On Recitation by Bae Suah, translated by Deborah Smith

This essay first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, Issue #6. To help us continue to pay our writers, please consider subscribing

The critic read Suah’s novel, Recitation, on the train to and from a writers’ conference. At a panel about the art of criticism featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson the discussion turned to writing, the personal process of coming to terms with bias against different sorts of texts, the ways critics develop an approach for each piece. In the audience the critic listened as Jefferson described the nature of critical writing as “giving real coherence to ambiguity,” saying that not unlike a fiction writer a critic must also, “play different parts, very much adjusting your voice,” when interpreting a book’s potential meanings.

The critic finished the book the next afternoon shortly before her train arrived at the station back home. That evening as she paged through it, alert to anything vital and imperative to her review, she scanned her annotations about time and existence, love and truth, pathways yielding forms of hope. She’d jotted down many questions, each marking a point on a borderline in the text where either her concentration failed or her resistance to Suah’s narrative succeeded. Passages underlined in blue, margins filled with wavery scribble; the train had been rocking back and forth.

Suah’s prose in translation, courtesy of Deborah Smith, made for a quick read. Structurally it was a story-within-a-story about the travels of Kyung-hee, a South Korean “actor specialising in recitation.” It began with a third-person collective “we” narrator and soon shifted to Kyung-hee’s perspective as she reports conversations with friends in different parts of the world.

Her wanderlust is prompted by the death of her German teacher. As she grieves, she feels as if “everything was 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.” The decision sets into motion “her current roving life, an entirely unplanned development which now seemed to have been inevitable.” As she travels, thematic layers accrue about modern human existence, Kyung-hee’s identity, her roles and relationships as friend, sister, daughter, actor.

Kyung-hee is essentially on the road in pursuit of a ghost. Or the utopia of the personal past, nostalgia framed by grief—an easy observation, the critic thought, glancing at the photo of her father pinned to the board near her writing desk. He’d been dead five years. We pursue or feel pursued when ghosts peer back, present in the everyday.

Telling of her travels, Kyung-hee only gives hints about where she’s been. An opera house, a language, a climate, a marketplace. A rented room from an older couple in a German-speaking country. Another rented room from a “healer-cum-philosopher” in Berlin who spends “every weekday at the library studying Nietzsche.” She visits a close friend named Banchi in an unnamed city in Mongolia or India; later they hang out in Vienna. Later still, a few details about different spots in what seems to be Seoul. She tends to omit people’s names. One is simply called Mr. Nobody.

Kyung-hee’s parents were perfectly awful, and her older sister ran away when Kyung-hee was little. Her support system is made up of fellow city-dwellers, a community called Karakorum, people organized to help each other out, open their doors, if not their hearts, letting each other crash when they need to. Not communal living. Not even friends, really. No politics, just trust and sharing. In the real world, Karakorum was a thirteenth-century city on the silk road in Mongolia, Ghengis Khan’s HQ at one point, capital for a time of the Mongol Empire. Destroyed and rebuilt many times.

When Kyung-hee lives with the old couple in Germany, who are in their eighties, they habitually go to a park together to swim in a pond. To Kyung-hee they “seemed to be growing gradually more feral,” not fading away as they aged, as if moving toward a simple, final form: the enigma of a mated pair. Suah shows Kyung-hee witness this without making it a revelatory moment about the self, which many authors might have done. Instead, the idea that the self exists moment-to-moment almost vanishes, taking with it its rather useless, vague sense of mystery. Kyung-hee concludes by deciding, “the fact that, at that time, a certain entity is not me, the fact that I am not that particular entity, the fact that I am the self of precisely now, could no longer be as definitive an explanation of certain phenomena.” She holds the idea up to the light and is able to comment further, rejecting easy joy, seeing beyond it, as if Suah is saying that not to comment further, to achieve a revelation in fiction and leave it at that, would be dishonest.

The scene was reassuring, watching Kyung-hee engage with the limits of wisdom about the self, especially the sense that we can do so unburdened by the past or the future. She gained this knowledge by balancing amid the chaos of a life she’d chosen for herself, a perspective achieved by intimately observing others, living on very little, dealing with police in strange countries in the middle of the night. As if she needed to be near the heat of chaos that kept such knowledge alive.

Yet Suah added a complicating possibility to the text. Kyung-hee’s stories might just be anecdotes from her acting days, not places she’s really visited. Gradually there’s the sense that she views life as a performance and is playing a part, maybe to fulfill the basic human need for storytelling, one that spans from primitive to ancient to modern times, underpinning our understanding of family, belonging, the self, and freedom. Framing Kyung-hee’s story as a recital, the conversations and dialogue begin to feel suggestive rather than definitive, as if we’re with other travelers around a fire listening to “an unfamiliar self from the distant future,” and the “whispering of countless bones and stones.”

Late in the book the narrative shifts drastically. The story within a story branches out. In an early draft of her review, the critic wrote that the story begins to break down. But she had to question the urge to describe it that way. The text had been carefully written, edited, translated, edited again. The story wasn’t breaking down. Rather, a bias she harbored was struggling with some difficulty, allowing confusion or ambivalence to defeat her concentration.

Her deadline wasn’t pressing. She hit save on her draft of the review, put the book away for a while. Read other things. Forgot it completely for a day or so. Watched a movie on her phone. Called her mother, texted her sister, a few friends. She journaled. Chided herself. Cheered herself. Wrote about what to write:

Draw parallels with the frame device, then KH’s view of life. Be nice if we could have such a removed view. But we do, through novels, those that make sense of ambivalence and those that do not, those that recognize no ambivalence at all, those that are in each syllable gloriously ambivalent about language and possibility of meaning.

Your grief is not big enough. It’s as small as your own suffering, thin, and sharp. It should be wider and flabbier and baggier like a collective dream. Not so much your own, because that’s not true. A lot of people knew Dad. They have more claim to him than you did. Let other people have their piece of him, too.

The fact was that since her father’s death the critic had been prone to death fantasies about her mother, sister, and friends. And these had led to daydreams, frantic, illogical but powerful, about losing herself in grief to the point of total transformation or suicide. When would grief leave her be? It felt impossible. Why did she want it to leave her alone? Because of the sadness?

She remembered a bit from early in the novel about Kyung-hee’s self-awareness that, “although she wasn’t religious, when she thought about death its inevitability was sufficient to provoke a sense of respect in her, and she felt as though that mysterious, unknowable death had already triumphed over each of us long ago, something that we ourselves were the only ones unable to grasp.”

The wonder in this stopped the critic cold, the idea that we may have already lost to death long ago, and we can live on comfortably, even happily, in the knowledge that death has already had its triumph over us in some other life. And maybe she had to admit there was something nice about watching a myth be created and destroyed, and yet she lived on remembering him.

Our memories of books and past lives become jumbled, mistaken for one another. A bit like the title of that Mo Yan novel, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. We lose the truth, regain it at a better time. Someone’s fantasies about suicide under the weight of grief weren’t really her concern, even if they occurred within her. They were echoes from other lives where tragedy had struck so hard she could still feel it at times.

The thought offered a small sense of relief, a sloughing off of self attached to concepts of death. Maybe death didn’t matter so much. Perhaps not all forces in our life carry a weight that we can measure.

As the novel winds down, Suah includes a poem called “Primitive,” a translated Pygmy burial song originally used in an essay by Octavio Paz. Part of it read:

The heavens burn, eyes cave in.
The evening stars shine.
On the earth, a harsh chill, in the sky, light.

People went to that place: those once prisoned in life were released,
The shadows were gathered in.

The narrators from the beginning of the novel search in vain for Kyung-hee. Someone tells them there’s no such thing as a “recitation actor” anymore in South Korea. “Now and then, people showed signs of confusing stage actors specialising in recitation with writers of fairytales or radio actors or puppet theatre voice artists, ventriloquists or even magicians who used their voices as part of their act. There was a reason we had yet to meet Kyung-hee. But everyone we telephoned said in chorus, there is no recitation actor named Kyung-hee, if it’s not a pseudonym then it’s probably a false name, or else a lie.”

Suah writes that Kyung-hee’s story of her life and the narrators’ encounters with her could’ve easily been misinterpreted as “a scene from an unusually solid, tangible dream that had lasted for several days. A dream as long as an ancient epic poem, a dream which we had dreamed collectively.” The twist is that “the dream is the sickness that people who have lived for too long a time on nothing but books, painkillers, the radio, and audiobooks, end up contracting at the end of their life, a sweet form of compensation.”

Kyung-hee’s story could be about a missing person, representing a myth, or someone pretending to be a myth, pursuing a mythic life while being pursued by a myth, as if elemental forces were driving her while surrounding her, unable to contain her. Destroyed and rebuilt many times, like the city of Karakorum. Or grief about someone.

“Some other life then,” the critic wrote in her journal after she’d filed her review.

After it was published and she’d received her check and her editor wrote to see when she could do another review, she repeated the phrase, trying out its power, even if it felt silly, to ward off doubt and future fantasies about grief and suicide. “Some other life then.” That’s when she would worry, in some other life, or let the self in another life deal with it.

She didn’t believe in mantras, but there it was, derived from a recitation performed via marginalia, translation, publication, pages, paragraphs, sentences, words, characters, white space, a ghostly image of a goddess within a mountain. A small, personal attempt to give “coherence to ambivalence,” as she’d heard Jefferson say at the conference.

She could add it to pieces she’d gather and remember. Whatever was useful to see more clearly her mind’s power over a destructive fantasy about grief, one in which life meant conflict instead of peace with the memories flesh is heir to.

A month later, she flipped through the book again, re-read one of the book’s final scenes, and noticed something more beyond the ideas about possible lives or deaths. There was suspicion, mystery within the cycle. Most of it was unknowable. Her father dead and gone. Her mother and sister living so near but perhaps not as close as she’d like. All the time she’d known them she was only hearing their voices as if from behind a door, and the people she loved were reading from a script, storytelling for her benefit, as people have always done, perhaps only truly themselves after they heard her walk away.

Matthew Jakubowski is a fiction writer and literary critic. His previous works of critifiction about literature in translation have appeared in Interfictions Online, gorse, and 3:AM Magazine. He is a contributing editor at The Critical Flame and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in West Philadelphia.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.