Nowhere to be Found
by Bae Suah
translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Length: 103 pages long
Publication Year: 2015 in English, originally published in 1998 in Korea
To become an absolutely meaningless thing in order to survive time. This maxim most accurately reflects our nameless narrator’s mindset as we follow the events surrounding her during one winter in Korea. But what does it mean to survive time, that entity which is so relentless in its continuity and utterly indifferent to human concerns?
Nowhere to be Found is the Korean writer Bae Suah’s first novel to be translated into English. It is a concise portrayal of an intense psychological meditation about a young woman’s disinterest and aversion toward the world she is thrown in. She is floating in the abyss of evanescence and existential doubts. Whatever it is that she may be looking for, it is nowhere to be found; even her boyfriend (or is he her boyfriend?) whom she visits at the army base resists being found. In addition, to her, all action is mere “reaction.”
The narration begins when she is a part-time office helper by day and waitress by night in the year of 1988, although she points out that “it (the year 1988) wasn’t so different from 1978, and it wasn’t any more or less memorable in comparison to 1998.” Her disposition borders nihilism, “Most of the people I knew long ago now live their lives without me, and those whom I will meet by chance one day do not know me now.” She is only 24, but constant lethargy plagues her, not because of the amount of work but due to the burden of mere existence. We are introduced to her family members. She has an older brother (10 years older) and a younger sister (10 years younger), and an alcoholic mother. They are so poor that she has to share one winter coat with her sister. “I sat on the intercity bus with no coat, as frozen as a scarecrow in an unsown rice paddy in the middle of winter…” Her brother plans on becoming a sewer cleaner in Japan because he can’t find a job in Korea, and her sister bawls because her family cannot afford her field trip. Our narrator’s daily routine seems utterly bereft of meaning that she constantly needs her imagination to intervene in reality.
Then we meet Cheol-su, our narrator’s “boyfriend” whom she has been seeing casually for a number of years, although she has never slept with him until now. Her first sexual experience with Cheol-su seems suspiciously apathetic, as if she equates the experience with her first menstruation, something that would happen sooner or later, thus not deserving much concern. One snowy winter day, she goes to the army base to visit him, with chicken in tow prepared by Cheol-su’s mother. On her way, she is misdirected a couple of times and she seems lost in a labyrinth where there might be two Cheol-sus. When she finally sees him, an epiphany hits her and she can’t help but shed her tears, “Up until that moment I’d never really understood sadness. The fierce, mob-like sadness that would come over me, clear and strong.” She has been trying to desensitize herself from the worldly matters; what has triggered her intense grief this time?
Our narrator is recalling the events from 1998, ten later, and this time, she is with her another lover during the rainy day in the dilapidated shack. The repeated motif we encounter is “me inside me,” and our narrator witnesses her other “me” walking by the window just outside of the shack. Is she referring to the ideal “me” in her imagination in the backdrop of her real “me”? She also comments, “Oddly enough, time repeated itself.” Maybe, she has figured the only defense against time is to distance herself from the effects rendered by time. To become taxidermy of a sort. Is her undoing the result of her failure to defend herself from the implacable nature of time? “What my brother had promised when he squeezed my sweaty hand as if he’d never let go was not money or letters. It was the erasure of time that goes by the name of money and letters. I understand that. The sort of time in which people could become the purest they’d ever been; cancel any unimportant plans they had; and long for a random, distant ideal.”
The book’s original title is Cheol-su, the name familiar to anyone who attended elementary school in Korea. The name belongs to a young boy in the Ethics textbook used by all students. He is a model-child of moral righteousness, so immaculate in his behaviors approved by Korean social norms. Then, how should we interpret our narrator’s dealing with her Cheol-su? Is she resisting against the social norms approved by the country? Also, the year 1988 has a prominent meaning for Koreans, for it is the year Korea hosted its first Olympics. Along with the country’s burgeoning democracy, it is the year Korea has stepped into the world of cosmopolitanism. What have we given up for the wholehearted embrace of modernization and worldly sophistication? Although just 103 pages long, Nowhere to be Found is uncanny yet affective novel about young generation’s anxiety in Korea dealing with ideals dictated and forced upon by its history.
Video: Interview with Bae Suah at Literari Safari