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
- 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.