time and Euclidean space represent more than a formal exercise in the deconstruction of conventional linear narrative—they drive at something essential in the heart of fiction writing itself—the interdependence of narrative with memory, correspondence, and living relationships.
On touching the surface of consciousness, the mosaic of the dream rapidly oxidized and crumbled away, and my mind filled in the blank spaces with colored tiles of its own invention. The dreams I can still recall at least in part are, without exception the ones that I recounted to you. Through the telling, those dreams found a foothold in my consciousness.
“Owl,” in the form of a long address to an absent referent—an intimate acquaintance, another writer—presents an extended meditation on literary influence, as well as correspondence itself, recounting the narrator’s visitations and relationships with authors they have admired. For, in reading the epistolary form, doesn’t one become something of a ghost? An intermediate spectator shifting in and out of the position of the addressee, neither fully enclosed by nor excluded from the speech-act of the narrative. Collaging dreams, letters, emails, and recounted conversations, the epistolary narrative space of “Owl” generates an intimacy that at once withholds and enshrouds the reader.
I do not know where you live, and my house, though you know it, is too far away.
In “The Non-Being of the Owl” we are confronted with the death of that addressee, the difficulty of combining that loss with the sense of the addresee’s enduring significance as intimate and influence. Retracing the events following the funeral, and recapitulating a long conversation with a friend named Werner on the nature of death and loss, the narrator of “Non-being” at times seems to reach for the absent addressee, and at others she seems to be addressing herself—a slippage that perhaps hints at one of the more volatile dimensions of the translation.
That is, if time were able to flow over the surface of human beings, self-contained and inviolate, with neither weight nor substance, neither affecting nor penetrating them. Or else, if time were an image inadvertently made, formed in the air by the radiation of such secret light, playfully scattering gold dust, receding into the distance while howling with laughter, this was the shape that would then be left in the air.
This is Bae’s signature idiom: digressive loops and associations weave a complex and multimodal prose that emphasizes the heterogeneousness of lived experience. Memory, dreams, and imagination not only swarm the field of the “present-now” but are integral to its immanence—vivid, still-living, co-present.
The final story in the book presents a neat diorama or diagram of the collection as a whole that at once encapsulates, reframes, and gently satirizes its thematic concerns. In “How Can One Day Be Different From The Rest?” Mrs. Kim, a playwright, attempts to mount an experimental play that is a hyperbolic restaging of everyday life—the production initially calls for a quasi-panoptical set consisting of three-hundred and sixty-five rooms, each to be inhabited by one actor at a time, instructed to improvise a performance that encompasses a single day. But logistical, conceptual, and interpersonal problems run the production aground, and ultimately, Mrs. Kim is the only performer who remains willing to go on with the show.
When she offers this to the director, however, he resists, arguing that the play could not possibly be realized in its original intent—to represent the multiplicity of quotidian lived experiences—with just one performer. In this disagreement, Mrs. Kim suddenly senses that the director has intuited the selfish ardor motivating her persistence, a complex and stigmatized desire . . .
The idea that someone else might have gotten wind of the intensity and urgency of her desire, betrayed by her offering to step into the breach and perform the play alone…provoked such an enormous sense of shame in her that it hurt her to the core.
Bae raises this question: where does the artist’s desire to represent the world depart from the desire to inhabit that representation, and then to sustain or even to control it? In each of these stories, something like a narrative consciousness moves us back and forth between the world of phenomena and the world of perception—the inner chambers of memories and visions—a Möbius-movement that enfolds world and mind. Narrative itself is the precipitate of this contact-reaction.
Literary influences populate these stories: Kafka, Elfriede Jelinek, Peter Handke, and a plethora of other artists make appearances as interlocutors, characters, citations, and beacons of reference. Incorporating these voices into her soundboard, Bae decentralizes her claim to an absolute or unadulterated narrative voice—as if to say, look, here are my allies and affinities. In these instances of citation and interpolation she demonstrates the decentralized subjectivity and sensitivity of the translator—and Bae Suah is indeed an active translator of foreign literature into Korean (largely German and Portuguese, including Peter Handke, W.G. Sebald, and Fernando Pessoa, among others).
Reading and rereading these stories, there are strong echoes of Sebald and Pessoa, Lispector and Borges. I heard them through Anthea Bell, Michael Hulse, Richard Zenith, Idra Novey, Katrina Dodson, etc.—that is to say, through their translators. The clarity of these intertextual, interlingual resonances is perhaps a testament to the efficacy of Deborah Smith’s translation.
As the book omits any translator’s fore- or afterword, and without access to the original Korean publication, I can only guess-assess the success of the translation against the rubric of my knowledge of these languages and my own sense of Bae’s artistic intent.
To my mind, one of the primary and specific challenges of translating from Korean into English is that Korean grammar often permits the omission of an explicit grammatical subject—leaving a kind of ionized lacuna, charged with the emanation of an unmarked referent. Sentences can accumulate and accrete information around this torso of air—producing the sense of a subject by means of an intensified absence. One strength of Deborah Smith’s translations of these stories seems to lie in her success in transmitting a corresponding sense of dynamic linguistic spaciousness—through anaphor, adjustments of syntax, and in the long, careening runs of gorgeous and synesthetic prose that veer into the incredible sensuousness of language that supersedes any one tongue.
Previous translations of Bae Suah’s novels and stories have been praised for their experimental and poetical qualities. These ascriptions only glance off the genius of her fiction, which has everything to do with the complex congruences between the technical habits of her prose and her thematic concerns with the sensuous interpolation of interpolation of past and present, of I and thou, of life and literature.
Jean E Yoon is a poet, essayist, performer, and Korean-American itinerant. At the time of writing, Jean resides in South Bend, Indiana, finishing their MFA at the University of Notre Dame and working as an editorial assistant for Action Books.
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