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New Yorker Fiction Review #109: "Five Arrows" by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Issue: Aug. 3, 2015

Story: "Five Arrows" by Heinz Inzu Fenkl

Rating: $

Review: Even though it's nearly three months since this story was published, my reading of it co-coincided nicely with events in my own life: in the story, two cousins paddle across a river in post-WWII or Korean War Korea (presumably South Korea but I don't know) to find a long-lost family member called Big Uncle, who has taken residence inside a small cave in the deep forest in order to die from gangrene that has infected his leg.

No, I do not have an uncle who has holed up inside a cave to die. But I did go canoe camping last weekend and the experience was still very fresh in my mind and so, unlike with a lot of stories in which you have to translate yourself into the story's environment, I felt like I was plunged right into this one. Temperate zone woods, after all, are pretty similar whether they're in Korea or Poland or Indiana.

Anyway, a bit of research and I found out that Heinz Inzu Fenkl teaches and studies Korean folklore, which really adds to my understanding of this story together for three reasons:

1.) The story, in and of itself, has a folklore-ish quality to it
2.) There's a story-within-a-story (meta!) which uses elements of folklore much more explicitly
3.) The characters all seem deeply attached to folklore and myth and superstition, reflecting what I can only assume to be the strong influence of those things on Korean (especially rural) Korean traditions and daily life.

I see this as a story not about folklore or about Big Uncle but about being open to new experience. The two cousins -- Yongsu and Insu-ya -- meet up with Big Uncle and are equally repulsed by the odor of his gangrenous leg and by his rough manners (hey, he's been living in a cave, give him a break). When Big Uncle sends the boys on an errand, Yongsu sees it as a chance to flee the scene and go home, while Insu-ya stay to complete the errand, share a meal with Big Uncle and listen to his stories. In the end, perhaps because of his willingness and openness toward his uncouth uncle, Insu-ya has a spiritual experience of his own as he attempts to cross the river and go back home.

Any culture that believes heavily in myths and folklore must also necessarily be one that reveres its elders, as those are often the repositories of said folklore and stories. Compared to most Asian cultures, we in the Western world (and particularly the U.S.) treat our elders like dirt. In general, ours is a culture that emphasizes the newer, the faster, the younger, the more efficient, the easier. We are so busy looking forward into the future, and our society is changing so fast, that either we don't have the time to look to things like folk tales for wisdom, or else those things simply no longer apply in
our world.

I'm not one to sit here and bemoan the state of the modern world (not at this moment anyway) and recommend that we spend all our time sitting around campfires listening to our old folks tell stories instead of getting on with our lives and getting stuff done...but I do believe that we lose a great deal of our richness and character and cohesiveness as a culture when we stop valuing our elders and their wisdom. And we, as individuals, become more shallow as a result.

I like Fenkl's writing because he seems like a kindred spirit who understands this. Single $ rating because I found Fenkl's prose a bit flat and there were several times I found my mind drifting and looking to see how much of the story was left.


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