Houman Barekat reviews A Greater Music by Bae Suah

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Open Letter, 2016)

Thirty-seven pages into Bae Suah’s latest novel, her Korean narrator-protagonist is having a wretched time at a New Year’s Eve party in Berlin. Her shyness and her poor command of German have precluded her from partaking of the revelry; she wants to go home. Her date for the evening, an on-off boyfriend named Joachim, is unmoved by her plight: “Just smile and join in, and if you listen hard enough one of these days you’ll end up understanding what they're saying.” This is the gist of the novel in a nutshell: A Greater Music is about language as a gateway to culture and social belonging. ‘Ultimately’ writes Bae, ‘“earning a foreign language” is too simplistic an expression for a process which is more like crossing a border; similarly, an individual’s development as a human being is only possible through language, not because language is our only means of communication, but because it is the only tool precisely calibrated for the application of critical thought.’

This is the narrator’s second stint in Berlin; much of the novel is made up of reminiscences of the first, three years earlier, during which she had a love affair with her German tutor, an androgynous-looking woman called M. In their very first lesson, M has her read aloud from texts she cannot yet understand. Her pronunciation is so poor that M can barely understand her, and the anxious pupil scans her teacher’s face for signs of cognition, ‘the expression on her face constantly changing, shading into sadness, suffering, surprise, tedium, wistfulness, expressionlessness, defiance, rejection, desire.’ We then follow Bae as she devours a disparate array of books, highbrow and low, ranging from The Tin Drum to Harry Potter, Dubliners (which is printed erroneously as The Dubliners) to Karl Baedeker’s travel guides, American Psycho to Princess Diana: Her Glory and Myth.

M and Joachim could not be more different: M is the archetypal cosmopolitan intellectual, who believes that ‘[m]ental shallowness, poverty of thought, is no different from death;’ Joachim, by contrast, is relatively uncultivated. (The book’s clumsily worded back-page blurb—penned, almost certainly, by someone other than the text’s translator, Deborah Smith—describes him as a ‘rough-and-ready metalworker,’ which is enticingly homoerotic if nothing else.) The two inhabit markedly different discursive realms, and M’s eccentric teaching technique leaves Joachim understandably perplexed:

He couldn’t understand how on the one hand I was using predicates meaning “solid depiction of conditions” and “establishment of description,” or (to him) senseless expressions like “hybridity of words,” and asking him to explain absurd phrases which no one used, like “medieval itinerant students” or “solipsism,” when on the other hand, if I went to buy something at the supermarket, words like sugar, flour or biscuit would leave me stumped.

Bae’s narrator is painfully socially awkward, so much so that one suspects that her shyness is not merely a question of cultural-linguistic difference but of personal disposition. There is something discomfiting in her itemisation of the social interactions at the party, which blend envy and a vague sense of malevolence. She is a little too impressed by the ease with which the partygoers conduct themselves: ‘were their companion to disappear, they never stood there hesitating or wandered awkwardly around the room, but straight away attached themselves to another group and launched into conversation.’ She bitterly describes them ‘[s]miling and greeting each other, shaking hands and exchanging superficial, perfunctory chatter, while knowing full well that such things are nothing but a waste of one’s energies.’ The latter part of that sentence is especially disturbing, with its casual assumption that social human contact is fundamentally frivolous. This misanthropic streak finds another outlet in the novel’s latter section, when a visit to a cinema with her friend Sumi is marred twice over: first, by her inability to shake her existential revulsion towards the audience’s herd behaviour (‘there was something deeply unsettling about this long line of people all heading in the same direction’), and later by her decision to embark on a lengthy rant about how saccharine the movie had been. (Sumi asks, not unreasonably: “Coming to see something conventional, and then complaining that it’s conventional, well, isn’t that a bit strange?”) The pair fall out; the narrator decides Sumi is just too mainstream for her. This is followed by an extremely revealing segment about attending a highbrow classical concert, in which the narrator recalls ruining the experience for herself by fretting over the possibility that her enjoyment of the concert might be undermined by some minor logistical problem, audience interruption, or a problem with the acoustics. We are invited, implicitly, to consider whether this is the logical end-point of neurotic puritanism in cultural consumption: perpetual dissatisfaction, and a life rendered tortuous.

If A Greater Music is about language then what, you might reasonably ask, is with the title? The book’s opening pages sketch a précis of the narrator’s relationship with that art form, which is her one true love: we learn that as a schoolgirl she was a fan of Maria Anderson and Maria Callas, Fischer-Dieskau, Beethoven, and Schubert, and obsessed with the morbidity of Shostakovich. She took up an interest in the music of ABBA in order to fit in with her classmates—a harbinger of that conflict between ‘high’ ‘and ‘low’ cultures over which she would continue to fret. At the beginning of the novel a radio DJ uses the term ‘greater music’ to describe a Shostakovich piece he has just played. The narrator is enthralled by the strange simplicity of the phrase: she muses over the appropriateness of the comparative form (‘We never say “greater death,” death being an absolute value that does not admit comparison.’) and then riffs on it, waxing epiphanic, almost delirious: ‘Greater death . . . a greater universe, the soul of greater music, a greater rarity, a greater distance from the present location . . . ’ It is the kind of passage one might expect to encounter in the middle sections of a novel—one of those meandering digressive asides—but here, at the outset, it functions as a kind of existential preamble. The titular mantra sets out Bae’s intellectual stall, signalling the novel’s preoccupation with culture in general, and with questions of definition and quantification in particular. On this note, it is perhaps worth pointing out that the phrase’s acquisition of an indefinite article in the book’s English title feels vaguely erroneous. It appears repeatedly in the translated text as ‘greater music’—sans ‘A’—and this ought to have been the title. The difference is minor but significant: the article strips the phrase of its sense of plurality, slightly diminishing its figurative force.

A salient motif in this novel is the fetishisation of the Other. Upon reading Christopher Hein’s memoir, Forms of Human Coexistence, Bae’s narrator finds herself disappointed that the East German author—whose own background is, to her, endlessly fascinating—hankers after the vulgar charms of New York. Later, reflecting on how things turned awry with M, she reveals that she had long suspected that M’s affection for her was contingent on a position of privilege (‘she was rich and unconstrained, the holder of a linguistics degree, easily taken up by whatever was novel . . . ’) and maybe even racial curiosity (she had ‘become unconsciously influenced by Asian mysticism’). Her own treatment of ‘rough and ready’ Joachim might, of course, be accounted for in similar ways. Bae’s narrator describes her fear of being perceived to be ‘one of those puffed up, permanently unsatisfied egoists who swell the ranks of the lower-middle-class’—and that, of course, is more or less what she is. In this way A Greater Music articulates a critique of a certain kind of dilettantish narcissism that is probably in some sense integral to cross-border cultural exchange, perhaps even intrinsic to human curiosity: our notions of what constitutes idealisation and appropriation are contingent not only on cultural context but also on the peculiarities of individual subjectivity.

A Greater Music is the fourth of Bae Suah’s books to be translated into English. Her previous works, most notably the novella Highway with Green Apples and Nowhere to Be Found (the latter was long listed for the 2015 PEN Translation award), dealt in similar tropes: themes of estrangement and cultural alienation; brusque, disaffected female protagonists and loveless couples. Deborah Smith’s crisp, taut translation renders Bae’s voice in a curtly diaristic register that neatly complements the protagonist’s predicament. There is an almost total absence of warmth, and such humour as we get is sardonic and distinctly bitter; it is a vivid rendering, in short, of the sense of impotence and claustrophobia that comes with finding oneself in a foreign country without the tools—the cultural capital —to adapt and feel at home. As to whether there is readerly enjoyment to be had in this morose litany, that is perhaps something of a moot point. The sense of torpor is an end in itself: if Bae’s narrator comes across as self-absorbed and jejune, that’s probably because she is. Her better self cannot flourish in these conditions.

Aside from a couple of descriptive passages, the story is sparsely told: Bae flits between the protagonist’s interior mind—a welter of recriminations and rationalisations—and a briskly adumbrated narrative punctuated by brief, terse exchanges of dialogue. The lesbian affair itself is only obliquely signposted, although one wonders whether the solitary allusion to physical contact—‘After I’d finished rubbing M’s feet dry, I sat on the floor . . . ’—was intended as a coy euphemism. What gives Bae’s novel a distinctly melancholic timbre is that her protagonist’s endeavours in the linguistic sphere are ultimately unsuccessful. She convinces herself that, ‘If only M had taught me music rather than language,’ things might have turned out better between them. Music, with its ‘blanket forgiveness of human faults,’ is a truer basis for human connection. Instead, the couple had been muddling through, operating at a level removed from themselves, and therefore destined to drift apart: ‘The language through which we attempted knowledge of each other was a mere dialect, a mimetic representation of the two entities that were M and myself.’ The protagonist notes, in that very first lesson, that ‘[t]he difference between understanding and not understanding was all too conclusive, like that between a rich man and a poor man.’ And so it proves. Cognition is a currency, and the world of human relations as brutal and unforgiving as any marketplace.