The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 8 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul
Pak Wanseo’s (as her name is spelled on the book cover) Three Days in That Autumn is an austere, almost frigid account of the end days of a gynecologist (abortionist, actually) and her practice. The title is a clever one, as it refers both to the specific time of the story and the position of the narrator in her life. In fact the narrator, an abortionist, has lived in Autumn since her rape, many years ago. Now, she avenges/re-enacts that rape on a daily basis in her role as an abortionist. The doctor vacillates between a kind of wry guilt for “killing enough people to populate a town” and pride in her role as a provider of relief to sexually abused and exploited women. As is often true in Pak’s stories, Three Days in That Autumn begins in a national trauma – that is, the narrator is raped as a result of the war, and then quickly descends into a personal nightmare. Pak employees such a strategy in other translated fiction (In the Realm of the Buddha) as well as in her recently published “autobiographic novel” (Who Ate Up all The Shinga). Stephen Epstein has summed this feature up in Pak’s work:
[this] narrative strategy is employed frequently in Pak’s work: what may seem initially to be a story with public concerns then turns to center upon family relationships or vice-versa, as personal drama suddenly takes on wider implications
At the outset Pak sets the public line clearly, “The Korean War was the line common to us all, the barrier we had all confronted. What outrageous warping of fate had each one of us faced over that line” (Pak 12)? When the doctor says, “For me it’s more important to know that a man is capable of rape than to know his last name,” it is clear how profoundly the rape has affected her and as its result she chooses to open a “woman’s clinic,” or an abortion clinic. Her first patient is the only live birth that she ever oversees. Beyond that occasion, she never again oversees a birth, not even bothering to procure the equipment needed for birth.
Her decision turns out to be a canny one, as local prostitutes soon begin to make use of her services, and as the neighborhood changes her clientele moves on to housewives forced to follow the population control model of two children per family, only. The Doctor cannot develop personal relationships of any kind, even a madam refers to the Doctor as “a block of wood,” and she lives in a sort of dusty cocoon reinforced by her pretty close to complete contempt for the rest of the world. The doctor considers her prostitute clients “illiterate morons,” churchgoers to be hypocrites because the doctor “[knows] what sins they have committed,” and she is embarrassed by the closest thing she has to a friend, the madam.
As retirement approaches, is literally three days away, the doctor feels a strange longing to deliver a life, rather than the termination of life and this longing brings her back into contact with the madness at her core. This begins to manifest itself in bad dreams, peculiar (and unremembered) behavior in the clinic, and a sudden recognition that she has lived a life entirely without love. She begins to obsess on the notion that delivering a baby could be a small, but significant, way in which to re-establish her link with the life and love she had forfeited or had stolen, or some combination of both, some 30 years before.
Finally, unexpectedly, a chance for redemption occurs on the Doctor’s last day of business, and painfully projects the Doctor into the past, and memories of her own abortion.
The conclusion is dramatic and subject to a literal or symbolic interpretation, depending upon the reader’s inclination. Either way, it is extremely powerful.
Koreans like to imagine the day that a Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded to a Korean, and there are certainly few candidates in Korea who can step up to the level at which Pak writes.