A Greater Music by Bae Suah, translated by Deborah Smith [in Library Journal]
Out on a January walk in Berlin, the unnamed Korean narrator falls into a river. As she struggles to breathe, her experience gives way to both “conventional memories” of what has led her to this icy trap dovetailed with tenuous endeavors to comprehend and explicate a “[g]reater music…a greater universe…a greater distance from the present location.”
She’s returned from Seoul to house- and dog-sit for a sort-of lover, which sparks detailed flashbacks of her last stay in Berlin, when she took unconventional German lessons with a private teacher with whom she became entangled. Bae – herself a notable German-into-Korean translator whose third title-into-English-translation is exquisitely rendered by acclaimed British translator Smith – repeatedly challenges the limitations of language.
In content and execution both, this novel is sharp, laconic commentary on dissonant vocabulary, the elusive challenges of mutual understanding, and the too temporary balms provided by music, literature, and even intimacy.
Verdict: Bae’s intriguing new title (after Time in Gray; Nowhere to Be Found) is another multilayered elegy, sure to find shelf space beside recent internationally lauded Korean imports, including Kyung-sook Shin (Please Look After Mom), Han Kang (The Vegetarian), and Gong Ji-Young (Our Happy Time).