The Essayist’s Desk, published in 2003 and written when its author Bae Suah had just returned from an 11-month stint in Germany, was the first book I ever translated, staying in my friend Sophie’s spare room during the freezing Seoul winter of 2012. I first heard of Bae during initial reading for a PhD in contemporary Korean literature; she was described as ‘doing violence to the Korean language’, which I think was intended as a criticism, but which sent me on an immediate search for fiction by this author who sounded thrillingly like Clarice Lispector (whose Complete Short Stories are currently being translated into Korean, via the German translation, by none other than Bae Suah herself).
But the book for whose publication Bae Suah and I are currently on a bookshop tour of the States is not called The Essayist’s Desk but A Greater Music. ‘A greater music’ are in fact the novel’s first words. The entire first passage, which stretches over three pages, circles through a discussion of why that phrase, ‘greater music’, is both ungrammatical and inappropriate in the situation, making it fiendishly difficult to translate (a recurrent theme with Bae Suah’s work). It was this book in particular that garnered the criticism of linguistic violence, its Korean apparently sounding as though it had been translated from German – precisely what its protagonist, a young Korean writer staying in Berlin, is attempting in her language classes, writing about Schubert, statelessness, and the teacher with whom she has fallen in love.
The second of Bae’s books which I’ve translated in full is known to its Korean readers as The Low Hills of Seoul, but the book that came out from Deep Vellum in early 2017 is titled Recitation. Initially, I toyed with combining these two as The Low Hills of Seoul: A Recitation. It’s a stretch to call a disembodied voice a protagonist, but former ‘recitation actor’ Kyung-hee is the closest this novel has to one. But while the book features instances of recitations given on stage and heard as recordings, the more significant and indeed revolutionary thing is that it is written as a recitation. The first six chapters consist almost entirely of reported speech, as a group of people unspecified in both number and gender recall the stories told them by Kyung-hee, the young woman they encounter at a train station and invite back to their apartment, convinced that she also hails from the country they left long ago. Technically speaking, then, the book is narrated by this ‘we’, but it isn’t until the final chapter that their collective voice takes over as they travel to Seoul in search of Kyung-hee, only to be met with claims that there is no such job as ‘recitation actor’, and that ‘there is no Kyung-hee’. Emotion burns through A Greater Music, which has one of the most devastating breakup scenes I’ve ever read, while Recitation burns with ambition, an eclectic synthesis of ideas, images, scenes. Reading it is like boarding a caravanserai travelling through Vienna, Mongolia, and Seoul, with cameos from Elfriede Jelinek, Placido Domingo, and the Dalai Lama, and references to shamanism, Egyptian mythology, and Total Recall. Both, for me, are masterpieces.