The Bird by Oh Jung-Hee
You only have to make it through the first sentence of Oh Jung-Hee’s slim novel, The Bird, before you come across your first act of violence. It’s a slap to the head felt by U-mi, a young girl caught scribbling upon the face of her sleeping younger brother, U-il. Their grandmother wields the punishing hand, yelling at U-mi:
“You horrible girl! Don’t you know that a person’s soul floats out of their body when they’re sleeping? If you draw on someone’s face when they’re asleep, the soul won’t recognize its own body when it comes back and it has to wander around, lost forever."
“Is that what happened to Mummy? Did she go to find her soul?”
And there, by the end of the third paragraph, you’re handed other choice tidbits of information: a person’s soul enjoys a life of its own; U-mi’s mother is dead; and a whack upside the head is the established way of communicating. Actually, you know one more important fact: You’re about to read a dangerous story told with impeccable grace by a South Korean author whose name you’ve probably never heard. But after reading The Bird, you might want to run out and round up every Jung-Hee book you can.
Of course, you can’t be blamed for not knowing her. Jung-Hee’s books have yet to catch on in the United States. The same can’t be said in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Europe, where her books have been published. Recipient of the Dongin Literature Award and the Yi Sang Prize, she’s viewed as a short story master. She’s yet to find U. S. readers, but with her latest tale, that may change... Though, come to think of it, this tale of woe belongs squarely to U-mi, our young narrator. It’s through her prism that we experience this universe of violence.
Motherless, and dropped off with her brother at various relatives’ homes, she says goodbye to her father and hello to aunts and uncles she’s never met. From relative to relative to the siblings bounce, until their father rematerializes, taking them to a new house. A mere apartment, he shows them around and, after a night’s sleep, he leaves the next morning, returning hours later with a golden-haired woman. “She looked like a movie star,” U-mi remarks, instantly suspicious of the person who will take her mother’s place.
And what a terrible replacement she is. More concerned with her high-heeled shoes and makeup, she ignores the children, concentrating instead on earthly possessions like a telephone. With the father off to work for days at a time, the new “mother” passes the hours on the phone, telling whoever’s listening that she’s caught in a trap.
Luckily for U-mi and her brother, there’s an eccentric bunch of adults in neighboring apartments, who take the children under their collective wing. In the moments when U-mi and her brother aren’t consumed with Toto the Astroboy on TV, these adults provide stability for the sister and brother with little parental guidance.
That guidance becomes scarcer still, when, without warning, their father’s mistress packs up and leaves. Well, there had been some warning: “Father had twisted and wound up the woman’s long hair in his fist and was hitting her face... The woman’s lip was cracked and bleeding, and there was a deathly pale handprint on her cheek.”
With his mistress gone, the father completely deserts the children and, left to fend for themselves, U-mi takes her parenting cues from her physically abusive dad. Unfortunately, the only one left to feel the pain is her younger brother, U-il, who believes he can fly. And, as the pages speed past your fingers, as the neighbors reveal their secrets and flaws, U-mi transforms from a beautiful young girl into a cruel monster, directing hatred toward everyone who cares about her.
In some ways, such a story sounds as if it’s pure fairy tale, one that isn’t worth the time. And, in truth, The Bird reads like a fairy tale. Which is why it works so well: U-mi is archtypal, that young girl left with nothing who must find her way out of one bad turn after another. Smarter by far than any of the adults around her, she knows where all her actions will lead, with no one to love her, she has little choice to but to reeanct what she knows.
Now, the danger in telling a fairy tale is that it can turn out to be about as weighty as cotton candy. And, every once in a while, you think the book is heading into Treacle-ville. But then Jung-Hee unspools a sentence, she unravels a metaphor and you’re held hostage, dreading an ending you fear will lead to nothing but sorrow. You become, in one way, like the bird in a cage hanging near U-mi’s home: you witness the misery of the world around you and, for all the beautiful songs your breast can muster, you can’t change the outcome.
Luckily, for you, the cage is a work of fiction and eventually, you’ll flit away. But for U-mi, the character trapped by the tale, the cage is all too real. Nothing can save her or anyone else’s soul in this violent realm. Not even the freedom promised by a beautiful pair of wings.
The Bird by Oh Jung-Hee, translated by Jenny Wang Medina