IN BAE SUAH’S newly translated novel A Greater Music, tensions around language and class are a source of constant instability for the Korean narrator — or “nameless I” as she once refers to herself. After falling into a Berlin river, “I” finds herself also submerged in memory. She tries to comprehend her relationships with former lover M, a refined female German language instructor, and the working-class Joachim, a metal worker who is her on-again, off-again boyfriend. She floats between past and present in Bae’s anti-narrative, which collapses time and complicates both our and “I’s” relationship with reality.
The effect of the anti-narrative structure reflects “I’s” own confusion about her memories and her language, and purposefully, it seems, complicates the reader’s ability to keep “I’s” thoughts ordered and comprehensible. Ostensibly, the story follows “I’s” unlikely acquaintance and romantic entanglement with M, who is chronically ill due to allergies and the mental strain they place on her. They form an instant and intense connection, “I” even referring to herself as M’s “protector,” but their connection cannot survive the widening gulf created by their differences in language and class. The narrator has concerns about money, and about her ability to remain in Germany, or even communicate her feelings effectively in German, none of which M perceives compassionately, though the narrator struggles to acknowledge this directly, even in hindsight. Eventually “I’s” worries coalesce into full-on doubt about her relationship with M, which M all but confirms after some good old-fashioned sexual betrayal. But these facts are presented in no particular order: Bae shifts constantly between the narrator’s first trip to Berlin and the hazy “present.” Bae is known for her radical approach to narrative, often eschewing chronology in favor of something less stable, and A Greater Music is no exception. What begins as a relatively straightforward recollection of the winter M and “I” spent together is quickly subverted by a series of shifts in tense and setting that appear to be almost arbitrary.
We are kept mostly in the dark as to why the narrator has chosen to return to Berlin. She’s broke, and spends most of her time worrying about how to pay for basic amenities. Her relationship with M, who we only meet in flashback or recollection, is long over. The narrator is conscious of the immateriality of those memories: “the only place where that happiness still remains is in fossilized memories […] but the M that exists within them is not the real M. As time passes, the gap between the two grows ever wider. The former lacks physical form, doesn’t interact with me, isn’t even aware of me.” Yet here she is, in the dead of winter, thousands of miles from her life in Seoul, wandering a city of painful memories. “I” bunks with Joachim, an amusingly grouchy man, who is often dismissive of the narrator, or even downright spiteful toward her. He disappears from the “present” of the novel halfway through to take a short-term welding job in Schleswig-Holstein, leaving the narrator to look after his dog and obsess over him, M, and what went wrong.
Bae’s disinterest in maintaining structure allows her narrator’s memory or its triggers to dictate the novel’s near-aimless direction. However, her abrupt transitions of tense or setting begin to seem less stark as we settle in with the narrator’s daily routine, which consists of walks with Joachim’s dog Benny, and sitting at cafés that allow Benny to sit with her as she whiles the day away reading and thinking, and occasionally getting lost far from her apartment, which Bae complements with the cold, gray weather of Berlin. The further in, the less the transitions jar, and the more we simply want to know when the narrator will actually confront whatever hurt befell her three years prior. But she keeps it from us and herself for quite some time, her thoughts slowly spiraling toward their center.
Once the reader internalizes the subversion of narrative, the narrator’s endless circling through memory can begin to feel quite monotonous, and few books that are as short as A Greater Music have felt so long. In an attempt to break this up, Bae pads the narrator’s inner monologue with long chunks of prose given over to “nameless I’s” thoughts on culture, education, sociology, and travel. Often these asides are enriching, and provide the reader with much-needed understanding; “I’s” experiences within the Korean education system, for instance, illuminate her feelings of not belonging, and give another possible hint as to at least why she chose to return to Berlin.
Her long, book review–like discussion of Jakob Hein’s Forms of Human Coexistence (Formen menschlichen Zusammenlebens) is another moment when we gain insight into “I” at her current moment. Hein’s book is about going to New York, a city he obsessed over, only to find how different it was from his imagination. Could this be Bae signaling to the reader that “I” once had similar thoughts about Berlin? She claims: “I chose the book because it was printed clear in a large typeface,” but it’s hard not to think about how intentional a choice this is, especially because it also provides the moment that Bae, as author, comes through most clearly. These pages seem like a message from her to the reader telling them what her novel is not. “I” suggests that Hein’s book could easily be written off as “yet another example of ‘East German melancholy’ […] After all, Jakob Hein was only eighteen when he left for America, and the book remained faithful to the emotions that moved him at that time.” Bae herself has lived in Germany, and one can’t help but think of Hein as either an inspiration or a caution. She concludes the section with her most defiant statement: “I would make sure to slough off any traces of the critic, who holds certain preconceptions about the ‘lives of the East German Jugend’ (something I was already sick of hearing about), and who had their scathing attitude honed and ready even before embarking on the first page.”
It was Joachim who first recommended that the narrator meet M, not because of her skill as a language instructor, but rather because she is “absolutely off her head about music.” It quickly becomes clear M is a lackluster German teacher, but the two are magnetically drawn to one another, in part because of their love of music. “If books and language were the symbol of M’s absolute world, then music was her inaccessible mind, her religion, her soul.” Unfortunately, it is language, and not music, that dictates their relationship. M, who has a degree in linguistics, believes achieving fluency in another language is something that can be accomplished and checked off a list, although it’s not clear if she knows another language besides German. The narrator, who speaks at least three languages, does not share this view:
A mother tongue isn’t a border that can just be crossed, not even with the strongest will in the world. Even after mastering a foreign language (if such a thing is even possible), your mother tongue still acts as a prison for your consciousness […] The fact that my mother tongue was different from M’s caused me unbearable grief.
Perhaps “I’s” return to Berlin is fueled by her resistance to leaving her memories safely in the past. She says: “It seemed I’d experienced brutal acts but could no longer remember them. No, I was simply struck by the sense of memory’s intangibility, torn between struggling to recall certain events as something concrete, and the instinct to leave them safely in a nebulous past.” However, “I” is incredibly loyal to M, or at least her memory, even years later. The actual pain or trauma remains intangible, both for the narrator and the reader.
Accompanying the strains of language, Bae adds a second variable, class, that further muddies her narrator’s relationships with Joachim, who is a working-class student, and M, who is decidedly not. The narrator is an outsider and is sensitive to class. She should be in a good position to observe these tensions, but in this scenario she’s been stuck as a midpoint not only between two people for whom she cares deeply, but also between two poles of German society. As if everyday living in another language isn’t difficult enough, these tensions complicate her feelings for her two friends whose distrust of each other is informed by their class positions as well as the more petty jealousies of friends who don’t want to share. Joachim has experienced a life of instability, job loss, and public assistance, which Bae deftly presents through a series of photographs “I” sees at his mother Agnes’s apartment on Christmas Eve. It is a bittersweet scene:
In the photographs of her first wedding Agnes had been like a budding flower, swelling with fresh ripe fullness. She no longer resembled the girl who, at thirteen, had posed for her First Communion photograph with a shy, wavering smile. Similarly, the image of Agnes at her first wedding, in a dress and thick-framed glasses, held no premonition as to what the future would hold — of the alcoholic who can’t get to sleep unless she’s had a drink at the local pub; of being constantly unemployed and with no hope of this changing, searching for neighborhoods where the rent is cheap; of the loneliness of the matchmaking party at the singles’ club every weekend, desperate to find a man worth living with.
Joachim is also deeply preoccupied with the money and fame he might win by being a successful entrepreneur, though the narrator notes that “it [is] doubtful that a perfectly ordinary young engineer could ever amass such a fortune.” She assures us he isn’t kidding when he asks: “How on earth could anything be more important than money?” One might surmise that the narrator is missing the point here, and it is natural for someone who comes from poverty to obsess over money, but Joachim is bombastic, and perhaps the narrator is providing us some grains of salt. In the same moment, he also promised “he would kill himself if he was unable to complete college, or some similar calamity befell him. He drew his index finger across his throat and made a short sharp sound, kkik. He would do it, he said, in the smoking room of the national library.” Are his desires for fast cars, beautiful women, and a mansion by the Spree simply rhetorical cover for his fears of turning out like his mother, some sort of sarcasm, or are they genuine?
What is genuine is Joachim’s contempt for M’s privilege and for what he perceives as “I’s” as well. M, in turn, dismisses Joachim’s intellectual capabilities, and “I” is caught in the middle. At one point, in an acid tone, he interrogates “I”: “The reason that you like M is because she’s rich, isn’t it?” And later, expanding his criticism: “You and M like each other because you’re both rich, no?” While Joachim misjudges the narrator, who is by all accounts not wealthy, his analysis of her attraction to M hits the mark, too closely for the narrator’s liking. He calls her motives, and in such, the entire relationship, into doubt: “I was trying to rid myself of the suspicion that M had only deigned to notice me because she was rich and unconstrained, the holder of a linguistics degree, easily taken up by whatever was novel.” Suspicion endangers their budding romance, and “plagued with doubts, love slowly [loses] its vitality.”
The narrator spends a great deal of intellectual effort to convince herself that Joachim was wrong three years ago. She wants desperately to believe that her “fossilized memory” of M is not of the person Joachim claimed she was: “I wandered here and there through the halls of memory, searching for proof that M was neither rich nor a member of the leisure classes.” But everything we learn of her contradicts this. M might be frugal in appearance, but she goes to expensive concert recitals, spends money on esoteric lectures, only works three days a week, has time to write essays on 20th-century music, and lives in an apartment owned by her mother — the classic trustafarian.
When “I” turns to reflect on the precariousness of the relationship, the novel’s timeline becomes the most dislocated. The seams between memory and present disappear, producing a confusion that accurately embodies the narrator’s simultaneous love for M and her intellectual awareness that M was not a nice person.
M’s harsh dismissal of Joachim, for example, smacks of an elitism that remains a central issue in class discourse, both in Bae’s novel and the current political environment across the world. She also has little sympathy for “I’s” predicament as a visitor to Germany. M cannot comprehend that obligation or necessity could be reasons for “I’s” inability to stay in Germany. It’s no simple matter to remain in a country where you cannot work legally, or sometimes even get a visa or legal place of residence. But her lack of understanding leads to additional worries for the narrator. In the most lucidly class-conscious moment, “I” frets that M would see the narrator’s having to leave Berlin as “a conscious choice rather than necessity,” which would expose her as “one of those puffed-up, permanently unsatisfied egoists who swell the ranks of the lower-middle class.”
The anthropologist David Graeber calls this phenomenon “interpretive labor,” a lopsided relationship of power in which those with lower class positions are forced to think much more deeply about every situation, while those with power remain ignorant of these difficulties and lack the perceptiveness necessary to create empathy with others. The narrator is forced into the position of submission to M’s privilege, and constantly justifies this dynamic to herself as simply part of their relationship.
That the narrator must express herself in a language that is not her own provides a fair challenge for the relationship, particularly given the difference in opinion around the meaning of fluency. The narrator reflects, frustrated:
If I tried to go into detail then my sentences would end up getting longer and longer, with even the slightest grammatical error opening the door for uncertainty or misunderstanding to creep in, and I’d have to keep qualifying myself, explaining my explanation, the shabby rags of my words piling up in a dizzying accumulation, guilt and shame rising up in me even as I tried to explain this guilt away.
M’s high-minded belief in the universality of language, as so many borders to be crossed, is also an extremely simplistic conception. It assumes language to be a static entity, with meaning and perception existing in some fixed, permanent state. Operating within this hegemony, she cannot appreciate the narrator’s fear that she won’t be understood, or her guilt around her inability to express herself, beyond even the specific contours of their relationship. Despite the narrator’s desire to deny their class difference, her memories betray M as a person who resides in just such a class, to a point that she can finally no longer ignore.
However, perhaps sensing that these issues might not be compelling enough to end a love affair, or maybe giving in to include a bit of traditional plot device, Bae doesn’t allow these class and language tensions to be the couple’s only undoing; instead, it is the much more banal personal frailties of infidelity that threaten their love.
With all her obsession over language and meaning, Bae is capable of some first-rate poetry, which is wonderfully rendered by translator Deborah Smith (who also translated the Man Booker International Prize–winning The Vegetarian, by Han Kang). The last meeting between M and the narrator exemplifies this:
But though our hands trembled and our ears seemed to pick up the sound of our hearts breaking, not as a clean crack but as a wrenching of fibers, there was still that unaccountable shame over the love that had once existed between us, the fact of this existence now uncomfortably indelible, making the future seem filled with fearful portents.
Bae’s poetry only serves to highlight how overwhelming the narrator’s relationship to language is. She’s been trapped in her own head fighting monotony and language’s inability to preserve more than the broadest impressions of memory. But more specifically, this poetry rubs up against the narrator’s desire to be understood in a language other than her own. The German she is forced to use straitjackets her, not unlike how writing in one language imprisons an author’s story within that register, no matter how deft the translation. Language is the individual’s oppressor, always binding us into the structures it begets, things like class, power relations, modes of expression that cannot do justice to feeling. This is why, despite all the doubts, the narrator’s memory of her bond with M is most clear, most alive when they are listening to music. Music perhaps comes closest to evoking feeling without the trap of language.
Bae leaves it right to the end for us to decide whether there was anything greater than these complications for M and “I’s” relationship, even if we’re already aware of the outcome. The real journey is not that of a love affair that has ended, but that of a character trying to make peace with it, to put it to rest. This must be true for the relation of the translator to the author, too: working to convey across languages the impossibility of language being up to its own task. The best to be hoped for is an approximation, just like the narrator must accept that her memory is nothing but an approximation, a reinvention of something that has already happened, that is already beginning to disappear.