Yi Mun-yol‘s short story, “An Anonymous Island,” published in the September 12, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, explores anonymity, but loses focus of that concept as the story plays out. In the overpopulation of cities, how well can we know our neighbors? For that matter, how well do we know those in smaller communities or even those closest to us?
Yi Mun-yol sets this up in the first scene. The narrator’s husband watches TV and complains about people’s unfaithfulness. He references anonymity and speaks about his childhood growing up in a rural village with only one clan.
“‘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 the narrator’s husband speaks like this, the narrator dwells on a moment in her past, before the two were married. She feels guilt and shame. The rest of the story is all flashback. We step back to when the narrator was a recent college graduate and moves to a remote village to teach.
The first person she sees is Ggaecheol, seemingly an idiot who drifts around the village. Ggaecheol is rude and shiftless, yet the village supports. He rotates whose house he visits and demands food and a place to sleep. These are given and the narrator observes it all with wonder. He is not a blood relative, so why do the villagers tolerate him? Through overheard conversations and some pointed questions it becomes obvious. The village tolerates him, because he is not a blood relative. They tolerate him, because women can have sex with Ggaecheol without committing incest. They tolerate Ggaecheol, but do not speak of his role in the village.
This all plays back to the naiveté of the narrator’s husband. How well did he really understand his village? How can an outsider see things differently? The story is apologetic regarding affairs, or puts them in a context that doesn’t involve love, but animal need. Ggaecheol is not breaking up families; he is providing a service, one which the whole village is aware.
While anonymity is a theme of the story, the message is lost through the situation. The idea of the village and Ggaecheol’s role within it takes precedence. It overshadows everything else. Is the first scene necessary? What is the tension between anonymity and Ggaecheol’s story? Without the first scene, the story loses a layer. It becomes a kinky story about a village. With the first scene though it becomes a larger commentary, which is especially interesting since this story is placed in The New Yorker‘s 9/11 issue.
In the end, the reader is left with an unsettling story. It has a Twilight Zone feel to it. The narrator moves on and another young woman takes her place.
“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.”
The story never returns to the present. And really, why should it? Nothing has changed for the narrator. She will never tell her husband this story. It will anonymously exist inside of her with only Ggaecheol knowing the truth.
Additional reading: The Book Bench.