Posts Tagged ‘Bae Suah’

Best Books of 2020 Part 3

December 29, 2020

Finally, here are my favourite books from 2020:

Firstly, this was the year I finally got round to reading Bae Suh. Untold Night and Day (translated by Deborah Smith) is a beguiling and disconcerting reading experience which is difficult to summarise. Over its four parts, it tells numerous stories that may also be one story, a text of incessant echoes from characters with uncanny similarities to the repetition of specific lines. What begins as a quest for identity ends up questioning whether certainty is possible

Identity is also important in Gabriela Cabezon Camara’s The Adventures of China Iron (translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona McIntyre). Everything from Argentinian national identity to sexual discovery, colonialism to class, is covered in the guise of a rip-roaring adventure. The novel wins its place on energy alone, and is another reminder of the excellence of Charco Press. It is also the only Booker International long-listed book among my favourites, which suggests I think it should have won

Next is a book I freely admit is unlikely to feature in anyone else’s best of the year – Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by Michael Hofmann). As a long-time admirer of Stamm, I found this one of his best yet. As is often the case with his work, it begins with a single decision, when our narrator, Christoph, breaks up with his girlfriend, Magdalena. On this occasion, however, Christoph later discovers another couple whose lives seem to exactly replicate his and Magdalena’s. How he reacts to these doppelgangers makes for a fascinating exploration of how we tell the stories of our lives

Another writer I particularly admire is Annie Ernaux, whose work, thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions, is now reaching a wider audience in the UK. This year saw the translation, by Alison L Strayer, of A Girl’s Story. Here she tells of her early sexual experiences at a summer camp, but, as Ernaux explains, she does not regard the story she tells as ‘hers’ in the sense we would normally understand with biographical writing: “I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo.” What I love about Ernaux’s work is how she forensically captures the details of the time alongside truths of human experience which remain as insightful today as ever

Finally, Vigdis Hjoth’s Long Live the Post Horn! (translated by Charlotte Barslund) stood out for me this year as much as Will and Testament did last year. I was transfixed by the way a story of mid-life crisis became one of transformation and hope via the fight to preserve the postal service. It was a reminder that regarding ‘mental health’ as something entirely abstract, existing only in our heads, is a dangerous mistake. Interestingly, it joined the other four books in offering a version of hope in a year which needed it more than most.

Untold Night and Day

April 10, 2020

Untold Night and Day is the fifth of Bae Suah’s novels to be translated into English (and the fourth to be translated by Deborah Smith) but the first to be published in the UK. It is strange and wonderful, and difficult to reduce to a few words – its four connected sections tell parts of the same story, as well as different, complementary, contradictory (it can be hard to tell the difference), stories, while echoes of what we’ve heard before and after bubble to the surface, often word for word.

It begins simply enough with Ayami, once an actress, now the usher at an audio theatre, where those who are blind come to listen to stories. Her life is at a crossroads as the theatre is closing and she has little idea what she will do next – beyond a promise to her German language teacher to meet a visiting poet at the airport. Bae Suah develops a sense of the uncanny through a series of apparently everyday encounters, firstly with a couple Ayami observes passing the theatre. Nothing unusual in this apart from Ayami’s speculation, “Might they be my parents?” Ayami’s parentage will be returned to at the end of the novel, but beyond its place in the plot it also creates a feeling that she uncertain of her identity, as, indeed, is the reader. Next a man approaches, “standing with both hands pressed against the glass.” The man becomes distressed, attempting to enter the closed theatre, and has to be taken away. “Might I know him after all?” Ayami wonders,

“Ayami no longer trusted her own memory.”

Even the conversation with the director of the theatre which follows, in a restaurant which is completely without light, takes a strange turn as he jokes about naming her when she was a baby, and Ayami later unsettles herself commenting, “No, you haven’t told me you were none other than my father, who was a fruit hawker.”

“Ah, do I know this man? Ayami was struck with a feeling of vertigo.”

This sense of being aware of a past but uncertain of its relationship to the present is echoed, for the reader, in repeated sections of text, often the descriptions of characters:

“Her skirt fluttered like an old dishcloth in the alley’s still air, exposing a pair of skinny calves corded with stringy muscle, pathetically small feet, and shoes that gleamed like new yet looked like cast-offs.”

This description of the woman Ayami sees passing on page 14 is repeated as a description of Ayami on page 49, and reappears again on three other occasions. Like other repeated phrases it is beautifully rendered by Smith as the banal details come together in a poetic unity; it is noticeable for the way it describes rather than what it describes. Scattered throughout the text, theses repeated phrases create a feeling that there is a layer of connection lying beneath the plot only occasionally glimpsed in the words themselves.

The second section seems to veer away from Ayami though connections soon appear. It tells of Buha who falls for a poet woman after seeing a black and white photograph in a newspaper. Years later we discovering him delivering medicine to Ayami’s German language teacher; seeing Ayami enter, he identifies her as the poet woman (“…she was learning German”) and often returns to watch her:

“Buha enjoyed deviating from his fixed route to watch the poet woman.”

He later identifies the poet woman’s voice as Yeoni’s, the German language teacher, which he knows from a phoning a sex line. At the end of this section the scene with the man pressing against the door of the audio theatre is repeated from the other side of the door; Buha is the man.

Just before this Buha comments, thinking of his past:

“It seemed to him that he had ended up walking between two simultaneously existing worlds.”

The reader may also share this suspicion. In particular, there are numerous suggestions that Ayami and Yeoni are uncannily similar or, indeed, the same person. Not only does Buha mistake Ayami for Yeoni, so does the poet (in fact a crime writer, Wolfi) she sends her to meet (though he says he ash never seen Yeoni). Photographs at an exhibition taken years before seem to show Ayami much more recently; as Wolfi observes:

“…every photograph is a unique proof of identity, firmly declaring that human beings are ghosts.”

Later on a television programme a woman called Ayami is reunited with her mother:

“Your adoptive parents called you Ayami…but your real name is Yeoni.”

Of course the novel does not end neatly in this way as the television Ayami denies the truth of this, while Ayami watching tells Wolfi she was acting in a film. What begins as a novel of a young woman in search of her identity, ends with the feeling that she does not want to know who she is.

Untold Night and Day is a bewitching, elusive novel which rewards a second reading. Not only is it strongly suggested that its characters are haunted (take, for example, Wolfi’s description of his novel where “readers later realise that the female protagonist is the ghost of the woman who had been murdered many years ago”) but its readers, too, will find the novel’s elements playing across their minds in its afterlife.