An Existential, Lyrical, and Unconventional Soliloquy on Isolation

“A Greater Music”

By Bae Suah, Translated by Deborah Smith, 128 pages, $13.95, Rochester: Open Letter Books [2016]

Bae Suah’s “A Greater Music” feels very much like an experimental work of music itself, shunning conventions of rhythm, melody, and tempo to pioneer new lyrical expressions. And although this is a novel, the language is definitely lyrical, often merely hinting at senses and emotions in long, almost stream-of-consciousness paragraphs. Thus, while the story is not without a concrete theme, more often than not it leaves the reader feeling rather than thinking.
The novel is also a case study in how a text can be different things for different audiences. While it is unconventional in reviews to compare a translation to its original, this work seems unconventional enough to warrant at least a passing discussion. On the most basic level, this is the story of a young Korean writer in the distant land of Berlin, struggling with cultural differences, the language barrier, and her own demons. While in Germany, she befriends three people: Joachim, a metalworker with pedestrian tastes whose great love is his dog Benji; Erich, a seemingly disciplined and effective language teacher; and the enigmatic “M,” a woman with lofty ideals and a rather unorthodox pedagogical methodology. But the text changes in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways in its translation from Korean to English, making for a very different experience.

Perhaps it is a function of Korean literature in general, but in the original there is little question that the protagonist is a Korean in a foreign land, and quite a few passages are devoted to describing the exotic nature of Germany and its culture. In the translation, though, we do not find out the protagonist’s nationality until the fourth chapter, a quarter of the way through the book. Nothing has been changed; this is just something that happens naturally. Something else that happens naturally is how we learn about the gender of M. From the first page of the translation, M is referred to as a woman, but in the original it is not until the very end of chapter six — well over halfway through the book — that we get our first hint at M’s gender, when she and the protagonist are referred to by Erich as “ladies.” Again, though, this is just a function of the Korean language, which does not require gendered pronouns. Slight differences like this can significantly affect what a text says to different audiences.
One thing that does come across in both texts is the sense of isolation that the protagonist feels. This is due in part to the language barrier, which the protagonist despairs of ever overcoming, but it is also due to the cultural differences between Korea and Germany. Visiting Joachim’s family for Christmas, the protagonist watches a family interact in a way that she has never seen before. And no matter how many parties she goes to, she just can’t bring herself to mingle with the other young people there. This leads to her being seen as aloof and conceited, which only perpetuates the cycle of loneliness and anomie.
It is not just the protagonist’s experiences that create this sense of isolation; Bae Suah’s often dream-like prose and unconventional plot structure deliberately prevent the reader from finding solid ground.

We feel like the protagonist when, toward the beginning of the novel, she recounts falling into an icy river: enveloped in a bitter cold, suspended in a fugue state, “repeatedly sinking beneath the surface only to float up again a few moments later.” And so we take another gasping breath of air before we are enveloped once again by those lilting, lyrical lines.

Timely Book on the ‘Whys’ of Korean Ways

“K-Style: Living the Korean Way of Life”

By Choi Jung-wha, 251 pages, 30,000 won, Seoul: Design House [2016]

With her decades of experience as interpreter of French and Korean and interacting with foreigners, Choi Jung-wha, professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and president of Corea Image Communication, has a good vantage point from which to talk about Korean culture and lifestyle. In this book, she sets about interpreting Korea for foreigners, for which she is uniquely qualified.
The book is divided into the four seasons of the year, and Choi starts with a chapter on the school entrance ceremony in March, giving insight into this rite of passage for all Korean students. In Korea, the academic year kicks off in March with ceremonies marking the start of different levels of education — kindergarten, elementary, middle school, high school, and university.
Choi manages to weave in many aspects of Korean life, taking the school entrance ceremonies as a jumping point. From there, she brings the reader’s attention to the low birth rate plaguing Korean society: “Behind the merry celebrations, however, lies the lonely face of Korean society: children are becoming rare.” This naturally leads to a discussion of the difficulties of working mothers and how grandparents often step in to help with childcare.
Somehow, Choi manages to tie a discussion on Koreans’ fervor for education with a unique housing rental system called jeonse, a lump sum deposit for rent which, she says, cannot be found anywhere else in the world. She then explains how parents are faced with the choice of becoming homeowners in less expensive parts of Seoul or staying renters in Gangnam, where the high rent is attributed to the presence of feeder schools to the country’s top universities and, perhaps more importantly, cram schools, or hagwon.

The book is written in a chatty and engaging style. One observation leads to another and yet another, much like a free-flowing conversation. Some of the explanations can seem generalized, but this volume makes no pretense at being a book on sociology or cultural study.
“K-Style: Living the Korean Way of Life” is essentially an entertaining observation and explanation of Korean life today. Accompanied by photos that succinctly capture the given topics, the book can be read by randomly opening up a chapter or by selecting one from the table of contents that sparks curiosity.
A cultural communications expert, the author tasks herself with answering the whys — “Why does Korea…” and “Why do Koreans…” — posed by foreigners. Through her eyes, readers experience the four seasons of Korea, with their attendant traditional rites as well as new trends.

Online Marketplace of Korea Travel Products

Operated by Seoul Tourism Organization

At first glance, the trial version of “One More Trip” is confusing. That is, until you realize after a few clicks that it is a marketplace of various products offered by independent vendors. Operated by the Seoul Tourism Organization, this online open market platform is a nifty idea: You can purchase a wide range of travelrelated programs, tickets, and other products on one single site.

While the concept is great and such a service long overdue, the site is not the most attractive. The uniform look of the pages may make browsing efficient, but the accompanying photographs are lackluster and fail to spark interest. There are even some cases of flagrant mismatch between the product on sale and the accompanying photographs. For example, the “Ancient Palaces Night View Tour” shows photos of “Nanta,” a popular non-verbal performance, and a photo of a group crossing the Cheonggye Stream. The typography is also uninspired for a website that ought to look exciting and tempting.
Some categories of services are underserved. The transportation category, for instance, features just two products: a car rental service and an airport pick-up service. The concierge section seems redundant, with two of the three companies listed offering products that show up elsewhere and one company offering no products at all.

Overall, this is an efficient site. However, to create a buzz, the site’s operator will need to update its look and work harder to attract more vendors.
In the meanwhile, once you sign up as a member, a simple process with no obligations, you are entitled to a 30 percent discount on many of the products on offer.

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University
Kim Hoo-ran Culture Editor, The Korea Herald
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