- Bae Suah
Before she found a broad Anglophone readership with her prize-winning versions of Han Kang, Deborah Smith had begun her career as a translator of Korean literature with the fiction of Bae Suah. She recalls working as a fledgling Koreanist on Bae’s 2003 novel The Essayist’s Desk “during the freezing Seoul winter of 2012”. In English, that novel mutated into A Greater Music. A later book, The Low Hills of Seoul, morphed into Smith’s Recitation.
For an Irish writer, or indeed reader, coming from the tradition of the Irish short story, Bae Suah’s collection North Station may come as something of a shock. For nowhere here will we find the “scrupulous meanness” Joyce applied so astutely to his collection Dubliners, nor indeed is there any sign of the patient crafting that one can expect to find in a Frank O’Connor story. Oh, Bae Suah’s stories start out in a traditional manner—in the title story, “North Station,” we meet a couple waiting to part at a midnight train station where they share an awkward half-kiss.
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.
In Bae Suah’s enigmatic, unsettling, and absorbing new novel, A Greater Music, the narrator goes on a trip, learns German, falls in love, falls into an icy river, expounds upon music and the limits of language, and engages in what may be the most brutal breakup scene I have ever read. Which is to say, many things happen.
“We have this!”
I shuddered in horror.
“I hate chicken. Besides, that’s for you.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“It’s over there.”