Untold Night and Day – Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith)

My knowledge of Korean literature is patchy at best and the only two books I have read are – The Vegetarian and The White Book – both written by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith.

Wanting to try out a new author and also attracted by the cover, I picked up Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day. It helped that this book was translated by Smith who did a stellar job working on Kang’s books earlier.

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a wonderfully strange and disorienting novel.

Perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating.

The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure.

 The story begins on a straightforward note. Our protagonist is a woman called Ayami who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. Before working at the theatre, Ayami was an actor. But the paucity of roles leads to that career fizzling out. Someone recommends an opening at the audio theatre and she ends up accepting the position. It’s a job that many actors before her abandoned as they nurtured bigger ambitions, but Ayami holds on.

As future job prospects look bleak, the director of the audio theatre recommends that she apply to the foundation for another position in the arts (something he plans to do as well since it’s a job loss for him too). However, she sees the futility of this move and doesn’t apply.

Meanwhile, Ayami has been taking German lessons from a teacher called Yeoni at the latter’s house in a rundown neighbourhood. Yeoni’s teaching method involves reading from a text rather than focusing on conversation – and the text she has chosen is Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl.

Yeoni appears to be suffering from a serious illness for which she is taking pills from a blue bottle. Then one day, she tells Ayami that she is expecting a poet to come at her place and could Ayami therefore go to the airport to receive him? Ayami and the director head over to Yeoni’s house first for the set of instructions, but find her place empty and the neighbourhood completely dark. They wonder whether she hasn’t admitted herself into the hospital.

That’s the basic outline of the plot, if it can be called a plot as such.

It seems simple enough but then the strangeness begins. We get a first hint of this when Ayami is at the theatre on what is to be her last day, and she sees an old couple outside peering at the notices and what’s inside. She begins to wonder if they are her parents, and the reader who until this point was coasting along is suddenly jolted. Clearly, there’s a sense that Ayami is not sure of her identity.

Then another amazingly peculiar conversation takes place between the director and Ayami in a ‘blackout restaurant.’

His lips could be seen to move. What was visible were not the words themselves but segmented syllables that his lips produced one after the other.

‘Have I ever told you that I used to be a bus driver?’

‘No, you’ve never told me that you used to be a poet.’

‘in that case perhaps I already said that at one time I was not only a playwright employed by a theatre company but also an actor-director? And that very long time ago I was a village pharmacist?’

‘No, you haven’t told me that you were none other than my father, who was a fruit hawker.’

The director’s lips moved sluggishly.

‘And you haven’t forgotten what I wrote in the letter, that I made the decision to leave you a long time ago, far longer ago than you imagine? So in that sense, we’ve already parted?’

In the second section, we are introduced to a character called Buha who was a trader in textiles and now is a temp in a pharmaceutical company. Buha is the focal point of this section, and in a way Ayami is absent and yet she is not. Buha aspires to be a poet even though he does not want to write poetry or take literature classes.

He chances upon a black-and-white photo of a poet woman in the newspaper, and when he spots her one day in the city decides to follow her. He sees her enter Yeoni’s house. Is Ayami, therefore, the poet woman?

The book the poet woman read from every evening was The Blind Owl.

She worked in a place called an audio theatre. It had very few visitors, and only one performance a day; it was a small theatre whose audience never numbered more than ten.

In the third section, Ayami once again actively appears in the narrative and this time she meets Wolfi at the airport. She assumes Wolfi is the poet who she was to receive on instructions from Yeoni, but Wolfi writes detective fiction. Plus, Wolfi was expecting Yeoni to pick him up (he had never set his eyes on Yeoni before), and is perplexed to meet Ayami instead.

At this point, the reader begins to wonder whether Ayami and Yeoni are possibly the same person?

I’m here because my female protagonist dies. My female protagonist whose name and identity I still don’t know, that is. Where does she come from? Who is she? I have her living somewhere in Asia. More specifically, in some city in the Far East that I’m not familiar with, in the house of a woman called Yeoni. She’s an unlucky woman. Not Yeoni, but my female protagonist. Or maybe Yeoni is my “she”, my female protagonist?

One of the most wonderful things about Untold Night and Day is how the banal holds so much potential for strangeness. The characters in the book are ordinary people who don’t really stand out, but the conversations they have are extraordinary. Throughout the novel, there is a sense of déjà vu and many a-ha moments – the feeling that we have gread this description or come across this event somewhere before.

For instance, in the first section, when Ayami is in the audio theatre, a man presses his face against the closed glass doors. She observes that “the man’s eye sockets were like sunken caves in his gaunt face, and his lips were dry. The capillaries webbing the whites of his eyes were alarmingly distinct…”

In the second section, Buha saves a man from drowning and notices that “the man’s eyes were like sunken caves in his gaunt face, and his lips were dry. The capillaries webbing the whites of his eyes were frighteningly distinct.”

There are similar such instances peppered throughout the book. “Her thick black hair is secured in a low ponytail, and rough hemp sandals poke out from beneath the hem of her skirt” is another.

The ‘blackout’ is continually referenced in the novel and is an allusion to Korea’s past when curfews and blackouts were the norm. When Wolfi lands in Seoul, he finds that “the so-called international airport is in the middle of a blackout. Dark, pitch-black, blurred, all objects shrouded in shadow, a blind low-ceilinged space.” In the first section, Ayami and the director are having dinner in a restaurant that is completely blacked out. Then in the later sections, a lone white bus is described on the highway travelling at top speed at a time when the lights in the surrounding buildings are completely off.

Untold Night and Day follows the logic of a dream world and within that anything seems possible. People, objects and events seamlessly blur into one another. What’s impossible in reality is perfectly plausible in the subconscious. And on waking up, the essentials of the dream are forgotten but not the impressions it evokes. The book felt similar. There is a slippery and elusive quality to the narrative, a sense that that one can’t quite grasp what’s happening, it feels like the meaning is somewhere on the fringes of the mind but somehow refuses to come out to the front.

A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. The language is flawless and the credit here surely goes to the translator Deborah Smith. Overall, Untold Night and Day is quite a remarkable book.

I have been quite impressed with my first foray into Bae Suah’s work and would welcome any recommendations on which of her books I should try next.

Murmur – Will Eaves

I thought The Goldsmiths Prize released an excellent shortlist this year. Although it didn’t win, I loved Josipovici’s The Cemetery in Barnes, and it made into my Top 12 Best Books of the Year. Then there was Rachel Cusk’s Kudos (the last book of her brilliant ‘Outline’ trilogy) and Olivia Laing’s Crudo, both of which I greatly enjoyed. And of course, Will Eaves’ Murmur, which was unlike anything I had read.

The irony is that I would rate all these four novels higher than the eventual winner of the prize this year – Robin Robertson for his prose poem The Long Take.

Anyway, back to Murmur

CB Editions

Murmur covers that period of Alan Turing’s life when he was chemically castrated for his homosexuality.

Alan Turing was a British mathematician who achieved recognition for his groundbreaking work in cracking the Enigma code as part of Britain’s war efforts during the Second World War. He probably became more widely known to today’s audience because of Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him in the film The Imitation Game.

But that story is not Murmur’s focal point. Will Eaves has zoomed the lens on the ignominy and suffering that Alan Turing had to endure because of Britain’s inexplicable treatment of homosexuals in those years.

It is worthwhile to point out that while Murmur is undoubtedly based on Alan Turing, Will Eaves subtly changes the names of the characters in his story. This means that the protagonist in Murmur is called Alec Pryor. By all means Alec Pryor is Alan Turing. But by changing the name, Will Eaves has given himself wider berth in terms of delving deep into the mind of his protagonist, making the character his own even though he is real.

The novel is in three parts. The first part is linear and the most straightforward of the three. Here we are told about the events that lead up to Pryor’s incarceration. At a fair, Pryor meets a boy called Cyril, and from then on begin a series of sexual encounters at Pryor’s apartment. Around the same time, Pryor’s apartment gets burgled. Pryor reports the burglary to the police and subsequently his affair with Cyril also comes to light. At that time, homosexuality in the UK was a crime. Prior is given a choice – prison or chemical castration. He opts for the latter.

Then begins the second part called ‘Letters and Dreams’. This is the longest and the intense section of the book forming around two thirds of the novel. This is where Will Eaves delves into Pryor’s subconscious, his dreams, hallucinations and imaginings as the effect of the chemical drugs start seeping in.

Admittedly, quite a bit of this section was challenging, simply because to a rational person dreams do not follow any logic. Yet it is a testament to Eaves’ writing that the reader is still compelled to move on. This is because of Eaves’ sensitive portrayal of Pryor that is simply heartbreaking. Despite the ordeal that he is going through, Pryor maintains his dignity, trying to come to grips with the changes his mind and body are going through. Having had the rational mind of a mathematician, the ‘treatment’ he is enduring is highly disorienting to Pryor.

No doubt I shall emerge from it all a different man, but quite who I’ve not found out.

Consequently, this entire section feels otherworldly and surreal because we are trying to get a sense of what is going on in his drug-addled mind, which is as opaque to us as it is to him.  Which is possibly the point Will Eaves aims to drive across.

In these chapters we get a glimpse of the bond that he shared with his best friend and first love Christopher Molyneaux in school, and the grief of losing him in an accident. Then there are dream sequences that involve his mother and her meeting with June, Pryor’s close friend and colleague to whom he was briefly engaged.

To me, the most fascinating part of this section, was the exchange of correspondence between him and June.

In these, both of them discuss what Pryor is going through, how he will emerge out of it all, the meaning of consciousness and identity, and the implications of artificial intelligence.

I am afraid of becoming something else. A hybrid. The fear is not the change, it is the loss of, well, one’s personal past. It is quite like the fear of becoming a machine, in fact. I grieve for Chris now in a way I could not before, and it is precious to me, this new old grief. I fear losing him again in losing myself. I know what you will say. You’ll say, Alec, the ‘I’ is always there. The ‘I’ does not disappear if you change its data or its sex – its experiences and memories.

The last section of the novel once again returns to a linear narrative to a time when the chemical castration has ended. And we partly get a sense of what went on earlier, but only barely.

Essentially Murmur is a fine achievement. Eaves’ writing is quiet, sensitive, and poetic. It makes you feel for Pryor and the dreams section of the book only heightens that feeling and leaves a lasting impression on the reader. In fact, in many of these hallucinatory dreams, the prose sparkles and dazzles.

The lake freezes. Ice calls to ice and Pryor’s raised and summoning hand is frosted black.

No trees, no distant school, a greenstick whine as cities pop, scatter. Another order of significance arrives. Air thickens with the charge of glaciers. The former gas solidifies, the mirror plane of my glass eye is crushed and I am fractioned, like a mote among the asteroids.

And then…

The veil of night draws back. The sun comes close, colossal in the sky. A pale hand hangs me on a wall that rises from the desert’s fiery sands.

It certainly is a book that on multiple readings will always reveal something new.