Korean Literature
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Korean Literature

“Unwanted life within” — Review of Pak Wanseo’s ‘Three Days in That Autumn’

It is one of those novels that starts with firm, knowing statements about past and future. Short, blunted sentences that stand outside the ordinary prose. “Three days remain.”, “The chair is absolutely useless.”, “In the spring of 1953, the war was still on.” On each one of these inflections we are expected to stop hard, our internal world shaking with the trace-discovery of gold — from here out we are supposed to be hooked with intrigue, and with the expectant pleasure of turning each page.

It rarely works!

The self-conscious writer can work like this, but the cheating mind often does not play along. It is the delicate work of psychopathy, plodding through life, never lost in the moment, always a step or two removed from the fun and emotion, dropping little traps for the unsuspecting reader. Often the habit cannot maintain. The act is forgotten. The words soon run without chains, and the actual writer can’t help but to soon show her face. With Pak Wanseo it’s different!

Naturally the self-conscious writer finds a self-conscious protagonist to do her bidding — young-ish, “all alone”, and quick to remind her audience that she is “perfectly qualified despite my childlike face.” She is starting-out in the shadow of the Korean War and the uncomfortably swollen laneways of Seoul, avoiding marriage, fighting back judgement, and swimming in cliché.

The neighbourhood is shabby, butting-up against degraded farmland and railway tracks, while our young doctor (and war veteran) waits impatiently for wealth and acceptance. Here the worn, fairy tale gloss of the narrative ends; and this feminist book rapidly becomes a book only of feminist pain and emptiness.

A victim of war-time sexual assault, our doctor decides to open a women’s clinic specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology; a first small step toward consolation. And immediately we are told just how brave and uncommon of a step this is, with local eyes narrowing-upon the new resident as if she were a pornographer:

Women in this neighbourhood are having babies left and right without any problems whatsoever. Why should a decent woman, unless she’s been cursed, need a woman’s clinic? What a shameful idea!

Everyone, from her landlord to her painters, her delivery men, the government inspectors, and her visiting father, feel this way. And the local women are in on the witch-hunt too, only knocking on her door when the pain of childbirth or miscarriage overcomes their otherwise jaundiced resentment: “If people find out later an unmarried girl’s been to a women’s clinic, she’ll be shamed… damned bitch!” They are followed into the surgery by unpleasant and unsympathetic relatives, hoping that the patient survives — and recovers — just long enough for a good scolding: “please save my wretched daughter.”

The more this novel steps into the mud and blood of abortions and stillbirths, the more it feels as though it were written by a man and not a woman. Everything is appropriately graphic and unsettling… but stereotypically so! It’s as though Pak is trying hard — very hard — to appear convincing and knowledgeable of women and their world. Much too mindful of her expectant audience, what we get is prose that is so overworked, and manicured, that it hits the page like a mass-produced children’s sticker.

Soon the war ends, the Americans hang around, prostitutes begin to scuttle in-and-out of the military wire by night, and the women’s clinic flourishes by day. The waiting room bulges each morning with these desperate entrepreneurs — the only women who enter the story confident, resilient, and unashamed of their chromosomes. Through smiles and laughter they walk in for their abortions, and leave with the same unshaken, self-deprecating humour, chuckling, grinning, and roaring away the bruising, the discomfort and the emotion.

They also put our doctor on edge, with her morose, brooding angst and judging scowl turning in a matter of pages from the understandable outgrowths of trauma, to an indulgent hatred. These prostitutes are also the only customers who actually pay the advertised prices, with everyone else commonly leaving “three times the normal fee” as a form of “hush money”.

The more she drinks-in her own depression, and refuses the happiness of a changing world, the more our doctor is consumed by the increasingly mechanical job before her:

I’ve done my job, driven by malicious hatred. To finish the procedure successfully, I could not do without my hatred even for a moment, hatred not only for the woman lying there on the table holding her foul smelling vagina up in front of me like a face, but also for the unwanted life within.

The “Three Days” mentioned in the title, are part of a tangential countdown to retirement and remembering. But more specifically, they are a part of the uninspired writing and translation process, where language repeats forgetfully and often (describing the uterus as a “cherry, then as aripe cherry”, and also “overripe cherry” across a handful of pages).

In light of all this, it isn’t hard to see how Three Days in That Autumn was selected as a title: sheer, uninspired, uninterested, matter-of-fact laziness. With such dullness and lack of imagination it is dangerous to think what Pak and Ryu Sukhee (translator) would have done with their hands on some literary favourites. Instead of The Picture of Dorian Gray we would have Picture Gets Old, Man Doesn’t; Frankenstein would be changed to Man Makes Monster, Doesn’t End Well; Lord of the Flies becoming Kids Are Mean; The Lord of the Rings altered to be Orcs, Elves and Dwarves Fight; and Harry Potter improved upon with Boy Does Magic.

When the stench of the prose eases, the narrative continues to lose its way, turning towards the description of dreams and a return to those prodding, supposedly meaningful sentences about chairs and picture frames. None of which return with the pop and importance that the build-up deserves; while many are simply forgotten about and abandoned on the page.

It is hard to see what others do here! At each step it feels as though Pak is desperate to isolate her reader, as if testing some expected patience and loyalty. And strangely Pak does have plenty of both out there, with her own flavour of cult following across Korean literature. You will have to ask those people exactly what they find so appealing about Pak’s work, because there are no hints whatsoever within Three Days in That Autumn.

The prostitutes dwindle, church steeples replace the military bases, and still business booms. The small foetuses are “scraped-out” in their “badly damaged… curled-up forms”, then cast aside “along with ordinary garbage” in an uncomfortably graphic advertisement for the ‘pro-life’ anti-abortion movement.

Behind it all there is no redemption, no surviving morality, nor message of hope. As soon as our doctor is retired and wealthy in her old age, she is also moving away to a brighter and more respectable neighbourhood — those women, and the feminist pretence, left behind with dewy eyes and ever-slumping shoulders, used and abandoned by one of their own.

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