A very kind individual that I know has recently packaged up all the New Yorker magazines she’s received over the past six months and sent them down to me in Melbourne. The New Yorker is such a treat, but with so many suddenly at my impoverished disposal, I find myself opening up each magazine and flicking though to the story. After reading the story, I cast the rest away. I feel like I’m after the cashew nut dangling at the bottom of a huge fruit. The New Yorker as a whole is an excellent magazine, but it’s that deliciously sweet, tasty nut that I’m really after.
I am always in two minds about whether I should rely so heavily on what the New Yorker publishes. Surely it is only one perspective on literature. By relying too heavily on one volume, aren’t I heavily narrowing my range of experience? But then I read something like An Annoynmous Island and can understand the importance of this literary magazine. For the New Yorker seems to be aware of its mandate as well, and makes sure source stories from other cultures. It’s not just about Updike and Dorothy Parker.
I was interested in Yi Mun-Yol’s story. I didn’t know much about the author. In this age of Wikipedia though, not knowing something about something is a sin that can quickly be remedied. Yi Mun-Yol is one of South Korea’s leading writers with scores of novels, novellas and short story collections under his belt, yet if it wasn’t for the New Yorker, he probably wouldn’t have registered on my radar.
There is no physical island in the story, it takes place in a small village, surrounded by mountains. There is only one road into the village, and only one other leading out. Like an island though, the residents have close familiar ties. The narrator is a young school teacher on her first assignment. There is however, one other outsider in the village, Ggaecheol, who by common consensus is considered the village idiot. Only he may well not be. The forty year old man lives off the charity of the villagers but is ungrateful for it, yet the young teacher can see no reason why the village would care for an outsider when he has no connection or relation to the village community.
Slowly though, the teacher realises that is precisely why he is tolerated by the villagers. She finds and even experiences herself, how the dishevelled man visits the young women of the village. He is an unspoken mechanism the village has accepted to combat adultery and incest between cousins. The men are aware that their wives are being visited, but agree to ignore the fact. It is a mask which allows for the outward preservation of moral chastity of the women. Sexuality can’t be conquered, even in a small community, but everyone can have a collective pretence of the fact, and that loose morals is a problem of the cities, not the rural communities.
A very interesting story, and I particularly enjoyed how it functioned within the concepts of another culture’s values, although sexuality is still something not honestly addressed culture. I need only look at the debate going on around in my country about gay marriage. I always had the idea that the New Yorker was intent on creating a genre of short story, but recently, reading the work of writers in other cultures, I realise the New Yorker does much to bring authors to the attention of the western populace.
This isn’t a link to the story, but it is a link to an interview with the translator and his experience of translating the story