Yi Mun-Yol: “An Anonymous Island” from The New Yorker 09/12/11

New Yorker art by Jaime Hernandez

“We all knew each other,” he’ll say nostalgically. “It was like looking down into the water at your own reflection…Most of the people were blood relations, so it was practically unthinkable for a woman to be unfaithful. Once in a while someone went off to a nearby village for that sort of thing, but sooner or later it was found out.”
Whenever my husband goes on like this, a repugnant memory resurfaces 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.

I’m always cautious about translated stories. Especially those translated from a non-Indo-European language, and/or a culture very different from mine. I assume I’m missing a lot. There’s only so much that can be translated, after all. I’ve always wondered if there was really such thing as translation, or if the best we can hope for is a very sophisticated transliteration (I once turned Beowulf into iambic pentameter just for fun. Ok, and a grade, but it was fun. I had no idea what I was talking about, of course).

This 1982 story, for those of us (like me) unfamiliar with the author, the translator, or Korean literature, reads like a modernized folk tale. A woman, hearing her husband rant about how anonymous things are in the big city, and how that leads to moral decay and “the corruption of a woman’s sexuality,” recalls her first teaching assignment in an isolated village. Everyone was more or less related to one another – except for one strange man.

…I felt something like a sharp beam of light pierce my skin. I stopped to look for the source and saw a young man sitting on the back porch of the store, silently watching me. His pants were so stained and dirty that I couldn’t tell what material they were made of….I stared at him without realizing it. Just then the light seemed to prick at my skin again. It was hidden behind a veil of madness, but the source was unmistakable – it was coming from the man’s eyes.
It’s as if I were on a forest path. I see a snake through the thick foliage and the fear stays with me until I leave. No simple fear but a kind of primal thrill that dissolves into a hollow of regret when I’m safely through…

She comes to learn more about this man, Ggaecheol (a child’s nickname, she says). He isn’t actually crazy or mentally retarded, but he doesn’t have a home or a job; he shows up at a house for a meal or to bunk overnight then doesn’t show up again until he’s been through every other house in the village. No one refuses him; in fact, they seem to welcome him, though he is rude and unappreciative. She’s very curious about this, and figures “he plays some peculiar role in the sex life of this closed village.”

She eventually meets her future husband on a summer vacation. He finishes college, joins the military and is scheduled to ship out to Vietnam, but he will try to visit her in her isolated village first. She waits at the train station, but the last train does not carry him. She’s desolate, and, well, horny. And wonder of wonders, Ggaecheol just happens to be in the deserted shed where she takes shelter from a rainstorm. “I just let go of everything. I’m embarrassed even to remember it, but I didn’t feel victimized.”

She worries for some time that he will tell others what happened, but he doesn’t. And she begins to realize this is the role he plays in the village: “…he was the lover or potential lover of every one of [the women].” That explains why the women tolerate his behavior, but the men? One day she talks to a male teacher, who’d grown up in the village, and shares her observations about the town. He acknowledges she’s right, and chalks it up to “vulnerable pride and pragmatism.”

Pride means a man doesn’t want to see himself as the victim. If a man wants to feel superior to Ggaecheol, he can’t consciously know that he lost his wife to someone like that….Pragmatism? That’s what makes the men forgive Ggaecheol, because some other husband has suffered the same thing. As you know, this village is made up of just one family clan. Everyone’s related by blood or by marriage. Instead of suffering the shame of incest or having in-laws found belly-to-belly, isn’t it better to save face by letting Ggaecheol do what he does?

When she leaves to marry, she meets her replacement at the train and considers telling her about Ggaecheol, but decides not to. He is watching the new teacher, just like he watched her three years before, then he looks at her with a glimmer of a smile and gazes out over the village “like a great man, the possessor of everything, an emperor.” The end.

An interesting little psychological fable, it seems. But what if the translator explained in his Book Bench interview that there are a lot of language puns and cultural references going on here (I won’t even attempt to explain it, but the name Ggaecheol is not an accident, nor is the final word “emperor” – read the interview, it’s very enlightening)? That would certainly add a level of complexity to the story.

And what if it just so happened that the author was in his childhood a pariah in South Korea after his father, devoted more to Communism than to his family, deserted to North Korea in 1950, a topic covered in his 1994 novel, Meeting With my Brother (English translation 2002) about a young South Korean travelling to China to meet his half-brother and learn of the father who defected and abandoned him at age 2? That would certainly add a level or two. You can read a review of this book (“The meeting between half-brothers allows for a form of reconciliation, but the chasm between them remains great, mirroring the continued North-South divide. Unification, and the possible costs and dangers, both personal and economic, are repeatedly discussed”) at Complete Review– and I’m given to understand it’s available in the UK, but I’m not sure where. Anyone who knows, give a holler!

And then on top of that, consider that translator, Heinz Insu Fenkl, born in 1960 of a South Korean mother and a German-American army officer who moved him to the US and then to Germany, is now is a SUNY-New Paltz professor specializing in Korean folk tales after writing his own story, “Memories of my Ghost Brother”.

And that this ran in the issue of The New Yorker that was available on 9/11/2011.

I’m not sure what any of that specifically has to do with the story of the teacher and Ggaecheol, but it’s enough to make my head explode just trying to absorb the information.

Not bad for a translation – or, a very sophisticated transliteration, if you prefer – of a modern folk tale. And a full humanities course if we just follow the leads.

One response to “Yi Mun-Yol: “An Anonymous Island” from The New Yorker 09/12/11

  1. Pingback: Yu Hua: “Victory” from TNY, 8/26/13 | A Just Recompense

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