Fantastic Grace: Le Quartier chinois by Oh Jung-Hee

  • onFebruary 16, 2015
  • Vol.26 Winter 2014
  • bySerge Safran
Le Quartier chinois
Tr. Jeong Eun-Jin and Jacques Batilliot

At first it is a special type of music, subtle and heady all at once, that seeps into all your pores and sweeps you into the mysterious and profound depths of the not easily captivated human soul. And then, on a second reading, you discover other strata, other paths, other movements, other notes which cannot be perceived in a single encounter—just like when you need to get acquainted with someone to know them better, to love them better.

Likewise we find ourselves in Oh Jung-Hee’s precious and raw universe, whereby behind a sentence—through a soothsayer or a doll, through a very old grandmother or a violent and stubborn teenager—we discover a very realistic depiction of human behavior, of the relationships humans cultivate more or less against their will, and we are sometimes led into a dimension that borders on fantasy.

Oh Jung-Hee eases with excruciating softness and extreme lucidity into the daily lives of the characters she portrays living in a port city, a working class neighborhood, or a house—often set in a difficult period following or somehow related to the Korean War. In so doing, she borrows the initially innocent eyes of a little girl or boy growing up in makeshift or blended families, battered by exile, marginalization, and poverty.

In “Chinatown (Le Quartier chinois),” the short story from which the collection derives its title, a nine-year-old girl from a very large family goes to a partly decrepit industrial port, where she discovers prostitution, “Yankee whores” fostered by the presence of the US military. With Ch’i-ok, her friend and accomplice, she takes on the challenges of life, having to steal to survive while taking refuge in reading romance novels.

In “The Courtyard of Childhood” (La Cour de l‘enfance), a girl, this time six years old, must bear life with brothers and a sister while their absent mother, a waitress working evening shifts at a restaurant, is sleeping out or coming home drunk. The elder brother, responsible for standing in for the father who is off at war, manifests unusual cruelty; at the same time she strives to learn English in the illusory hope of immigrating someday to the United States. And in a neighboring house, with a persimmon tree growing in the front yard, the young Pu-ne, sequestered by her father, is found dead. The return of the girl’s father does not necessarily guarantee that her stability will be restored.

Finally, “The Fireworks (Le Feu d’artifice)” interweaves the stories of three characters on a single day that will end with a celebration. The father Kwanhi, the mother Inja, and their son Yŏngjo lead three lonely, independent lives punctuated by encounters and conversations in their present day lives and their past. The day ends with the old family rooster being sacrificed as fireworks are set off.

With great modesty and sensitivity, Oh Jung-Hee takes us into the picturesque world of little people without ever slipping into pathos or pessimism. She shows us the hardships of the have-nots in the face of violence, debauchery, or misunderstanding. A people who seem unable to communicate or love, who suffer in silence, get through life by hook or by crook, without ever figuring a way out. A lesson in courage, of a somewhat universal scope, which can also be called by a different name: grace. 


by Serge Safran
Director, Serge Safran Editeur


Author's Profile

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.