The Pachinko Parlour – Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Elisa Shua Dusapin’s enigmatic and mysterious Winter in Sokcho was one of the highlights of my reading year in 2020, so another novel from her was certainly exciting news, and now I’m glad to say that The Pachinko Parlour is also excellent.

Set in Tokyo during a sultry summer, The Pachinko Parlour is an atmospheric, haunting tale of loneliness, identity, connection and the all-pervading sense of ambiguity felt by people whose lives are at crossroads.

Our narrator is Claire, a young woman in her late twenties, who has arrived in Tokyo to spend the summer with her maternal grandparents. Claire’s grandparents are Korean, but were forced to flee to Japan in 1952 when Korea was embroiled in a civil war. Having made a life for themselves in Japan, they haven’t visited Korea since. However, since they are Zainichi Koreans, the grandparents were given the license to run a pachinko parlour, a kind of a casino where the mode of exchange relies on barter and not currency, lending the novel its name (“Pachinko isn’t seen as gambling because the balls are exchanged for sweets, toilet paper, bottles of water, toothpaste”).

They’d heard rumours of a flourishing industry in Japan, run by Zainichis. There was nothing in terms of entertainment in those pot-war days: no cinema, no theatre. The black market was everywhere, with cigarettes the most prized commodity. Koreans were locked out of the Japanese labour market by virtue of their nationality. So, they invented a game: vertical tray, metal balls, a lever. And cigarettes in exchange for balls.

Claire, meanwhile, has grown up in Switzerland, occasionally visiting Japan to meet her grandparents. Claire’s parents lead busy lives and are never around – the father is a sought after musician constantly on tour accompanied by Claire’s mother, and the communication between mother and daughter is often through emails.

But for Claire this particular vacation in Tokyo is loaded with a mission. She is intent on making the trip with her grandparents to Korea, so that they can revisit their roots, and yet she is gripped by a sense that her grandparents are ambivalent. Claire’s efforts to discuss the details of their journey meet with a certain modicum of resistance, her grandparents skirt the issue and the discussion inevitably gets postponed.

For the most part, Claire is by herself, the hours stretched empty before her. Cooped up in the basement room, the narrow slit window offering a view of the streets and people hurrying off somewhere, Claire’s isolation and tedium is only heightened in the sweltering apartment.

Noises drift in from the street. Car exhausts, heels on the tarmac, and all night long, the sandwich-board woman’s monotonous chant, relayed on playback through a loudspeaker.

The window is at street height. Lying on the ground, I can see people’s legs as they hurry past, heading for the narrow streets of Uguisudani, where the love hotels are.

On other days, Claire visits the home of ten-year old Mieko whose mother, Henriette, has employed her to teach the girl some French.  Claire and Mieko develop a close but fragile bond as both seek to connect and belong in their own way. Mieko’s family life is also weighed down with problems – Henriette and Mieko reside in a makeshift apartment in an abandoned hotel due to be redeveloped soon, their burden amplified by an aura of uncertainty, their lives in a state of flux.

Mieko’s insistence on being taken to see the pachinko parlour is as palpable as Claire’s desire to push her grandparents towards revisiting Korea, but will both succeed in getting what they want?

The Pachinko Parlour, then, is a lyrical meditation on identity and the need to belong, an exploration of displacement both physically and figuratively, and the loneliness we feel within our own families.

For instance, Claire is not alone per se. She has her grandparents for company, she keeps in touch with her parents and back home in Switzerland she appears to be in a steady relationship with Mathieu, who is very encouraging of her attempts to reunite her grandparents with their homeland. And yet, one gets the sense that she is adrift and lonely. Physically her boyfriend is far away, she rarely sees her parents given their hectic touring schedules and her relationship with her grandparents often seems tenuous; language, particularly being an issue. Mieko is a lonely child too as is Henriette; the two are often not on the same wavelength, but Mieko becomes attached to Claire, a kinship however precarious.

The theme of identity, uprootedness and living in exile is particularly heightened in Claire and her grandparents’ circumstances. Having never been to Korea, Claire can’t speak Korean. She is fluent in French but can’t converse with her grandparents in that language. Japanese seems the obvious choice but not an option.

We communicate in simple English, with a few basic words in Korean and an array of gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. We never speak in Japanese.

The grandparents are isolated as well since they largely keep to themselves. Their existence does not extend beyond the pachinko parlour and they haven’t entirely embraced Japan despite being residents in the country for many years.  

They don’t socialise at all with the other Zainichis, Japan’s Korean community: exiles, people who came, as my grandparents did, to escape the Korean war, and others, who were deported during the Japanese occupation of Korea.

The Pachinko Parlour is also about how past histories, both public and deeply personal, can define our lives. In Claire’s case, her grandparents’ displacement fuelled by war has led to subsequent generations losing touch with their roots. Mieko’s case is more personal and something of an enigma; an absent father has thrown her family life into turmoil with mother and daughter staring at an unreliable future imbibed with a feeling of all they have lost.

Dusapin is great at capturing the fraught mental and emotional states of her characters, their impression of being either stuck or at the cusp of a momentous change. The sense of place that was so evocative in Winter in Sokcho vividly comes alive in The Pachinko Parlour too – the oppressive heat of summer in Tokyo (“The city is suffused with light, Mount Fuji drained of colour. The sun’s last rays filter through the spaces between buildings”), the smoky haze suspended like a curtain over the city’s skyscrapers, muggy rains, the lethargy and disorientation that seeps into Claire who is sort of caught in a no-man’s land mentally.

Food, such a vital feature in Winter in Sokcho, is also symbolic in The Pachinko Parlour, in the way it subtly depicts a certain emotion or the frailty of her characters’ minds. For instance, the kwabaegi (a twisted doughnut) signifies the bond between Claire and Mieko; the pile of bento boxes or takeaway meals piling up outside their home distresses Claire because it indicates the deteriorating health of her grandmother who in the past was instrumental in teaching Claire traditional home cooked Korean dishes. On Claire’s infrequent visits to Mieko’s home, Henriette serves her elaborately prepared crabs and oysters because it conjures up images of a life she once shared with her now absent husband.

I thought back to the hours we used to spend together cooking, making pancakes, soups and stews: eomuk and soegogi-jin, kimchi and miyeok-guk; and sweet dishes like honey ice cream and hotteok.

Delicate, elegantly written and drenched with a tinge of melancholia, Dusapin’s prose displays her signature restraint and poise making The Pachinko Parlour a pretty irresistible read.  

Scattered All Over the Earth – Yoko Tawada (tr. Margaret Mitsutani)

Language and identity seems to be the major theme of my August reading. Just a few days back I reviewed Audrey Magee’s brilliant novel The Colony, which touched upon those topics, and now here I am writing about Yoko Tawada’s Scattered All Over the Earth which highlights those very ideas but in a completely different and unique way. This was my first Tawada and I liked it so much that I definitely plan to read her earlier books particularly The Emissary and Memoirs of a Polar Bear.

Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop.

The novel is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.

“Even when an empire sinks to the bottom of the sea,” he said, “it doesn’t disappear from history because it lives on in memory, from generation to generation, and then somebody decides they want to revive it. But isn’t there something frightening about the idea of bringing an empire back to life? Of course it’s fine to fix something that’s broken, to restore it to its original condition. But doesn’t the idea of reviving an empire bother you?”

The book opens in Copenhagen with Knut, a Danish linguist, sprawled on the sofa watching TV. Knut lives alone, his parents divorced when he was a kid, and his relationship with his mother is hazy and strained.  While flipping TV channels, Knut comes across an interview with the other central character in the book, Hiruko. We learn that Hiruko was a citizen from the ‘land of sushi’ forced to relocate once her country of origin disappeared. Hiruko now resides in Odense, having secured a post at the Märchen Centre. Having created her own language called ‘Panska’ or ‘homemade language’; it’s how she communicates with the immigrant children who attend the centre where she narrates stories showing picture dramas.

“recent immigrants wander place to place. no country obliged to let them in has. not clear if they can stay. only three countries I experienced. no time to learn three different languages. might mix up. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language most scandinavian people understand.”

As a linguist interested in all sorts of languages including the ones that have vanished and are no longer spoken, Knut is struck by the interview and immediately calls up the TV station to connect with Hiruko. He discovers that Hiruko is keen to travel to Trier in Germany to visit the Umami festival where a ‘dashi’ competition is set to take place.

“I’m sure that sometime in the future, when fish are extinct, people will rely on chefs to extract fish traces, distant memories of fish from plants that grow in the sea. That is my project: I call it ‘Dashi Research’.”

On learning that a man named Tenzo is hosting it, Hiruko is excited about the prospect of connecting with someone from her vanished homeland, a chance to seek out her roots and communicate in her now extinct language in a world where she often feels adrift. Knut, interested in how the encounter between Hiruko and Tenzo will play out, decides to join her.

On their quest to locate Tenzo, their travels take them to Trier, Oslo, Arles where they meet a host of people along the way; chance meetings which quickly transform into easy friendships. They come across Akash, a Marathi speaking, red sari-clad transgender student; Nora, a blonde German who has arranged the Umami festival at the Karl Marx House in Trier and is also Tenzo’s lover, and then Tenzo himself whose case is that of mistaken identity – he is not Japanese but a Greenlander. Not to mention, a mysterious character called Susanoo, who disillusioned with the robots his father designs in Fukui turns towards a career in ship building in Kiel, only to completely change course again and become a sushi chef in Arles.  

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole.   

The themes depicted are pretty wide-ranging. First up is the idea of language, nationality and loss of identity, a topic touched upon through Hiruko’s dilemma. In the modern world, borders, nationalities, clear-cut identities heavily define an individual, but what happens when these are obliterated? What becomes the fate of people who find themselves in the murky in-between, those caught in a Kafkaesque position of belonging nowhere on paper – refugees and immigrants in particular? As her country no longer exists, Hiruko and the rest of her kinsfolk become stateless refugees overnight forced to migrate all over the globe, struggling to eke out new identities and begin life anew.  Other characters like Tenzo are surprised to discover how race and identity matter so much in urban cities, things he had hardly ever given a thought to during his childhood in remote Greenland (“I wasn’t ashamed of being an Eskimo, but a whole life with just one identity seemed kind of dull”).

We get an inkling of the fraught complexities of language and communication as the novel progresses and how helpless refugees are almost always at the receiving end, their fates sealed by the whims, fancies and random policies of governments. For instance, in the dystopian world of Tawada’s creation, Hiruko invents the homemade language because she desires to procure residency in Scandinavia; however, Europe wants to pare down welfare costs and are more than willing to pack refugees off to America where English-language speakers are in demand, but Hiruko afraid of being deported to America refuses to speak English freely even though she can. Tenzo, meanwhile, displays a flair for languages conjuring up a ‘second identity’ for himself (“Learning a new language that would give me a second identity at the same time was much more fun”). One can’t help but feel that language is probably a theme close to Tawada’s heart given her background – Tawada was born in Tokyo but has lived in Germany for 40 years and writes in both German and Japanese.

“Once when I asked Cho who had taught him all this tuff, like how to press rice into little oblongs for sushi, or what to boil to make dashi for miso-shiru, or how to make perfect agedashi tofu, he told me he’d learned it all from a French chef at a hotel where he’d worked in Paris. I was shocked. “When the original no longer exists,” he said, “there’s nothing you can do except look for the best copy.”

The debilitating impact of climate change as well as natural and man-made disasters is another theme explored in the novel. Japan’s disappearance forms the cornerstone of this idea but through Susanoo’s monologue we are also introduced to how the construction of nuclear power plants affects a community as livelihoods dependent on nature (read: fishing) are lost. Then there’s the dead whale whose survival skills are destroyed by the greed of oil companies boring laser beams deep into the sea to detect oil deposits.

But what I really loved about the novel was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.   Tawada’s modern world might be a complex, frightening space but no such barriers exist in the way her motley band of travellers openly befriend one another on parameters not related to race, class, identity and language.

The novel is also delightfully funny in places largely fuelled by cultural misunderstandings. I am reminded of a particular conversation between Hiruko and Akash intently engaged in a heated discussion about the origin of the word Osho, whether it’s a proper noun (the famous sage Osho with his ashram in India), or a common noun (osho, which means Buddhist priest).

As far as the book’s structure is concerned, the reader is presented with myriad points of view – first-person retellings with each character narrating a chapter or two. The language is plain but the story is richly imagined, and the narrative is drenched with an energy that propels it forward turning it into an immersive, absorbing read.

Scattered All Over the Earth, then, is a fascinating prism of a novel refracting a slew of varied ideas; a delectable mash-up of exotic ingredients that are a joy to savour. Highly recommended!

An I-Novel – Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Back in 2017, I was blown away by A True Novel, Minae Mizumura’s 800 page epic, a book that found a place on my ‘Best of’ list that year. And now, this year, it’s An I-Novel which has floored me, another fabulous book which is certainly a strong contender for my Best of 2021 list.

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s.

Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment.

Her relationship with a man having come to an end, and at crossroads in her academic career, Minae stares at an uncertain future. She has completed all the coursework required for her graduate term and all that is required of her is to take the orals. But she postpones this several times on the pretext that her mentor is ill. Now she has reached a crucial stage where any further delay will culminate in the withdrawal of academic support from the university.

The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country. She has vague plans of writing her dissertation while settled in Japan, but before she embarks on that project, Minae has ambitions of writing her first novel, and that too in Japanese. Minae is aware that the sooner she takes her orals, the sooner she can start thinking about beginning life anew in Japan. And yet she cannot bring herself to do so.

“You know, the fear builds up, day after day, month after month, year after year. It just becomes more and more insurmountable.”

Minae is plagued with guilt and foreboding – If she goes back to Japan, her elder sister Nanae will be compelled to fend for herself, all alone in America. On this front, she can’t shake-off the painful ghost of Nanae’s attempted suicide years ago when a romantic attachment goes awry. It’s an incident that only underlines how unstable Nanae can be. Moreover, with their family now torn apart (the father is in a care home, and the mother has left him for a younger man in Singapore), Minae and Nanae rely on each other for emotional support, having become quite close despite their varied personalities.

As Minae and Nanae regularly converse over the phone about the latest happenings in their respective lives, Minae fails to muster the courage to frankly confess to her sister the news of her impending departure for Japan. Meanwhile, as the heavy snowfall amplifies the silence and heightens her solitude, Minae saunters on a trip down memory lane – her nostalgia for the Japan of yore, the awareness of being unmoored in America and never quite feeling at home in her adopted country.

All through my girlhood, I was consumed by thoughts of the homeland I’d left. I longed for it with an intensity that worlds like “yearning” or “nostalgia” could not convey. I felt I was someplace I didn’t belong, where I should not be. Japan steadily grew to near-mythic dimensions in my mind, transfigured into a place where life transcended the smallness of the everyday.

Like the snow falling steadily outside her apartment window, we are gradually given a glimpse into Minae’s interior life, as she ponders over her family, particularly, her relationship with her sister, her thoughts on life in the US, which in many ways both embraces and perplexes her, and never quite assimilating into its society despite all the privileges she has enjoyed.

Slowly but surely, the sisters’ backstory is fleshed out. When both Nanae and Minae are young girls, their parents jump at the opportunity to begin a new chapter in America. Those were the years when the war had left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Japanese and so all things American held a dazzling allure. Given the father’s respectable position in the company which posts him to the West, the Mizumuras live in a comfortable home and are reasonably well off. The parents quickly adapt to the country – the father develops a taste for rich American food and shuns the simplicity of Japanese cooked meals, while the mother revels in a slew of luxuries, immersing herself in fashion, art and culture and transforms from a housewife to an independent working woman. The Mizumuras have hazy plans of returning to Japan eventually but never take any decisive step towards that goal.

But while the parents have no qualms about life in America, both Nanae and Minae struggle in their own way. As far as personalities go, Nanae and Minae could not have been more different. Being an elder child, Nanae is the cynosure of her mother’s eye, and the latter pins a lot of hope on her future, sort of relegating Minae to the sidelines. Nanae is admitted to a conservatory for expensive piano lessons, and when she later drops out to attend art school, her parents indulge that whim too.

Of the two, Nanae is more outspoken and prone to throwing tantrums, always sharing a difficult relationship with her mother, the one person she wants to please and defy at the same time. She engages in relationships with a string of men which her mother puts up with in the eternal hope that Nanae will eventually settle down with a respectable Japanese man. Furthermore, in stark contrast to Minae, Nanae takes the initiative to blend in with the crowd, immediately learn English and adopt a plethora of American manners however outlandish they may seem at times. 

On the other hand, Minae is left to fend for herself for the most part.  Even though she displays an aptitude to write and speak English based on her progress in high school, she shows least inclination to do so simply because her inner self rejects the idea of abandoning her Japanese heritage and language and letting English become a dominant force in her life.

Eventually, I became so consumed by this imagined past that my own parents struck me as frivolously modern. Yet I myself never suspected how obsolete I was becoming; I simply thought I was being Japanese.

An I-Novel, then, throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere. No place you can truly call home.

Throughout her formative years Minae spends her time alone, cooped up in the house, getting completely immersed in Japanese novels. These novels conjure up images of a Japan of the olden days, a Japan that has vanished, its remnants barely visible. The modern Japan, fed on a diet of capitalism and commercialism, is not the Japan of Minae’s imagination but her resolve to go back to her country does not diminish although she laments the loss of many of her country’s traditions.

The rebel in her questions the place of English as the most dominant language in the world. Post the war, Japan is clearly attracted by Western influences – not only in food and culture, but also in its bigger ideals of freedom and independence. But these influences don’t remain one-sided. Eventually many facets of the Japanese culture find a way into the fabric of American society. And yet, when it comes to communication and expression, English makes rapid strides to become the most widely spoken language in the world, while the Japanese language is restricted only to the archipelago or spoken by the Japanese expatriates. Minae expresses her desire to pen her first novel in Japanese, and is not daunted by the fact that she has barely spoken or written the language during her long sojourn in the US.

In the final analysis, did not literature arise out of the deep desire to do something wondrous with a language? In my case, it was a desire to be born once again into my language so as to appreciate and explore it anew. As I spent ungodly amounts of time assembling futile strings of words in languages that remained foreign to me, this desire had grown inexorably, year by year, until my craving to write in Japanese now seemed intense enough to move mountains.

Mizumura also ponders over the question of race in America, the dominance and limited worldview of the whites, and the inability of many Americans to distinguish between various people of the South Asian and Eastern countries. For Minae, who prides herself on being Japanese, it is a shock for her to discover that in the States, she is viewed through the wider prism of being “Asian”, how her Japanese identity is obliterated.

Ultimately, the novel explores the idea of identity – is Minae American or Japanese? Certainly, while her head is in the US, her heart is definitely in Japan. Minae acknowledges the community spirit of America, how her family is warmly welcomed in the town they settle in when they were very new in America, but she admits it’s not sufficient enough for her to settle there permanently.

Another aspect the novel dwells on is how Japanese customs widely differ from those in the States. For instance, in Japan, the education for women was largely relegated to grooming them as “women of accomplishment” to be eventually married to respectable Japanese men. For Japanese families residing abroad, the sons were sent to Japan for education, the daughters had the freedom to pursue an education in the US with the aim of ultimately settling into traditional Japanese families. Having grown up in that atmosphere, Nanae and Minae, pursuing art and French literature respectively, are forced to confront the fact that they will have to employ the education they received not to marry but to support themselves financially, something that becomes painfully clear to them when their family breaks apart. In this vein, other themes expanded upon are the concept of family and how its disintegration can leave an individual engulfed in alienation and loneliness.

The loneliness of such women built up gradually during the day, growing discernably as evening came on and finally exploding in the hush of night, making those lucky enough to have a confidant reach for the telephone. In the middle of the night, the wires across America were filled with the voices of women whose struggle with loneliness had proven too much to bear quietly alone.

Over and over, Nanae and I comforted each other with the same words.

“It’s so hard.”

“It really is.”

“But it’s hard for Americans too, I think.”

Yet were American women really as lonely as we were?

An I-Novel, then, is a deeply absorbing book with its stunning articulation of complex, relevant themes. Having grown and lived in Mumbai all my life, I haven’t experienced firsthand the feeling of being uprooted in a foreign land. But Mizumura has done such a commendable job of conveying the essence of that sentiment that you can actually empathize with the uncertainty and slew of emotions that flood Minae’s mind.  The book is also dotted with a myriad of atmospheric black & white photographs (also a notable feature in A True Novel) that enhances the overall reading experience.

For all her exuberant, outgoing nature and her willingness to integrate herself into the ways of America, is Nanae the one who is really lost? Will Minae finally summon the courage to let Nanae know of her decision to go back to Japan and how will she respond?

Shimmering with a rich kaleidoscope of ideas, An I-Novel certainly is another winner from Minae Mizumura.

American settlers had left the fences of the Old World in search of freedom, making it imperative for them to accept loneliness as a basic condition of life. Perhaps more than an ideology, it was a faith. And what could fortify a human being against life’s adversities better than faith?

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.

This Sweet Sickness – Patricia Highsmith

I love Patricia Highsmith. The first novel I read all those years ago was the one she is most famous for – The Talented Mr Ripley. That was a tremendous book and I subsequently went on to read the next two books in the ‘Ripliad’ – Ripley Underground and Ripley’s Game, both excellent, though I still rate the first book higher.

But Highmith also wrote non-Ripley books. And many of them are brilliant. The Cry of the Owl, Deep Water, Edith’s Diary come to mind. And to this list, I will also add This Sweet Sickness.

‘For eliciting the menace that lurks in familiar surroundings, there’s no one like Patricia Highsmith.’ – an apt quote displayed in the opening pages of my Virago edition.

In This Sweet Sickness, we are in classic Highsmith territory. The opening paragraph immediately draws the reader into her dark, troubling world…

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boardinghouse to walk the streets.

He had so long lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years. No use bothering with the details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night.

The ‘Situation’ in a nutshell is like this – David Kelsey is deeply in love with Annabelle and at one point they even briefly courted. But a job change, promising a better pay, compelled David to move to another city. In the meanwhile, Annabelle married another man Gerald and set up home with him. David, therefore, is distraught and deeply jealous.

David is a chemical engineer at Cheswick Fabrics, very good at his job and also respected. On weekdays, he resides in a boarding house in Froudsburg run by the chatty and jovial Mrs McCartney. As far as the other boarders and Mrs McCartney are concerned, David is a model resident. He does not drink, does not entertain women late at night in his room, and visits his ailing mother in a nursing home without fail on weekends.

But nothing is as it seems in Highsmith’s universe. The reader soon realizes that there is something fishy about the last bit. David’s mother died ages ago. So, he spends his weekend, not in a nursing home, but in a house he has bought in Ballard, some miles from the boarding house in Froudsburg.

It’s his own home, cozy and comfortably furnished, a home he plans to settle in with Annabelle once she divorces Gerald. Because you see, David is dead sure of this happening. For him, the husband is just an inconvenience to be straightened out.

Life was very, very strange, but David Kelsey had an invincible conviction that life was going to work out all right for him.

But there’s more. When David is living in his house, he is no longer David Kelsey but rather William Neumeister. It’s the alias he used when he purchased the property too. It’s a secret existence and nobody in his life (not even Annabelle) know of his ‘other’ identity.

And sometimes, after the two martinis and a half bottle of wine at dinner, he imagined that he heard Annabelle call him Bill, and that made him smile, because when that happened, he’d gotten tangled up himself. In this house, his house, he liked to imagine himself – William Neumeister – a man who had everything he wanted, a man who knew how to live, to laugh, and to be happy.

There are other characters who get embroiled in David’s drama, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. There’s his best friend Wes Carmichael, also his colleague at work, who is stuck in a bitter, joyless marriage. And Effie Brennan, who also lodges at the same boarding house where David stays and is secretly in love with him.

David, meanwhile, continues to write to Annabelle, continuously expressing his wish to see her.

‘Dave, this business about your house – that’s why I’m calling. You don’t seem to understand when I write to you. I can’t ever come to your house, Dave, not the way you want me to come.’

‘Naturally, I was thinking – you’d finally get a divorce.’

Dave, I don’t want a divorce. Can’t you understand that?’

Listen, Annabelle, would you like me to come to Hartford? Right now?’

‘No, Dave, that’s why I’m calling. How can I say it? You’ve got to stop writing me, Dave. It’s just causing more and more trouble. Gerald’s fit to eb tied and I do mean that.’

‘I don’t give a damn about Gerald!’

‘But I do. I’ve got to. Just because you can’t understand—-‘

Things come to a head when one day Gerald turns up at David’s weekend home. How did he learn of David’s secret house? And how will their confrontation play out?

In This Sweet Sickness then, Highsmith is once again at her riveting best as she explores the themes of identity and dangerous obsession. It’s a novel with great psychological depth, a genre Highsmith clearly excels at. Can different identities really change at the core who you are? In what way does disturbing obsession make a person lose his touch with reality?

The focus on obsession brought to mind another brilliant novel I had read a few years ago – Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, although David Kelsey is neither really down on luck nor does he spend his days in seedy bars as Hamilton’s protagonist does.

I found shades of similarity with The Talented Mr Ripley too, in that both David Kelsey and Tom Ripley seamlessly live double lives even though their motives are different.

There was another maybe significant difference. One of Highsmith’s greatest strengths is her uncanny ability to make the reader root for the psychopath or the murderer. It happened with Tom Ripley. In a way, it also happened with Vic in Deep Water. Interestingly though, I didn’t feel the same with David Kelsey, although he was a fascinating enough creation.

That in no way suggests that the book is any lesser for it. It has all the trademarks of Highsmith’s writing – prose that is hypnotic and compulsively readable, the sense of palpable unease and creeping dread oozing from the pages, and characters so unhinged and enthralling that the reader is interested enough to find out how it will all turn out.

All in all, an excellent book. I intend to take a break before pulling another Highsmith from the shelves, but when I do it will be a toss between Strangers on A Train and The Blunderer.