Review of North Station by Bae Suah

Bae Suah in experimental mode.

The 7 stories in North Station display many aspects of this author’s formidable powers. Unlike the novels of hers I’ve read, this collection depicts similar characters in a greater variety of situations, while not relying on dramatic plotting. They are very slow, and will not be to everyone’s taste. Pre-eminent themes include the contemplation of loss, and the melancholy of inertia. The narrative contains more voice than action. These stories resonate with controlled desperation, contained storms. They play with language and time, and seethe, even while they slowly dissipate in the mind.

With effortless complexity and poetic lyricism, Suah weaves together unconventional travel narratives, amid psychological stability, confronting the mobility of the mind, and navigating the chaotic urban landscapes with rock-solid perceptual analysis.

There is a little German flavor to her works, which only makes sense considering she is a translator of German works into Korean. There are traces of Mann, Hesse, Kafka & Goethe, Rilke and others I’m not familiar with. The solid, striking prose is organized into defensive walls of intelligent arguments crafted through bulky, content-rich paragraphs. But this is not to say she does not have a delicate touch all the same. The mechanics are elaborate while the characters are never hurried. They are collected and observant in the extreme.

Her translator’s mentality informs her fiction writing. Suah takes her time composing exquisite images which converge, like coupling trains of thought, to flow and separate again. She asks: how much of a writer’s personality does a work contain in “Owl.” Her characters are People “vainly flirting with life” fighting off with deep meditation the slow trickle toward death. But there is always an awareness of art’s impact on the human soul and the barriers we erect between each other – either as an emotional coping mechanism or as a filter through which we encounter life on our own terms.

In some ways, her writing resembles Akutagawa’s. Especially in the way she combines elements of Eastern and Western culture, how she explores another culture as a foreigner, and how she interprets these cultural anomalies through her own lens. Some of the descriptions are reminiscent of “Mandarins” – especially the fascination with trains.

Without a doubt, her writing possesses the intelligence and innate sensitivity of timeless literature. Yoko Tawada is another inevitable comparison, as she too lived in Germany. Suah provides commentary on Goethe’s strictness and exactitude as she employs certain literary disciplines with a master’s touch and she does not seem to borrow too often from her home country’s myths and history. What these stories lack in plot, they make up with psychological tension and insight.

The debt life owes to death is one of her characters’ preoccupations. “Nature maintains equilibrium. Man Grieves.” By blending dialogue, monologue and straight narration, Suah enlivens her extended essays on human mortality in the storyteller’s framework, while also commenting on art and the responsibility of the creator to their own vision, and how exposure compromises that. The final story provides a scenario similar to Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. Suah’s style is well-suited to endless permutations of detail. As a result, there is also great musicality in the deft translation we are given in English, such as in the subtle word order: “vividly revived,” and “secret creases.”

Complex sentences can either be a joy or a pain. In this case, they are Suah’s stock and trade. The display of ruined mentalities in characters shifting through life’s tribulations, lugging around their baggage of uncertainty, and the exploration of human psychic borders, provide an unflinching examination of our bodies and spirits in the cold metaphysical environments we inhabit. Combined with the elegant, ravishing descriptions, and the gorgeous atmosphere, this made for a luscious read. Her Mishima-like control of narration, the contemplation of the writerly life, and the academic versus literary ambitions on display fully qualify Suah as an important figure in world literature. Her literary theory, criticism and analysis, integrated smoothly into her novels and stories, along with the fragmentary hints which compose the tableau of life as we perceive it suggest that she has a deep and heartfelt understanding of human nature. The searing holes left in the tapestry by loss and grief are some of the most striking moments in her fiction.

I look forward to reading every word of this author’s work as it makes its way, inch by inch, into English translation.

Review of Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah

ISBN 1419744380 (ISBN13: 9781419744389)

What starts as a quiet tale of a struggling middle class youth in Korea becomes a disorienting and surreal fable of identity, love, and art.

At the intersection of Murakami and Kafka, Bae Suah occupies her own corner of contemporary literature. At times as light and charming as Banana Yoshimoto or Hiromi Kawakami, she also possesses highly literary powers comparable to Marquez. It is impossible to pin down exactly how she manages to convey rich detail, elegant economy, vivid characterization, and dream-like magic all at once.

Several recurrent images pervade the novel, which is organized like a piece of music. The refrains remind us of certain memories, but they also establish specific symbols. The effect of these interesting moments shed light on the passage of time in the world of the novel. It is clever in the extreme how Suah manages to weave together disparate occurrences in intriguing ways – whether it is an encounter in a theater or a magical bus ride through downtown, each wave of surrealism serves to construct a heartfelt nuance of youthful regret, love-lorn solitude, or the existential dilemma of a dreaming poet. Temperature crops up frequently in the book, enhancing the characters’ skewed perspective with irony, hyperbole, and sympathy.

Bae Suah has said in interviews, that she did not choose Korea, as one does not choose one’s name, but it is hers all the same. This uncertain commitment to national identity may be seen in some of her works dealing with outsiders, foreigners, and dispossessed Koreans. Here she describes South Korea as an island, surrounded on 3 sides by water, and on the fourth by an uncrossable border.

Transportation is another underlying theme of the novel – trains, planes, taxis and buses. A fair portion of the action takes place while the characters are standing still, but movement continues in their interactions, as they often recount journeys and far-removed events. I got the impression that the interstices of life, the introspective moments, intruded in unexpected ways, to punctuate the impressionistic qualities the author was going for. If you are not familiar with her style, the aimlessness or “random” aspect may trick you into believing this masterful novel is sloppy. In fact, it is a honed, enchanting, mesmeric experience, a dream of life, wherein emotion and memory collide.

I’m astounded by what this author has managed to do in the 4 books of hers I’ve read. The last one in English is called Recitation, and I will not be able to resist reading it for long.

Thanks go to the publisher who provided an ARC through Netgalley.