The experience of reading the prize-winning Korean-born writer Bae Suah is simultaneously uncanny, estranging, and spellbinding, an effect that becomes perceptible the more you read. “A little kid in dirty clothes was sitting in the street in front of a house, crying with his mouth wide open,” one particularly apposite passage begins. “After the bus had taken several turns and gone over a hill, I saw the same little boy in front of the same house, still crying. Was it really the same kid? I looked around and tried to jog my memory. Identical vacant houses, fields, paddies, sheds, and bus stops slid past. How long had I been on the bus?” These words perhaps give a taste of Bae’s penchant for reiteration, but they do not, cannot show quite how sophisticated her employment of repetition is—ideas and images woven throughout the lengths of these plot-light but carefully constructed stories—or how it gives rise to such an intense reading experience. Sophisticated because, wittingly or not, Bae has performed the seemingly impossible, or at least oxymoronic: she defamiliarizes words and images by repeating words and images. Repetition, on the whole, creates a sense of familiarization, not defamiliarization. While the idea that the same words never carry the same weight or meaning twice is not a new one (Gertrude Stein’s ideas on insistence, or Heraclitus’ river theory work along the same lines) Bae exploits it in her fiction to tremendous effect: delighting in the possibility of words having infinite meanings and effects, in these short, spiraling narratives—Nowhere to Be Found and her earlier story, also published by Amazon, Highway with Green Apples—Bae sends her readers around and around the same words and ideas, lifting us to new proximities to them, and to mesmeric landscapes, both geographical (in Korea) and psychological (in her narrators). These voices and set scenes, in particular with the more assured Nowhere to Be Found, resonated with such hyper-real clarity I felt I might have dreamed rather than read them: How long had I been in this book?
Bae’s young, weary speakers are watchers, and their recurring observations are central to Bae’s storytelling. Partly, it is how Bae achieves what the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky called “art’s function”: “to help us recover the sensation of life; […] to make us feel things, to make the stone stony.” We might be given to believe from their spiritless tones that Bae’s narrators have succumbed to the deadening effects of habit that for Shklovsky is anti-art—in these cases work, family, interminable Korean winters, self-perpetuating social roles—but their choice to pass through life as observers rather than active participants means that we are privy to their perceptions of things more than any reasoned analysis of them; as a result, we as readers perceive the world of the stories more than we analyze than: a liberating reading experience. Bae recovers sensation through meaningful insistence; in other words, she makes coffee coffeey, and snow snowy, etc.
Both of these strange stories—blending the real, hyperreal, preterreal, surreal—are synopsis-eluding and, as the author says in an interview with the Amazon journal One Day, deliberately so:
The hardest thing for me is not ‘What am I going to say?’ so much as ‘What am I not going to say?’ I like stories that speak through things that are not said directly. ‘The most suitable way to not say something’—that’s what I think of as the aesthetic of my short fiction.
The “suitable way to not say something” in these pieces of short fiction seems to have been to playfully eschew obvious narrative developments. The narrator of Nowhere to Be Found works dead-end jobs, avoids home—where her mother drinks herself into bitter rages and waits for her daughter to come home and play a sounding board for her life’s disappointments—and dates Cheolsu, a young officer-in-training who throughout the course of the story is either physically away on base, or held at emotional distance by our narrator. All of this plays out not through linear story progression, but rather as a dizzying spiral, and the eye of the storm is one cinematic scene in the middle of the novella, in which our indifferent narrator makes a trip to see Cheolsu at base one weekend, his meddlesome mother’s special home-cooked chicken in tow. The day unravels into a series of misunderstandings and false leads: when she arrives she’s told Cheolsu’s not at the base but out on training. She must take the bus and get off at the fishing hole; all buses lead to the fishing hole, she’s told. But hers doesn't; when she gets to the training ground not only is Cheolsu not there but it turns out “there were two officers-in-training here with the same name”; one of the two Cheolsus, she is told, has been in an accident.
Where was Cheolsu? Was he here? Was he there? Had the Cheolsu I was looking for died in some accident? Was he in the hospital? Or was he sitting with the other middle-class officers-in-training, surrounded by giggling girlfriends and mothers and sisters, laughing and joking over shots of alcohol, having forgotten all about me and the stupid chicken? What was real and what was fantasy? And what was it that I really wanted—reality or fantasy?
This infuriating merry-go-round of questions-upon-questions could be straight out of The Castle (Das Schloß), and readers of these stories may not be surprised to learn that Bae is the Korean translator of another of Franz Kafka’s stories featuring the character of K, A Dream (Ein Traum).
The earlier and shorter story, Highway with Green Apples shows the genesis of this tendency to vivify images and disorientate her reader, but it is nonetheless a less sophisticated prototype of Nowhere to be Found—it reads more like a literary experiment, and has a slacker rein on structure, time and the all-important repetitions. Take the whipped cream in the following passage from Highway:
The weather is cold and gray and threatens to snow. The whipped cream on top of the Viennese coffee is sprinkled with cinnamon, and the cup is warm.
“She's the daughter of a college professor, and she graduated from a top women's college. That's not the problem. The problem is how much my brother has changed because of her.”
Whipped cream is stuck to her lip.
This insistence is handed to us too easily on the plate to really jolt our expectations: it doesn't take too much imagination to read the whipped cream on the lip as a metaphor for the sweet niceties masking what the estranged cousins really want to say (our narrator's cousin, we learn, kills herself shortly after). Likewise, a pair of kitchen scissors in the same story are wielded a little heavy-handedly: at first they are the unremarkable purchase in a department store by the aforementioned woman, and when they reappear in the story, we learn, together with the narrator who provided them, that they were her suicide weapon of choice. My heart sunk at the obvious tricksiness of the scissors’ reappearance: the scissors were no more scissory. I became aware I was reading a story and was unconvinced by the twist in the story; I woke from my dreamlike state. The repetition in Nowhere, by contrast, is mood-altering, sometimes staggering in its subtlety, in particular in the last thirty or so pages where the seeds planted in the first half (words, phrases, or images you hardly bat an eye at) bloom into meaning—or rather sensation—in their repetition. Figures that at best have a poetic resonance in their first use—taxidermy, white hairs, chickens, white cliffs, crows, and fishing holes—in their unexpected recurrence made me feel like Bae had struck on a new formula for “recovering the sensation of life.”
Translator Sora Kim-Russell’s English has some part to play in this, too. A published poet, her language attends to sounds (our narrator has a finely-tuned ear, too), which heightens the sensorial experience of reading about her unexceptional life. Take this sentence at the book’s start as our protagonist describes her temp work in the university in Gyeonggi Province in South Korea: “Every person and every procedure marches on at a measured pace.” The p’s and m’s are neatly arranged as if they themselves had been churned out of the mechanical process that the paragraph goes on to describe: “That’s how things get done, just as the less delicate components of a machine submit to the will of the machine without any conscious thought or shred of volition while being ground down. So while I was busy not having any conscious thought, I became a cog.”
There’s something of Melville’s evasive scrivener, Bartleby, in the narrator of Nowhere to Be Found, to a certain extent confirmed by the author’s reiterated claim in interviews that she herself doesn’t know or want to know anything. The young narrator describes her job in the university in Gyeonggi Province in South Korea in the least committal way imaginable, her statements expanding with double negatives and subjunctive tenses indicating what is not the case:
I didn’t have too many tasks, but I also wasn’t so idle that I could have passed the time knitting. When I was working, the hours went by at what I can only call a measured pace. My salary was, of course, very small. If not for that, I might have worked there longer.
The young graduate’s evasive attitude extends to her love life (“he wasn’t my one and only boyfriend, and I wasn’t his one and only girlfriend”) and her familial relationships (“even now I think maybe my family is just a random collection of people I knew long ago and will never happen upon again, and people I don’t know yet but will meet by chance one day”). This narrator, we quickly learn, is not about to burn her bra: her entire discourse oozes deep-seated apathy and irony and there’s willfully no social message in her story. In fact, in both of these works, structures—both national and patriarchal—only rear their heads to be confirmed or ignored. In Nowhere, the protagonist’s ineffectually defiant little sister who craves a better life (to attend the school trip with her friends, to be a model, or a beautician) declares: “I’m going to be a lesbian when I grow up.” The narrator’s deadpan, perhaps sarcastic response is: “She was talking about transcending your origins and your own willpower.” Perhaps there are no obvious heroines in these works because, as Bae has said in an interview, “The place where I exist as a writer (not as a person) doesn’t ‘belong’ anywhere. Literature can be seen as an act undertaken for social solidarity; but to me, literature is just ‘me alone.’”
To tie Bae up in a discussion about marriage, education, and tradition in Korea would be foolhardy, the writer seems to be warning us. Nowhere to Be Found and Highway with Green Apples are both set in Korea, but here Seoul is a ghostly, echoing city (not the neon-bright, buzzing and humid metropolis we might have imagined) and in Nowhere the “static electricity of this ominous winter coldly dominating the whole world” is presented to us in images and objects that don’t connote any culture in particular: forgotten coats, endless snowfall, interminable bus and car trips, and gas stations at night where machines churn out instant coffee that our protagonist drinks while having pained conversations with friends or strangers, as if it were a tonic not just from the cold and company, but from an incurable illness belonging to “her alone.” I first understood this illness, this inability to inhabit her own life, as a symptom of wanderlust, a phenomenon that could be said to be felt by the travellers in Bae’s more recent novel The Low Hills of Seoul. But the protagonist of Nowhere doesn’t have wanderlust; she is incapable of lust. When she loses her virginity to her boyfriend Cheolsu she does so consensually, but Bae makes us feel she is hardly even present in the moment. Acquiescence is no more than a silent nod, and during the act we are privy to almost all possible observations bar the physical feeling of intercourse—“the still air like jelly,” the “drop of water falling in the bathroom sounded unnaturally loud”—all of which reiterates the narrator’s “me alone” standing, her wilful absence from interactive reality. Her illness is not wanderlust, then, but perhaps fernweh, the German word translatable as “farsickness”, a kind of anti-saudade, whereby home—family, work, and Cheolsu—are, to use the W.G. Sebald’s play on words from his edited book of essays of the same title, “unheimlich heimat” (“unhomelike homeland”): home, family, love, physical affection do not factor in the world she inhabits, other than as things to be observed in others. In one disorienting, poetic hallucinatory scene (one of many) after her and Cheolsu have sex, she says: “In truth, I was not me . . . That distant me is precious and beautiful.”
Bae relates that distant “me alone” to us with an almost preternatural poetic vision and an architect’s structural precision. The only fully inhabited space in Nowhere to Be Found is what Bae described in the same interview as the “landscape of my youth,” which she then clarified: “anxiety.” Another symptom of the narrator’s fernweh is her inability to hold down a conversation with friends, family, acquaintances or lovers, and Bae and Kim-Russell’s dialogue is convincingly stilted. Bae’s protagonist becomes truly unsettling: moving furtively through the city, trusting no one, shunning companionship, each relating only to her own thoughts, without any explanations for her actions—she is a law unto herself; an island, never anywhere to be found because there is no one to witness her. She is, in effect, a ghost, and appropriately enough this word appears for the first time in the last scene, “the center of [her] bleak hour” where she spots, in the flesh, an allegedly murderous couple she had read about (much earlier in the novel) on an old wanted sign: “It is so dark out that I see them brushing past the car like ghosts, but he [her companion] does not.” By the end of Nowhere, the narrator has fully assumed her condition as a ghostly, impervious being: “And that is how I became an absolutely meaningless thing and survived time,” she concludes.
Repetition and observation in Bae’s works are the happy symptoms of a failure to know. Paraphrasing or perhaps channelling Kafka’s famous adage that “the artist is the one who has nothing to say” she told One Day “I don’t know anything. I don’t want to know anything. Because knowing, to me, is tedious. I like to observe life without intervening, to make assumptions, to imagine, and to fictionalize.” Bae Suah offers the chance to unknow—to see the every-day afresh and be defamiliarized with what we believe we know—, which is no small offering.
Sophie Hughes is a literary translator and editor. Her latest translation is Iván Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Pushkin Press, US publication November 2015).