On November 18th of this year, a blaze killed nineteen people in a textile manufacturing district of Beijing. Most of the victims were migrant workers, scores of whom continue to live peripheral lives in makeshift, pop-up neighborhoods on the outskirts of major cities across China. In response to the tragedy, the city government instituted a forty-day effort to demolish the capital’s “unsafe” buildings, the result of which has been mass evictions with tens of thousands of homeless migrant workers freezing in wintry Beijing temperatures. Described in official documents as the “low-end population”, these workers—battalions of couriers, cleaners, day laborers, trash collectors—provide the essential service jobs upon which Beijing’s more affluent residents rely.
Can the present save the past? Can the living save the dead? As South Korean author Han Kang revealed in a 2016 interview with the London-based magazine The White Review, these questions interested her during her twenties, only to resurface years later when drafting her novel Human Acts about the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and its aftermath. And they continue to resonate in her writing as evidenced by her most recent work The White Book.
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.