"An Anonymous Island"
by Yi Mun-Yol
translated from the Korean by Heinz Insu Frenkl
Originally published in the September 12, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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.

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