Perpetual Motion, Perpetual Dreaming: Recitation by Bae Suah
- onMarch 28, 2017
- Vol.35 Spring 2017
- byRamona Ausubel
Tr. Deborah Smith 2017280pp.
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.
At the book’s center is Kyung-hee, a recitation actress. She lives in different parts of Europe and with different housemates as she travels around working. Things do happen in this book—characters travel, meet, lose track of one another, have abortions, get caught by immigration police, seek beloveds—but the novel isn’t really about what happens between Point A and Point B. It is much more circular than that. In the end, Bae Suah, the author of several other works of fiction, including A Greater Music and Highway with Green Apples, insists that the world is more question than answer, more spiral than straight line.
At its heart, this deeply philosophical novel is about travel and foreignness. The characters in Recitation are in perpetual movement. It is as if they fear that they will cease to exist if they stay still too long. Bae writes, “Walking seemed to be the only way of acquiring a form of non-linguistic legitimacy, the highest that I myself can achieve in this day and age, a comprehensive representation of both the flesh and that which animates it.” These characters catch glimpses of their true selves as they enter a new place, as if the contrast of an unknown landscape makes their own bodies and minds feel momentary familiar. But as the new place becomes known, the understanding of self gets foggy again and they are driven to continue moving.
Bae Suah invokes many writers and storytellers from Ernest Hemingway and Octavio Paz to the Dalai Lama. Characters in the book include a fortune-teller, healer, shaman, and someone named Mr. Nobody. But there’s also a Starbucks and gritty train stations and dirty city streets and small apartments. The book stands in the space between the mundane and the transcendent.
It stands, too, between the innate desire for wholeness and unity and the truth that life is made of fragments, that we are each a collection of stories, of different versions of ourselves, different versions of our parents and siblings, of our friends, of the cities and countries where we have lived, of our memories. Bae writes, “The ancient healers used to practice the sorcery of self-healing by chopping their own bodies into pieces and casting them into the air, then gathering the fallen fragments and birthing a new body from these. Once restored to life, they spoke of what they had experienced while they had been absent from their bodies.” In another passage a character muses, “The more I focus on myself, the more this central self grows vague, and I become a derivative of myself, become divided into many simultaneously-existing selves . . . All I’m trying to say is that as my life progresses I become more and more diluted and spread out, permeating a part of the manifold universe. So eventually I myself will become the horizon of the whole world.”
It doesn’t feel entirely true to describe this as a novel of movement because it almost exists in a huge freeze-frame—the past, present and future are all simultaneous and every story is always already and forever in the midst.
This is a novel filled with melancholy and loss—not tragic, dramatic loss, but quiet, accumulating loss—but it is also rich with hope. Hope in the idea that, as Jewish philosophy says, there is nothing so whole as a broken heart. Recitation asks us to consider whether we might spend less time seeking our own boundaries and more time allowing ourselves to be swept up by the swirl of stories. Bae writes, “I marvel at you, you who skip so easily from one city to the next. You’re like someone reciting a story which has neither beginning nor end, someone who lives inside such a story. You’re as dizzying as the indivisible universe.” Recitation is evidence that Bae Suah’s mind is its own dizzying, indivisible universe.
by Ramona Ausubel
Author, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty