Paul Fulcher's Reviews > Nowhere to Be Found

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah
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really liked it
bookshelves: 2015, korean-literature, btba-2016-longlist

"If you gently stroke my lips and the palm of my hand right now, you will find them strangely cold and icy, a feeling of endless distance that even I can sense. Someone once said to me, 'You're so cold that I shake with despair. The whole time we're together your lips never once flush, and your body is like slippery ice. You have the eyes of a wolf-girl whose heart has never once been moved. When I press my ear to your chest, I hear only wind and emptiness.'
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."

철수 by 배수아 (Bae Suah) has been translated into English by the excellent Sora Kim-Russell, who did such a good job with 신경숙's novel 어디선가 나를 찾는 전화벨이 울리고 (I'll be Right There, and does an even better job here - indeed I suspect this will be a serious contender for this year's translation awards. In both cases, the English title is completely different to the Korean (although this may well be the publishers' decision) a pet peeve of mine, although perhaps more justified here as 철수 ("Cheolsu") is the name of one of the main characters, but a relatively common name in Korea whereas it sounds exotic in English (indeed this ordinariness is important to the plot at one point).

배수아 herself has translated WG Sebald (from the original German) and Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet into Korean - rather impressive literary antecedents. This dialogue between languages is what makes translated literature such a joy.

Turning to the novella itself, "Nowhere to be Found" packs more power into its 100 slim pages than most 300 page plus novels. 배수아 has said: "‘The most suitable way to not say something’—that’s what I think of as the aesthetic of my short fiction."

The unnamed first person narrator is a 24 year-old from an unpriviliged background, temping in an admin role ("It was the kind of clerical work that anyone could have done without any special qualifications or expertise") in 1988 - the year of the Seoul Olympics and a time of political turmoil in South Korea but this hardly features directly. The novella starts as a seemingly conventional tale of economic hardship, young love and family life ("our family looked perfect from the outside: a mother, a father, a brother ten years younger than me, and a sister ten years younger") but rapidly takes a rather darker turn, more in terms of the psychology of the narrator than the plot.

The narrator simply struggles to belong, describing even her family as "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."

She wonders about her 14 year old sister "would she too inherit the cynicism and apathy toward the world that enabled our family line to endure poverty and maladjustment, just as my brother and I had?" and her relationship with her "boyfriend" - or the nearest she has - Cheolsu ("if boys could be divided into different categories, then Cheolsu was a mineral...he knew how to accept the tedium without the ennui") is also characterised by similar apathy "he didn't make me feel anything, and I didn't make him feel anything".

But the narrator knows that her true character is different, even if her true self is Nowhere to be Found.

"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."

The prose in the novel twists in on itself - indeed it's a novel that rewards an immediate re-read both for the quality of the prose and to spot how references from the early pages are repeated with more significance later. And the novel ends on a disturbing, masochistic, note.

For an excellent review of the novel and 배수아's literature in general I would recommend
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Reading Progress

June 17, 2015 – Shelved
June 17, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
Started Reading
July 23, 2015 – Finished Reading
July 27, 2015 – Shelved as: 2015
January 1, 2016 – Shelved as: korean-literature
January 10, 2016 – Shelved as: btba-2016-longlist

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