Just when it seemed as though 20th century literature had exhausted the possibilities of choral narrative, along comes Bae Suah. In El Restaurante de Sukiyaki (The Sukiyaki Restaurant), the author, born in 1965, has invented a narrative machine that interweaves parallel stories in which the characters, their living conditions and economic difficulties in a hyper-competitive society, are relayed in a firm, objective, straightforward voice that sustains the novel.
All the stories, under the gaze of the same narrator, focus on the clash between the institution of the family—parents and children or husbands and wives—and the materialism of society. Often these relationships are under siege from the alienation generated by the acute demands of a consumer society. Bae Suah’s characters wander human and emotional wastelands where geographic and social marginalization takes a very human toll.
Early on, something about the characters’ poverty, unfortunate lives lived with grotesque coldness, are reminiscent of Italian neo-realism.Ma and Dong Kiongsuk are an old couple: he’s unemployed, hungry, and bedridden with depression, still fighting with his ex-wife, Park Jeyon, and his son. She is a dominant character, unhappy with the man she is forced to support. The same matriarchal pattern is repeated in the story of Pyo Jyongchong and Bu Jerin but here the man of the house is absent and mother and daughter live a relationship of submission, guilt, duty, and denial.
In other stories, almost all of them related by the common element of the sukiyaki restaurant lurking in the background, love becomes a source of conflict. For example, Bek Duoin and Um Myunge, schoolmates of Ma’s, provide a means for exploring the nature of contemporary relationships, which are very different from traditional Korean courtship and perhaps have more in common with the love affairs of the West. In turn, each of these characters splits the narrative further: Ukyun, a man dumped by Um Myunge, crosses paths with Sewon, who is in love with Bu Jerin.
Yinyu and Songdo, another modern couple, start another branch of the narrative. Here, the author isn’t exploring the collateral effects of divorce, as was the case with Ma and Park Jeyon, but the possibility of not getting married at all in a deeply hierarchical society. In this case, issues of commitment and social imperative join the general sense of economic suffocation. Once more, the story splits and follows the path of a friend of Yinyu’s, Be Iuun and her husband Kim Iojuan, who prototypically embody a marriage in crisis.
It’s not necessary to describe here the later stories that spring up from those that went before. The important point is that Bae Suah has an incomparable gift for using apparently discrete pieces to build a mural of contemporary life. Such a sociological project requires a clinical eye to identify the shifting grounds of power in contemporary Korea: matriarchal forces winning a place in a patriarchal society, work as a productive force whose drawback is alienation and conformity, marriages seen as dangerous unions in a materialistic society.
At the end of the day, Bae Suah seems, superbly, to be telling us that love and art are the territory of freedom and caprice; they are difficult to tame but nonetheless present in every one of us and for that we must stay aware of whatever twists life has in store.