Author(s): Bae Suah; Deborah Smith (Translator)
A seductive, disorienting story about parallel lives, unfolding over a day and a night in the sweltering heat of Seoul's summer
For two years, 28-year-old Kim Ayami has worked at Seoul's only audio theatre for the blind. But Ayami has just been made redundant, and thinking about the future feels like staring into the unknown.
Open to anything, Ayami spends a night in the company of her former boss, searching for a mutual friend who has disappeared, and the following day looking after a visiting poet who turns out to be not what he seems. Walking the streets of the city with each man in turn, Ayami talks about art, love and the inaccessible country to the north. But in the sweltering heat of Seoul at the height of the summer, order gives way to chaos and the edges of reality start to fray, with Ayami becoming an unwitting guide to its increasingly tangled threads.
Seductive, disorienting and wholly original, Untold Night and Day asks whether more than one version of ourselves can exist at once - and shows why Bae Suah is considered one of the boldest and most original voices in Korean literature today.
Untold Night and Day is a surreal two-day looped tale. We meet Ayami on her final day of work at the small, only and virtually unknown audio theatre in Seoul. It’s mid-summer and there is a heat-wave. The last visitors to the theatre are a group of high school students who are studying the play, a man who Ayami presumes is their teacher, and a visually impaired girl. The play is The Blind Owl by Iranian author Sadeq Hedayat, a book Ayami is currently reading and discussing with her friend and German teacher, Yeoni. From the first page, Suah creates an unease. Ayami tells the director about the audio that turns itself on sometimes — what she believes is a radio, and the voices remind her of the shipping news in their tone and texture. Ayami has been an actor but, unable to find work, she has been in the menial role at the theatre for two years. Now, she is about to be made redundant and this uncertainty is played out in the heat of a day and a night. As she goes to leave the theatre for the last time she is confronted by a strange occurrence. A man is on the other side of the glass door, seemingly mad, desperately trying to communicate with her. Despite the glass, she feels as though she can hear him. She can lip-read and what she deduces it that he wants revenge, but what for and why is unknown to her. This stranger seems to know her, but she does not recognise him. The man, Buha, has his own story that runs parallel to Ayami’s, and he is tenuously linked to her by a connection with Yeoni. In his mind, Ayami is a the poet-woman and his obsession with this woman disrupts his perspective. There are further references to poets later — Ayami must meet a foreign poet at the airport, the director goes to a poetry reading, and there is a poet's exhibition held in the now ex-audio theatre. After Buha is taken away by security guards, Ayami goes to meet the director at a ‘blackout’ restaurant where you eat in the dark — your senses of touch and taste enhanced and the waiters are all blind. It is as if the writer wants us to turn off our expectations of what a conventional novel is and tune in other antennae to navigate our way through Untold Night and Day. Here you have the groundwork for the novel — a place where dream and reality are superimposed, where there is a stretching of time, as well as a concentration of repeated actions. This makes the text both clever and confusing, so much so that I felt at times the puzzle was still to be solved if solving it was the aim. Suah uses a repetitive motif — repeated descriptions of characters, multiple roles, repeated lines, repeated but slightly adjusted actions, objects and images that reoccur (a white bus, a statue with a raised arm (sometimes a man), the book called The Blind Owl, barking dogs) — to superimpose the linked dimensions: all happenings are valid and real, yet surreal and dream-like. The characters are propelled forward by their actions, yet also this throws them into chaos: a chaotic state which is like a fever with its twin traits of clarity and disorientation. Suah’s writing is intriguing and mind-bending — be ready to be taken somewhere else.