Marlene Dietrich famously sang of still having a suitcase in Berlin, a wistful testament to the evocative power of memory and the hold that people and places can have on us. In many ways the unnamed Korean female narrator in Bae Suah’s novella A Greater Music has left her own suitcase in the German capital, one packed with scraps of memories from a broken intimate relationship with an older German woman and the morning-after emotions that surface when reflecting on a life lived elsewhere.
Bae’s story concerns a young Korean woman who has returned to Germany to be with her sometime boyfriend, Joachim. During a previous visit, attempts to grapple with the finer points of the German language lead her to the unorthodox female German-language tutor “M”. Older, financially stable, physically settled, idiosyncratic, and in poor health, M is everything that the young and unacculturated Korean is not, and the two soon transcend the strictures of the teacher-student relationship in favour of greater intimacy. However, feelings of betrayal stemming from M’s past indiscretion with a mutual acquaintance along with the impending expiration of her visa cause the young Korean protagonist to make a clean break both with M and with Germany.
Bae is considered one of South Korea’s most innovative and acclaimed contemporary authors.
Due in part to her proclivity to experiment with narrative as well as her inversion of gender tropes, Bae is considered one of South Korea’s most innovative and acclaimed contemporary authors. An unlikely writer, she studied chemistry at university, worked as a civil servant, and wrote only in her spare time. Since 2001, however, she has lived in Berlin, where she writes in both Korean and German as well as translates German literature into Korean. A Greater Music marks her fourth book translated from Korean into English.
The novella skirts around Bae’s biography—both Bae and her protagonist are female South Korean writers living in Berlin and Seoul; both travel between cultures in an attempt to transcend the localities of memory; both believe in the greater music of language. However, whereas biography reveals, Bae’s aesthetics of estrangement and longing withholds important details, preferring instead to use flashbacks, reflective asides on music and literature, and abrupt transitions within a nonlinear narrative, all of which is meant to mirror the inner workings of the protagonist’s own memory.
Bae’s novella evocatively captures the contingency and fugitiveness of the modern condition in her poetic snapshots of life and language on the move.
But if German initially unites the two women, language soon alienates, divides, and separates. Bae’s narrator reflects:
A mother tongue isn’t a border that can just be crossed, not even with the strongest will in the world. Even after fully mastering a foreign language (if such a thing is possible), your mother tongue still acts as a prison of your consciousness […] the fact that my mother tongue was different from M’s caused me unbearable grief.
What remains of their faded love years later are mere phantoms, half-visible apparitions glimmering in the murky depths of memory. It is no coincidence, then, that the young protagonist nearly drowns early in the novella, her physical immersion in a Berlin river serving as a premonition of her later submersion and near loss of self in which she sinks ever deeper into the troubled waters of past experiences.
Significantly, Bae is attuned to the perils of “fossilized memories,” composite images of past people and experiences that can become unreliable and inauthentic over time, and yet she affirms the need to inhabit this form of reflective nostalgia despite the likelihood of such misrecognitions. Often she writes with an austere beauty that reflects the novella’s wintry Berlin setting,
The dreams that reveal me for what I am still linger, though my waking self has already forgotten them. Now is the time of the setting sun, blazing in the sky above the darkness of the earth. The time when things have individual voices, and speak to me. Relying on the last light of the evening sky, I begin to write.
Between dream and reality, wakefulness and slumber, forgetfulness and certainty, the act of writing merges past, present, and future in which memory becomes the writer’s imperfect home, and Bae’s novella evocatively captures the contingency and fugitiveness of the modern condition in her poetic snapshots of life and language on the move.