Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
(Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2016)
Reading Bae Suah’s novel, A Greater Music, is much like the experience of listening to the concertos of Beethoven. I listened to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, mentioned in the novel, and heard a fluty playfulness in the music that does not match the pensive mood in the prose; however, the novel resonates with a serious, philosophical intensity. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, on the other hand, is simply grand. In A Greater Music, Suah’s young narrator muses upon many of the grand, existential themes of life: love, friendship, betrayal, freedom, memory, and death. The coming-of-age novel revolves around a series of dream-like vignettes of a Korean narrator who has come to live in Germany: she is initiated into love and art by the mysterious, cultured M., a music aficionado. Suah, the writer, herself, is a translator, living in Berlin, translating German literature into Korean – and one can see the strong influence of German culture on her writing.
A Greater Music circles around a series of poetic flashbacks, like musical movements, rather than following a conventional linear plot. The novel opens with the first-person narrator’s reflections upon the delicate, eccentric M., and tracks their relationship through the memory of listening to music together: Shostakovich, Schubert, and Beethoven. M.’s great aunt has died, so she and the narrator have gone to “collect her things.” The voice on the radio announces a program of “greater music.” She remembers how she heard Shoshtakovich’s “At the Sante Prison” for the first time, “the song of a condemned man awaiting death.” Yet everything is not unpleasant, as the narrator remembers how she opened the window to let in the “crisp air.” On her way home on a dark, rainy night, she thinks that listening to the music made her “acknowledge the omnipotence of death.” As an adolescent, she first tried to play the piano and violin, but did not become a musician; however, M. has deepened her love of and appreciation for classical music. The narrator is as elliptical as M., but we learn that she is unforgiving about her own tastes in popular music (Abba) as a teenager, and her deference to the group in a Korean secondary school.
Next, there is a second flashback when the narrator falls into a freezing lake during winter. Suah plumbs the depths of consciousness and memory of a person about to die. The narrator feels as if she were in a dream – observing herself with detachment, yet acutely aware. Under the water, images flash in front of her: limp geraniums, white drapes, glass dolls, and green Christmas candles. As she is thrashing in the water, she is aware of the irony that she will die before M. – and we learn that M. is in fragile health and has had “a parade of illnesses.” She feels regret that M. would not hate her anymore and would not learn about her death: both clues to their estrangement. Translator Deborah Smith’s precise, sensitive use of English captures the psychological terror a drowning person must feel:
The cold was lethal, and my limbs were rapidly becoming numb. I’d fallen into the water, I knew this perfectly well, yet I kept on mechanically lifting my legs up and down. I imagined I was walking down a flight of stairs—stairs of water, which were rapidly extending downward as I placed my feet on the next step…I was going to mumble that something had gone wrong, but my frozen lips wouldn’t part. Icy water had seeped in between them when I first fell in, freezing them into immobility after my first initial cry of distress. Water bearing the deep chill of midwinter, water that pierces and penetrates warm winter clothes, cold enough to carry off my soul.
Through subsequent flashbacks, we learn the origins of her affair with M., and of the distance that would come to separate them. M. was to teach the narrator German, but the lessons are too theoretical and philosophical. Instead, they become lovers. M. introduces her to an “artistic English and German” teacher named Erich. She reflects briefly about her unhappiness in Korean schools, hours of “feigned obedience and non-participation.” She remembers how she submitted compositions to Erich and he corrected them, describing M’s eyes: “those eyes each like a winter lake with an iceberg at its heart.” However, she would have to return to Korea because of her financial situation. M. cannot go with her because of her rare health problems and feels abandoned. Ultimately, the narrator feels as if she were leaving because she is scared of “long-term love,” rather than the issue of money. Erich shows up drunk at M.’s house and hints that M.’s homework was “really great.” M. has referred to August Platen’s poetry, which Schubert set to music in “A Winter Journey” and he has guessed from her essay that she and M. are lovers. But the narrator is also surprised when M. confesses that she has slept with Erich.
Perhaps the biggest betrayal in the novel, though, is when the narrator decides to break off her relationship with M. before she goes back to Korea. She felt she could not continue being “burdened by the oppressive weight” of her love for her. Because she could not possess M. completely, she becomes “savage.” Later, she regrets renouncing the relationship:
Beauty, delicacy, concern and generosity, peaceful seclusion, reading, music, and writing…and the union of two souls, found after so long; was it right to have betrayed and destroyed all those things in the work of an instant?
When M. comes to her apartment, she refuses to let her in and M. spends the night on her doorstep in bitterly cold weather. She becomes severely ill and her knees swell, and is taken away in an ambulance; she ends up spending a month in the hospital. When they see each other again, M. asks her about the accident in the lake, which the narrator says she does not remember. Throughout, the novel echoes the motifs of lightness and heaviness of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which takes place during the Prague Spring: two women, two men, and a dog with an incestuous group of intellectuals, who betray each other easily. However, Suah’s novel is set in contemporary Berlin. The real focus is homosexual love, rather than heterosexual love, but the outlook remains similar: the narrator feels “lighter” once she has decided to break off her relationship with M. However, once she returns to Korea she becomes alienated and depressed. She sees Sumi, one of her old friends, as trendy and unoriginal. Unlike her stimulating life in Germany, everything seems “packaged.” Being with Sumi makes the narrator yearn once more for M.
Like Kundera, Suah is writing against Nietzche’s idea of eternal recurrence: the idea that time is infinite and events will recur again and again. In fact, we have one life to live, and the choices we make at crucial junctures in our lives may not be repeated. For example, the narrator remembers her final meeting with M., which could have been a reconciliation, but neither can get beyond their pride and shame to forgive each other, and so the relationship ends.
Perhaps Suah is also suggesting, like Kundera, that not only is life fleeting, but love, time, emotion, and memory, are as well. In modernity, there is a dissolution of time and individual faces disappear. She thinks: “How can we ever really know about what a person is?”
As one might expect, such a philosophical novel does not end neatly or tidily. The narrator tells us that she feels most comfortable when she is writing. And slyly winks, telling us she will not divulge more about the origins of the stories, or where they go.
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Gretchen McCullough is a writer and translator, teaching at the American University in Cairo. Her stories and essays have appeared in: The Texas Review, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Barcelona Review, NPR, Storysouth and Guernica. Translations in English and Arabic with Mohamed Metwalli include: Nizwa, Banipal, Brooklyn Rail inTranslation and Al-Mustaqbel. Her bi-lingual book of short stories in English and Arabic, Three Stories from Cairo (2011) and a collection of short stories, Shahrazad’s Tooth, (2013) were published by Afaq Publishers in Cairo. You can read more of her work by visiting her website.