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The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Last Autumn Love and Other Short Stories by Oh Jung-Hee

by Edyta Matejko-Paszkowska November 09, 2014

The Last Autumn Love and Other Short Stories

  • Kwiaty Orientu
  • 2009
  • 9788392694052

Oh Junghee

Oh Junghee’s career as a writer began in 1968 with the publication of the short story “The Toy Store Lady.” In this debut work, a young elementary-school-aged girl feels abandoned by the world, and her aimless wanderings and sense of loss give shape to the story. For a while, images of lost souls such as this recurred in various forms throughout Oh’s work. Oh used the expression “a self-portrait of youthful misery” to describe the fiction from her early period that was published in her first story collection, The River of Fire (1977). The narrative situations show the distinctive flow of consciousness of lost souls. Oh chose disordered femininity as her subject matter, and used memorable images to foreground aspects such as grotesque bodies, perverse sexuality, sterility, and abortion. In Oh’s second story collection, Garden of Childhood (1981), the years around the time of the Korean War serve as the setting for the author’s depiction of a young girl gradually coming of age. Oh’s protagonist in the title story, “Garden of Childhood,” is a young girl who shows signs of psychological deviance, raised in a family adversely affected by the war. Oh uses this character to question the prevailing sexual ideology, even as she presents us with a picture postcard of a turbulent age. This period is remembered as a time when the girl cried with “shame and sorrow.” Likewise, an atmosphere of horror, pity, shame, and sorrow pervades the story “Chinatown.” A young girl in the slums of Chinatown reaches a new level of maturity as she adopts new views and grows in experience. This work demonstrates Oh’s unique use of symbols and serves as a model of well-crafted short fiction. In Spirit on the Wind (1986), Oh concentrates on middle-aged female protagonists, writing about their anxiety and identity confusion. With this approach, she explores the melancholy and sadness that has been an inescapable part of Korean women’s lot. Tackling the stories of the sick and the elderly in “Evening Game,” “Bronze Mirror,” and other stories, Oh’s investigations into femininity culminate in “The Old Well” (1994). Through made up memories of an old well, and longing for it, Oh reflects on where feminine depths really lie. In conclusion, during the war and modernization, men and the world inflicted wounds on women that they could not help but internalize. In her fiction, Oh looks in anguish at these wounds from the abyss where they were sustained, but even so, she tentatively makes her way towards the horizon of healing through her distinctive way of writing as a woman.

Oh Jung-Hee is one of the most celebrated and outstanding Korean authors. Her short stories published in Poland under the title The Last Autumn Love and Other Short Stories are consistently rich, provocative, powerful, and carefully crafted.

Endowed with extraordinary talent, Oh seems to know more about the female psyche than other writers. Heroines of her stories are usually women between 30 and 40 who, limited by their role as housewives, feel the emptiness and futility of their lives.

Each of these characters live in a cycle of daily routines and unfulfilled dreams. Lack of complete freedom in their lives drive them to apathy and make them unable to express their feelings, except to make futile gestures of mutiny. The subjects that Oh explores are not easy; they provoke and make the readers reflect.

The Bird, another book by Oh, which will be published in Poland in spring, is an emotional tale of a brother and sister, abandoned as children, struggling to make something out of their young lives. This novel displays differences from the majority of her other stories as it does not focus on the feminine values she is so often associated with, but offers insight into her intense writing style. This is the second of Oh’s books translated from Korean by Marzena Stefanska. A famous journalist once said about Oh Jung-Hee’s writing: “Delicate, understand writing that finds the extraordinary in the ordinary.” And this is Oh Jung-Hee—already loved by Polish readers. 

 

 * Edyta Matejko-Paszkowska is editor of Kwiaty Orientu. Marzena Stefanska translated The Last Autumn Love and Other Short Stories into Polish. 

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