By Bae Suah
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
The meeting between a group of emigrants and a mysterious, wandering actress in an empty train station sets the stage for Bae Suah's fragmentary yet lyrical meditation on language, travel, and memory. As the actress recounts the fascinating story of her stateless existence, an unreliable narrator and the interruptions of her audience challenge traditional notions of storytelling and identity.
Publication Date: January 24, 2017
"Bae Suah offers the chance to un-know—to see the every-day afresh and be defamiliarized with what we believe we know—which is no small offering." —Music & Literature
The meeting between a group of emigrants and a mysterious, wandering actress in an empty train station sets the stage for Recitation, a fragmentary yet lyrical meditation on language, travel, and memory by South Korea's most prominent contemporary female author. As the actress recounts the fascinating story of her stateless existence, an unreliable narrator and the interruptions of her audience challenge traditional notions of storytelling and identity.
Bae Suah, born in Seoul in 1965, is one of the most highly acclaimed contemporary Korean authors, with over ten short story collections and five novels to her name. She received the Hanguk Ilbo literary prize in 2003 and the Tongseo literary prize in 2004. She has also translated several books from the German, including works by W. G. Sebald, Franz Kafka, and Jenny Erpenbeck. Nowhere to be Found, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, was the first of her books to appear in English, and was longlisted for a PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award.
Deborah Smith received a PhD in contemporary Korean literature at SOAS (University of London) in 2016. Her literary translations from the Korean include two novels by Han Kang (The Vegetarian, which won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and Human Acts) and two by Bae Suah, (A Greater Music and Recitation). She also recently founded Tilted Axis Press to bring more works from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East into English. She lives in London.
"Bae Suah offers the chance to unknow—to see the everyday afresh and be defamiliarized with what we believe we know—which is no small offering." —Sophie Hughes, Music & Literature
"Bae dissolves conventional linear narrative, as though it were impossible for cause and effect to exist concurrently with such repression." —Joanna Walsh, The National
“A challenging yet cognitively engaging and rewarding read.” —David Cooper, The New York Journal of Books
"Nowhere to Be Found [Bae's first novel translated into English] is a psychological novella, but in the most engaging manner, emotionally and aesthetically. Bae presents a psyche, in living depth, without psychoanalyses, without the pretense that psyches are chartable." —PT Smith, Quarterly Conversation
“It’s beautiful to read, with the flowing monologues, excellently written, allowing you to lose yourself in the text.” —Tony Malone, Tony's Reading List
1. Kyung-hee said that in her hometown, she’d been a theatre actor specialising in recitation
Several times already now, she’d had the idea of visiting the houses she’d left behind. Grasshoppers spring up around her feet, transparent carapaces propelled into the air as she crosses the dirt yard and approaches the cement buildings, their desiccated structures hard and dry as stale bread, and riddled with holes. She peers through the window into the ground-floor flat, where a naked bulb casts a cold, orange light. Objects devoid of life or utility crowd the interior. A table, a cupboard. A vase, a bed. Chairs. Clothes lacking bodies to give them shape. The chill impression of that dearly missed tenement flat, whose occupants were only ever passing through. In reality, though, she never once went back to any of these places she’d left behind, and there was something of the fantastic about these still-lives, constantly re-rendered yet only ever existing in the imagination, like a hometown whose precise location has grown uncertain over time. Kyung-hee enjoyed talking about the various houses she’d lived in. This one was in that city and that one was in this, some days they would breach the surface of the present with all the suddenness of a cloud of dust whisking up into the air, in the heart of a bygone city to which no name can now be put, some unforeseeable instant. Such cities thicken and coalesce, appearing in front of an audience in the guise of blind women. Blind women leading groups of black pigs, blind country women singing, their earlobes crudely pierced, a woman who is both a mother and a thief, a blind peddler woman standing in front of the house. Before the curtain went up, as the prima donna stepped out onto the black, sticky floorboards of the stage, the director pressed a white stick into her hand, saying: to really inhabit this role, from this moment onwards you are blind…
Kyung-hee told us about the groups of peddlers who wandered up and down in the square near where she lived, hawking Rolexes. Adding, but obviously they were fakes. First they approached a tall, smartly dressed young man, then tried their luck with a group of bashful girls, probably students at a women’s-only college, and asked whether they weren’t perhaps in need of a watch. Because they’d broached the topic in such an off-hand manner, as if it didn’t really matter to them either way, and because their introverted, extremely un-businesslike body language managed to make them seem somehow above such things as commercial transactions, it didn’t immediately occur to the travellers that these were unlicensed sellers peddling fake watches. Having just arrived in some faraway country, and feeling as though they’d finally awakened from that deep, soporific stupor known as day-to-day existence, the travellers marvel at the novel perspective they now encounter, so very other from those they’d previously known; nothing could be further from their minds than the purchase of a watch, but now they hear footsteps coming to a stop in front of them; the cause of these footsteps comes closer, touches their eyes, their whispering lips seeming liable to inhale the travellers’ souls. Eight hundred for one, a thousand for two. Kyung-hee herself wasn’t sure of the denomination.
We first met Kyung-hee in front of Central Station, after the last train had just pulled in. It was summer, late at night, and the taxi drivers were striking yet again. There had already been several announcements over the station’s P.A. system directing passengers to the temporary bus stop nearby, but we assumed that Kyung-hee couldn’t catch the meaning, as she was still sitting on her big suitcase when all the other passengers had disappeared. She was wearing a long-sleeved denim jacket over a pigeon-grey dress; she looked exhausted, but not to the point of having lost that tension or agitation peculiar to travellers. Feeling unaccountably friendly, we offered to accompany her to whichever hotel or hostel she was planning to stay at. But Kyung-hee’s answer was that she didn’t have a reservation at any hotel or hostel in this city; she’d merely arranged to meet someone at the station, but he seemed to have forgotten their appointment, or else something had come up to prevent him from keeping it. He wasn’t someone Kyung-hee knew directly; they’d been introduced through a mutual friend who lived in Vienna, and he’d agreed to let Kyung-hee use his living room for a few days, though now of course he hadn’t shown up. We’ve never seen each other in the flesh, you see, but we’re both part of a community of wanderers who let out their homes free of charge, Kyung-hee explained. If someone comes to visit whichever city I happen to be living in, then I provide them somewhere to stay, and then when I go travelling, other people in other cities will let me use their living room, veranda, guest room, an attic or even, on the off chance that they have one, a barn. It all depends on their individual circumstances. So I know nothing about these people aside from their name and the city they live in, and if something comes up so that they can’t come and meet me, well, that’s unfortunate, but there’s nothing to be done. I just have to spend the night at the station, then take the first train to another city the following morning.
Our curiosity had been piqued, so we stayed and talked with Kyung-hee a little further; in the end, our conversation went on for much longer than we’d initially anticipated, until we impulsively invited Kyung-hee to come and spend a few days with us. Of course, this had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Kyung-hee came from the same city as we did! After all, it was such a long time ago that we’d emigrated. We’d been perfectly happy to forget the city we’d left behind, our forgetting was by now almost complete, and even the threadbare skeins of faded memories, which we’d used to wear like uniforms of sorrow, had, in time, slipped furtively from our withered shoulders. Our first impression was that Kyung-hee’s travelling was entirely aimless, quite unlike our own one-off relocation, which we’d undertaken specifically in order to die in a city other than the place of our birth. Her ethnicity wasn’t apparent at first, and like I said, we didn’t care. Judging from her talk about the various cities she’d lived in, we simply pegged her as northern Chinese or Mongolian, or perhaps, though this wasn’t very likely, a member of some Siberian tribe. We’d never personally met a woman from Mongolia or northern China, or, for that matter, from some Siberian tribe, but we thought we’d noticed the tell-tale traces in Kyung-hee’s high cheekbones, and that characteristic northern expressionlessness which, at certain moments, crept over the upper part of her face. But we were mistaken.
Back in her hometown, Kyung-hee said, she’d been a stage actor specialising in recitation. Despite being from the same place, we couldn’t recall ever having heard of any such occupation or art form. During Kyung-hee’s stay we had some other immigrants over to dinner, old-timers like us, and she spoke to them about her travels; one day several years ago, she’d heard the news that her old German teacher, whom she hadn’t seen for a number of years, and with whom she hadn’t exchanged so much as a phone call after their abrupt parting, had died, and after that certain things were irresolvably vague and depressing, and neither happiness nor unhappiness could touch her anymore, and so she suddenly decided, though it was impossible, that she needed to go in search of him, she needed to travel; this, apparently, had been the initial motivation for her current roving life, an entirely unplanned development which now seemed to have been inevitable.
Kyung-hee told us that the secret salespeople all wore leather shoes buffed to a sheen, as though they had some kind of appointment to go to. The sun had burned their foreheads and the backs of their hands the colour of rust, and the skin that wrapped their figures was a mixture of scurf and gooseflesh. As the afternoon declined, she said, they would shield their eyes with their hands and gaze up at the darkening sun; at such times vague shadows, blackish splotches in the shape of leaves, would tremble on the backs of their hands. From planes passing by overhead, she explained. Or else it was sunspots caused by seething solar flares, or eclipses, rare and invisible to the naked eye. At the time, one of them recalled how, several years ago on a flight to Japan, he’d passed over that city where Kyung-hee had used to live. Muttering as if to himself, he said “If the plane we were on had been the kind that fly really low, beneath the clouds, then the shape of that grey city would have stretched out beneath us, a wide, flat disc glinting like a sheet of beaten iron on the other side of the windows. Its flesh buttressed by a scaffolding of bone, looking like a long valley gashed into the land, a dried-up river bed cratered with red depressions, or the gaping mouth of a huge cement cellar. But even then, given that we would have been asleep at the time, our cricked necks jammed into the creases of our headrests, it’s unlikely that we would have spotted any travellers roaming the streets, any mysterious wandering traders. Ah, I’ve just remembered, I was in that city another time, on an eight-hour stopover while I waited for a transfer flight to New Zealand. I paced up and down the airport corridors, trying to make sense of the hazy, distorted images visible on the far side of the windows. Why is it, I wonder, that no one ever talks about how those places known as airports, and the time spent there, feels like one of the stages of metempsychosis, a waystation on the journey from this life to the next? As the night lengthened, I huddled up on a chair in the smoking room and smoked a cigarette. And in the chair opposite, it’s all coming back now, there was this enormous monkey with a chain around its neck, crouching in exactly the same pose as me.” After all, the city had an airport, Kyung-hee said, or rather muttered, her words somewhat indistinct. Someone else who’d been there seems to have retorted that every city has an airport. Almost every city, another voice put in, but so quietly it was practically inaudible.
“There was one young woman I became friends with, a watch seller, and before I left that city she offered to share some work with me. You see, she thought I was leaving for the same reason as everyone else, because rents had doubled in the space of a few years.” After a pause, Kyung-hee continued. She always spoke as though entirely oblivious to the interest which people had in that city, with its airport and aeroplanes, though perhaps she was just pretending. When the rainy season swept up the country, she said, the secret sellers all went north ahead of it, and the lonely square became the preserve of umbrella-sheltered travellers. Standing there quietly in their dark raincoats, waiting for the bus, they looked like the trees known as ‘black poplars’, planted at regular intervals in the asphalt.
Kyung-hee had spent two years in that city, renting a room right in the centre; towering over her lodgings was a skyscraper so tall it was difficult to judge where it ended and the sky began, while down below the pedestrian subway stretched for several kilometres. The second-floor window had an old wooden frame, and its glass was blurred with dust and soot, but she said that if you shunted it open you could look down onto a large, square fountain, now dry, and an intersection webbed with zebra crossings, a tangle of black and white radiating out like the spokes in a bicycle wheel. Above all this hung the enormous elevated expressway, slicing through the heart of the city as though suspended in mid-air. The fountain’s stepped base recalled a ziggurat, and halfway up the column was a hook on which they sometimes flew the national flag, though Kyung-hee had no idea what its original function might have been. Every time I looked out of the window, that fountain reminded me of Egon Schiele’s gaunt, decapitated Venus; she smiled as she told us this. The six footbridges and eight zebra crossings converged at a narrow space in the middle of the road, between the elevated expressway’s colossal pillars; here, where pedestrians waited for the lights to turn green, lurked a handful of leather goods shacks, their semi-underground rooms lit up even in broad daylight. You have to take your shoes off before entering, but every time the lights change such a maelstrom of pushing and shoving breaks out that unless you make sure to stow them securely, they’ll almost certainly end up getting kicked away somewhere. Once that happens there’s no way you’ll find them again. After you pull open the glass door and step inside, watch your step on the loose cloth lining the stairs in lieu of a carpet. The tiny flight of stairs leads to a room where the proprietor, squatting on his haunches, offers the customer tea. The room is both his living space and a workshop-cum-store; you could also think of it as a kind of museum. You should close the door behind you as quickly as possible, to keep out the dust devils and the cacophony of swarming vehicles. While the proprietor snips away at the leather with his enormous scissors, you, the customer, sit and drink your tea, glancing uneasily up towards the door, trying to spot your shoes. Even with the door closed, the blaring car horns are every bit as deafening as they are up in the street, and the shack’s entire structure threatens to collapse every time a tremor is passed down from the enormous motorway overhead – in short, the walls of the shack are almost completely ineffectual in muffling the din and vibrations from the passing traffic, so it’s really no wonder you’re on edge, especially with this being your first time. And look outside the door, at those callous feet trampling all over your shoes, so battered they look like an old, worn-out pair that’s been dumped by the side of road! A gang of motorbikes surging this way, people scattering in all directions like a shoal of sardines, then crowding back in again! The proprietor lists the various items he is able to craft from leather: shoes, saddles, women’s belts, hats, and he can even stitch on some bells if you like. A drum with bells, he says, wouldn’t be a problem – if that’s what the customer wants. Every now and then he breaks off from his needlework and gently works the leather with his teeth. Each time he does so, a rank animal stench wafts up from the spit-soaked hide, heady in the narrow confines of the store.