An Explosion of Language: North Station by Bae Suah
- onDecember 21, 2017
- Vol.38 Winter 2017
- byChristine Dwyer Hickey
- North Station (Collection of Short Stories)
Tr. Deborah Smith 2017320pp.
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. The exquisite writing, the loneliness of the darkened station and the tension between the couple are perfectly aligned. The initial pace—at once, tense and tranquil—allows us to expect a rational and linear narrative. Before we know it, however, the story is whisked away from under our noses.
It is as though we have only begun to look into a great big kaleidoscope, and just as the first pieces are about to settle, down comes a lump hammer smashing it into smithereens. Nothing for the reader to do then but watch the tiny specks of coloured glass fly off in all directions.
All of these stories are so inclined: from the opening “First Snow, First Sight” right through to the closing story, “How Can One Day Be Different from the Rest?” The stories begin. We are lured in and then an explosion of language and ideas occurs and the prose is scattershot through memory, time, and space.
The story “Mouson” begins with a taxi ride through a city at night that is almost like watching a film noir in close-up. The reader can be forgiven for thinking that this is one story that will have to stay on the ground, that no more is required than this menacing atmosphere, the beautifully controlled prose. But we are no sooner on the journey when it turns into something else.
And so it continues, story after story. Plotlines fall away before they get started, literary allusions too often elbow the characters out of the way, and even the digressions begin to digress. But hang on in there and rest assured, the story will come back to us. Eventually. The problem is trying to keep sight of all these particles in the meantime. This is a dizzying and unnerving experience. But then again, I suspect this is Bae Suah’s intention.
There are recurring themes—characters wander through cities that may be real or may be imagined. Many of the characters live in more than one place at the same time—again, we are not always certain if the place actually exists or if it is a figment of the imagination, a stray or even borrowed memory or even an old scrap from a dream. And there are obsessions. Obsessions with death and dreams and writers.
The mood throughout varies from melancholy to downright despair—except for the final story, “How Can One Day Be Different from the Rest?” Here, the redoubtable Mrs. Kim, perhaps the most convincing of all the characters in this collection, brings an occasional light to the otherwise dark proceedings. For there is little, if any, humor in these stories. And I expected humor. I expected humor and lean prose and stories that were darkly comic and tightly controlled simply because these are the qualities I have found in the South Korean writing I have read to date. But then again, it is probably testament to the rise of South Korean literature on the world stage that it has now surpassed critical generalization.
Bae Suah’s stories are like nothing you have read before and one cannot help but admire Deborah Smith for her adroit handling of what surely must have been a most challenging task. Smith has form, of course—she has translated other works by Bae Suah and has also brought to English the masterful work of the Korean author Han Kang with her translation of The Vegetarian and Human Acts.
It could be said that these stories with their strange and compelling poetic language are more like long prose poems. Nevertheless, for all the hide-and-seek trickery, for all the running amok with plot and character and time, for the occasional irritations and didactic asides, the pieces or stories or poems—call them what you will—in North Station defy categorization. The only thing we can be certain about is that Bae Suah is an extraordinary writer, fearless and imaginative and consummately gifted.
by Christine Dwyer Hickey
Author of nine books, including The Lives of Women