[Review] One Surreal Summer in Seoul: Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah

  • onMarch 13, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byBoyd Tonkin
Untold Night and Day
Tr. Deborah Smith

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. The English title of Untold Night and Day, published in Korean in 2013, may stick more closely to the original. But the question of what happens to words and stories as they migrate from mind to mind, tongue to tongue, form to form, remains a primary focus not only for any translator of Bae’s work but for the author herself.

Born in 1965, the prolific Bae has long been regarded as a literary outlier in both substance and style. If her fiction decomposes narrative and consciousness as it traces the solitary path taken by female characters who (in Bae’s words) “refuse or can’t have their own place in traditional society”, then her Korean idiom too has perplexed readers. It has incurred charges of itself sounding too much like deracinated “translationese”. Bae, in fact, has translated extensively from modern German literature, including works by Kafka and Sebald. The German language (or at least a certain idea of it) haunts the events and atmosphere of Untold Night and Day.

Indeed, hauntings of various kinds suffuse this mysterious and hypnotic novel. In contemporary Seoul, a young woman named Ayami works as a general assistant and dogsbody at an “audio theatre” that plays recordings of dramas to blind people. The theatre abruptly closes, and the now jobless former actress tramps the lonely streets of the city at the height of its stifling, “claggy” (a favourite word) midsummer heat and humidity. She sets out to learn German from an older women named Yeoni, talks to the equally lost and lonely ex-director of the audio theatre, and meets a visiting German detective novelist, Wolfi. Other characters, incidents and – crucially – entire sentences and passages recur like poetic refrains that bind the parts together. Images of darkness and blindness punctuate Ayami’s haphazard pilgrimage through the saturated city, imagined as “an animal being slowly smothered beneath a steaming heap of earth”. Repressed memories of traumatic loss surface, or seem to, while Ayami feels as if she sometimes passes through an occult membrane to glimpse another world “on the opposite side of the mirror”.

In Smith’s strongly rhythmic and vividly phrased English, Untold Night and Day conjures a cityscape – and a state of mind – both viscerally immediate and utterly otherworldly. The bewildered German visitor Wolfi – another stranded soul – tells Ayami that “Things occur to me as images, as forms, not as words arranged into sentences.” Bae weaves her own fabric of eerily recurrent images and forms – a white bus crashing from a bridge; a “shabbily-dressed middle aged couple” who appear around the city; a man murdered by a nail driven into his skull; a “third cave” hidden in the taboo recesses of body and mind. In this pervading urban haze, at once sensory and metaphysical, language and meaning become unmoored. Identity frays and blurs so as to seem “ambiguous, semi-opaque”. Photographs, poems, dreams, memories, translations: many types of representation dissolve or fragment solid reality. Photographs capture “a ghost moment, clothed in matter”, and spookily reveal the phantom condition of every human being. Even the “German” novel Ayami reads with Yeoni is, in fact, the ghost of an Iranian book: Sadegh Hedayat’s hallucinatory 1930s classic, The Blind Owl.

“It’s like being in a dream,” says Ayami, in one of Bae’s few over-explicit moments. These dreams, though, possess the iron logic that the Surrealists channelled into their work (Bae’s text alludes to Max Ernst). The novel’s uncanny combination of objective description, mesmeric verbal repetition, and suggestions of repressed trauma and violence, also reminded me of the French nouveau roman of the 1950s, as practised by Marguerite Duras or Alain Robbe-Grillet. Smith herself has connected Bae’s work to the stories of Clarice Lispector (which Bae has translated into Korean, with suitable obliquity, via their German versions). Any reader new to her sinister but sensual world, though, will readily appreciate the trance-like states conjured here. Via Smith’s exactly crafted but richly evocative English prose, Bae summons a mood of “benumbed languor” in which loneliness and anomie incubate visions of wonder and terror. “Take me to another world,” Ayami pleads to Wolfi at one point. Bae and Smith do exactly that.


Boyd Tonkin
British writer, critic and editor
Author, The 100 Best Novels in Translation (2018)
Chair, 2016 Man Booker International Prize
Translated by Deborah Smith

Author's Profile

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).