‘A Greater Music’ by Bae Suah (Review)

greater_music-front_frame_largeWhile my Korean Women Writers’ Week has so far focused on authors (and poets!) I was encountering for the first time, my final post takes me back to a very familiar face.  Bae Suah’s work eventually made it into English last year in the form of two novellas, one of which, Nowhere to Be Found, was longlisted for this year’s Best Translated Book Awards.  Happily for those readers wanting to try more of her work, translator Deborah Smith has been on the case; Recitation will be published early next year by Deep Vellum, but Open Letter Books have beaten them to the punch with today’s choice, out in a matter of days 🙂

A Greater Music is narrated by a Korean writer who spent an extended period in Germany several years ago.  She is now in the midst of a trip back to Berlin to see an old friend, Joachim, and then housesit for him while he heads north for a few months’ work.  Surrounded by a harsh, Central European winter, she spends Christmas and New Year with Joachim before settling into a calm routine of late breakfasts and walks by the lake in the park with his dog.  The days spent alone give her ample time to reflect and reminisce, both on her life back in Korea and the year she spent in Berlin first time around.

As the story progresses, these memories gradually come to revolve more and more around M, a former lover who provided the focal point of the narrator’s previous stay in the country.  Their separation has left a void, one that the narrator hopes to fill somehow with her latest visit, but as she walks along the deserted winter streets, all she can think of, once she allows herself to, is the time the two lovers spent together.  Slowly (very slowly), we learn more about who M was and why she was so special, waiting for the moment when we are told how the relationship ended.

With Bae Suah living in Germany, it’s tempting to see parallels with her own life here, but A Greater Music is much more than a simple confessional piece.  The shorter pieces that have appeared in English have been marked by beautiful writing, punctuated by spiky, aggressive outbursts against the strictures of modern society.  Here, these themes and styles are extended over a much larger canvas; it’s a fairly slow tale, at least initially, and the story is given space to breathe before coming to life in the second half.

M., the focal point of the novel, is a ghostly presence to begin with, gradually coming into the picture towards the middle of the story.  From the start, she emanates an aura of sensitivity, almost other-worldliness, and the narrator can’t help but be drawn in:

And then there are M’s blue-gray eyes.  Those eyes each like a winter lake with an iceberg at its heart, its perfect stillness undisturbed by waterfowl, fish or even a single wavering blade of grass, eyes that crystallized in a single gaze the most sublime perfection of silence.  In an orchestra, M said, I am the piano, and you are the contrabass.  I couldn’t not write about M. (p.79)

M comes across as fragile and in need of protection, yet with the cultural gulf separating the two, there’s always a sense that their time together is fleeting.  Despite their connection, a parting is inevitable.

The narrator’s reasons for being in Germany come from a sense of not belonging in her home society, a feeling echoed in Nowhere to Be Found (and plenty of other Korean works of fiction):

In those days, the authority of school was so absolute that neither I nor even my parents would dare to harbor thoughts that went against the grain.  Such a thing would have been seen as undermining the good of the group, of which we were merely constituent parts. (p.9)

The difference in A Greater Music is in the way the writer explores problems outside Korean society, showing that running away doesn’t always provide a magic bullet for these issues.  Living in Germany brings its own set of problems, particularly in the area of language, with the young Korean woman struggling to express her thoughts and emotions in a foreign tongue:

Besides, if I tried to go into detail then my sentences would end up getting longer and longer, with even the slightest grammatical error opening the door for uncertainty or misunderstanding to creep in, and I’d have to keep qualifying myself, explaining my explanation, the shabby rags of my words piling up in a dizzying accumulation, guilt and shame rising up in me even as I tried to explain this guilt away. (p.85)

It’s unsurprising, then, that she avoids speaking the language whenever possible.  As a writer, someone who needs to work with words everyday, she feels robbed of her ability to use them, regressing to the level of a complete novice.  Ironically, when she does throw herself into writing in German, the result of her labours is the catalyst for tearing the young lovers apart.

While language is a problem during the stay in Germany, at least she has another obsession to help her through.  Music is a constant presence in the novel, to the extent of pervading her language, even when talking about the weather:

Of all the discrete chords pursuing infinite freedom each on their separate path, each in possession of their own language, a musician singled out one.  That chord, which layered raindrop over raindrop, extended the domain of the original droplet throughout the world that lay beneath the massing clouds, beyond the fields and low hills and what had at one time been wilderness. (p.6)

The title comes from a comment heard on the radio near the start of the novel, one our friend doesn’t entirely agree with.  For her, there is no such thing as ‘greater music’ as there is no way of comparing something so deeply subjective.

This idea isn’t restricted to music, though, and one of the ideas Bae returns to repeatedly in A Greater Music is the importance of freedom in the way you live your life.  There are people in both Seoul and Berlin who insist on there being a ‘right’ way to go about things, insisting that doing what others do is normal.  Joachim is the chief culprit here, unable to see any point to existence beyond money, success and friends (coming across as sullen, mean and whiny in the process).  When M splashes out on concert tickets, he decides that she must be incredibly wealthy.  This isn’t the case, but Joachim can’t conceive of someone prioritising music over food (or alcohol…).

Unlike her protagonist Bae has few issues with the German language, spending part of her time translating German literature into Korean.  One of the authors she has worked on is W.G. Sebald, and it isn’t hard to see Sebaldian influences on her own writing, particularly in the way her main character spends her time simply walking and thinking.  Much of the novel consists of beautiful scenes in the snow, the woman passing slowly through parks or taking long tram rides.  With little sunshine, the dark nights and rainy days are full of clouds, both literal and metaphorical, and while there are people around, for the most part they’re seen from the outside, lending the story an air of isolation.  Bae never allows the demand for a narrative to interrupt this mood; even when we’re plunged into a near drowning, there’s never any sense of a hurry to resolve matters.

While the book is a little slow to get going, especially the first fifty pages or so where we wait for M to make her first appearance, the writing is excellent (apparently this was Smith’s first ever translation, although I suspect that she may have revised it a fair bit since then!).  When M does make her appearance, the story slowly increases in intensity, while never losing that feeling of beauty.  A Greater Music builds wonderfully to its climax, and my first thought on reaching the end was that I wish I’d had time for a second read before having to work on the review.  Bae’s novel examines what makes life worth living, and in the end, the message seems to be one of urging us to hold onto what makes us alive, no matter how unorthodox it may be.  Otherwise, like the narrator, you may live to regret it…

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