Yi Mun-Yol: “An Anonymous Island”

11/10/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 12, 2011. Translated from the Korean by Heinz Insu Fenkl.

A plain-spoken, philosophical short; Mun-Yol largely dispenses with description and character in order to present a unique situation and thereby make an ambiguous statement about it, using his story more as a case study than anything subtle or revealing. The story even has one of those long-winded introductions, in which a woman listens to an off-hand comment made by her husband in response to some news on the TV — “What the hell is the matter with our generation? How did it get so easy to be anonymous?” — and, after being told about how unthinkable it was for women to be unfaithful in his tight-knit childhood home, “a repugnant memory resurfaces in my mind,” and the story/example begins.

Such a structure leaves little to the imagination, it stifles the characters, the experience, and the story itself, for we know what will happen the moment she — ten years earlier — arrives with her “degree in education and took my first job at an elementary school in a rural village,” feeling a “kind of primal thrill that dissolves into a hollow regret when I’m safely through” upon feeling the town idiot Ggaecheol’s eyes on her. Weird as it is, it is not a surprise to find out that this rude drifter, the one man unrelated to the community, is being used by the local woman for anonymous sex: the only real question, as Mun-Yol writes, is “I couldn’t figure out why the men put up with his presence in the village.”

As for why the women desire it? It’s spelled out in her rainy-day encounter with Ggaecheol: disappointed that her enlisted husband hasn’t stopped by before shipping off to Vietnam (Korea in the 1960s, presumably), she gives in to his quasi-rape: “I did not resist as I fell into a dream-like state–I just let go of everything. I’m embarrassed even to remember it, but I didn’t feel victimized.” (I’m not a woman, but this does feel a little disingenuous, some sort of moral and literary rape-fantasy.) And in case it’s not clear, Mun-Yol reiterates this toward the end of the story, choosing not to warn her replacement: “If she was like most of the village women–or like me two years ago, feeling unbearably trapped and sexually frustrated–she might have need of that anonymous island.” (Yes, the title’s not particularly subtle, either.)

And as for why the men abide it? One reason is presented as a logical argument, by one of the male teachers:

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. What’s more, he’s got to believe that the other man is an idiot even if there’s nothing wrong with him. It’s a convenient rationalization. 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 be discovered belly to belly, isn’t it better to save face by letting Ggaecheol do what he wants?

This isn’t my idea of fiction: it’s obvious, unengaging, and rather flatly written. To see such craft executed more artfully, consider reading Paul Auster or even (though I despise him) Haruki Murakami, who fall back on genre tropes — detective novels, magical realism — in order to mask their intellectual searchings. Consider all the ways I disagree with this pride/pragmatism hypothesis, and yet have no urge to argue it; if that’s all the story has aimed to do, then it has failed, and the male author has possibly offended a few female readers in the process.

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