‘Recitation’ by Bae Suah (Review)

recitationWith Han Kang’s explosion onto the Anglophone literary scene raising the profile of Korean literature in (English) translation, there’s potential for others to capitalise on this, and perhaps the writer most likely to follow in Han’s footsteps, particularly in the US, is Bae Suah.  One of her first works to appear in English, Nowhere to Be Found, was longlisted for last year’s Best Translated Book Award, and her excellent novel, A Greater Music, may well repeat that feat this time around.  However, I sense that these first books to appear in English have all been preparation for today’s choice, a longer, more complex work – this is the novel that might get even more readers talking about her…

Recitation (translated by Deborah Smith, ecopy courtesy of Deep Vellum Publishing) is the story of Kyung-hee, a woman who travels the world.  We, and some unnamed narrators, first meet her in a chance encounter outside an airport, and once the characters arrive back at the narrators’ home, Kyung-hee starts to relate her stories of travels, talking about experiences in cities around the world, and in her home town.  The listeners are enthralled by her unusual life, her decision to set off around the world living out of a backpack, with only the money from her occasional recitation work (a deliberately vague occupation in recording studios), and the use of strangers’ spare bedrooms, to live on.

Over the novel’s several sections, we follow Kyung-hee on her travels to Korea, Berlin, Europe and Central Asia.  There are occasional hints to her location, but for the most part they’re fairly vague, and in truth unimportant.  She encounters, and reencounters, a series of people, characters rather, often labelled with descriptions rather than real names, before the story eventually loops back, with the voices who started the book returning to search for Kyung-hee in her supposed home town – at which point we begin to wonder whether she exists at all…

It’s all a little bizarre, but very impressive, an ambitious novel building on the work we’ve already seen in English.  Where A Greater Music, despite its dreamlike nature, was still a fairly focused novel, this one takes us into much more uncharted territory.  It consists for the most part of a series of conversations, as Kyung-hee bumps into people and plunges straight into deep and meaningfuls, meandering from city to city, country to country, not really searching for anything, or really running away from anything either.  In doing so, she becomes part of a community of citizens of the world, best represented by the Karakorum organisation of people offering shelter to anyone who wishes to crash on their bedroom floor for a while.

In many of the conversations, Kyung-hee and her friends discuss the concept of place, and the first and last sections, partially set in lost areas of Seoul, are key to the story.  There’s an old shop, hidden beneath flyovers, and a run-down sweet factory in an isolated suburb near some low hills, and both of these places are found only because the protagonists have walked, something we too often fail to do in our modern era.  Kyung-hee is prompted to start her journey on foot, and she shows us that it’s only when we avoid using transportation that we become aware of how big cities really are, something we’ve forgotten…

However, it’s less the unique nature of cities than their similarities that Bae focuses on  throughout the novel.  In her conversations with the people she runs into, Kyung-hee explains how the cities she visits seem to be copies of each other, palimpsests, with the walls between times and places thin, and easy to slip through.  People today are no longer natives of a particular region but of the ‘city’, and we are tied not by our beliefs, but by our recognition of shared symbols (such as the Starbucks logo…):

Given this, I wonder about the collective soul of the widespread and artificially constructed new tribe known as the ‘city dweller’, who is no longer a part of any traditional society or race, and has never at any time held spiritual or religious beliefs which arise from any geographic specificity, or at least beliefs which are current only in a specific region, given that, even in regions where such beliefs had once held sway, the degree and duration of industrialisation meant not only that shamanism had lost its power but that access to collective memories of it had been completely cut off, with each individual inextricably bound up with things that would once have been foreign to them, psychological differences flattened, made to conform to an international standard now long accepted, a globally-current ‘enlightened’ standard that is considered the only one of value; the modern city dweller who has thus lost no few of their native, traditional mythical elements, which defy explanation; the modern city dweller in whom the majority of us can now recognise ourselves.
p.59 (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2017)

It’s this loss of a connection with traditional culture, the rootlessness brought by globalisation, that has many of the characters looking back in an attempt to reconnect, and the main tradition explored in the book is Korean shamanism.  Kyung-hee’s landlord in Berlin is a healer, and at the end of the book, when we finally see her in action with her recitation, the story she tells is of a shaman’s wife with a tough decision ahead of her.

This leads to another focus of the novel, that of family.  There are several important blood ties in Recitation, such as that between Kyung-hee’s lover, Mr. Nobody, and his son, Banchi, but towards the middle of the novel, she reveals secrets about her family to an elderly stranger (at Starbucks…).  However, some of these ties are shrouded in mystery – we’re never quite sure what is happening with her silent elder sister (if she is her sister…), and when a woman claiming to be her daughter appears to pursue Kyung-hee throughout Europe, we’re don’t know who to believe.  To confuse matters even further, time is rarely defined in the novel, making it even more difficult to decide who people actually are, a nice parallel of the shaman’s wife fable with its chronological loops and Oedipal allusions.  Is this a story taking place over several decades, or is Bae playing with us, reversing the roles of parents and children at will?

As you can imagine, Recitation is defined by an unreal fairytale air, with a lack of names (for people and places) distancing the reader from the narrative while pulling them gently into the story:

Kyung-hee had needed a Berlin address, somewhere she would be able to receive a letter from Mr. Nobody.  Though the two of them had met for the first time at a restaurant in Europe, both in the capacity of travellers, they had in fact already been aware of each other’s existence. (p.50)

It’s beautiful to read, with the flowing monologues, excellently written, allowing you to lose yourself in the text.  Smith’s work never feels forced or stilted and is notable for the elaborate phrasing and high level of vocabulary, with many deliberately obscure choices:

And I realised that I’d only ever lived in the city where I was born, a city which now seemed both strong as adamant and elaborately curlicued, like a besieged fortress encircled by a moat, archer’s holes in its castle wall, adorned with gargoyles of pig-faced warriors. (p.18)

Without access to the original, it’s hard to tell if Bae’s language is as elegant and ornate as it appears here; if so, then it’s excellent work.  This is especially important as the nature of the novel means that we’re often in the dark as to where exactly we’re going, and the only thing we have to hold onto is what Kyung-hee and her friends are saying.  It’s a credit to Smith that the story never feels like hard work, even when we are struggling to make sense of the speakers’ obscure conversations.

Recitation is impossible to summarise easily, challenging you to make sense of the veiled conversations it contains.  I doubt this will make it onto many book club lists, but readers who enjoy the challenge of quality writing will love it.  Like the enigma of Kyung-hee, it’s a story that won’t be deciphered easily:

I marvel at you, you who skip so easily from one city to the next.  You’re like someone reciting a story which has neither beginning nor end, someone who lives inside such a story. (p.105)

It’s all true, I can assure you – and that’s what makes Recitation a pleasure to read 🙂

7 thoughts on “‘Recitation’ by Bae Suah (Review)

  1. Having not yet got round to Bae Suah’s two previously translated works, I may just leap into this, although it’s clearly more challenging. I never worry about not understanding a book – it’s such a common experience!


  2. This sounds wonderful Tony – I have a short story of Bae Suah’s I downloaded a while ago but I haven’t got to yet. I loved both of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts and hope to read more Korean literature. I’ll be using your blog posts as handy reading guides!


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