Tr. by Deborah Smith
The city, she claims, is an artificial construction, a kind of no-place. I am interested in how a no-place can be home.
The line above comes towards the end of a short story by Sofia Samatar. The words keep turning over throughout my body. As I move through the city in which I live, I wonder how it holds me and others. Or doesn’t. If the city is your home, do you ever feel like it’s bent on your displacement? But how can that be when the city offers belonging, continuity, rootedness, a permanence? A construction soothing deep boiling fears; in the view above, the city is characterized as a destabilizing force, ungrounding, akin to a shape-shifting trickster.
What is a city to you? A place of commerce, play, cultural capital, mobility, a centering, inherent? I keep wondering what it means for a city to be no-place. What it means to make home out of no-place. Samatar’s words bring me back to Bae Suah’s Recitation, the latest English translation by Deborah Smith from one of South Korea’s most beguiling writers. Bae’s novel revolves around Kyung-hee and her chance meeting with a group of Korean emigrants in an unnamed European city. From their encounter springs a collection of conversations, mystical tangents, memories, philosophical reflections, cycles of departure and arrival, mirroring, enigmas. Is home within you or external to you or constantly in flux?
Kyung-hee presents herself as a recitation actress though the details of her profession are unfolded as if from a distance through choppy waters. Is she a stage performer or a recorder of audio-books? Both? A fraud? During a performance Kyung-hee breaks her toe and in the aftermath decides she must commit her life to itinerancy. In the final sections of the novel, a throng of voices wonder if Kyung-hee ever existed at all. They return to their shared hometown in search of the actress they met by accident. Try as they obsessively might, they cannot locate her:
Kyung-hee has been extinguished. Kyung-hee was within the sleep of sleep. In other words, doubly asleep. Kyung-hee was with a woman who no one knew, with no way to tell the two of them apart. Kyung-hee was three-fourths Kyung-hee. Notification of the fusion of Kyung-hee’s components. Kyung-hee had slipped down in the form of low hills.
Time is not presented as the method of legible chronology but as a swirling mist of unchartable simultaneities and repetitions. Time translates into an active trust as we are whisked down the serpentine paths of Bae’s prose, unmoored from familiar markers and conventions. How Bae’s sentences move: arising, mutable, delaying, synchronous, drifting. In Smith’s translation, her words feel into an idea or memory or stirring before reaching out towards rhizomatic relatings. By a sentence’s end you find yourself transfigured, dazed, peeled until shiny-raw.
We begin in front of a train station and end on the low hills of Seoul, absorbing into blooming lupins. We move from Seoul to Munich to Vienna to a city in a former Soviet republic in Central Asia to Berlin, to unknown locations in between. We meet characters from Kyung-hee’s travels: Mr. Nobody (is he the German teacher?), the healer, Banchi, Maria, the East Asian man (a stranger she meets at a Starbucks near an opera house), the teacher couple. The lack of names adds to the novel’s crescendo sense of dissociation, myth, dream, collectivity and uncertainty. The lack of names could illustrate Kyung-hee’s avoidance of intimacy, a protective gesture, her reluctance to share private details with strangers, a disconnect, her toying with identity, a crashing of all these ideas and their reverberations.
Kyung-hee is a slippery presence, more intrigued by the transference between goshawks and shrieking souls then the rote formalities underlining modern interaction. Her never-ending song is a series of approaches and retreats. Propelling this wandering existence is the “desire to detach” herself from fixed coordinates. She declines allegiance to a specific location, instead choosing a stateless existence wherein strict boundaries are obliterated:
It seemed that the city had seized hold of me and was refusing to let me go. As though it was gripping my umbilical cord in its clenched fist, I who had already disappeared some time ago, having become a goshawk’s prey.
Despite her untying, Kyung-hee must still contend with “modern borders, surveillance systems, arms traffickers, soldiers, and government officials” ― always there hangs the threat of being swallowed up by some self-serving predator. Always comes someone quick to rattle off all the reasons why you cannot enter, reside or be. Though contemporary conversations around globalization emphasize an increase in free-flowing exchanges unburdened by borders, one cannot ignore the vehement resurging cries for isolationism, homogeneity, and defensiveness. As our ability to relate expands, so does a frantic need to divide and classify. Where to go when home is a wound and elsewhere is overly defined by who belongs and who does not? Bae ruminates on what it means to be rooted in rootlessness, to reject the demands of a fixed unchanging place. Home becomes an accumulation, a gathering of fragments and ephemeral signs. Kyung-hee improvises home out of movement ― settling across, through, beyond, in defiance of the mappable. She claims her transience above all. As to why, this question hovers like an impish riddle, haunting in its proliferation of probabilities.
In one sequence, Kyung-hee walks around a nameless city with Banchi, the eldest son of her lover Mr. Nobody. He is described as “a bashful amateur artist,” who traveled to Vienna but did not complete his studies. In this city of his birth, he manages a print shop to support his family. As they pass a German restaurant, he laments that only two days ago they tore down the building of the North Korean embassy because the entire staff was asked to return to North Korea. He dwells upon the physical lack, how a site of fond childhood memories (passing the embassy on his way home from school and admiring the florid paintings of North Korea’s pastoral landscape) can become no place, vanished without a trace, dust. His remembrance brings Kyung-hee to her first memory of her own city: a young blind woman walking in the road rather than the pavement, a bicycle-riding man, the tram, an accident. In this split moment, a strange soundless fusion:
The woman throws her arms up to cover her face and falls to the ground, and the man on the bike lifts her body up. That phrase, lift my body up, seems to have come to me not in my mother tongue but in some ancient language now long-forgotten. At the time I was still a visiter, not long since arrived in that city, and being pushed in a buggy, all the objects and scenes I saw, all the syllable-by-syllable language, not a single thing was familiar to me. And so I frequently thought in the ancient language, I was mixing the ancient and the new. . . I confuse then with now just as I do cities. I throw my arms up to cover my face and fall to the ground. The tram slides over my body. And when I open my eyes, I discover myself in another city.
Her memory dips into the unexplained. This passage contains a doubling, the woman and Kyung-hee gesturing in agony or shock or departure. An echoing between strangers, cutting across logic. Kyung-hee becomes the woman or the woman was already seeping into Kyung-hee? How the selves seem to spill towards and mesh. Language emerges as a tether, a method of anchoring oneself to a sense of solid ground and continuous time. Whereas Kyung-hee mixes the ancient and new, a sorceress more attuned to the traumatic breaks, the layerings, the transitory. This is the first time she references her mother tongue, an unsettling moment for she seems to encounter a preceding tongue ― prehistoric.
Banchi, who calls her a “wanderer of time,” scoffs at Kyung-hee’s efforts to live without ties, to occur everywhere at once, grows uneasy over her repeated use of the word simultaneous. Conflating Kyung-hee and her profession, he remarks: “You’re like someone reciting a story which has neither beginning nor end, someone who lives in such a story . . . you’re constantly saying what you are not; I think sometimes you are that which is being spoken.” In counter to Kyung-hee, he sees himself as coming from a long lineage of city dwellers. Though, over the course of their walk, he agonizes over a vote regarding “the land from which my blood and bones were formed” that is up for sale to the Japanese. He has never set foot on the ancestral ground, but prophesied this land will soon begin shaping his dreams. Is home what you can readily see/comprehend or a deeper vibration burrowing toward long-forgotten connections?
Recitation spins you round dizzying infinity loops. Kyung-hee’s wandering sends me scrambling back to Édouard Glissant. In Poetics of Relation, he sets forth a revised concept of errancy, applying it to a context of imperialism and diaspora. Glissant deflates the term’s romanticized rendering as a search for chivalric adventure or discovery (think knight-errant or explorer), in order to emphasize a counter-approach towards errancy: as “the thought of that which relates,” a sacred wandering that delegitimizes the singular root demanding fixity, blind allegiance, frightening amounts of blood, energy, containment. We find many ways to strip those who we do not want to belong, disguising efforts under deafening invocations of nation, safety, progress, opportunity, power. As they round the “enormous dusty hollow” that once held the embassy, Kyung-hee wonders: “Why does this thing we call ‘the nation’ have to exist forever?” When I first read this sentence I felt uprooted and stung. But then again, change is nature, a regenerating story of ends and beginnings. Perhaps the insistence upon a fixed nation (or identity or history or center) is the anomaly, an action perforating time rather than amplifying the nuances and echoes within. As Glissant writes:
One who is errant (who is no longer a traveler, discoverer, or conqueror) strives to know the totality of the world yet already knows [they] will never accomplish this ― and knows that is precisely where the threatened beauty of the world resides.
The above quote both encompasses and falls slant of Kyung-hee. I say fall slants because it feels misleading to say Kyung-hee can be completely encircled. The more you attempt to pin Kyung-hee down, the more she dilutes and disperses, remnants of an exploding star. Her character merges with others: the blind woman, her older phantasmal sister, a mysterious woman bearing a letter, lupins. Kyung-hee becomes residues and we are left to sort through her traces. Her totality emerges in our failure to capture her completely, to fix her concretely in linear time. In a similar way, a city can attempt to hold you in claustrophobic place, ignorant to its own disintegrating logic. Kyung-hee often remarks that city-dwellers are the new modern tribe, where international corporate logos instill a false sense of refuge and inclusion. She ponders over the city-dweller’s collective soul: our flattening out, constraint, means without ends. Is the city a natural force, a manifestation of psyche, or an artificial construction? The same questions could be applied to us: what makes humans natural? Artificial? Are we the dreams of a slumbering multiverse? Or fragments of who came before and will come:
I thought that your name, your face, your future, had arrived in this world in advance, and were waiting for you, like several layers of time disclosed concurrently, ensconcing themselves within your memories and watching all the while, still a part of you even now.
Kyung-hee is running away from, hurtling towards, in perpetual search. Bae’s prose resembles an errant journey through the fleshy depths of cities, both earthly and cosmic. Kyung-hee attempts to inhabit the betweens, traversing not only geographical borders but psychic, linguistic, metaphysical, ancestral. The narration resists a flattening, relishing the dissonant melodies between crashing tongues. The first and last sections unfold from the collective perspective of the emigrates chanced upon at the train station. Kyung-hee relates stories of her travels generously at points but there are moments when other voices burst to the forefront (a long section detailing the healer’s appearance on a daytime talk show focused on alternative medicine, the emergence of a mysterious woman claiming ties to Kyung-hee, excerpts from a recital of Saora Shaman’s Wife, an incantatory Oedipal-esque tale). You become that which is being spoken. The novel speaks a bodily spell, where the reader participates in its ritual of deep listening, a story unconcerned with demarcating beginnings and ends, real and imagined. Should a city hold you as a story does? What are we attempting to hold together? Bae composes a “cry on the threshold,” this novel swallowing and birthing itself.
Allison Noelle Conner lives in Los Angeles, where she works as an assistant fiction editor for The Offing.