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The Weary Flight from Youth: The Bird by Oh Jung-Hee

by Kim Dongshik November 02, 2014

The Bird

  • Telegram Books
  • 2007
  • 9781846590214


Reading Oh Junghee’s fiction is like seeing the colors and patterns of life and the universe engraved on a bronze mirror. For some, it has the ghastly beauty of passing through a swamp of anxiety and horror. For others, it is like looking into the existential abyss of lost souls who were born without any place to call home. The world order has become naturalized for us through routine and structure, and so we are startled by Oh’s perspicacity, breaking it apart and rendering it unfamiliar. In order to resurrect the inner spirit on a cosmic dimension, Oh envisions opening up what seems closed, and we share in this vision. We are awed by the mysterious alchemy the writer uses to kindle a new literary world, depicting the full spectrum of life and the outer universe in the abyss, in that scene of tension and disillusionment in the grotto of death where all meaning is extinguished. Her novels show a female perspective in a new light, and subversively open up new horizons for existential reflection. It is also through Oh that a new kind of narration and a new literary style can be established in Korean fiction.

Oh Jung-hee is one of the most prominent Korean woman writers. She made her literary debut with the short story “Woman of the Toy Store” in 1968, and since then has written notable works, such as Garden of ChildhoodChinatownThe Old Well, and The Bird. In 2003, The Bird, a full-length novel, was published in Germany for which she was awarded the LiBeratur Literary Prize. It was the first time that a Korean writer received a foreign literary prize. Since then, The Bird has been translated into German, French, English, Russian, Dutch, Basque, and Croatian. Oh Jung-hee’s novels are known for her assiduous reflections on universal issues, a description of the inner landscape, and the flow of memory told in a delicate prose.

The Bird, is a unique coming-of-age, or anti-coming-of-age novel. Generally speaking, a long novel is symbolic of the world that the protagonist encounters. The main character undergoes a wide range of experiences in life to gain maturity. But for the two protagonist siblings, Umi and Uil, their world is limited to a system of exclusion, if not organized violence. Their mother deserted them, and their father disappeared after leaving them at a train station. The only thing that the brother and sister, not under anyone’s protection, could do is to hide in the dark shadows of the world. Umi and Uil grow up in a world of violence and darkness. And it is into this darkness that Uil disappears and Umi stands still, with a sliver of hope of seeing the distant stars.

Then what does the bird signify? It is a metaphor for the fate of Umi and Uil. Ordinarily, one associates a bird with freedom, but the author sees in the bird, the weariness of its having to search for food, and its terror of the hunter. The author of The Bird tells us in an understated way that there are young children who are suffering from hunger and pain, and that they are all around us. She is not sentimental or cynical about it; she does not demand a moral responsibility from the readers, either. She simply shows us the gap between the world of Umi and Uil, and us:



The day is light, and the night is dark. But the hour between when the sun sets and before the night arrives, this uncertain, and ambiguous darkness, that which comes in waves, filling the space between heaven and earth and stifles our heart, to which I cannot give a name; how it is different then and now, what flows between it all, I cannot explain.

(1996 edition, p.73) 


Reflection on the “in-between.” In The Bird we see that the author has chiseled minute and fine cracks into our idea of boundary and division. The author does not reveal the multiplicity of how the “in-between” can be a space where the system of exclusion can be in operation, or also where empathy and communication can take place. She would like for us simply to reflect on the “in-between” space and to be part of it. One of the reasons why The Bird has spoken to so many foreign readers is that the author offers a deep introspection on the “in-between.” Lastly, there are several nuances in relation to the Korean word, bird, which is sae; as a noun, it means the bird, as an adjective, it has a meaning of something new, and sae is also a contracted form of the Korean word, sa-i, which means “in-between.” 

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