“I am afraid that the moment I cast off the garb of a poor, powerless, unidentified ‘city-dweller,’ I will become a refugee, stripped of my citizenship, with no idea of the direction I should take.” This perhaps best captures what drives the intense anxiety at the heart of A Greater Music and Recitation, Bae Suah’s two most recent works in Deborah Smith’s exceptional translation. It is an anxiety specific to a particular demographic: urban residents with an excess of options, and a deficit of purpose. Those who rely on their city to provide validation, when in fact the city is utterly ambivalent to human life; standing as a product of humanity’s creation, but providing no reason for humanity’s existence.
So what happens when one becomes a refugee by casting off the identity of “city-dweller”? For Bae’s protagonists, the response is to travel, but not with the purpose of finding meaning, a sense of self, or even a new home. Instead, travel is aimless, purposefully purposeless, and it is this directionless movement that forms the crux of these books. Both Recitation’s Kyung-hee and the unnamed narrator of A Greater Music are wanderers; unhappy in Korea, they leave in search of elsewhere. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the author’s own Berlin residence, the German city plays a role in both books, although always as supporting actor, rather than the star. Location, for Bae, is simultaneously essential and unimportant; while notions of “home” and “homelessness” drive characters” actions, neither attainment nor loss of a sense of place is crucial—instead it is the journey that carries significance.
These journeys are far from simple. As Recitation’s Kyung-hee moves from country to country she is confronted by a series of obstacles; some, like doubt, are self-imposed, while others nod towards an increasing paranoia around immigration and borders. The narrator of A Greater Music, on the other hand, is held back by conflicting feelings: towards her homeland of Seoul and her residence in Berlin, and toward various lovers. The first, M, is a woman who she loves deeply but leaves for apparently no reason in order to return to Korea. The second, Joachim, is a thoroughly unlikeable man who she stays with for equally mysterious reasons. She is left drifting in a midpoint, stuck between her homeland and the country where she is trying to assimilate.
In A Greater Music, the narrator is unable to explain the reason for her anxiety (perhaps because she doesn’t understand it herself), causing even greater distance between her and others. She recalls a trip she took alone:
That holiday of which I had never spoken to anyone, when I took the night train far away with heavy bags and a heavier heart, yet was ultimately unable to break free from myself. But Joachim just couldn’t grasp what I was trying to say. “What on earth is that supposed to mean? ‘Break free from myself,’ you mean like dying or going crazy?”
No, not like dying or going crazy, but escaping a profound loneliness: an alienating force pushing these women to the peripheries of their communities. Bae’s characteristic resistance to straightforward narrative, a resistance that imbues her writing with a refusal to let the characters—and consequently readers—progress, expounds these emotions. Timelines constantly loop back on themselves, repeating scenes, thoughts, and images. The narrative logic Bae explores is that of dreams and memories: not the harsh, chronology-bound progression of cause and effect, but the organic flux of mental scrutiny, of the atemporal shifts inherent in any human consciousness.
And for readers willing to engage in this unashamedly internal style, the repetition of Bae’s prose is almost hypnotic. During a quasi-philosophical monologue, one of Recitation’s many ambiguous characters, identified only as “the healer,” comments:
We can say that we are born from a gushing fountain over and over in an endless repetition, remaining all the while on the feedback loop of eternal life. The moment I apprehend the truth of this, my soul trembles as though struck by lightning.
It comes as no surprise that this healer later turns out to also be a Nietzsche scholar. Indeed, his words hark directly to the philosopher’s notion of eternal return; that with infinite time and a finite number of events, the same events will recur over and over infinitely.
This “feedback loop” is a device that Bae deploys again and again in both books. In recollection, dream, or conversation, Bae returns to earlier events that unfold in the same way two or three times over. It is easy at times to become completely lost, and indeed to question the benefit of such repetition. But Bae’s stylistic choice is not arbitrary: it serves to situate us within her protagonists’ consciousness as they pick their way through life with an almost nonexistent regard for the future, and an almost obsessive preoccupation with the past. They, too, are lost, although we are given the sense this is from choice rather than misfortune.
This raises the question of whether these women, in actively becoming metaphorical refugees, are acting out a kind of radical acceptance of their transience, rather than seeking a solution to it. Why should they not refuse the almost obsessive pressure to find one’s “place” in the world, particularly when they feel no connection to any particular location? Kyung-hee’s friend Banchi explicitly describes “[t]hat land from which my blood and bones were formed, upon which my ancestors lived, which will be forever unknown to me.” This kind of extreme disconnect could reasonably be experienced by those separated forcefully from their homeland, but what of those whose decision to leave is motivated by a personal disengagement from the place they were born, or claim citizenship? This manner of rejecting one’s birthplace and willfully abandoning one’s residence directly opposes the troubling rebirth of right-leaning national pride we are seeing worldwide: from England, America, and North Korea, to France, Greece, and Austria. In many of these cases, a rise in nationalism correlates with the increase in asylum seekers and immigrants, exemplary of the two groups referred to above: those ripped from their homes, and those who choose to leave them.
In this way, Bae picks up one of today’s most prevalent conversations: why are we so obsessed with defining ourselves by our place of birth? In this age of globalization, why is it becoming more important to distinguish citizen, country, and nation? As Kyung-hee points out, “Starbucks is somewhere that people from China, Europe, or wherever, can feel equally at home—somewhere that literally feels as familiar as their hometown.” If a Starbucks can exist beyond constructed boundaries, why is it so important to make it “here”? These questions underlie the anxiety charging these narratives. However, the repeated loops of time and motion her characters trap themselves in demonstrate that their cycles of doubt and uncertainty are deeply internal, unaffected by the choice to reject notions of “home” or “residence.” You can “break free” from borders, but it is not so easy to “break free” from yourself.
And perhaps this is why monologues are such a pivotal literary tactic for her. Bae’s earliest English-language readers were often won over by Nowhere to Be Found’s maelstroms of thought (“Tired. I was tired. I was only twenty-four, but I was tired. For a long time I’d been feeling dizzy . . .”), and Deborah Smith’s subsequent translations have cemented Bae’s extraordinary skill in isolating her characters even while opening them up, body and soul, to her readers. No matter that this device disembodies the speaker and refuses conversation. Recitation’s Kyung-hee, we are told, is a “theater actor specializing in recitation,” a profession she seems unable to disengage from during conversations, which are often one-sided to the point of haranguing her auditors. Vast sections of text are composed of spoken recollection delivered to single or multiple people, and are often so long we forget she is speaking at all. In A Greater Music, the narrator is made to recite long passages in German far beyond her comprehension, and in this foreign tongue she feels inhibited, even stupid, and further distanced from her partners and friends. Do these monologue force readers into the same loneliness both narrators feel? Maybe so. And there is no denying that they reinforce that Nietzschean sensation of being trapped in an endless cycle of repetition.
But hopelessness and hope are opposite sides of the same coin; these brilliantly deployed monologues, spoken and written alike, become a way for Bae’s characters to center themselves. In A Greater Music, the narrator writes to locate herself: “I’d simply stopped for a while in a certain fluid place between past and future, these two states giving direction to my present situation, and through writing I would reappear as myself in given moments from the past or future.” The novella even closes with a quote from Peter Handke: “Only when I’m writing do I feel that I’ve become myself and am truly at home.” For Kyung-hee, monologue is not only her profession, but also how she comprehends herself. In Recitation, the human body is rarely depicted as beautiful but often grotesque. However, Kyung-hee seems to identify the body’s worth in its capacity to produce sound:
[T]he human body is a musical instrument which generate sound waves, producing emotions and feelings which vary in accordance with minute differences in the shape of the internal tubes which pierce this instrument, producing sounds which make up an atmosphere particular to each individual.
This highlights her disassociation of the body with any sort of autonomy or “spirit,” instead mechanizing its processes and turning it into a device. Such perception ties in with Bae’s disconnection of individual from collective, whether community, nation, or humanity as a whole.
It is no surprise her characters are filled with such existential anxiety, but what is surprising is how they deal with it. They not only refuse to seek a solution, but their refusal takes the form of a continual, active avoidance. Is that so terrible: must we cure our anxiety and alienation? Is it essential that we decide between hopelessness and hope? It may be that the two can exist in the same soul and the same moment, that the journeys each of these women take have no ultimate destination—nor do they even wish for one.
Rosie Clarke is a New York-based writer, and works for literary non-profit The Center for Fiction. Her work has appeared in World Literature Today, The Times Literary Supplement, 3:AM Magazine, The White Review, The Quarterly Conversation, and more.