📖 🇰🇷 #11: A hallucinatory novel from South Korea

A dreamlike story by Bae Suah

Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’re enjoying my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.

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South Korean author Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a hazy and disorienting novel filled with secret messages and hidden meanings. Making use of doppelgangers, repetition, and opaque descriptions of parallel worlds, it follows a nonlinear narrative that’s almost impossible to keep up with. Still, once I let go of trying to understand what was going on, I found it a rewarding read.

Suah is described by the Guardian as one of South Korea’s “most radical contemporary writers.” Her English-language translator is Deborah Smith, who also translates the incredible Han Kang and is the founder of indie publisher Tilted Axis Press. Faced with a wealth of South Korean books to choose between for this project, I picked Untold Night and Day because of Smith’s involvement—and I’m glad I did.

Untold Night and Day follows Ayami, a twenty-eight-year-old employee of an audio theatre for the blind in Seoul, over a period of two days. When the audio theatre suddenly closes, Ayami finds herself unemployed and seeking work. That’s when Yeoni, Ayami’s German teacher, mentions that she knows a German poet who is in need of an assistant and will be arriving in Seoul immanently.

The first hint that all is not as it seems comes during Ayami’s final few hours as an employee of the audio theatre when she sees an elderly couple outside and wonders whether they are her parents. From this point on, Suah ramps up the weird and the novel starts to follow a dreamlike logic. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s an excerpt from a baffling conversation between Ayami and her former boss that takes place 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?’

The book’s 152 pages are split into four acts, whose styles and tempos vary. While the first act is narrated by Ayami and made up of awkwardly short sentences, the second comprises overly long sentences and is narrated by Buha, a former textiles trader who is currently working as a temp at a pharmaceuticals company. When Buha sees a woman who looks like a poet he recognises from an old photograph, he decides to follow her to Yeoni’s house. The implication, I think, is that Ayami is the poet? In act three, we’re back with Ayami who is on her way to meet the poet at the airport. Only, the poet is not a poet but a detective novelist who was expecting to be greeted by Yeoni upon landing. Act four, the novel’s most surreal act, is partially written in script.

If the plot of Untold Night and Day is complicated, so are the linguistic devices Suah employs, repeating words, phrases, and even entire paragraphs word-for-word. Descriptions of “hot air, heavier than a sodden quilt… clagging your pores like the wet slap of raw meat”, clothes fluttering “like an old dishcloth in the still air”, and men with “eye sockets… like sunken caves” crop up over and over again.

Reading Untold Night and Day was a bit like reading someone else’s dream in which characters’ realities overlap, repeat, collide, and then get rewritten. At first I found it frustrating, as I tried to follow what was happening and work out how I was supposed to feel about it. But once I let go of waiting for an a-ha moment and decided to enjoy Suah’s descriptions of Seoul in the summer, lean into her non-narrative storytelling, and take Ayami’s musings on love, art, food, and the state of the world at face value, I found myself rather enjoying it.

Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah, tr Deborah Smith (Jonathan Cape, 2020)


More books by South Korean authors

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week. Books I’ve read and loved are in bold:

  • The Law of Lines by Pyun Hye-young, tr. Sora Kim-Russell

  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith

  • Human Acts by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith

  • The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun, tr. Lizzie Buehler

  • Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo, tr. Jamie Chang

  • b, Book and Me by Kim Sagwa, tr. Sunhee Jeong

  • Bluebeard’s First Wife by Ha Seong-nan, tr. Janet Hong

  • The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Hwang Sun-mi, tr. Kim Chi-Young

  • Seven Years of Darkness by Jeong You-jeong, tr. Chi-young Kim

  • Almond by Sohn Won-pyung, tr. by Joosun Lee

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Laura Kaposi for her recommendations for this issue. If you’ve been forwarded this email and you enjoyed it, you can subscribe below.