Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 156 pages; 2020. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.
Where do I even begin with this strange and cryptic novella from South Korea?
Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a bit like a fever dream with no seemingly coherent narrative thread. It feels disorientating and disjointed, but peel away the chaotic tumbling of words, repeated phrases and motifs, and you discover a world that feels a lot like this one yet doesn’t quite follow the same rules.
Time, for instance, is warped; the past and present collide in a way that is far from linear, and sometimes it’s hard to follow the identities of people, so you’re never sure if you are following multiple characters or a single character with multiple identities.
A simple story, extravagantly told
On the face of it, the story is a simple one: it charts the movements of a young woman across the space of a single day and night (hence the title) in the middle of summer.
During this short period, Ayami — who may or may not be an actress, or may or may not be a poet — finishes up her shift at an audio theatre for the blind, bumps into a former businessman, searches for a missing friend and looks after Wolfi, a visiting poet from Germany.
But so much happens — and doesn’t happen — that the edges of reality seem blurred, confused, dizzying. There’s a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the prose which shifts between poetic eloquence and a plain-speaking simplicity, sometimes within the space of a single paragraph. And it offers a richly multi-sensory experience.
Someone bumped into Ayami and muttered an apology, muffled and inarticulate, as though they had spoken into their scarf or collar. When they moved past the faint scent of cat came from their clothing. Or it might have been the smell of a pine marten or badger. Ayami was sitting alone in the outdoor smoking area. A withered, neglected hydrangea was tangled against the wall. Ayami was watching her own huge shadow wavering on the wall.
A sense of déjà vu
It’s the kind of writing, with its recurrent motifs — “exposed skinny calves corded with stringy muscle”, “pathetically small feet” and “sunken eyes” are just some of the many examples dotted throughout the text — that provides an ongoing sense of déjà vu. Haven’t I read this before, I kept asking myself?
And that’s what also provides the narrative with a beguiling feeling of time collapsing in on itself.
Ayami was her future self or her past self. And she was both, existing at the same time. In that other world, she was both the chicken and the old woman. That was the secret of night and day existing simultaneously.
Yet, despite the lush language and the simultaneous experiences that occur, the book is rooted in philosophy, asking serious questions about the meaning of life. Most of the characters rail against loneliness, seek meaning in beauty and are looking for direction — in love and careers. They are all seeking a life less ordinary.
My whole life, I’ve only ever walked well-trodden paths. I’ve been afraid of being alone. Thinking about it now, it’s not clear whether it is loneliness or meaningless that I’ve truly feared. Even so, I’ve always failed to get people to agree to things. That smell of the suburbs, of people who have jobs, have mainly been sinecures, I’m well aware of how it pervades me.
Strange and unusual
Untold Night and Day isn’t an easy book to love. It’s complex and confusing, but it also does amazing things to the brain and images seep into the subconscious only to arise when you least expect them. In that sense, it’s hugely reminiscent of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, a series of interlinked short stories in which characters move from one tale to another and recurring images and motifs work together to create a dreamlike reading experience.
I enjoyed the experience of reading this one, but it’s not a book to go into lightly — it’s one that demands focus and attention, the kind of tale to get completely lost in, metaphorically, of course.
For a more eloquent and detailed review of this book, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.