Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 2, 2019

Nowhere to Be Found, by Bae Suah, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

For #WIT (Women in Translation) Month, I’ve chosen to tackle two translations long-forgotten because I could only buy them for my Kindle.  Unlike real books, which command my attention from the shelves and sulk if I don’t read them soon enough, books in the innards of my Kindle wait patiently and soon disappear from sight altogether as they are displaced from the Home Screen.  (Not that I buy a lot of books from Amazon.  You know that.)

Nowhere To Be Found didn’t deserve that fate, though I can’t say that I enjoyed it much.  I bought it because it was longlisted for the BTBA Best Translated Book Award Nominee for Fiction in 2016, and its translator Sore Kim-Russell was nominated for the PEN Translation Prize Nominee in the same year.  Paul Fulcher who I follow at Goodreads rated it four stars and gave it a handsome review concluding that it packs more power into its 100 slim pages than most 300 page plus novels

But I should have paid more attention to what he wrote next, quoting the author Bae Suah as saying: “‘The most suitable way to not say something’—that’s what I think of as the aesthetic of my short fiction.”

While its elusive style would probably disqualify it from the genre, it reads like the kind of apathetic nobody-understands-me YA that I dislike.  In her early twenties, the narrator is a clerical worker in a mundane job in Seoul in 1988, but the drama of the Seoul Olympics and the revelations about atrocities that preceded it don’t concern her.  In this exchange she seems to agree with the proposition that the outcome of Korea using antipersonnel weapons is no different to murder, but she dismisses the idea of taking protest action as a waste of time.

“What kinds of people commit murder?”
“Murderers, I suppose.”
“Your minute is up.”
“Do you suppose we will ever be rid of all antipersonnel weapons?”
“Huh?”
“How are such weapons any different from murder?”
“They’re not.”
“I’m planning a demonstration. Everyone will form a human chain.”
“Doing that won’t change a single thing.” (p. 92, Amazon Crossing, Kindle Edition)

Well, I don’t have much patience with young people not interested in their own country’s future.  Is the author exposing this wilful naïveté to try to change it?

Predictably, the narrator is alienated from her family:

… my family is just a random collection of people I knew long ago and will never happen upon again, and people I don’t know yet but will meet by chance one day. Their dim, indistinct faces will ultimately, and meaninglessly, become the faces of the people in my life, though at the present moment they are unfamiliar strangers with no influence over me whatsoever. (p. 12 Amazon Crossing, Kindle Edition.)

She loses touch with her brother, who abandons his promise to help the family financially.  She is scornful about her little sister’s ambitions to transcend their poverty.

She thinks she has a true self, but it is nowhere to be found:

Rain falls inside the dark, abandoned house. It streams down the walls of the kitchen and front door like a waterfall. Burn me. Pour gasoline over me and set my body on fire. Burn me at the stake like a witch. Wrap me in garbage bags and toss me in the incinerator. I’ll turn into dioxin and make my way into your lungs. Stroke my face lightly with a razor blade and suck the blood that comes seeping out. Lap it up like a cat. I want to be covered in blood. I’ll cry out in the end and weep for fear of leaving this world without ever once discovering the me inside me, the ugly something inside me. But then I see her: another me passing by like a landscape of inanimate objects outside the window of the empty house quietly collapsing in the rain.

Where have you been all this time? Were you off somewhere singing, putting cats to sleep on the porch, drifting about in the rapids of time, the glow of the morning sun and the rain of a summer afternoon beating down as you pass by, your lips shut tight like a bloodsucking plant? The me that is nowhere to be found now, the me that will turn to ash and vanish, turn to darkness and rot—that me extends a squalid hand at the final moment of this crash, having entirely deserted and abandoned my life. In truth, I was not me. The me that was born into an animal body and lived as a slave to poverty and insult was nothing but the emptiness that had been momentarily bewitched out of me by an evil spirit. That distant me is precious and beautiful. No matter how decadent and corrupt my body becomes, I will, like a desert orchid that blooms once every hundred years, come to you bearing this frigidness toward life. (pp. 38-39, Amazon Crossing, Kindle Edition)

Unsurprisingly, the churlish boyfriend Cheolsu is — both physically and psychologically — also nowhere to be found. (And she’s better off without him IMO).

It outlived memory. Back then Cheolsu was nowhere to be found, and it would be no different in the future. Meaningless sensations lingered on my skin as clearly as teeth marks that refused to fade. Time pushes away that which is intended, rejects that which is rejected, forgets that which is sung about, and is filled with that which it turns its eyes from, such as the white hairs of a loved one.  (p. 93, Amazon Crossing, Kindle Edition)

Well, if you like your fiction narcissistic and nihilistic, maybe this one might appeal.  Sophie Hughes at Music and Literature sees qualities in the novella that eluded me entirely.

Author: Bae Suah
Title: Nowhere To Be Found
Translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
Publisher: Amazon Crossing, 2015, first published 1998
ASIN: B00OV403X0
Purchased for the Kindle because that’s the only way it’s available in Australia.


Responses

  1. More interesting perhaps than the novel is your excellent analysis on the return to the review to find bthose sentences that enticed you and those you ought to have paid more attention to, though it is often only after reading that their insinuation becomes clear. A sample sometimes help, that’s what I’ve begun to do when feeling pulled towards a novel by the magnificent prose of certain reviewers. 😊

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    • Thanks you, Claire, I must admit to feeling some temerity about this one. The praise is so fulsome, and the BTBA nomination so impressive that I am half-expecting a torrent of objections to my thoughts.
      And also I thought, maybe it’s bad form to post my unenthusiastic review of this one for #WITMonth — which is meant to encourage the reading of women in translation…

      But truth must be told else why be bothered blogging? I thought it was a dreary book about nothing at all. Very cleverly written and nicely translated (though in the page 38-9 quotation the word should be ‘frigidity’, not ‘frigidness’), but then, The Emperor’s New Clothes were described superbly too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. One I can safely say doesn’t appeal at all based on your reaction and those extracts.. The writing seems very self conscious – too much of the ‘look at me and how great a writer I am” to realise that it’s not that good.

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    • Well, as always, I encourage you to look at the other reviews, clearly they saw merit in this book that I didn’t.
      But I confess to being rather tired of this kind of theme in contemporary fiction… I can understand why narcissistic young people want to write it, but I can’t imagine why anyone wants to read it.
      I tell you what I would like to read, from Korea. I’d like to read a book about what it’s like to be an older woman, one who’s been unable to contact family in the north since partition, and has married and had children and now grandchildren. She has heard Bush threaten the north with his stupid Axis of Evil remarks, and feared a US war against them ever since. Now she has to live day-to-day with her fears for her children and grandchildren’s future with a nuclear-armed state in the north, Trump being provocative to the east, and China keeping a keen eye on everything. I’d be delighted to hear about a book like that…

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      • that would be a cracking novel. when do you plan to start writing it??

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        • Ha! A field trip to Korea first?

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  3. I’m intrigued by this, particularly by your question re the young character – ” Is the author exposing this wilful naïveté to try to change it?” I’d like to think about this myself. What is the author’s tone?

    I’ve seen two Korean films recently – but both HAVE been pretty politically (socio-politically) focused, on the disparity between haves and have-nots, and to some degree on gender.

    BTW I don’t think the author HAS to write about current events (like the Seoul Olympics)? Austen has been criticised for this re the Napoleonic Wars, hasn’t she?

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    • To be honest, Sue, I have no idea what the author is trying to achieve. And by the end of the book, I didn’t care.

      I don’t think authors have to write about current events, but I’m often bored when they don’t. I find it surprising that so many young authors don’t feel compelled to consider the bigger picture and the mess the world is in. It’s their future, and I admire writers like Alice Robinson and Meg Mundell who do write about it.
      And #WagsFinger Jane Austen is not a fair example. She was a genius. She could write about going up and down stairs all day or hanging out the washing and it would be worth reading…

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s really nteresting Lisa. I really don’t care whether they do or don’t. Or, what I mean is that it’s never really crossed my mind as something to look for, or something I specifically want, though it’s something I notice if they do, of course.

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        • For me, it’s like being at a party: you meet people whose small talk is banal and shallow and who assume that everyone is the same. If you’re lucky you also meet people who are more interesting. You are friendly to both sorts, and you listen to what they have to say with respect, but it’s the interesting ones that you hope to see again in future.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, true, good analogy. But I’d add that I think it’s also a matter of what you find interesting. For me content is one part… But style and tone is another. One person can bore you silly with a banal story while someone else can tell you the same story but have you in fits. I more like the first person whereas my son is like the second!

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            • Well of course! Some people are riveted by conversations about sport or family history (my two most groanworthy topics) while I probably bore people silly talking about books!

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              • I just love stories about people! Endlessly fascinating to me.

                Books are a challenge as it’s so hard to found people who read the same sorts of books, isn’t it? You seek and seek and seek, but are so often let down.

                Liked by 1 person

  4. I had to drive my 15yo granddaughter to work yesterday and we had a long conversation about global warming and that idiot Bolt’s comments about the 16yo Scandanavian girl’s “mental illness”. If I despair of any generation, it’s my own.

    JA was very home-based in her writing and that was partly a reaction to the florid plots of the novels of her predecessors. I think she went close to the line in appearing to condone slavery, and could point out Wellington’s land war against Napoleon only took place in the last couple of years of her writing life.

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    • Shock jocks like Bolt are not representative of our generation. They’re not actually representative of anybody: they do what they do and get paid to do because provocation attracts people’s interest. Outrage is a spectator sport in the 21st century: most of the people who interact with him don’t agree with him, and they do it either out of a mistaken belief that they can change his or other people’s minds, or because they share the same need for attention.

      Like


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