Most of us know that every country and culture has its folk tales and fairy…
Bae Suah is one of the great contemporary authors of South Korea. Author of A Greater Music, Nowhere to Be Found, and North Station (a personal favourite), she has burst onto the stage that is 2020 with a topsy-turvy surrealist tale that feels uncomfortably in-line with the narrative of the 21st Century. Untold Night and Day is, to borrow author Sharlene Teo’s words, a fever dream of a novel; a book that is unknowably yet aggressively familiar to all of us.
Untold Night and Day
Ayami is a former actress who has worked for two years at a menial position in a tiny, almost entirely unknown, Seoul theatre which puts on auditory performances for blind audiences. She’s approaching thirty, anxious, and unsure of herself in every way imaginable. She also soon discovers that she will soon be out of a job.
What begins as a vivid setup – a drawing with thick black lines – gently begins to grow fuzzy. Ayami’s own colours start to blend, as do those of the story, and of time itself. Reality, for us and for Ayami, slips away and loops in on itself. Surrealism, soon enough, has its nails in us and it won’t allow us to wake up.
There perhaps isn’t a more apt description of Untold Night and Day than ‘fever dream’. This parallel runs deep. At 150 pages, the novel is short – a quick read that, like a fever dream, manages to play deceptively with time and progress. You’ll wonder how long you’ve had your head in the book before a chapter break eventually allows you to take a breath. You might even emerge sweating and confused.
Untold Night and Day also feels like an unknown space: I read the chapter in three bursts across two days and, despite how alluring it is – playing like a siren song from my bag or my pocket even when it wasn’t open and being read – when I returned to it I struggled to remember what events had transpired. The book teases time and space, and it teases all of us. This makes the novel frustrating to review because, like a fever dream, it seems to slip away once it’s over.
Split into just four chapters of differing lengths which, frustratingly but purposefully, tear the pacing apart, Untold Night and Day mostly follows a period of just two days of Ayami’s life. These two midsummer days are so choked by the sweltering and distressing Seoul heat as to play with the minds of our protagonists (because, in chapter 2, there is a second, and then a pseudo-third). The heat angers, frustrates, and confuses. It becomes an antagonist to our protagonists; a hateful thing that brings them misery. The way in which Bae Suah here vilifies the heat is enrapturing.
“At this time of year, the city was like an animal being slowly smother beneath a heap of steaming earth.”
The story itself partly concerns Ayami’s concerns for her job and her future, while also trying to fulfil a duty she has taken on. Ayami has a German tutor named Yeoni who has asked Ayami to meet with a poet who is currently flying into Seoul. In what feels like an impossibly parallel moment, Ayami is also having dinner with the theatre’s director, at a pitch-dark restaurant where diners experience blindness. When Yeoni goes missing, Ayami desperately wonders what must have happened to her and anxiously puzzles over finding her. She must also, however, deal with the visiting poet – if, indeed, that’s what he is.
Events that should really make perfect and linear sense instead take on, to borrow yet again from Sharlene Teo, a Lynchian quality. At times it’s linearity which falls away. At others, it’s the very means of living and experiencing life. We are transported at the turn of a page from one scenario to another. The new scenario may simply be another place or conversation. Or, as in something Lynchian, it might be a bizarrely impossible and eerie situation.
Towards the end of the book, there is a moment where the Lynchian surrealism reaches a feverish height and the story transforms itself into a play, written like a script and with Ayami attempting to understand twists and turns from her past and us pondering that, surely, she must be the butt of some cruel joke.
Read More: Review of Yeoyu, Featuring Bae Suah
And what it all of this in service of? At first it seems to be symptomatic of a quart-life crisis. Ayami is out of a job; she has stopped acting; she is studying German though it isn’t entirely clear why. Her life is disconnected, and she is scrabbling to plug herself back into reality; failing at every turn.
As someone in his late twenties who has, over the past several years, made enormous leaps to try and find a linear path to tread – from switching jobs to studying various different languages to taking up new hobbies and moving countries – I felt an uncomfortable kinship to Ayami in Untold Night and Day.
This is bigger than Ayami, too. The surrealism and frantic detachment from reality here is symptomatic of generational gaps, of fears concerning the state of the planet – climate change, late-stage capitalism, a global epidemic of exhaustion and anxiety. Ayami can no longer contend with life itself. She cannot keep her life on a straight timeline. Some moments slip away while others stretch on forever.
“Whatever the intention or aim of the photographer, Wolfi thought, every photograph is a unique proof of identity, firmly declaring that human beings are ghosts.”
All of this is reflected in the way that the book is written. Awkwardly short sentences pepper the earlier pages, while the middle chapter suffers from awkwardly long ones. Some characters speak in cryptic messages. The heat is described with distressingly anatomical detail and metaphors that churn the stomach. And all of this is conveyed in translation so eloquently by Deborah Smith.
Deborah became a celebrated breakout star in the world of translation when she and Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize several years ago. Since then, she has worked in copacetic harmony with both Han Kang and Bae Suah to faithfully bring their works to English. And if anything should convince you of her powers of translation, it should be Untold Night and Day.
Read More: Our Review of Han Kang’s The White Book
I can only imagine that translating this novel must have been the greatest fever dream of all. Whatever we, the readers, suffer from this twisted and abstract tale, Deborah must have suffered ten-fold to deliver it. And I, for one, am in her debt.
Untold Night and Day should be read with a clean and sober mind, then talked about after a few vodka shots. It’s a dirty and cracked narrative that encourages questions about our 21st Century world and how we’re living in it. The novel is, indeed, a Lynchian fever dream, but it demands perseverance and complete absorption. And, honestly, even if you were to try and quit it, the book likely wouldn’t let you. Open it up and let it sink into you as you sink into it.
Every millennial who is suffering through life and change in this world will feel something in Ayami. It’s uncomfortable, to be sure, but there is nothing truer or clearer than the surrealism found in this little masterpiece.