A Beacon of Despair: The Wretched Light by Baik Sou Linne
- onSeptember 2, 2019
- Vol.45 Autumn 2019
- byAsuka Minamoto
- 惨憺たる光 (The Wretched Light)
Tr. Kang Banghwa 2019280pp.
Literature is often an escape from reality, a means of putting our worries aside and immersing ourselves in a world that is different from the one we live in.
If that’s the kind of book you’re looking for, you may want to search elsewhere. Life isn’t a fairy tale, and perhaps no contemporary South Korean author knows this better than Baik Sou Linne, who has won numerous awards since her debut in 2011. The Wretched Light, now available in Japanese, provides no respite from reality; the world depicted in it is the one we live in, filled with tragedy, loss, and ordinary people struggling to survive.
The Wretched Light is a collection of ten stories bound by a common thread: the contrast between light and darkness. What’s interesting is Baik’s portrayal of these opposing themes. In her eyes, light isn’t something that is always good or welcome. Many of her characters shrink away from light, finding solace in darkness. In “Friends on the Road,” a woman recounts the time she was trapped inside a dark bathroom at a cheap hotel in Portugal. She confesses that she wished she could have just died there, and that she cried when she finally got out, leaving her friend to wonder if she’d been happy to be alive or afraid to go on living. In “High Tide,” a man disposes of a dead body in the darkness of the night, feeling more alive than he has in years. But once the world is bright again and everything turns out to be a dream, he has no choice but to face reality—he is a failed artist running an illegal guest house with a wife he no longer loves.
The stories in this collection are tales of remembrance, of people striving to come to terms with an often cruel past. In the title story, the protagonist has an intimate conversation with a woman whose marriage has fallen apart because of an incident that took place sixteen years ago; while the protagonist tries to convince himself that he is in better control of his life, he is also on the verge of divorce due to a past that he can’t change. In “Time Difference,” which is also available as a stand- alone book in English, we learn that the main character’s eagerness to please and strong aversion to crowds are the result of a heartbreaking experience from her childhood. These stories don’t end on a hopeful note; the author doesn’t attempt to heal or save her characters, and we get the feeling they will go on suffering—because trauma is real, and so is lasting pain.
Another noteworthy quality shared by most of the characters is that they are outsiders—travelers or immigrants in a foreign land. According to what Baik once said in an interview, however, we don’t need to be overseas to feel like a stranger: “Outsiders don’t belong. Deep down, we’re all outsiders.” “Midday in Summer,” for which Baik received the Munhakdongne Young Author Award, is the story of a Korean woman who meets a Japanese man in Paris. When she learns that he might stay in France for good, she asks if he feels lonely living as an outsider. He replies, “It’s much lonelier to be an outsider in your own country.” Perhaps the character with the strongest sense of not belonging is the protagonist’s step-grandmother in “My Chinese Grandmother,” who is not only an outsider in South Korea but also in the home of her new family. The last scene, in which she sings a Chinese song while looking up at a magnificent full moon, has been etched in my mind as one of the most poignant images I’ve ever encountered in literature.
The world described in these stories is bleak, and real—as real as it gets. Just like us, the characters are affected by events like 9/11 and struggle to find hope for the future. One character, the unborn protagonist of the final piece, “Night at the Border,” is so disheartened by everything going on in the world that she refuses to come out of her mother’s womb for fourteen years. But eventually, she decides to emerge from the darkness (to her parents’ great surprise) and give the world a try. She’s scared, but she knows she can’t stay inside forever. Sooner or later, we all have to face the light, wretched as it may be.