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.

My Top 12 Books of 2018

Like the last couple of years, I was very lucky that 2018 turned out to be a great reading year too.

So much so that I struggled to whittle the list down to twelve. But after much dilly-dallying, I am happy and satisfied with the list that finally took shape.

In a year that was challenging, these books gave me pure joy and ideas to think about; it’s in them that I sought solace and found hope.

They cover a range of themes and topics – women wanting to live life on their own terms, survival, hope, loss, motherhood, friendship, and family.

A quick look at the statistics:

Half of them are translated works of fiction from countries as diverse as Argentina, Norway, Korea, Guadeloupe, and Lithuania. A majority of these books are by independent publishers.

And of the twelve books, nine are written by women.

So without much ado, here are my Top 12 Books of the Year, in no particular order, with a small description on each. For a detailed review on each one of these books, please click on the title of the book in question.

Top 12 of 2018

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz

A young woman struggles to adapt to motherhood. But rather than internalize her despair and retreat into a shell, she rebels – expressing her rage at conventional norms, and venting out on her husband and her family. Ariana Harwicz’s prose is so visceral, it bruises but in an exhilarating way.

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas

This is a haunting, unsettling tale of two Norwegian eleven-year old girls, Siss and Unn, both as different as chalk and cheese but drawn to each other to form an unlikely friendship. Tarjei Vesaas’ prose is as clear as ice and as brilliant as a diamond. There is a dreamlike quality to the narrative that explores the themes of loss, friendship and the power of nature.

Ice – Anna Kavan

We are in surreal territory here as a man obsessed with a fragile, silver-haired girl, chases her across the icy wastes of a dystopian landscape. Only to keep losing her again and again. This is a wonderful example of Anna Kavan’s ‘slipstream’ fiction – there is a slippery and elusive feel to it all and where the conventional contours of a narrative structure do not apply. Kavan is at the height of her descriptive powers, and the passages describing the frozen settings are particularly sublime.

The White Book – Han Kang

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian made it to my Best of the Year list in 2015 (pre-blog days), and was unlike anything that I read that year. The White Book is a completely different book, but brilliant in its own way. Hang Kang focuses on white objects as a medium through which she explores themes of grief, loss, finding peace and solace. The novel is in the form of fragments, short paragraphs each fitting on a page, and told in a style that is haunting and lyrical.

The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy

Anything that comes from the pen of Deborah Levy is essential reading. Her earlier novel Swimming Home was brilliantly unsettling, and her last novel Hot Milk made it to my Best Books of 2016 list. The Cost of Living is Levy’s memoir or a ‘living’ autobiography as it has been called. Levy divorces when she is approaching fifty, and now has a challenging task ahead of her – supporting her sons, and continuing her writing amidst many upheavals. It’s this transition that she describes in her trademark sharp prose, brimming with wit, warmth and keen insights.

Shadows on the Tundra – Dalia Grinkeviciute

In those horrific days of the Second World War, Dalia and her family (mother and brother), along with a host of fellow Lithuanians were deported to Siberia to work in labour camps there. In a harsh and tough environment, where blizzards recurred often, the weather was bitingly cold, and where the living conditions were ghastly, Dalia survived that period on true grit, hope, and sheer willpower.

She wrote her memories on scraps of paper and buried them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They were not found until 1991, four years after her death. Shadows on the Tundra is the story that Dalia buried, and is the second book in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series.

Basic Black with Pearls – Helen Weinzweig

Here is the intriguing blurb from NYRB Classics – “Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are arranged by an intricate code based on notes slipped into issues of National Geographic. But something has happened, the code has been discovered, and Coenraad sends Shirley to Toronto, the last place she wants to go.”

Told from Shirley’s point of view, it quickly becomes clear that things are not what they seem, and we are left with a narrative that is surreal and disorienting, but all in a good way. Is this then a straightforward espionage tale or something deeper and complex? Weinzweig’s idea for this multi-layered novel was inspired by the Canadian artist Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series – the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere.

Missing – Alison Moore

Jessie Noon is in her late forties, living alone with her dog and cat as companions, somewhere along the Scottish borders. Her second husband walks out on her one day, leaving an enigmatic message on steam on the bathroom mirror. As a translator Jessie fusses over choosing the right words in her work, and yet ironically, in her dealings with others, she comes across as lacking tact. Meanwhile, Jessie’s days are filled with routine, and through the minute details of everyday life, Alison Moore slowly teases out the tragedy that took place in Jessie’s life in her late teens, and the heartbreaking impact it has had on her adult years. This quiet novel really tugged at my heartstrings.

Bergeners – Tomas Espedal

Espedal’s Bergeners is a difficult book to describe. It is personal with autobiographical shades to it, and yet to call it a traditional autobiography would be doing the book great injustice. The narration is an amalgam of diary entries, poetry, short stories, ruminations on art and reflections on the people of Bergen. It’s a book where Tomas copes with loneliness, reflects on writing and meets fellow Norwegian authors such as Dag Solstad in exchanges that are laced with humour.

The Bridge of Beyond – Simone Schwarz-Bart

Set in the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, this is an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, the grim legacy of slavery, and the story of the protagonist Telumee and the proud line of Lougandor women she continues to draw strength from.

With wonderfully named characters such as Toussine and Telumee and a village deliciously called Fond-Zombi, Schwarz-Bart’s storytelling is slow, sensual, hypnotic and rhythmic. Every page pulses with the energy and vitality of these three generations of women. There are dollops of beauty and warmth, wisdom and sadness.

The Cemetery in Barnes – Gabriel Josipovici

Josipovici’s novel begins on a quiet note in Paris and then moves on to become darker and unsettling. In just 100 pages (the shortest book on the list), we are introduced to three stories across three time spans in three places (London, Paris, Wales), all involving the protagonist who is a translator and good at his work. Our narrator ruminates on the art of translation, makes frequent references to Orfeo, the French poet du Bellay’s poems, and Monteverdi’s opera – and because of Josipovici’s masterful storytelling skills, it all feels seamless and lucid without ever coming across as either complex or knotty.  But the best thing about this book is how wonderfully ambiguous it is making it open to multiple interpretations.

Welcome Home – Lucia Berlin

As the daughter of a mining engineer, Lucia’s family moved often to places such as Idaho, Montana, Kentucky, Arizona and to Santiago in Chile. This trend of perpetually being on the move continues in her adult life as well and she travels/lives in New York City, Mexico, New Mexico and California. In this period, she goes on to marry and divorce thrice. Subsequently, by doing various jobs (hospital ward clerk, switchboard operator, cleaning woman and so on), she hopes to support her writing career and raise her four sons all on her own.

Welcome Home is Berlin’s unfinished memoir recounting her childhood years up to the point she was married to and living with her third husband Buddy Berlin. Through this, and a selection of letters also included in the book (and corresponding with this period), we get a glimpse of her real life that was as endlessly rich, adventurous, and fascinating as the stories she wrote.

Other Notable Mentions…

So, there you go. The twelve books above were fabulous, and I hope that next year shapes up to be a rewarding year for reading too.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I struggled to narrow the list down to twelve as a result of which there were a few books that did not make the cut. But they were excellent nevertheless, and so deserve a shout out (with links to the detailed reviews):

Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You (A hard-hitting novel of an abusive marriage)

Mariana Enriquez’ Things We Lost in the Fire  (A collection of eerie and gothic stories set in Argentina)

Lesley Blanch’s Journey into the Mind’s Eye  (A travel memoir and an ode to Russia and Siberia)

Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk  (The first book in Peirene’s ‘Home in Exile’ series set in Latvia under Soviet Occupation)

Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light  (A bracing novel on a young, single mother’s struggles to raise her daughter), and

Rachel Cusk’s Kudos (The concluding novel in Cusk’s brilliant ‘Outline Trilogy’, which I have not reviewed here). One of the striking features of this trilogy was the concept of self-annihilation of the narrator, in the sense of her being more in the background. It’s the other voices that dominate and the narrator is like a sponge for the most part absorbing various viewpoints.

Happy reading!

The White Book – Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

It is always exciting to discover a new author. Even more so when you have a gut feeling of pretty much loving each and every book that author writes.

There are many that fit the bill. But today I will be focusing on Korean author Han Kang.

I was introduced to her writing, when her novel The Vegetarian was translated and released to an English speaking audience a couple of years back. Although she has penned quite a few books, The Vegetarian was the first to be translated into English by the ever reliable and interesting publisher Portobello Books.

It garnered rave reviews in the book blogging world. And all of it highly justified. Because I was blown away by the novel, and it made into my Top Books of the Year list in 2015.

The Vegetarian is about a supposedly unremarkable woman (and this is her husband’s point of view), who one day decides to stop eating meat. Not such a big thing in today’s world. But in a strict society such as Korea with its set ways and traditions, it is an act of rebellion that shocks her family. It is a novel like no other and wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith.

Since then, a couple of novels have been translated – one is Human Acts (which I have yet to read), and the other is The White Book, which is the one I will be reviewing.

And as was the case last time, Deborah Smith’s translation of The White Book is incredible too.

Onto the novel itself then…

IMG_20180320_083741_258
Portobello Books Hardback Edition

The White Book is a haunting piece of work about grief, loss and healing.

This is no linear narrative; the author chooses to tell her story in a fragmentary style, in a series of short paragraphs on every page. The tone is quiet and meditative.

Here’s how the book opens:

In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was to make a list.

The list?

Salt, snow, ice, moon, rice, waves and so on.

It is through the listing of these objects that the author explores various themes throughout the book.

One major theme that dominates is her sister’s death, two hours after she is born prematurely.

Now and then her mother would be struck by a sense of foreboding and give a corner of the quilt a tug, but the baby’s eyes opened only briefly, grew dim and then slid shut. At some point, even that scant response was no longer forthcoming. And yet, before dawn, when the first milk finally came from her mother’s breasts and she pressed her nipple between the tiny lips, she found that, despite everything, the baby was still breathing. Though she had, by now, slipped from consciousness, the nipple in her mouth encouraged a soft swallowing, gradually growing stronger. Still with her eyes closed the whole time. Not knowing what boundary, she was now passing over.

The narrator ponders the randomness of her birth and life itself, and reflects – Would she have been born if her sister hadn’t died?

This life needed only one of us to live it.  If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now.

My life means yours is impossible.

Only in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach, do we manage to make out each other’s faces.

This is also a book about nature, about how fleeting life is…

In the distance, the surface of the water bulges upwards. The winter sea mounts its approach, surging closer in. The wave reaches its greatest possible height and shatters in a spray of white. The shattered water slides back over the sandy shore.

Standing at this border where land and water meet, watching the seemingly endless recurrence of the waves (though this eternity is in fact illusion: the earth will one day vanish, everything will one day vanish), the fact that our lives are no more than brief instants is felt with unequivocal clarity.

Not surprisingly, the colour ‘white’ is a prominent thread weaving its way through this work – it highlights cleanliness, newness, and purity…

Here she is on ‘salt’…

One day she took a handful of coarse salt and examined it closely. Those crystals had a cool beauty, their white touched with grey. For the first time, she had a real sense of the power that lay within this material: the power to preserve, the power to sterilize and to heal.

And on freshly laundered bed linen…

Is it because of some billowing whiteness within us, unsullied, inviolate, that our encounters with objects so pristine never fail to leave us moved?

There are times when the crisp white of freshly laundered bed linen can seem to speak. When that pure-cotton fabric grazes her bare flesh, just there, it seems to tell her something. You are a noble person. Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of.  

But ‘white’ signals harshness too…

The sun’s rays pale slightly as the frost begins to form. Trees shiver off their leaves, incrementally lightening their burden. Solid objects like stones or buildings appear subtly more dense. Seen from behind, men and women bundled up in heavy coats are saturated with a mute presentiment, that of people beginning to endure.

Occasionally other colours seep in…a crane by the water’s edge one summer day in Seoul is “entirely white save for its bright-red feet”, or when the narrator as an eight-year old sees “a thousand points of silver sweep in from the distant sea” which she is told is an anchovy shoal. Death is compared to “black writing bleeding through thin paper.

Indeed, The White Book is a novel that reads like a lyrical poem. It has the effect of a soothing balm on jangled nerves. Reading it is akin to an experience that is mysterious and otherworldly. You never quite know what to make of it but that is really not the point – it’s the journey that’s affirming.

Despite the weight of bereavement, the narrator has hope…

The sight of a dish of wrapped sugar cubes still evokes the sense of witnessing something precious. There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.

There is something pleasing about the physical book too. The hardcover is white as is the dustjacket. Inside, most of the paragraphs fit on a page – on the right side, while the left side is left blank. Thus, not only does the writing evoke a reflective mood but the generous expanse of white washing over you is also quite exhilarating.

It’s not all about the reader though and what he/she experiences coursing through the book.

Writing it has been therapeutic too. The narrator hopes that the process of writing “would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.”

The White Book is something we need too.