I’m Not Really Sure
A young woman and her family struggle with public humiliation, shame, and poverty. The story is told from her perspective. Middle child. Mid-twenties. Ten years older than her sister. Ten years younger than her brother. The distance of time between each of their births might as well be measured in light years because they don’t seem to possess the typical bond one would expect to find between siblings. Each acts like a parent figure to the next in line below them with only the youngest daughter, Mia, being able to truly act out like a child. Mom is a hopeless alcoholic. Dad is serving jail time. The house is falling apart. There is no money. No food. No prospects of anything changing for the better anytime soon. Welcome to South Korea circa 1988. Please step right in and make yourself at home.
The late 1980s to early 1990s represent a time of rapid change for the country. The first presidential election in well over a decade sees Roh Tae-woo, a former ROK army general, come into power. Authoritarian laws are revised. Freedom of the press is expanded. Travel restrictions are lifted. The Olympic Games come to Seoul. Yet for all of the positive social and political change that’s occurring the country’s economic growth slows to a near stand-still. It’s within this world that our narrator finds herself trapped. She’s a well educated college graduate, yet she’s reduced to moving mindlessly between one menial temporary job to the next in a bid to earn enough money to care for her family. Suah pulls no punches when describing the horrid conditions the woman is forced to endure:
The rain falls, lays siege to the entire world, as if it has been falling that way for years. The rain will fall even after the death of time. Roof half falling down. Windows broken. Kitchen dripping rainwater. Porch covered in filth. Creaky stairs covered in cats’ paw prints. Dead ragdoll, straw insides poking out. And, above all the gruesome things, our frigid relationship.
The original Korean title of the novel is Cheolsu, in reference to the woman’s former schoolmate/kind-of boyfriend who quite suddenly reappears in her life after an extended absence. He’s the kind of guy of doesn’t really form opinions about much of anything, muttering instead phrases like “Okay, I guess” or “I’m not sure” when pressed to provide his impressions of a movie, a jazz concert, or even a political protest rally he attended. It’s Cheolsu’s presence and their interactions with one another dominate most of the story that’s being told. While home on furlough from his military service he coerces her into having an awkward and quick sexual encounter. Later she’ll make an arduous journey in the freezing cold, spending hours on a bus carrying a chicken cooked by his mother, to visit him on base only to discover that as far as people go he’s quite simply nowhere to be found, even if his body can be eventually located in the physical sense.
Meanwhile, her brother struggles to raise enough money to escape to Japan to start a new life in a janitorial position, while her sister sobs over the fact that the family can’t afford to send her on a school field trip, and she herself wonders about the most effective method their imprisoned father could use to off himself. Happy days, are most assuredly, not here again. As history seems destined to repeat itself both on the world stage and in her personal life, the woman ultimately concludes that surviving the late 80s was no different from surviving the late 70s (economic growth, political unrest, presidential assassination) or the late 90s (financial crisis, major transportation disasters). The decades blur. Moments of time become interchangeable. She escapes it all by accepting that her existence is meaningless.
Over the course of what barley amounts to 100 pages Bae Suah manages to pack more emotional depth and punch then most novels two or three times the size can manage to muster. Kim-Russell’s translation of the piece is delivered through a series of jaw-dropping, rapid-fire precise, damaging, poetic statements that make the work impossible to turn away from, even, and especially, when it reaches the peak of its emotional difficulty. A story this short, one that can be quickly devoured over the course of a single hour, shouldn’t be allowed to be this good because it only leaves you aching for more. Luckily there are plenty of additional stories be had, but unfortunately we’ll have to wait a bit longer for them all to arrive in translation.
I’m honestly not sure what’s more impressive, this tight little moving tale or the story behind the person who penned it. Born in Seoul in 1965, Bae Suah didn’t write her first story until she was twenty-eight years old, and she only did so because she was learning to use a word processor at the time and needed something to type. She majored in chemistry as an undergrad. No creative writing classes. No classic literature classes. No formal training. The story that resulted from her transformation from a hopelessly fat fingered keyboardist to a thirty words per minute typist extraordinaire, Highway with Green Apples, was published in a literary magazine. Thus a remarkable career was born, and now, almost twenty years after it first started, we’re finally getting the chance to dip into Suah’s body of work via English translations. Nowhere to Be Found marks an exciting beginning to the journey.