Thursday, 14 August 2014

'Spirit on the Wind (and Other Stories)' by O Chong-hui (Review)

One of the standout stories from when I recently read the Modern Korean Fiction collection was 'Wayfarer', a wonderful story by O Chong-hui (AKA Oh Jung-hee) about a woman deserted by friends and family after a traumatic event.  Eager to try more of her work, I looked around to see what else was out there, and if you're looking for a (free) taste of Korean literature, there is (of course) only one place to go - over to Korean Literature in Translation to see what Uncle Charles has found out there on the net.  It turns out that there are a fair few of O's stories you can sample online for free - perfect for another Women in Translation Month post :)

The first story I tried, 'Evening Game' (tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé), was immediately recognisable as a work by the writer of 'Wayfarer'.  It's a story about a woman past marrying age at home with her father, and O never shies away from making her character less than perfect:
"Dizzy from Anaemia and panting from the reeking smell that made me nauseous, I'd stood before the mirror, studying the fine wrinkles and filthy patches of ringworm on my dry skin.  The stains on the gas range tarnishing the stainless steel would prove more malevolent and last longer than my memory of them."
Old before her time, she's trapped at home playing cards with her father every evening.  Why?  Well, there are some secrets in her past which will eventually be revealed... 

Next up were a couple of shorter tales, one of which I uncovered for myself at the Acta Koreana site.  'Weaver Woman' (tr. Miseli Jeon) is a slightly atypical story looking at a woman and her largely silent husband, one with rain, flowers and symbolism which went flying well over my head.  'Garden of my Childhood' (tr. Ha-yun Jung), on the other hand, is recognisably one of O's stories.  It follows a young girl roaming the streets of a country town, the new home of her refugee family as they wait for their absent father to return.  A sub-plot of the mystery of the missing chickens reveals how the family is managing to adapt to their new circumstances - I think you can guess how that one plays out ;)

'Chinatown' (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is a longer, fairly well-known story, and acts almost as a continuation of 'Garden of my Childhood'.  A refugee family moves from the country to the city to restart their lives in a poor, dirty neighbourhood.  It's a coming-of-age story, a portrait of a young girl moving from childhood to puberty, but it's also a story which is built on images - the dirty children, bombed-out buildings and the 'Chinese' houses on the hill.  Like much of O's work, it's a story within a story, and we move back and forth between life in the new neighbourhood and vivid memories of the move to the city.  This is a story you'll find in at least two publications, but you can try it here for free, thanks again to the kind people at Acta Koreana.

I've raced through the first four stories, and I had good reason to.  You see, good as they were, the best one by far was a much longer piece, Spirit on the Wind (tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton).  This is a substantial novella in four parts, and it centres on a woman who keeps deserting her husband and child, running off without warning, only to turn up again days (or weeks) later.  The reader soon begins to wonder what exactly is wrong with her - have no fear, we'll soon find out...

Unusually for O, the first and third parts are actually narrated by the husband, Se-ju, an old-school Korean man who expects his wife to do everything for him at home.  He loves his wife (and shows a surprising amount of support and faith in her), but as she disappears time after time, he comes to realise that he just can't do it any more:
"When she returned and our life resumed just as before, our wounds seemed at first glance to have healed.  But with her next absence they would open up, more livid and deep than ever.
 Those wounds never really healed.  On the surface they may have received balm, but it was all a deception.  Like a steady drip of water that undermines a foundation before one realizes it, those wounds had suffused our life, encroaching upon our dreams, our hopes, our trust in each other" (p.18)
While Se-ju himself has his faults, it's tempting to sympathise and believe that the wife is expecting a little too much from him...

Se-ju's wife, Un-su, is a bit of an enigma, and the reader initially wonders whether she's depressed or simply selfish.  The truth, of course, is a little more complex.  It's not giving too much away to reveal that childhood, war-related, trauma is at the heart of her problems, and it's not until the very end of the book that we find out just why she has to disappear so often.  The second and fourth parts of the story are told in the third-person, following Un-su on her journeys, and the more we learn about her past (and her present), the more our sympathies gradually start to shift.

Spirit on the Wind is an excellent novella, beautifully written and translated (by the well-known husband-and-wife team of Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, names aficionados of Korean writing will come across frequently).  In their brief preface, the translators talk of modern K-lit as a literature of trauma, and this story is certainly a good example of that.  However, it's also typical of a woman's struggle in a patriarchal society, with Un-su's issues exacerbated by her husband's attitude and pressure from other family members.

The book is also full of beautiful imagery, though, making Spirit on the Wind a joy to read.  Again, the themes of the story provide links to the writer's other work, especially when, late in the story, Un-su returns to Incheon, the setting of 'Chinatown'.  While I've enjoyed O's other stories, though, this one stands out in my mind as the best of her work I've read so far.  It's one I would recommend as a good introduction to women's writing in Korean literature - especially, of course, as the PDF is available to download for free :)

I did read one more story, 'Lake P'aro', but I'm leaving that one for another time. You see, there is a longer collection of the writer's stories available in English, River of Fire, (which contains 'Lake P'aro'), and I'm hoping to get hold of a copy in the near future.  Stay tuned for more about O Chong-hui/Oh Jung-hee very soon :)

Image (retrieved 23/7/14): (Spanish Wikipedia)