Bae Suah’s novel Recitation is a city with a thousand doorways. It is about a group of emigrants on journeys of self-discovery, but it is just as much about the act of disappearing. It is a novel about storytelling itself and the ways in which people are constructions of their stories.
At the book’s center is Kyung-hee, a recitation actress. She lives in different parts of Europe and with different housemates as she travels around working. Things do happen in this book—characters travel, meet, lose track of one another, have abortions, get caught by immigration police, seek beloveds—but the novel isn’t really about what happens between Point A and Point B. It is much more circular than that. In the end, Bae Suah, the author of several other works of fiction, including A Greater Music and Highway with Green Apples, insists that the world is more question than answer, more spiral than straight line.
At its heart, this deeply philosophical novel is about travel and foreignness. The characters in Recitation are in perpetual movement. It is as if they fear that they will cease to exist if they stay still too long. Bae writes, “Walking seemed to be the only way of acquiring a form of non-linguistic legitimacy, the highest that I myself can achieve in this day and age, a comprehensive representation of both the flesh and that which animates it.” These characters catch glimpses of their true selves as they enter a new place, as if the contrast of an unknown landscape makes their own bodies and minds feel momentary familiar. But as the new place becomes known, the understanding of self gets foggy again and they are driven to continue moving.
Bae Suah invokes many writers and storytellers from Ernest Hemingway and Octavio Paz to the Dalai Lama. Characters in the book include a fortune-teller, healer, shaman, and someone named Mr. Nobody. But there’s also a Starbucks and gritty train stations and dirty city streets and small apartments. The book stands in the space between the mundane and the transcendent.
It stands, too, between the innate desire for...
Bae Suah made her literary debut in 1993 in the quarterly Fiction and Philosophy with “The Dark Room of Nineteen Eighty-Eight.” She is the author of the short story collection Green Apples Along the Highway (2002), and the novella Nowhere to Be Found (1998), and the novels Sunday Sukiyaki Restaurant (2003), North Living Room (2009), and Untold Nights and a Day (2013).