Yi Mun-Yol: “An Anonymous Island”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Yi Mun-Yol’s “An Anonymous Island” (tr. from the Korean by Heinz Insu Frenkl) was originally published in the September 12, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

After a few weeks of disappointment with The New Yorker‘s fiction selection, I’m happy to say that when I sat down to read this story I was interested from the beginning and admired it throughout.  I don’t know anything about the author other than that he is from South Korea.  I found more about him in a piece by Philip Gourevitch that the magazine published in 2003 about Kim Jong Il (it’s title is “Alone in the Dark,” and you can read it in its entirety on The New Yorker website here).  Mun-Yol has a remarkable story.  No doubt people more familiar with him and with the history of Korea will find more here than I did, but I’m happy to report that this story has something even for those of us in who, relatively, no little.

“An Anonymous Island” begins with a domestic scene.  Our narrator’s husband is watching television and is saddened by what he’s watching.  She was raised in a city, but he was raised in a rural village “with only one clan.”  In his village, everyone knew each other and looked after each other.  It’s not like that anymore, at least, not where he is in his life.

“What the hell is the matter with our generation?” my husband complains.  “How did it get so easy to be anonymous?”

I’ve heard the same thing from him many times, and I can guess where he’s headed before he has even finished: Get off the bus one stop past your neighborhood in the city and you hardly recognize anyone.  It’s so easy to hide these days — there must be huge numbers of people living anonymously.  It’s the moral failing of our generation, a major factor in the corruption of women’s sexuality

An interesting last line, I think.  Is he saying that anonymity enables women to be more promiscuous?  He would certainly be surprised, then, to know how his wife responds — in her head — to these types of complaints:

Whenever my husband goes on like this, it makes a repugnant memory resurface in my mind and I feel sorry for him.  Maybe I should feel some shame for myself, too, but it’s something that happened ten long years ago.

After this brief introduction — and we cannot forget the line about women’s sexuality — the narrative shifts back those ten years while the narrator reflects on that repugnant memory.  She had just graduated and took her first job at a remote elementary school in a village that sounds a lot like her husband’s.  Because the village is so remote and produces nothing of interest, almost no one moves in, so the village is essentially one large biological family.  This is how the narrator felt when she arrived from the city:

The mountains encircled me like the giant walls of a prison that would confine me for the rest of my life, and the village of about a hundred houses that I saw in the distance looked abandoned — like a ghost town.

The streets were not entirely empty, though.  She got off the bus and, after just a few steps “felt something like a sharp beam of light pierce [her] skin.”  Across the way she sees a man watching her.  The man is so filthy she couldn’t tell what his pants were made of.  As she watches him, she feels the light prick her skin again: “It was hidden behind a veil of madness, but the source was unmistakable — it was coming from the man’s eyes.”

The man is called Ggaecheol, which is apparently a childish nickname.  Over time the narrator is surprised to find out that Ggaecheol is not from the village.  He arrived and — even more surprising — does nothing she can discern.  Still he manages to get three meals a day by entering anyone’s home at meal time.  They apparently gladly serve him, though they were not expecting him.  This is also the way he gets his bed at nights if the outdoors are too cold; he just arrives at about bed time, asks for a place to sleep (“You won’t need your blanket,” he’d say.  “You’re just gonna go lie down next to your wife, right?”).  And the villagers, the husbands, they go along with all of this, though they get a sense of false satisfaction because they reinforce the idea that Ggaecheol is just the village idiot — even an idiot needs to eat and sleep somewhere, right? 

As the narrator is discovering the secrets behind the village’s acceptance of Ggaecheol, she meets and falls in love with her future husband.  He’s never really present in the story (other than at the beginning) because she meets him while on a break from teaching and then he is occupied doing his mandatory military service.  For some time she spends her spare moments reading his love letters to her and penning ones back to him.  It’s a shock when her future husband is called to fight in Vietnam, and this seems to be his death sentence.  He hopes he can visit her briefly before shipping out, but the last bus he could have arrived on drives by without stopping, and that sets off the string of events that help her understand Ggaecheol’s role in this remote village.

11 thoughts on “Yi Mun-Yol: “An Anonymous Island””

  1. Betsy says:

    Trevor, thanks for the link to the Philip Gourevitch “Letter from Korea” from 2003.

    The article was fascinating background for the country and the author. Korea has a special situation of such unique complexity that a guide is really quite helpful.

    I enjoyed the story as a wicked, tantalizing tale, but with the Gourevitch information, I felt as if the shadows had deepened. For instance, does the isolated village represent both South and North Korea? Are they both places in need of an outsider who could come in and shake them up with new births and new ideas? Are they both places where a lack of backbone (according to Yi) is an unquestioned part of life?

    Ggaecheol’s wildly strange seduction of all the village women is less shocking than the way he and the women emasculate the men. It is as if Yi is suggesting that the peoples of North and South Korea are both, in their own separate and distinct ways, allowing themselves to be walked all over.

    Yi’s own special situation as the son of a man who defected to North Korea just deepens the story all the more. His father’s shadow family in North Korea apparently hangs over his writing. I am reminded somewhat of Louise Erdrich’s story earlier this year which imagined a woman born of two cultures, the reservation on the one hand, and the town on the other. Erdrich deals with twinning and outsiders, too. For Yi Mun-Yol, however, the double life has been all too real. At any rate, I am wondering if he intends the story to provide a kind of universality that holds up a mirror not just to North Korea, but South Korea as well.

    Regardless, the story is a tantalizing tale. It drew me in and kept me with it. I hope to have a look at “Our Twisted Hero”.

    I also want to recommend the Book Bench interview with Yi Mun-yol’s translator. This interview brings the “lost in translation” debate to another level. The interview really should be read in full, but the gist of it is that Yi’s use of Chinese characters allows Yi access to a depth of allusion that the western reader is denied. Fenkl explains that Yi’s main character, the outsider “Ggaecheol”, has a name which when rendered in Chinese characters incorporates in itself the disparate ideas of an invasive weed, the sesame seed, to wake up, and to break something. In addition, the name’s second syllable “can mean iron, or steel, or season, or a time of year.” Fenkl then includes another linguistic riff on the word “emperor”, which Yi uses in reference to his main character, who is dressed in dirty tatters, but is also, given the rich suggestiveness of his name and the paired idea of “emperor”, more than what he seems.

    Clearly, there are probably other words in Yi’s story, which when expressed in Chinese characters, take on a life of their own. If I were to read an entire novel or collection of short stories by Yi Mun-yol, I might want to read some sharp commentary by his translator. Korean, Japanese and Chinese are three languages which may require more translation explication in order for the reader to enjoy the richness of the allusions. In fact, I wonder, when dealing with Yi, if one can be truly reading the author without the addition of the translator’s notes. Finally, these translation problems show how important the translator’s work has to be.

    Trevor, I know that you often read works in translation. Given that not many of us read Czech, German, or Hungarian, as well as French or Spanish or Chinese, translation is a necessity for someone who wants to be familiar with world literature. So, Trevor, given your experience with this, I wonder how you view or deal with the “lost in translation” problem.

  2. Trevor says:

    So, Trevor, given your experience with this, I wonder how you view or deal with the “lost in translation” problem.

    Good question, Betsy, and I don’t know that answer entirely. I guess one way to look at it is that, in spite of what is lost in translation, in its absence we would lose even more. Of course, that is a bit of a cop out.

    When I read things like that interview with Frenkl (click here to read the interview) I am a bit sad that so much richness can be lost. No doubt there are many writers around the world whose work has never been done justice, perhaps never could be done justice, so the richness they offer is never known to us who read in English. I’m not sure there is a way to get around this, and perhaps the next best thing to actually learning the language is to read up on literature in translation and find the richness described that may otherwise be lost or invisible. There are plenty of places dedicated to such explorations (several are links on my sidebar).

    I suppose mostly I just trust the translator (or, try to), realizing that much has probably been lost; but translating is an art, too, so the final product can, it goes without saying, still be rich.

    I’ll think about this more and maybe come up with something better.

  3. Betsy says:

    You say – “…perhaps the next best thing to actually learning the language is to read up on literature in translation and find the richness described that may otherwise be lost or invisible.”

    I agree with that. Somehow, reading a translated piece from a country or culture or language you don’t know much about almost requires doing some companion reading. You would like to let the literature stand on its own, but if you don’t know the culture, it’s too easy to lead the literature astray. For instance, I didn’t realize that Korean writers used Chinese characters. So that whole Bookbench interview was essential for me to get the essence of Yi – the word play, the erudition, as opposed to the superficial simplicity.

    And the Gourevitch article was essential for getting a sense of the beliefs of the Korean peoples (Juche and Han, beliefs that may be part of the the story’s fabric). I have the same feeling about reading Sebald, and wonder, too, if Coetzee (whom I have not read) also falls in that category. Certainly, for me, LAtin American writers require the reader to go that extra mile.

    “An Anonymous Island”, however, has the benefit of having an accessible and entertaining surface, allowing you to initially get into the work without any background. But in the end, the extra information seems at least beneficial, if not necessary.

    Finally, it feels odd to me that Heinz Insu Fenkel is cited as translator only at the end, in such small print, such that the fact that the piece is “in translation” might easily be missed, when translation is an art requiring such delicacy.

  4. Trevor says:

    Betsy, your post reminds me of something I failed to recognize in my last comment (though I’ve known this about myself for some time): I do have a hard time with Asian literature in general because I know so little about the culture and the languages. People may notice that though I try to review literature in translation frequently, I rarely review literature from Asia. Some of this is from general ignorance of literature from that region, but that ignorance is largely based on the fact that I’ve so often failed to understand what I’ve read in the past that I frequently pass it up when offered now.

    As to your last remark about how The New Yorker names the translator only at the end of the piece, I agree. Translators get so little attention for the important work they do.

  5. Ken says:

    I found this an artless semi-amusing folktale whose lack of subtext made it very one-dimensional. In the heavy handed opening, the husband makes a highly didactic (and unnatural sounding) speech about anonymity and tries to valorize the rural upbringing he’d had and then the narrator blows his fatuity out of the water with a tale of her own about a village where every frustrated woman uses the local “half wit” as a sort of stud service. In this tale, again, everything is on the surface. We wonder why the “half wit” is fed and sheltered without working and then we’re finally told and it’s over. Obvious writing as with “The village produced nothing special, so there was virtually no influx of people from other family lines.” Cheesy writing: “I wanted to feel the warmth of his body and the heat of his breath.” Harlequin Romance style at its most trite. I’d rather read about “objectionable” people (whose repugnance seemed to bring forth a stream of moralizing by its readers) by a great stylist like David Means that be bored by this type of one-dimensional prose.

  6. Ken says:

    I am aware that this is a translated story. My complaints about the style are obivously about what I read and not about the original Korean text. Another comment: I don’t think any argument about the metaphorical valence here (i.e. the village as metaphor for North or South Korea) is anywhere supported in the actual text itself but solely through the encrustations of knowledge one may have about the author’s biography. That may be fine, but many schools of literary criticism would eschew such analysis.

  7. Betsy says:

    Ken, I was really interested in your objection to using any other information to access the text: you say, “many schools of literary criticism would eschew such analysis.”

    I know what you mean. And I question that myself.
    I like to think a piece of writing should stand on its own, a la old fashioned new criticism.

    And yet, Korea’s most famous author interests me, and without the extra information, I don’t think I can get what the ordinary Korean reader would get.

    I’d be curious to compare Yi’s writing to a Korean writer of a younger generation. I wonder if that younger Korean writer would seem closer to David Means.

    As for moralizing about Means or Yi or anyone: I’d agree, not a particularly helpful viewpoint.

  8. Trevor says:

    That may be fine, but many schools of literary criticism would eschew such analysis.

    Agreed. Others, of course, focus all of their attention on just these matters. Thankfully we don’t have to worry about such things here! That said, even after reading about Yi, I don’t think I understand how his biography fits into this story, which I liked very much. I agree that the framing dialogue about “anonymity” was a bit awkward, mainly the griping about everything being “anonymous,” but I really liked the rest and don’t share your problems with the prose..

  9. jerry says:

    I enjoyed this story..Like Trevor I thought it was the best to be in the magazine in several weeks.

    I have some questions as to the central premise, I don’t know that I find it believable but I still enjoyed the story

    The author certainly knows more of Korea than I would so the situation described may be quite possible.

  10. Tim says:

    I agree that stylistically nothing special is happening in this translation. However, reading about the story in the in the The New Yorker’s blog, there’s a lot more happening in the original story.

    One thing worth thinking about is what happens if you take away the first scene? Anonymity isn’t explored in detail, but without that first scene the story would lose a rich layer.

    You can read more here.

    Thanks, Trevor, I love reading your blog!

  11. Aaron says:

    I’ve been catching up on my New Yorker stories over the last two weeks (looking forward to this week’s Millhauser, not looking forward to the Murakami I skipped back in early September), and after reading this, I was eager to hear what Besty had thought, as I was almost offended on behalf of women, given the way Mun-Yol depicts them. I recognize that there’s a cultural gap, and my criticism focuses more on the style of the writing than on the history behind it, but I was startled all the same by the broad assumptions he made, and the sweeping excuses he gave to what was basically a rape. Is/was Korea really like this? With women so desperate for sex — not tenderness — that they go looking for it with strangers, be they the village idiots or the youths grinding up against one another in the secret basement clubs?

    Betsy, I know it’s late to bring up this story now, but you used the term “seduction” to explain what Ggaecheol was doing, and I didn’t see anybody else reading into the actual act here as strongly as I did (more on that here: http://bit.ly/tco69q), but any other thoughts?

    As for my stance on the story itself, Ken, as usual, has summed up my feelings. This was more of an argument or a case study (or even, as Ken calls it, a “Harlequin Romance”) than a short story, and it didn’t work on a single level for me. Tim writes that the story would be less effective without the introduction; I would argue that given the title and the introduction, the rest of the story is perfunctory. You already know everything that will happen, and I’ll bet you that Andre Dubus would tear this apart–there’s no room for surprise; everything occurs to fit a bland argument.

Leave a Reply