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Brief book review: Dictée – Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

DicteeTheresa Hak Kyung Cha: Dictée
University of California Press, 2001. Originally published 1982.

Not all books are easy to read, and it would be a dull world in which all books were. The assessment of whether to continue struggling through a difficult book is tricky: maybe it will all come together in the end – but will the satisfaction of seeing an uncertain resolution outweigh the pain of getting there?

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée presents us with such problems by the bucketload. The work starts unpromisingly, but eponymously, with a passage of French dictation: full stops and inverted commas all spelt out. Then the dictation is translated into English. A small mistranslation is neither here nor there, but what are the two paragraphs there for?

We continue into the next section, three pages entitled “Diseuse”.

“She mimicks the speaking. That might resemble speech. (Anything at all.) Bared noise, groan, bits torn from words,” the section commences.

The words continue, individually meaningful, but collectively a bit of a puzzle.

Now, maybe, we are due for a proper start to the work: recalling the first line of Homer’s Odyssey, Cha writes “O Muse, Tell me the story” – divine help is summoned to help structure the narrative. But before assistance can arrive, we get more puzzling words: fragments of French school exercises interspersed with a Lenten recitation from the Catholic Catechism.

And finally the first Muse appears, Clio, the muse of History, who tells a disjointed story of Korea under the early years of Japanese domination in the first decades of the 20th century. The remaining eight Muses each have a different angles and approaches. We have poems, hand-written letters, strange outpourings, random photographs. Occasionally we can grasp real events, such as the student protests in the early 1960s. But more often than not we are lost in a fog of words.

Turning to the back cover for guidance, we find the following copy:

A classic work of autobiography that transcends the self, Dictée is the story of several women: the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Demeter and Persephone, Cha’s mother (Hyung Soon Huo, a Korean born in Manchuria to first-generation Korean exiles), and Cha herself. The element that unites these women is suffering and the transcendence of suffering. The book is divided into nine parts structured around the Greek Muses. Cha deploys a variety of texts, documents, images, and forms of address and inquiry to explore issues of dislocation and the fragmentation of memory. The result is a work of power, complexity, and enduring beauty.

Even with that additional guidance, the book is difficult to grasp and remains out of reach.

Undoubtedly, Dictée is experimental and innovative. It is also complex, multi-faceted, and fragmentary. Further, Cha’s wrestling with the language can sometimes produce moments of poetry.

But the end result is totally unreadable.

2 thoughts on “Brief book review: Dictée – Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

  1. Unreadability doesn’t equate to incomprehensibility, and Cha’s text is difficult for good reason. Broadly, Cha was interested/invested in writing a text that resisted easy consumption. She was questioning “whole” and “complete” history-making that often too easy capsizes trauma. Dictee does an incredible amount of work, and it should be commended for working out difficult questions through a text that resists the simplified, straightforward “summaries” of “real” history. I’ve read it several times, and each time, I’m taught something else about the practice of reading.

  2. Hi Cris
    Thanks for taking the time to comment – much appreciated. I’m glad that you persevered with it and have been rewarded. For me (and every reader is different), I didn’t find the cost / benefit equation balanced quite right ^_^
    Maybe I’ll come back to it in a few years and come at it from a different direction!

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