review // the vegetarian, han kang

After reading just the first fifty pages of The Vegetarian, I’d filled almost two pages with notes about this meaty little book. When I picked it up, I wondered how such a slim volume, only 183 pages, could contain the brevity of a Booker prize winning novel. But, it had me spell bound from the first toe I dipped between its covers. Han Kang gives us her first English translation , translated from the Korean into sparse and ethereal prose by Deborah Smith. Dark, dream-like and evocative, it blends the surrealism and ambiguity of a Murakami novel with the grotesque eroticism of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher.

Yeong-hye’s husband comes home in the dark hours of the morning to find his wife standing, trance-like, in the glow of the open refrigerator. A disturbing, blood-drenched dream drives her to pursue a vegetarian diet in order to assume a more plant-like existence. The resulting narrative follows her Kafkaesque descent through the spectrum of human cruelty and obsession

As I was reading, I was struck firstly by how important point of view was in telling the story. For such a seemingly private story, concerning itself with one woman’s psychological transformation, it is told exclusively from the point of view of others, albeit for a handful of dream-like interruptions in the first section. Given such a limited insight into her innermost experience, we witness her from the point of view of three outsiders: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, each given a separate section of the text. This conscious decision to exclude Yeong-hye’s narration only serves to heighten the mystery and ambiguity surrounding her character, the inexplicable and dreamlike world that she inhabits that others strive to repress, possess, understand.

The text speaks to me both of the restrictions of living as a woman in a patriarchal society, and also to a larger extent perhaps simply of living as a human in a society dominated by conservative social protocols. We first encounter intolerance in Yeong-hye’s husband, who regards her subversion of the societal norm to eat meat with disgust and embarrassment. Both he and her family use her non-conformity as justification for violence towards her, which leads to her psychological breakdown. No longer the dutiful wife he married, her husband abandons her. Her brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her, fixating on a petal-like birthmark on her buttocks that becomes the muse for his erotic art films. The floral paintings he covers her body with become a talisman for her, guarding herself against the violence of her nightmares and fulfilling her fantasies of transformation. In Yeong-hye’s pursuit for a plant-like existence, and in her brother-in-law’s films, they both seek to be searching for something wilder, something free.

“Covered with flowers and leaves and twisting green stems, those bodies were so altered it was as though they no longer belonged to human beings. The writhing movements of those bodies made it seem as though they were trying to shuck off the human.”

Her sister, In-Hye, perseveres alone in her care for Yeong-Hye, and is haunted by her mental and physical deterioration as she strives to transcend her human body and its physical needs to become a tree. However, she begins to understand the significance of her sister’s rebellion, as draws further away from the limitations of society:

“She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.”

The Vegetarian was inspired in part by Han Kang’s memories of the Gwanju uprising when she moved to Seoul as a child, where hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were attacked and killed by government soldiers. Contrasting imagery of the constraints of civilisation against the dark purity of nature, the text weaves an allegory of Korea’s political climate. It explores the contradiction inherent in human nature, with its capacity both for violence and innocence. In-hye’s long, rainy bus-rides through the Ch’ukseong mountains give us a glimpse of the “undulating forests which blanket the continents like a heartless sea”, the dark, primeval forests battened against humanity, suggesting something wild and untouchable. Yeong-hye’s transformation reverts her to a primal state of being, connecting her to this sacred wilderness and incorruptible by human callousness.

In The Vegetarian, Han Kang creates a lyrical fable about one woman’s abandonment of self as she seeks to transcend her being to become a tree. It throws into question the nature of our identities and what it means to be human, and binds it all together with swirling, hypnotic prose. It leaves me so much to think about – even now, a day after finishing the book, I’m not sure I’ve digested everything it has to offer.

dark-forest-trees-landscape

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bookish updates // the man booker international prize and an almost-half-yearly-recap

 

Congratulations, Han Kang!

I had every intention of reading The Vegetarian, as well as several of the other short-listed novels, before the announcement of the Booker International Prize. But, lo and behold, time slipped away on me. Serendipitously, I went to the Booker website this morning to check the date that the prize would be awarded only to realise that it was yesterday! So, The Vegetarian has been bumped to the top of my reading pile. It’s a book I’ve really been looking forward to reading – the kind of book that blends all of the dark, surreal, unsettling, dream-like imagery that I love in Asian literature.

 

We’re nearly half-way through 2016 (where does time go!) so I thought now would be as good a time as any to share a recap of my year in books. In between work and university, I’m falling a little short in my ambitious target to read seventy books this year, but there’s still plenty of time to go, right? More importantly, after a realisation that the majority of books I read are by white male authors, my goal for 2016 was to read as diversely as possible. More authors of different nationalities, more translated works, a greater diversity in gender, unfamiliar genres and more classics. And I think I am definitely on track. Of the 23 books I’ve read (or am reading) so far, six have been translations and fourteen have been by non-American authors. Only eight have been female writers, but that’s a good step up from the four I read last year. Uni has given me an excuse to finally dust off a few of those classics that everyone should have read, but I never got around to (Frankenstein, Jane Eyre). I have strayed outside my comfort zone and read two fantastic young adult books (Lost Stars, Half World), which snapped me out of my literary snobbery and reminded me to enjoy not taking myself too seriously, and I’ve jumped back into the -pages of favourite authors (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). I have fallen head-over-heels in love with the dreamy, poetic, visceral prose of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and I am currently savouring every last morsel of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men before moving on to Consider the Lobster.

As for the rest of the year? My book hoarding has been out of control, to the extent that I no longer have room on my bookshelves and stacks of books are slowly taking over my office, my bedroom, my coffee table. (Help!) While I keep telling myself that there are books I will definitely finish before the year is done (Infinite Jest, Outlander, The Dune Trilogy), I know how likely I am to become distracted by the next shiny new thing to come along.

 

What about you, reader? How is your reading year shaping up so far? Have you set goals? Are you sticking to them? Or are you simply reading whatever the wind blows your way?

 

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