Review: Bae Suah — Untold Night and Day

Untold Night and Day coverBae Suah: Untold Night and Day
Translated by Deborah Smith
Jonathan Cape 2020, 152pp
Originally published as 알려지지 않은 밤과 하루, Jaeumgwa Moeum, 2013
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Let me say up-front that I have never regarded myself as a Bae Suah fan. My first encounter with her – Highway with Green Apples – registers in my memory as no more than a grey blur. By the time of my second encounter, Nowhere to be Found, people were increasingly talking about her with admiration. I read it twice to see whether I had missed anything the first time round. I hadn’t.1

My third and fourth encounters – An Equal Music and North Station – were aborted after around 20 pages (or in the case of the latter, the end of the first story). They were simply, to my mind, boring and annoying in equal measure. It was, in a way, comforting when Bae Suah commented in Foyles recently that she never expected North Station to be published.

Bae Suah talking about North Station with Grace Koh (left) and Phillip Kim at Foyles
Bae Suah talking about North Station with Grace Koh (left) and Phillip Kim at Foyles, 25 October 2019. An early proof of Untold Night and Day sits tantalisingly on the table. Photo: Diya Mitra

So I came to Untold Night and Day with spectacularly low expectations, persuaded grudgingly to buy the thing by the fact that according to the cognoscenti it was meant to be The One. The Best Thing she has ever written. For me, this was make-or-break. Either I would get to the end of the book this time or I would never read another thing by her ever again.

It started promisingly. I got to the critical 20-25 page point without getting either annoyed or bored. Yes, it was a little bit weird, but weird in a good way. By that point, I’d already noted at least three dreamlike echoes in the text: hidden radios that mysteriously turn themselves on without any human intervention; different women being described as having a pock-marked face, wearing heavily starched hanbok and hemp shoes; and, most striking of all, the description of Seoul’s oppressive summer heat: “if you opened the window hot air heavier than a sodden quilt rushed in, clagging your pores like the wet slap of red meat”. The repetition of such language has an unsettling effect, making the reader think about what connections are being implied, or whether the author is just playing with us. Whichever it is, isn’t language like that too good, too weird, not to reuse?

I was still going strong at page 50, but by the end of the first chapter (p61) I was beginning to feel that the author was being weird for the sake of being weird. I nevertheless kept going, urged on by a similarly ambivalent friend who had experienced the same journey. The change in direction, with a different central character and perspective, in that second chapter rekindled my interest, and I never doubted from then on that I would reach the end.

Untold Night and Day Korean coverThe book will appeal to fans of Twin Peaks and the movies of Lee Kwang-guk and Hong Sang-soo. The narrative feels like it is taking place in an ambiguous, in-between space. The sense of unreality starts with those dreamlike linguistic echoes that become rather a trend. Sometimes, because of the peculiarity of the language, you remember very clearly where you had read the words before; at other times you simply have a strange sense of déjà vu without being able specifically to pin down the memory.

Then there’s the fact that the abnormal is presented as perfectly normal. The narrative centres around a girl called Ayami who works at an “Audio Theatre” – a place where you come and sit on a sofa to listen to a CD of a play, in much the same way as you might go to a cinema to watch a movie. No wonder it had to close: the main customers were schoolchildren to whom their teachers had given pointless school assignments. But the oddness of an Audio Theatre is not at all emphasised in this novel. For this is a world in which a “blackout restaurant” is not particularly unusual either; a world in which someone can lipread over the phone, in which a headless rooster can crow. Or in which a photograph can be taken of a pitch-black public square in the middle of the night.

In a dream, often the story makes no sense, and what you remember are the feelings you had while living the dream. So with Untold Night and Day. Yes, there is a story of sorts: things happen. Ayami’s Audio Theatre closes for good; she has dinner with her boss in the “blackout restaurant”; she goes to the airport to meet a visiting German writer, a vague connection of her German-language teacher who has mysteriously disappeared. But the story’s strands seem to loop back on each other, reflect each other, so that you feel you are drifting in a sense of unreality.

Sometimes there’s a startlingly precise observation, or a jarring comment, that leaps out from the page and almost physically grabs you, bringing you up short. For example, Ayami is idly watching a couple walking along the street: “for all intents and purposes they were an ordinary couple out for an evening stroll, or maybe primary school classmates who’d met up again after a forty-year gap.” (p12, emphasis added). What is one to make of such a specific and unexplained speculation? Or of Ayami’s bizarre musing: “Around this time each year I dream of clutching an enormous parrot to my chest and crawling into a non-existent bathtub brimming with cold water”? (p109). The sense of unreality in terms of narrative and language, while still making a certain amount of sense, brings to mind the furious sleep of Chomsky’s colourless green ideas.

Rather like the movies of the Korean movie directors mentioned above, incidents narrated from one viewpoint are re-told, with variations, from another viewpoint later on. Sometimes you are aware that the incident is the same; at other times you are less sure and maybe, once again, simply have a vague sense of déjà vu.

The former director of the Audio Theatre accurately captures the unsettling feeling of the novel’s world (on p144):

“Perhaps that kind of blackout is a symptom of ageing,” the director murmured, lost in his own thoughts. “Just like declining memory. No, to be more exact, it would be a sympton of disintegration, of something gradually wearing thin.”

“What is it that’s gradually wearing thin?”

“Well, if I had to put a name to it . . . the sleep of whomever is dreaming us?”

Yes, there are some plots where in order to make everything work the writer has to resort to the device that everything that has gone before is a dream. But with Untold Night and Day, we are in a dreamlike world from the start.

And, annoyingly, the constant feeling of déjà vu you encounter as you read the text for the first time makes you want to read the novel again immediately, logging what you are reading more carefully so that you can make the connections better on the second attempt.

Are there such connections to be made, and would the novel be as beguiling the second time round? I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that this is an extraordinary novel, a gem of a thing. Does that mean that I have revised my views of the books of hers that I’ve read? No. But it does mean that I’ll now go back and approach Recitation, that has been sitting on my shelf inching ever closer to the pile destined for the charity shop, with an open mind.

It’s an incredibly difficult book to sum up. Yes, it’s all very weird. But it’s weird, as I’ve said before, in a good way. And while I still can’t say I’m a fan of Bae Suah, I’m a fan of this particular book. Really.

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  1. Charles Montgomery on KTLit.com sums up well the way I feel about these texts, in the context of a review of Han Kang’s Convalescence. []

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