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Arts & Media

What’s the Medicine She Really Needs?

  • 조회수 222
  • 행사기간 Oct 08, 2018 - Oct 08, 2018
  • 등록일 Oct 08, 2018

LITERATURE

JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE CRITIQUE

What’s the Medicine She Really Needs?

Oh Hyun-jong (born 1973) weaves engaging stories in diverse genres, such as romance, espionage and martial arts, with an ingenious imagination. For such forays into different genres she has been credited with broadening the horizons of Korean fiction. At the same time, the stories she tells always have a sharp take on the human psyche.

The subject matter and themes of Oh Hyun-jong’s full-length novels are quite diverse. Her early novels tended to be autobiographical. Her first novel, “You’re a Witch,” depicting the painfully slow progress in the love between a 30-something writer and a graduate student; the coming-of-age novel, “Time Spent Learning Languages,” exploring the truth-seeking and frustrations of students at a foreign language high school; and “Divine Snobs,” recounting female university students’ struggles with dating and making inroads into society - all seem to stem from the author’s own life.
Some writers, despite their apparent skills at turning their own experiences and thoughts into fiction, eventually struggle to break away from autobiographical material. In most cases, the problem is a lack of imagination and talent. This is not so with Oh Hyun-jong; she masterfully creates narratives beyond autobiographical storytelling. Her second full-length novel, “The Adventures of Bond Girl Mimi” (2007), is a radical remaking of the “007” spy films from a feminist perspective. Just like the films, her novel portrays James Bond as a hunk oozing sex appeal, but unlike the films, where the Bond girl merely plays a supporting role to highlight Bond’s masculinity, Mimi is both proactive and highly capable. In the first part of the novel, Mimi longs for Bond and pursues him, but Bond uses his duty and mission as a shield to push her away. Having been tracking Bond’s whereabouts, in the latter part of the novel, Mimi is transformed into a spy herself, with the code name “013.” It is her mission to solve the problems caused by Bond’s vanity and incompetence and save the organization from grave danger. Hence, 013 outshines 007 as a spy.
“Sweet and Cold” (2013), Oh’s fifth novel, tells a completely different kind of story. The novel can be summarized as a “brutal rite of passage story” in which a young man does not shirk from becoming a murderer for the woman he loves, and, in the process, comes face to face with the dark truth of humanity. With this work, no longer relying on personal experiences or appealing to shared cultural tropes, Oh succeeds in presenting a perception of the world and the realization of characters which are entirely fictional.

“Even if my fate, as the king in a tragedy or the jester in a comedy, is decided by the throw of the dice in an afternoon game to pass the time, that’s fine.”

Her sixth novel, “The Assassin’s Blade in the Days Long Gone” (2015), is of a completely different nature, not only in theme and content but also in prose style, and eloquently shows off the versatility of the writer. While “The Adventures of Bond Girl Mimi” is a reinterpretation and transformation of a blockbuster film series, this novel attempts to inherit but go beyond traditional East Asian martial arts fiction in a modern way. The motifs of revenge and exaggerated heroism stay faithful to the traditions of martial arts fiction, but in aspects like the story-within-story structure or the fact that the main character fails to stab the villain at the crucial moment, and more than anything else, the fresh, modern prose style and thinking, the novel displays a creative capability unhindered by the clichés and limitations of traditional narratives. In the line, “Only when I came forward holding deep within me a story I had to tell could I finally feel like I had broken free from the loneliness that grew within me like my own bones, the loneliness like that of a eunuch,” the author seems to confess her own destiny as a born story-teller.
The short story, “A History of Medicine,” presented here, was included in Oh’s short story collection, “I Was Both the King and the Jester,” published by Munhak Dongne (Literary Community) in 2017. This book of eight stories demands serious contemplation in that it explores the status and role of the writer in the world today, and all the associated deliberations. The person that becomes the king and then also the jester in a single story is none other than the writer.

In the autobiographical story “In Busan,” included in the same book, the main character, reminiscent of the writer herself, is told that “the age of the novel is already long gone” by a middle-aged woman working in broadcasting in their first meeting.
In “Reading the Family Register,” the scenes in which people such as bank or visa agency workers react sourly to the protagonist’s unstable status as a novelist echo the episode from “In Busan.” However, in this story, the thoughts that the main character broods over while looking through the names and dates of birth and death of her ancestors listed in the family register, read somewhat paradoxically. The line, “first meetings and farewells, loneliness and dread are not recorded in official documents,” seems to express a great pride and faith in fiction which can record such things. In the writer’s note at the end of the book, Oh Hyun-jong says, “Even if my fate, as the king in a tragedy or the jester in a comedy, is decided by the throw of the dice in an afternoon game to pass the time, that’s fine. Whatever role I must take now, I think I can devote myself to it.” The soliloquy seems based on an awakening and sense of conviction in Oh’s identity as a novelist.
“A History of Medicine” does not hold metathoughts about fiction or literature. The story is centered on an almost-romance between a graduate student in her late twenties studying English literature and a late-blooming student of oriental medicine. The way the relationship between these two characters circles around, languishing somewhere between friends and lovers, and never develops but at the same time is not broken off, brings to mind Oh’s first full-length novel, “You’re a Witch.”
As the title suggests, “A History of Medicine” introduces all of the various kinds of medicines the protagonist has taken throughout her life, up to the present day. The main character, approaching thirty, has caught a cold and her coughs have gone on so long they now sound like the rough barking of a dog. For this condition, Seob, the oriental medicine student, prescribes what medicine he can, but even as the story draws to a close, the protagonist’s symptoms show no signs of improvement. Little by little, the reader comes to realize that this is not from lack of skill on Seob’s part.
Although the two have been seeing each other for a long time, they have “never held hands,” and because of this the protagonist is aware that the “precise distance between us is as close as we will ever get.” At the end of the story, she finally calls Seob and says, “I, I need medicine. Medicine,” and at long last, she bursts into tears. It is perfectly clear to the reader that this medicine is neither the Korean traditional medicine made by Seob nor the Western medicine they dispense at pharmacies. And Seob seems to realize this too, as he doesn’t end the call but just listens to her cry wordlessly.

Choi Jae-bong Reporter, The Hankyoreh

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