Friday 24 April 2020


Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah      {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“Does the weather come before the news or after?” asks a character, or someone, in Bae Suah’s novel Untold Night and Day. That this should be a question, that the familiar should be sufficiently unfamiliar for this question to be asked, not to mention that a reader, for some reason, should find this question worth noting down on a piece of paper, presumably the question appears near the end of the book, perhaps at the point, or at least not before the point, at which the reader decided, assuming that the reader did decide, that they would write what might pass for a review of Untold Night and Day, strikes to the heart, ouch, of Suah’s assault, ouch again, metaphors are bad and lazy, especially these ones, on the problematics of time in the theatre, so to call it, of the quotidian. What justification have we to claim that time ‘flows’, that a moment and all it contains is swept forward, or leaps forward, until it becomes another moment and all that that moment contains? Flows how and in relation to what? Sweeps or leaps forward how and in relation to what? There seems to be, the reader notes, at least the reader who noted down the quote with which this paragraph begins notes, no way of thinking about time without a metaphor, no way of thinking about time without thinking about it in terms of something else, something that it is not. If there is no way of thinking about something except in terms of something that it is not, the reader thinks, we must be thinking wrongly, or lazily, or without sufficient reason to think of it in this way even if our thinking is not completely wrong or lazy. With what could we replace a way of thinking that is either wrong or lazy, the reader wonders, thinking that, immersed as the reader is entirely in language, if that itself is not a metaphor, the reader is not sure, with what could we replace wrong or lazy thinking if not with grammar, the people’s friend? All problems are grammatical problems, it occurs to the reader, all problems, from the problem of time, so to call it, to the problem of the relationship between the mind and the brain, so to call them, can be resolved with grammar, all problems are grammatical problems and can be fixed with a bit of editing. A noun seems certain but is never certain, a noun is arbitrary, contestable, ostensible at best but imprecisely bordered, the reader thinks, a noun may be a useful tool but a noun is never more than a tool, the reader thinks, and, the reader thinks, this especially applies to the so-called proper nouns, a noun is imposed upon reality, so to call it, if there is something that we can call reality, but a noun is never real, not in the way that a verb is real, not in the way that a verb is incontestable, the reader thinks, a verb is never uncertain or ostensible, verbs are really all there is, or all there are, the reader thinks, there are only verbs, everything else we have is just a set of tools to help us think about verbs. The problem of time is a problem with nouns, the reader thinks, all metaphors are illnesses of nouns. Nouns occur, recur, or persist, they perhaps transform or are transformed, instantaneously or slowly, though we are suspicious of this, and rightly so, for change calls all nouns into doubt. Nouns can be replaced or exchanged, though, the reader thinks, without changing much but themselves. There is no great importance to nouns. One of the pleasures of Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day, and one of the pleasures of Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl, to which Bae Suah frequently refers in her novel, the reader thinks, is the way in which a limited number of elements, a limited number of identities, properties, descriptions and phrases, are combined and recombined to disconcerting effect, blurring the characters and events, each entity reaching for its opposite, or for its undoing, if its opposite and its undoing are not the same thing, each entity sharing the qualities by which we recognise it with some other entity, which thereby is perhaps the same entity since entities are only knots of qualities, arbitrary, ostensible and so forth, we’ve been there, the reader thinks. In Suah’s case we cannot know if the main character is a young actress losing her job at an audio theatre for the blind, or a middle-aged poet and translator of German, like Suah herself, though Suah isn’t a poet, as far as the reader knows, whether there is a temporal relationship between these possibilities, there is evidence both for and against this, one in the eye for the concept of time, whether the legs described as knotty, with too-small feet and shoes well-polished but nevertheless seeming castoff, a description repeated many times but which the reader cannot now find in the book, belong to the actress or the poet or the actress's or the poet’s mother standing outside the closed audio theatre, whether the figure in the white hambok is a blind girl visiting the theatre, or the actress when her other clothes are wet or the actress when she once acted in a film or the poet or someone else, the elements occur and recur, they both attach and detach themselves from entities, they both describe and undermine, they are evidence both for and against any attempt we may make, that we perhaps cannot help making, to resolve character, plot, or any of the other novelistic presumptions we may bring to the book through training or out of habit or convention, we are bad detectives, or, really, inverse detectives, thinks the reader, if there can be such a thing. Wolfi, the German writer who has come to Seoul to finish his detective novel is both absolutely right and absolutely wrong, at least about this book, and certainly simplistic and uninteresting compared with what else could be said, when he says, “the murder is a doppelgänger incident. Readers later realise that the female protagonist is the ghost of the woman who has been murdered many years ago.” Without character or plot, the reader thinks, with neither stasis nor development, with these disconcerting shifts of perspective, entity and tense, there must be some other force that knots the elements, that unknots and reknots them, but what might that be, the reader wonders, if not trauma, trauma unspecified, memory unacknowledged, unfaceable, not present, not mentioned, but pressing upon all that is present and mentioned, memory without the presumption of time. The elements of the book wear themselves out through repetition, the reader thinks, they erase themselves through reiteration. Blindness sucks at the novel, sight is lost, forgetting is a relief, the reader thinks, forgetting is as good as death but without death’s messy aspects, the reader thinks, or the reader thinks that he thinks, he’s not quite sure, at least as far as the novel goes, or forgetting is what makes death unneeded. Everything in Untold Night and Day, this title does not refer to a 24-hour convenience store but the reader wishes he had not thought of a 24-hour convenience store but he cannot stop thinking about it in relation to the title now that he has thought of it, is, as Suah or Suah’s character says, “a symptom of disintegration”, a symptom, why had he not used the word symptom above, in so many places, he wondered, of its own effacement, of the application of combinatorial rigour in the undoing of the effects of memory, in the erasure of unspecified, unspecifiable, trauma, a symptom of the loss of sight. In Untold Night and Day the loss of sight is privileged above all other losses, the reader thinks. All poets are shabby and old, and the oldest and shabbiest and best of the poets is almost blind: “Those milky eyes were the oldest of the body’s constituent parts. Hesitating as though they still did not believe in their own ability to perceive the world, those eyes blinked ceaselessly and irregularly. At each spasmodic movement, the eyeballs themselves aged yet more rapidly.” 

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