NORTH STATION, BY BAE SUAH, TRANSLATED BY DEBORAH SMITH
A good collection of short stories is like a siphonophore: although made up of a number of individual organisms, they all fit together so organically that, to an outside observer, the collective forms a coherent whole. The stories in Bae Suah’s North Station perform such an act. Like a beautiful and mysterious Portuguese man o’war, themes, motifs, and images within are interlaced and woven throughout the seven pieces to create a romanesque, hermetic atmosphere full of intricacies simultaneously scintillating and opaque.
Suah constructs a refined labyrinth that’s not for the faint-hearted or shallow reader⏤from the twists and turns of the very first sentence: “Yang had had countless harsh words thrown at him over the course of his life . . . he discovered that one of his castigators was no happier once they were rid of him, in other words that there was no correlation between their misery and Yang himself, and that this lack of correlation might have been all that ever lay between them, his timid heart found it strange, and faintly baffling.” Following this starting point is a dive into a world of transnational wandering, death-anxiety, confused identities, and missing sunglasses.
The influence of German literature on Bae Suah’s writing is undeniable too. From its allusions to Walser and Erpenbeck to the existentialist musings on the absurdity of life in the face of death, North Station represents cultural hybridity, a joining together of the semiotics of East Asia and Central Europe. The language, facilitated by translator Deborah Smith, invades the reader’s mind like a heady smoke, leaving in its wake a profound sense of loneliness and wonder.