Great literature that is getting bigger

Recitation / A Greater Music / Nowhere to Be Found
Bae Suah's literature has grown with each novel she has published, both in format and importance.


Bae Suah's first published novel in English, Nowhere to Be Found from 1998, is short, just over a hundred pages. The book itself is also small, the size of a collection of poems; it weighs almost nothing in your hand. But the novel is driven forward by a kind of great, heavy and uncompromising grayness, a grayness that lies in a chronic, yes, almost predetermined lack of both optimism and faith. The female university education narrator says of her office job: “The less fine components of a machinery submit to the will of the machine without thinking about or resisting being gradually painted into powder. And while I was busy not thinking, I became a driving wheel in the machinery. ”In a few words, she says a lot about life in South Korea after the civil war, over the years the country was modernized and developed a large and strong economy. It is known from other Korean writers such as Han Kang, Shin Kyung-Sook and Wang Sok-Yong, who also use the cliché about man as an anonymous, helpless driving wheel in the big social machine. But they link the cliché to social realities – realities that are at the same time existential, which you can probably only fully grasp in a novel. Bae Suah does this superbly in his short story about a young, ambitious woman who becomes a slave in an office and sees her own little family disappear into poverty and alcoholism. It's a theme she could have written a long way around, but Bae does the opposite.
She becomes a parental admirer, not as her child, but as a beautiful plant – a daughter who has become poetry.

Masochism. It is as if the author sees the dead end in the theme itself; it leads straight into an existential wall, and the only way from there is through masochism. At the end of the novel, the woman takes a guy with her to look at her childhood home – she has not been there for a long time, and finds the house destroyed by the weather, about to collapse. The two go through the cold, dark rooms and feel the stench of mold and rot. The guy gets excited by these surroundings and tells the woman that she deserves to be punished. At that moment, she sees her own figure pass by outside. It feels like a death message, as if her own time is over, and when the guy commands her to her knees and "takes" her, she unleashes the wild and bestial inside – it burns, and she asks for more. And he gives her more.

The story moves slowly from place to place, from time to time, theme to theme.

Westward. Bae Suah's next novel, A Greater Music from 2003, is a far cry from both chronic poverty and Korea. The narrator is a writer, she lives in Berlin and the surrounding area and tries to learn German. This is heavy and demanding, but learning a new language is an important factor throughout the book. Music also plays a big role, especially Shostakovich – she plays through all his symphonies with a friend with whom she stays, but later leaves when she decides to return to her home country. Tensions, ambivalence and contradictions are given a different expression now – everything gets more time and space in this novel, as if the narrator is in a safer world with little or no outside drama: Most things happen inside her. Like when she feels the presence of death in Shostakovich's late symphonies and string quartets: The presence gets to sink in, and grows bigger and bigger. The link between art and death becomes clear here – and in a sense the important and crucial element that was missing from Nowhere to Be Found.

Against death. But this novel's narrator is also of a slightly different caliber. It is believed that Bae writes close to the autobiographical in many parties, and that is both a good and a bad sign. It gives her the freedom to squander her great creative and intellectual resources as she moves into demanding existential terrain, but at the same time the danger is there to end up in a narcissistic trap: one presses a life with all its trivial details into fiction and forget that this often does not drive the text forward. Bae still maintains a good balance throughout the novel; She writes primarily about a Korean woman who meets the West in Berlin, the stronghold of culture and the center of Europe. The woman wanders a little at random through the heavy metropolis, often in secluded areas and streets, in search of something she doesn't know what is until she finds it. This drives the writing in new directions, as if she is constantly preparing for an unexpected, unknown stimulus, either from the new language or from the million-town with its many facets. And her thoughts connect with the woman she lives with, but will soon leave, and things that happened at home in Korea – besides that the present is an illusion: The so-called real time does not exist in the mental world, the artist's world; art always targets the future, that is death.
The composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann's name appears towards the end of Bae's book. She writes that he took his life after many years of depression – but without diagnosing or psychologizing his music, she sees Zimmermann in the same landscape as Shostakovich, the man who survived Stalin's terrorist regime and eventually composed in the presence of death. However, it seems that Bae has a different idea of ​​death, such as feeling, experience, a dangerous, deadly transitional phase one has to go through, which keeps us in an iron grip before it releases and allows us to live on. That may be why A Greater Music seems so autobiographical – Bae Suah simply had to write this drug, the drug of death, out of his body. The main concern of the novel is nevertheless to think about what is growing in us, the time, the time layers that lie on top of each other, something you could call a kind of inner palimpsest (manuscript that is cleaned for reuse, editor's note).

Anti-pretentious. This is also seen in the next novel, Recitation from 2011. The main character Kyung-hee is a recitation artist, that is, an actor who reads texts to an audience. She did this at home in Korea, but not now as she lives in Berlin, in a collective with other Koreans, somewhere new people still come and go. This stream of new faces gives the novel a more wandering, less massive feel than A Greater Music. Bae gives the recital artist Kyung-hee free to commute between space and time, and a little random stop by memories and situations, and then jump back into the novel's real time in the German capital. However, one is never quite sure where Kyung-hee actually is – perhaps in Berlin, or Vienna, or in Korea. It does not matter; The power of the novel lies precisely in the loose and vacant, the almost antipretenious in the tone and voice of the narrative, which never becomes talkative or lively, but slowly shifts from place to place, from time to time, theme to theme.

Man only as part of a larger social machinery – the theme leads straight into an existential wall, and the only way out is through masochism.

For poetry. Kyung-hee's voice is also constantly moving – she is both here and there. The anonymous narrator constantly follows the traces she leaves behind among the people she has met as a traveling or recital artist. In a couple of parties she stands on the stage and reads – including a poem by Ocatavio Paz – and before such a recitation at the end of the novel, she meets the narrator. It becomes clear that Kyung-hee is her mother, whom she has hunted for a long time and now finally found. However, Kyung-hee refuses this; she never gave birth to a child. The narrator, a woman of about 20 from Seoul, gives up and goes, even though she does not believe the woman is speaking the truth: The father (whom she has lost touch with) was quite sure that he made the famous recital artist Kyung-hee pregnant Korea. But her daughter accepts that her mother does not recognize her: She has already identified herself so strongly with both the person and her voice that it does not matter who she is. She knows that she is the body that both parents rejected, and she feels that both of them are inside her, as she also feels that she is inside them. One could almost say that this small family, which never became a family, lies on top of each other, voices reciting one another – even though the recitation takes place only in the daughter's head and has no bearing on anything other than her own existence. Bae Suah ends Recitation with a picture of this existence: The orphan daughter narrator finally gets rid of her own person, her entire identity. She calls herself a plant, a large flower on a ridge that her parents can see and admire, not as her child, but as a beautiful and beautiful plant – a daughter who has become poetry.

Subscription NOK 195 quarter