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.

August 3, 2015I’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?

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By |2015-07-28T12:06:04-04:00July 27th, 2015|Categories: Heinz Insu Fenkl, New Yorker Fiction|4 Comments


  1. Sal July 28, 2015 at 7:50 am

    I enjoyed it quite a bit. Instead of seeking treatment, Big Uncle remains in the cave. I wonder why? At one point he says dreams are your real life while a little later he says life is a dream. To me the story asks us to wonder how dreams/imagination affect reality and if it is at all possible, or desirable, to separate the two (perhaps Big Uncle needs the Heavenly Maiden (as much as she needs him!) to cope with whatever happened that night). To that end I enjoyed Big Uncle’s matter-of-factly treatment of Ro Bing Ho and Insu’s lasting fear of open water.

  2. Wilson July 28, 2015 at 9:08 am

    An interesting piece. Whenever I read a story written in the context of another culture – in this case, the Korean culture – I know I’m missing something because of my cultural ignorance. An interview with Mr. Fenzl gives some insight into the context:

    But I still don’t know the metaphorical significance of “five arrows.” The five elements (earth, water, fire, wind, sky) of Buddhism? Are the arrow feather colors (red, yellow, blue) symbolic of these elements? And why does Big Uncle shoot arrows in a seemingly random fashion into the trees? Is he raging against Nature for his impending death from a festering mortal wound – with the wound as metaphor for some deep pain or injury that each of us carries? Does Big Uncle ask the boys to collect the five arrows in hopes of forestalling his death? (Retrieval of only four arrows is clearly a bad death omen.) And what is the meaning of Big Uncle’s dream? Is Big Uncle’s dream coupling with the virgin a story of his inner mystical encounter with the Divine, a story of our universal desire for spiritual communion and unitive consciousness?

    I will be scratching my head over this story for quite some time.

  3. Greg August 4, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Thank you Adrienne, Sal and Wilson for sharing your thoughts. You have added to the story for me!

  4. mehbe August 6, 2015 at 9:53 am

    After I read the story, I read the interview with the author, and his statement that everything in the story was true made a large difference in how I understand it and feel about it. For example, the resonance between the dammed river’s stagnation and Big Uncle’s gangrene no longer seems merely poetic invention, but had a basis in reality. And Big Uncle’s disdainful remark about “some charlatan doctor of wind and water” who mumbles phrases from the Book of Changes took on a completely different sense when I realized that Big Uncle might be referring to himself; he was an expert on I Ching who had memorized it all.

    And so forth… the whole thing feels different now that I know it is a recollection of the author as a youngster, which he characterizes as “fiction” only because of how it is told.

    But now, darn it, I want to know whether Insu fulfilled his promise about burying Big Uncle. I guess I will have to read the book to find out, when and if it ever gets finished and published.

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