Untold Night and Day

If anyone can deeply understand a foreign text, the translator surely tops the list. "Like Bae's others, this book is simultaneously a detective novel and a surreal, poetic fever dream," explains Man Booker International Prize-winning translator Deborah Smith. Provocatively demanding, Untold Night and Day is Smith's fourth collaboration with Bae Suah (A Greater Music), considered one of Korea's most significant--and enigmatic--contemporary writers.

Here's what readers know happens: a 28-year-old former actress finishes her last workday, has dinner with her boss, searches for her missing German-language tutor, collects a traveler at the airport for a new temporary job. That's about as clear as Night and Day gets, because the Untold--as in "unknown" and "undisclosed," as Smith suggests--is what makes this novel such an immersive, heady experience.

Kim Ayami's single acting credit was a four-minute film set at a Burger King, but she's the longest-lasting "office worker-cum-librarian-cum-ticket seller" at a Seoul audio theater that's about to close permanently. She dines à deux in darkness at a restaurant that purposefully simulates blindness. The hunt for her tutor and friend, Yeoni, requires that she endure sweltering, stifling streets. Her assigned foreign visitor wakes up in her bathroom-less squat, oblivious to his (or her) purpose. Meanwhile, a peripatetic poet-wannabe obsesses over Ayami as his oneiric "poet woman," while a Chilean fruit-seller begs him for money.

Bae accentuates her labyrinth with exacting descriptive phrases ("coarse-textured white cotton hanbok," "skinny calves corded with stringy muscle"), purposefully meant to obscure who's doing who-knows-what. While disorientation seems unavoidable, astute readers will reap the rewards of her piercing commentary on disconnected humanity, social ills, apocalyptic climate, impenetrable borders and even an all-too-familiar reality. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

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