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FICTION

"An Anonymous Island"

  • onNovember 10, 2014
  • Vol.14 Winter 2011
  • byYi Mun-yol
An Anonymous Island and Other Stories
1994
268pp.

That spring, I graduated with a degree in education and took my first job at an elementary school in a rural village, which I will leave nameless. It was sixty li from the county seat, up past two high, rugged mountains in a valley where it seemed no one would want to live.

I got off the bus and stood on the slope at the bus stop for a while, feeling desolate and alone. 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 school I was looking for must have been hidden behind a ridge. I couldn’t see it anywhere.

The few people who had got off the bus with me had already disappeared, so I went to the store nearby to ask for directions. I had gone only a few steps when 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, and the sleeves of his dyed Army jacket hung in tatters.

His face was dark and weathered, with a prominent nose and high cheekbones. 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 regret when I’m safely through and the danger has passed. That’s how it made me feel, the light from his eyes, until the shopkeeper opened the door and came out, breaking the illusion.

“Ggaecheol, you idiot! What are you doing still sitting out there?” Although the man must have been five or six years older than him, the shopkeeper talked down to him, as if he were a child. The man was apparently not some vagrant just passing through—he belonged to the village. He didn’t even pretend to hear the shopkeeper, but just kept looking at me with those vague hooded eyes. His expression wasn’t lewd or disgusting, but for some reason it frightened me.

“You deaf?” the shopkeeper said. “Get up!” He went over and gave Ggaecheol a loud thump on the back, and as I cautiously approached he called out, “Welcome! Are you looking for something?”

It was only then that I was able to shake Ggaecheol’s clinging gaze from my body. I asked coolly, “Where is the elementary school?”

“Ho! So you’re the new lady teacher they said was coming.” The shopkeeper’s face suddenly overflowed with kindness. He turned just as a boy, who looked about six, came out from the back of the store. “Hey, come over here,” he called.

“What is it, Mr. Togok?” the boy said.

“Looks like this is the new teacher. Show her to the school before you go.” He looked toward me with a hint of pity, and muttered, “The school’s the size of a booger, and it’s way out in those hills.”

Obediently, I stepped forward to follow the boy. Ggaecheol’s eyes were on me again, but I had recovered my composure. I shot him a fierce look as I left.

Walking to the school with the boy, I realized how quickly I was being introduced to the peculiar dynamics of the village. The boy nodded in greeting to each man we met, calling him “uncle” or “grandfather.” I had grown up in the city, and my only exposure to relatives was when I visited an uncle’s house once or twice a year; the closeness of this place felt strange to me.

In the classroom, half the students had the same surname and even those with different surnames seemed to be first cousins. Later, I learned that this was because the village was surrounded on all four sides by layer upon layer of high mountains, with a single road threading through from north to south. The village produced nothing special, so there was virtually no influx of people from other family lines.

After my first encounter with Ggaecheol, I forgot about him for a while. Of course, he was constantly lurking about the village doing nothing, and I would see his shabby form and feel that hooded gaze several times a day, but this was my first job and the first time I had been far away from home by myself. I was busy cultivating my new life and I paid him no attention.

But, as I more or less adjusted to my new life and had some time to think, I gradually became curious about my surroundings, and the first thing that came to mind was Ggaecheol.

What initially struck me was the question of his origins. He wasn’t born in the village and he wasn’t related to anyone there either by blood or by marriage. He had drifted in by chance, however many years ago, and had been living there since. He was over forty, and yet he was known by the childish nickname Ggaecheol, to adults and children alike.

The next unusual thing was how he earned his living. At first I assumed he did physical labor or odd jobs, but then I saw that he spent his days doing absolutely nothing. Even so, he was able to get three meals a day and had a place to sleep every night.

This is what he did when he wanted to eat: he would burst into any house as the family was gathered around the table, and announce, “Give me some food.”

Just as no one ever spoke politely to him, he never used the polite form of address, either. It was strange how the men of the house reacted. Not only were they not annoyed by his intrusions; they actually seemed to welcome him. They would say, “Even an idiot like you has to eat to live. Mix up a bowl for him, dear.”

The wife would fill a large ceramic or brass bowl with rice, soup, kimchi, and whatever, stir it all together, and push it to Ggaecheol, who would take the bowl and slurp it all down, sitting on the corner of a straw mat or the edge of the raised wooden floor. As he left, he would announce, “It was good. I’m going now.”

“Don’t you say thank you?”

“What for?” he’d say. “I ate my food and now I’m going.” He’d wander out and there would be neither hide nor hair of him in that house again for a few months. According to my calculations, the number of days he stayed away was approximately equal to the number of households in the village.

It was similar with his sleeping arrangements. Usually, he slept outdoors in a pavilion or in a common room, but when it grew cold—or if it was a day when no wood had been prepared for the heating fire—he was sure to go around the village saying, “Let me sleep in your house.”

“You can sleep here if you take a bath first.”

“You won’t need your blanket,” he’d say. “You’re just gonna go lie down next to your wife, right?”

That was the usual procedure, and it all seemed a bit too comfortable to me.

When I thought about it, there was clearly something strange about Ggaecheol’s relationship with the villagers. The men all treated him like a half-wit or a madman, but it seemed as if they were trying hard to mask their anxiety that perhaps he wasn’t really like that. The women, too, seemed to consider Ggaecheol dim-witted or mad, but beneath their strict maternal façade they hid a protective impulse that went beyond mere sympathy. What I couldn’t understand, no matter how much I thought about it, was why the villagers supported him in this way, like a member of their own community. He did no work, he had no special skills, and he never earned their good will with his wit or humor.

But then something happened that hinted at an answer to my question. One day, after I had been there for six or seven months, I was walking home from work when I witnessed a disturbance in the vacant lot in front of my boarding house. A young man was literally pounding Ggaecheol into the dirt, but it was odd—neither the attacker nor the victim indicated any reason for the fight. The young man, with a staff in one hand and a piece of firewood in the other, was wordlessly thrashing Ggaecheol wherever he could find an opening. Ggaecheol was curled up like a porcupine, periodically spitting out a groan.

As I watched, not knowing what to do, villagers gathered from here and there, and they ended up explaining the brutal violence.

“What the hell are you doing, Hwacheon? We look out for each other in this village! How can you behave like this?”

“Tell us, Hwacheon, what could this idiot possibly do?”

“That’s right, Hwacheon! You’re losing face and bringing shame on your family. Our ancestors have been here for three hundred years, and not once did a woman get thrown out for adultery.”

All the men were trying to make him stop, but to me it sounded as if they weren’t so much trying to convince Hwacheon as reassuring themselves.

“Look, Hwacheon, you’ve got to think about your wife’s dignity. Are there no other men in the world that a woman would do it with an idiot like him?”

“That’s right! She’s got her own perfectly good snake with Hwacheon here, so why would an idiot . . . Don’t go killing him now!”

“You’ve got to behave like a man of your standing. He’s over forty and impotent! Can’t even dream of getting a wife.”

Even the older women helped calm the young man down, and their tone, too, suggested that Ggaecheol’s being an idiot was his saving grace—a sort of magical charm. Strangely, not one of the younger women came forward to help, and their angry looks were directed not at Ggaecheol but at the young man wielding the staff.

The disturbance didn’t last long, but it was through that unexpected event that I was able to get a sense of why the villagers permitted Ggaecheol to live among them. The fact that everyone in the village was related by blood or marriage also meant that they looked out for one another, especially where issues of morality were concerned. I was now certain that Ggaecheol played some peculiar role in the sex life of this closed village.

My suspicions were confirmed one day when I accidentally overheard some village wives whispering by the bank of a stream. It was a hot and humid summer night, and I had gone there so that I could at least cool my feet. The water must have reflected the sound of their voices, as I was able to hear them from quite a distance.

“Don’t you think Yeoung’gok’s baby looks like Ggaecheol?”

“Be quiet! Do you want poor Ggaecheol to get killed this time?”

“What did I say? I was just talking.”

“Even so. Ggaecheol’s just an idiot with no place to go.”

“Right, he’s an idiot. Ggaecheol’s just an idiot.”

They seemed to end their conversation by tacit agreement, and I thought I heard an intimate tone of conspiracy in their voices. I was finally able to guess why I sensed that strange protective quality for Ggaecheol among the women even when they spoke of him contemptuously. Ggaecheol never worked, but he got three meals a day and a place to sleep every night—and the women were half the reason. But the other half? I couldn’t figure out why the men put up with his presence in the village.

[......]

My replacement happened to be an alumna of my college, and on the day I left the village she walked me to the bus stop to see me off. Who knows when he showed up, but there was Ggaecheol, crouching on the back porch of the store, watching the new teacher with the same look he had given me on my first day.

Seeing that, I was going to tell her about Ggaecheol, but in the end I decided against it. In a village full of people who were so closely related, all tied to the same lineage, he was the sole drifting island of anonymity. Perhaps 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.

Instead of warning her about Ggaecheol, whose eyes clung to her almost hatefully, I shot him a cool look. He met my gaze with the same coolness. I might have been mistaken, but at that moment I thought I saw a faint laughter in his eyes. Just a glimmer. Then he turned his head toward the village and the paddy fields stretching out on the slopes below. There was not a piece of land or a fistful of dirt that he could call his own—or a house or a room where he could lay his head without the owner’s consent—yet he gazed out over that land like a great man, the possessor of everything, an emperor. 

 

* "An Anonymous Island" was translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl and published in The New Yorker on September 12th, 2011. The story in its entirety can be found here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/09/12/an-anonymous-island

Author's Profile

Yi Mun-yol was born in 1948. He made his debut as a writer in 1977. Yi’s works were enriched by the classics of East Asia that he had naturally become familiar with during his childhood and the Western literature that he had voraciously devoured in his young adulthood. In The Son of Man, Yi questioned the relationship between man and god; in A Portrait of Youthful Days, he portrayed the struggle and anguish of his youth. The Golden Phoenix was an exploration of the ontological meaning of art using calligraphy, a traditional art form in Korea. Yi also has consistently published works that are critical to the nature of political power. Our Twisted Hero is an allegorical depiction of the mechanism of how political power operates. Homo Executants portrays the process through which political ideology suffocates humanity. Aside from these, his works include Hail to the EmperorThe Age of HeroesChoice and Immortality. The recipient of Korea’s highest literary prizes, Yi has been published in over 20 countries including the U.S., France, Great Britain and Germany; over 60 titles of his translated works are available.