Untold Night and Day is a hallucinatory novel propelled by the logic of dreams: the story resists conventional categorisation and coherence in favour of instability, a shamanistic borderland of feverish disintegration between the physical and the spiritual. Which illusions are genuine, which are not? In one long vivid sequence Ayami imagines the apocalyptic end-point to Seoul’s stifling summer weather.
In Bae’s novel, too, “dreams, visions and agonies” are continuously, maddeningly repeated, lulling the reader into a hypnagogic state. There are various women with pockmarked faces, mad old men with “eyes like sunken caves”, Burger King meals, radios playing the shipping forecast, dead bodies hidden inside ceilings, girls wearing “coarse cotton clothes and hemp sandals”, a white bus carrying “several women grouped around a large table, each reading a book” – these images recur over, attributed to different characters and settings, jumping back and forth in time, and paying no heed to any realist expectations of plot and character.
The amorphous logic of memory or dream, where things are both familiar and strange, connects physical and intangible worlds. Transported to another time, Ayami as a young girl picks up a pebble through which she finds herself in another world. “Ayami was her future self or her past self. And she was both, existing at the same time. In that other world, she was both the chicken and the old woman. That was the secret of night and day existing simultaneously.”
Similarly, Bae draws a picture of contemporary Seoul — fast-food outlets, digital technology — that also echoes its postwar, decades-long nationwide curfew, which was in place each evening from midnight to 4am. This curfew, historically, created a distinct night-time culture for South Koreans. It gives the novel a backdrop where characters blur and conversations occur in a sickly chiaroscuro light, a limbo between night and day, life and death, with the inevitable nod to Korea’s geographical division and militaristic northern neighbour. The non-colours of black, white and grey are used symbolically and in unusual ways — from vehicles to food, environmental and bodily emissions — with occasional splashes of red for menstrual blood, or the plumage of a vicious parrot in a dream sequence.