September 12, 2011: “An Anonymous Island” by Yi Mun-Yol
What is this, Asia month? Last week we had Haruki Murakami, the great Japanese writer. This week it’s Yi Mun-yol, a Korean writer. Shall we expect a Ha Jin story next week?
Not that I’m complaining. As an “old Asia hand,” I love these writers and always enjoy reading their work. And we haven’t seen nearly enough of Yi (this story prompted me to order one of his books, in fact).
The story is set in Korea, although that isn't specified. Husband and wife are watching TV and the husband seems to disapprove of what he sees. He complains, “How did it get so easy to be anonymous?” If it’s Seoul where they live (the story doesn’t say, but it’s not a rural village in any case), his complaint is reasonable, and it makes him long for his childhood home. The husband’s rant sparks the wife’s memory of an incident from long ago—the real story here.
She was fresh out of college and was sent to teach in a remote elementary school. It’s a village that is essentially just one clan—everyone is related either by blood or marriage—so anonymity is impossible. And yet, there’s an odd stranger in town, Ggaecheol, who can’t be explained. And, eventually, the wife discovers a secret about Ggaecheol and why he is tolerated. And, just to make things interesting, she becomes embroiled in the secret.
Lots to enjoy about this story, especially if you’re at all interested in Asia generally and Korea specifically. There’s very good information, too, in the Q&A with the translator, Heinz Insu Fenkl.