Taboo is an even more primal fantasy than religion. It is also said that the fearful awe evoked by the place was long ago reduced, paradoxically, to a means of increasing pleasure, rather than the fear that was its origin
I’ll have to be honest, I put off writing a review for Untold Night and Day until I’d read some other reviews, not because I wanted validation so much as explanation. I know that fiction doesn’t need to be explained but I felt I needed a bit of a guiding light for this one. To put it plainly, I read an article that described it as a detective story and I just paused and thought to myself, did I read this book? Am I an uncultured sleuth? This is certainly one of those books where, thinking back on the blurb, the sentence: “I don’t know what this is, but it’s not that” was playing on repeat like Taylor Swift in my head. The only justifiable description on the back is “a hallucinatory feat of storytelling”, quite apt I would say.
I’m not sure there’s much point in providing one, but I’ll do my best. The premise is that a young woman works at an audio theatre in Seoul and it takes place over a day and a night. She used to be an actress and studies German that will later disappear. The next morning she picks up a poet who is not a poet on behalf of her aforementioned German teacher. Both the main character and the others are portrayed simultaneously as their present and past selves, distorting the fabric of reality.
The meat of Untold Night and Day
To start, the narration is dreamlike, specifically thanks to continuous repetition, so much so, that it lulls you into a state where you’re constantly drifting away from the words in front of you and forced to read paragraphs over and over again until you can finally picture what’s happening.Initially, I felt like the meaning was just outside of my grasp, like I kept trying and trying but it was just flowing away from me, maybe towards the more intellectually inclined. This quote in particular I think perfectly epitomises how I felt throughout this entire book. These are the vibes that it was giving me, pure chaos.
Above the water a white hot-air balloon was bobbing along. In a basket suspended beneath it was a heavily made up clown. From the basket hung a placard that read, ‘I am lonely. Say hello to me.’
However, a concrete theme of the book is the disenchantment of the artistic classes. Certainly I am at a time in my life where I can identify viscerally with the protagonist, Ayami who, finding herself without a job, and without qualifications, reads as aimless and seemingly apathetic. This I’m sure is familiar territory for many recent graduates in the Humanities. The dreamlike quality of the narration enhances this feeling of reality and the future as being murky, like dirty water. Nevertheless, this is not a story replete with feelings, as we are sent wandering through the mist, we are also detached from emotion. By no means is this a point against the book, as it maybe allows you to explore this dreamlike reality without the pesky weight of introspection.
He simply wanted to be a poet. Buha saw no contradiction whatsoever in the gulf between dreams and reality. (Otherwise why would we want to distinguish between them, calling a dream a dream and reality, reality?).
Among other things, the name Ayami, is related to shamanism and signifies a relationship with the other world. This underlines how the book is trying to convey inbetweenness and the blurring of boundaries, between reality and dream, and this world and the next. It does so without ever really acknowledging it in the first place, almost as if the very point is this ambiguity and unsteady terrain.
Part of the atmosphere that Bae Suah sets is the ever present suffocating heat that functions almost as another character in the plot, like a photograph with melting oozing ink. As a result, I found that reading this in spring was ideal because it somehow sets the stage for the summer months to come. It perfectly simulates the feeling of sleepless nights in summer heat where one is caught between sleep and waking.
I would conclude that this book isn’t for everyone, and anyone that enjoys magical realism in its more gritty, concrete forms may feel a little lead astray, but it’s short and light so I would still recommend it if you’re looking for a bit of a different reading experience. I can certainly see myself picking this up again and reading passages, kind of like a book of poetry, just to see if the meaning is different. So in a way it really stays with you.