“Untold Night and Day” by Bae Suah

Detail of UK edition cover Detail of UK edition cover

Kim Ayami is a twenty-eight year old woman and law-school dropout who wants to be an actress, but appears to have been not very good at it, as she has only acted in one production and is now working at a theatre for the blind in Seoul after a number of stints as a waitress. It’s her last day there, though, because the theatre, the only one of its kind, is closing down and Ayami faces the uncertainty of unemployment, as she has no formal qualifications for another job.

This situation frees her up for what we might term her adventure, which is in fact a quest, but a quest which is not exactly like the usual literary search, where the seeker has an idea of what is being sought. Ayami isn’t exactly looking for the Holy Grail, but sets out on her unwitting quest by keeping her former director company and engaging in a search for a person they both seem to have known but who has somehow dropped out of sight. This is followed the next day by another search, this time for a poet, Kim Cheol-seok, but the director doesn’t know what kind of poetry he writes, although he does know that the poet’s name, which is apparently a pen-name, means “the sound of earth being poured into his coffin.” He later materializes in the form of an elderly man at a photographic exhibition.

 

Untold Night and Day: A Novel, Bae Suah, Deborah Smith (trans) (Overlook Press, May 2020; Jonathan Cape, January 2020)
Untold Night and Day: A Novel, Bae Suah, Deborah Smith (trans) (Overlook Press, May 2020; Jonathan Cape, January 2020)

One of South Korea’s best-known writers, Bae Suah may not be as familiar to English-language readers. Her new novel, however, comes amid a recent revival of interest in Korea, with Korean restaurants and films popping up everywhere; people have become well aware of the absurd relationship between the man who currently passes for the American president and the North Korean ruler. A work which, as Charlene Teo perceptively states on the back cover, is

 

as cryptic and compelling as a fever dream … a vivid and disorienting exploration of identity, artifice and compulsion

 

might therefore fit the zeitgeist better than one might at first think.

Ayami does a lot of walking around Seoul in this book, each time in the company of a different man, and the conversations she has with her companions run the gamut from love to the enigma of North Korea. One wonders what exactly is Ayami looking for, and indeed why people often go looking for things they either don’t find or discover were quite different from what they thought they were? Bae Suah creates a fluid, blurry, multi-layered kind of world in which many things are not what they seem. At one point, in a flashback, the young Ayami finds herself walking along a road when she finds a blue pebble:

 

beneath the pebble, a deep, gaping hole led to the world on the opposite side of the mirror, which existed simultaneously with this one … on the far side of the hole another Ayami was living in a different world.

 

Shades of Lewis Carroll, minus the White Rabbit!

 

Some clues to the nature of this book may be found in the very name of the protagonist. “Ayami” is actually a Japanese name which means “beautiful color”, but is also a tutelary spirit in shamanism which occupies the body of the shaman and speaks through his or her mouth to communicate from the other world to this one; it is personified by a beautiful woman. The Chinese character denoting “Kim”, the commonest Korean surname, means “gold”. In shamanism, which still has a strong following in Korea, every object and feature is animate, which allows for a multi-layered universe that may be interpreted through visions, memories and dreams. The spirit enters the shaman’s body and communicates the “other” world through him or her to listeners.

Reality becomes fluid for Ayami, who finds herself in a world where, for example, night and day can exist simultaneously, somehow independent of time as she knows it. It’s almost as if Bae Suah is using Ayami as a shaman and a spirit at the same time, to communicate this surreal fantasy world to readers. In this world, the order we have come to expect is dissipated, boundaries come down, and the result is a strange kind of dream; as Matthew Arnold once wrote, the world

 

seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new.

 

And dreams are integral to the book: a freelancer and poet named Yeoni says to her friend Buha, who asks her, “Please take me to another world,” that she will “invite you into the ecstasy of my dream.” It’s also unsurprising that Yeoni reads aloud passages from The Blind Owl, the classic novel by the Iranian writer Sadeq Hedayat, in which the protagonist struggles constantly and vainly to reconcile reality with fantasy.

Bae Suah juggles the various layers of her novel with consummate skill, yet what may in the end remain is a feeling of confusion and bewilderment. Just what is Ayami looking for, if anything, and just what does she find? Are the other characters really who or what they seem to be? At the novel’s conclusion, Ayami is in the cinema with the director, who tells her that his head is hurting so much (from a nail sticking in it) that he feels like vomiting. Ayami simply and compassionately says, “If you want to vomit, you can vomit on me,” which he proceeds to do. “White, burning hot vomit ran down Ayami’s blouse and splattered onto the ground,” and he asks her plaintively, “Like you wrote in that letter. . .Take me to another world.” After he’s finished being sick,

 

she gently stroked his bloodied crown, where the nail’s thick head protruded. Ayami stroked him lake that for a long time, as though the repetitive gesture might conjure a shamanic power—the only way of keeping together, in the same place and time, two human beings in the process of disintegrating.

 

And that seems to be it—the novel is about the process of disintegration, with the only solution lying in the “shamanic power” which Ayami is apparently able to exert. But is she the shaman or the spirit itself speaking through the shaman? Bae Suah often employs repetition in this novel, as can be seen by more than one character requesting to be taken to another world, and the recurrent image of a white bus.

 

The somewhat overused adjective “Lynchian” has been used more than once by reviewers to describe Bae Suah’s writing, a reference to the American filmmaker David Lynch, who is celebrated for his nightmarish visions of reality, which one writer described as “being dropped into the middle of someone else’s dream.” Objects are often familiar or recognizable, but they are transformed into something strange and different, as if one were looking at a cinematic version of a Salvador Dali painting. Boundaries are blurred, different levels of “reality” are posited, and events unravel.

The result is disorientation, although the originality and the poetic quality of Bae Suah’s writing is undeniable. I put this novel aside with a sigh of relief, but would certainly recommend it to anyone who relishes the shifting, disorientating realities of magic realism and the dreamlike world of a David Lynch film. Again, Matthew Arnold got it right:

 

And we are here as on a darkling plain,
Swept with confused alarums of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.