Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Heinz Insu Fenkl's "Five Arrows" was originally published in the August 3, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
I’ve never heard of Heinz Insu Fenkl before, though he’s been publishing books for nearly twenty years and his debut, from 1996, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. From the web, I’ve learned he is a folklorist and an expert on Korean fiction.
I’m quite interested in this piece, and I look forward to your thoughts in the comments below.
Here are Adrienne’s thoughts, to get us going.
There is a part of me that can intellectually appreciate folklore. But there is also a part of me that wonders, “Yeah, so? Where’s the real story?”
There are three parts to “Five Arrows”: the folklore, an essay, and then “real story.” Heinz Insu Fenkl says that this piece is autobiographical fiction and that he is trying to “preserve the memory” of places important to him in South Korea. I patiently endured the larger-than-life traditional storytelling and casually listened to his concerns on industrialization, caring more for Insu and his experience with Big Uncle.
“Five Arrows” is another piece of short fiction extracted from a larger work, but I couldn’t tell when reading it. I did feel, however, I was left abruptly at the end, but I could tie it back to the beginning — the story of Insu and his uncle woven back to the essay-like introduction.
Insu finds himself alone with his dying uncle after abandoned by an impatient and disgusted cousin. The narrator has already noted changes to the river due to a dam that has been built, and begins to notice that he, too, has changed in his time away. Coming home to Korea, he is more astute, more patient, kinder than his cousin. The uncle has been left to die from a combination of old age and a putrid foot. When he asks his nephews to help him, the cousin’s behavior mirrors selfish neglect of the elderly in the community. Insu searches for arrows shot and left on the trail by the handicapped old man. Upon his return, he is told a startling and fantastical tale by Big Uncle. He responds with the legend of Robin Hood.
Big Uncle tells the young man that “dreams are your real life.” This — now — is where we learn and develop, and “what a shame to forget.”
There’s quite a bit a symbolism to be found here, some cultural and some metaphorical. This is a story with many layers. While I could intellectualize the essay and the meanings in the folklore, the only part I savored was the relationship between Insu and Big Uncle. I could see, hear, and smell all their interactions, and I felt safe as their observer. But I was left wondering what else was waiting for Big Uncle, trusting the youthfulness of Insu gave hope, leaving the older man with . . . with what?