‘North Station’ by Bae Suah (Review)

Fans of Korean fiction are having an excellent run at the moment, with new releases from several big names in the second half of the year.  Genre-hopping Kim Young-ha’s I Hear Your Voice appeared a couple of months back, and November (in the UK, at least) sees the publication of The White Book, the latest work in English from Man Booker International Prize winner Han Kang.  Meanwhile, back in the US, it’s Bae Suah’s turn to hit the spotlight, and having enjoyed everything I’ve read of hers so far, I was very keen to try the new book.  Rest assured, it’s another good one 🙂

North Station (translated by Deborah Smith, electronic review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books) is a collection of seven short stories from one of Korea’s best contemporary writers.  While only including seven pieces may make the collection seem a little slight (or the publishers a tad stingy), in fact it’s a solid offering running to more than 200 pages, with the first six coming in at just over twenty pages each and the final story clocking in at forty-five pages.  When you consider that Bae’s writing can make for slow reading at the best of times, you’ll realise that this isn’t a book you’ll be knocking off in an hour or so.

From the first lines, Bae’s usual, mesmerising style is apparent, with the first story, ‘First Snow, First Sight’, touching on similar themes to her novel A Greater Music.  A letter from a former lover eight years after the end of the relationship stirs up forgotten memories, which bleed into thoughts of other times as the writer takes us on a circular journey from the arrival of the letter to the coming of the woman herself.  Bae takes a rather scenic route on this journey, all the time focusing on the temporary nature of relationships and the lack of permanency in love.

Another connection to the earlier novel is how the writer uses her own experiences living overseas, with several of the stories mentioning German cities.  One example is ‘The Non-Being of the Owl’, in which the characters drift around the country, encountering old friends and mourning the death of a writer they knew.  There’s also the confusing ‘Dignified Kiss of Paris Streets’, a drifting story in which the speaker struggles with the nature of identity after receiving a letter with the wrong name on it.

It’s more common, though, for the stories to take place in undefined locations, and even when a city is named, we have the sense of an alternate reality, with the places the characters move between of little significance.  A good example of this is ‘Mouson’, a story starting with a strange taxi ride in search of a tower where a talk is being given.  As the taxi driver struggles to find the address he is given, the narrator (along with the reader) begins to doubts its existence.  When the story eventually moves on, it develops into anecdotes of stays in various unnamed foreign cities, strongly reminiscent of Recitation, Bae’s most recent novel in English.

Another theme carried over from Recitation is the way Bae plays with time.  One of the features of her work is how she blurs boundaries, with time a relative concept and the usual flow from past to present halted and diverted.  ‘North Station’ sees a couple at a train station at midnight share a fleeting kiss, a moment that stretches out over the course of the story:

In truth, that moment lasted no longer than it took the platform clock’s second hand to move a single click, but to him it lay outside the flow of time, was instead the fossil of an enormous deep-sea whale – yes, a fossilized whale! – remaining in his mind as a discrete moment, forever delayed.
‘North Station’, p.62 (Open Letter Book, 2017)

The piece expands and moves on, but we’re never quite sure where, or when, we are, seeing the characters as young lovers and older people with regrets.  Action and memory are intertwined, and in a sense there’s no need for the distinction between the two, as both are as real as each other in the characters’ personal experience.

The defining characteristic of Bae’s stories is a tendency to skilfully meander between different scenes.  Dreams are frequently mentioned, and at times that’s exactly how the pieces appear.  Despite the rather tangential connection between the scenes, they usually progress naturally and smoothly, just like dreams, and the unusual juxtaposition of people, places and times works as a whole.  On occasion, the stories even bleed into each other, such as when the writer in ‘The Non-Being of the Owl’ addresses an old friend:

“It visited me like this once a year; if one year my name is no longer outside the door to this house, then I will no longer be in sync with you, and I doubt whether I would even be able to remember you.”
‘The Non-Being of the Owl’, p.95

At which point the attentive reader (and if you’re not attentive, you might struggle with North Station…) will be reminded of a similar moment in ‘Owl’, sharing the narrator’s memories of visiting a writer in a foreign city.  Then again, of course, that may just have been a dream…

In the midst of such deliberate confusion, the characters are usually lost, but untroubled, happy where they are, even if they don’t know where that is, and the same is true for the reader.  Reading North Station is akin to a leap of faith, requiring you to trust in the writer’s ability to provide a safe path through the narrative.  It’s certainly often a confusing experience, but also pleasurable and elegantly managed.  As well as being a writer, Bae has produced a host of translations from German and Portuguese, bringing authors like Sebald, Pessoa and Handke into Korean, and you sense their influences in her style.  Of course, that wouldn’t mean much without a translator of her own, and the ubiquitous Deborah Smith has once again done a wonderful job in bringing Bae’s work into English, forging a style that matches the tone of the stories without ever feeling clumsy or forced.

The final piece of the collection, ‘How Can One Day Be Different from the Rest?’, brings all the elements of Bae’s writing together.  This double-length piece has at its centre a play set in a hundred rooms, one that was (sadly) never performed, and the story itself follows this idea, with phone calls and anecdotes bleeding into one another.  Again, Recitation-like, there’s a focus on moving around:

One of her rooms was in Seoul, the second was in Shanghai, where she had gone on her honeymoon, and the third was in a distant city where she had wanted to live but had never yet been able to.  As there was no definite name for this third, distant city, it would change name and shape as though the city itself had become a vagabond, forever in transit.
‘How Can One Day Be Different from the Rest?’, p.195

With the plot conspicuous by its absence, the story can be exhausting to read, yet it’s strangely comforting too; on finishing, there’s a feeling of satisfaction, but also a sense that something has eluded us, that North Station still has secrets for the reader to uncover…

Well, I suppose that’s what rereads are for 😉

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