Reviews by Willard Manus
A love triangle
lies at the heart of A GREATER MUSIC, the new novel by Korean writer Bae
Suah (translated by Deborah Smith). But there is nothing conventional
about the narrative setup; on the contrary, Suahs love story unfolds
in a strange, elliptical, cerebral way that is quite unusual.
We meet the unnamed heroine of the novel, a Korean girl living in Germany,
where she is taking language lessons from M., a thin, sickly but handsome
woman who is the holder of a linguistic degree, easily taken up
by whatever was novel...a voracious readers and culture obsesssive whod
become unconsciously influenced by Asian mysticism.
The Korean girl has a boyfriend, Joachim, a physics major who is desperate
to make money and is a complete philistine who despises the kind of literature
and music she admires. Unable to successfully teach her German, Joachim
hooks her up with M., never suspecting she might fall in love with her.
Music figures strongly in the relationship between M. and her pupil; they
listen to Beethoven and Shostakovich together, discuss the meaning of
their symphonies and sonatas, the greater music of the books
title. Its not all spiritual between them, though; there is also
a sexual connection, one which becomes surprisingly intense for the Korean
girl. Having always thought of herself as being cool and aloof, in control
of her emotions, she is shocked to learn just how possessive and vengeful
she can become when M. confesses to a one-night stand with a mutual friend,
Again, it should be emphasized that these story beats are not the main
ingredients of A GREATER MUSIC. What truly matters is the authors
way with words, her precise, evocative prose, her ability to create an
offbeat, haunting world, one which is populated with quixotic yet three-dimensional
characters. Suah keeps us distanced from them even as she manages to make
us care for them. Its quite a trick.
Underlying the working out of the love triangle is the continual presence
of death. Its there in the characters thoughts and in the
music the Korean girl listens to, especially Shostakovichs Sonata
for Viola and Piano, and in Bernd Alois Zimmermans last two
compositions. Its music which dealt with the approach of death,
when death cannot but become their theme and they themselves cannot but
confess its omnipotence.
(Open Letter, 128 pages, $13.95 ppbk; openletterbooks.com)