Han Kang: The Vegetarian

Kang, Han (2015 [2007]), The Vegetarian, Portobello
[Translated by Deborah Smith]
ISBN 978-1-84627-562-3

han kangI have read and reread The Vegetarian twice in the past two months (first time was in December). It is very good. The translation fits the text perfectly and contributes to the unsettling effect that this novel-in-stories provides. Han Kang wrote a book which is both existentially distant and sharp but is also, at the same time, suffused with a warm sense of longing, of loss, of fullness of feeling even in their absence. It is a novel about a young woman who, to the disbelief of her husband and parents, decides to stop eating meat. It is quite the extraordinary -if bleak- text and, compared to, say, I have the right to destroy myself, one of only three Korean novels I have read in the past 12 months, it’s also remarkably well done. It works marvelously as a novel, but each of the individual novellas are also well-balanced and constructed and would have been worth publishing on their own (as they have been in Korea). It took me some time to find my way around the novel due to a certain denseness of thought and vision and in fact, I recommend reading each novella/segment separately, spaced out over 3 (or more) days, and reading each novella in one sitting. They are all fairly short, so that isn’t a problem. The novel succeeds both as a comment on feminity in the modern world, as well as a novel on mental disintegration and, finally, a novel about the corps propre of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. I do think there is an oddly normative sense of bodily function, with quite alarming blind spots all over the place. At the same time, Han Kang’s novel is laser-focused on a specific issue and manages to be both intellectually intriguing regarding its topic and aesthetically pleasing. The only reason I read this book is because I gave a copy to my sister for Christmas and I don’t give away books I have not read. And I am so glad I did. If any of Han Kang’s other books are on par with The Vegetarian, I will be reading this author with pleasure for years to come. So will you. Go. Read the damn thing.

A quick note. I have used the word “pleasure” a few times in the previous paragraph to convey my feelings towards the book. In fact, The Vegetarian, while enjoyable as literature, is also a profoundly brutal book, with next to nothing that mitigates or catches that brutality. Emotional brutality, but also physical violence and rape. Han Kang pulls no punches and yet, all of this cruelty seems necessary, a well integrated part of the book, not just puerile excitement about provocation (the shocking sounding, but ultimately pedestrian and dull novel by Urs Allemann comes to mind). The effect the book has on the reader is not pleasure as in joy, and the cruelty also does not provide a frisson of transgressiveness. Instead, the feeling I had was of an enormously plausible portrait of a woman who becomes more and more dissociated from her body and her everyday existence and retreats. The cruelty comes through the way her environment, from husband to family and friends, react to her. Was it Aristotle who said that “nature abhors a vaccuum”? Anway, that’s exactly what happens. As the novel’s protagonist retreats, everybody else pushes into the gap, both physically as well as in volume. Restraints fall away fast as there is no obvious social mechanism to deal with the protagonist’s profund Melvillian denial of cooperation with how people around her expect the world to work. And brilliantly, Han Kang duplicates this process on a literary level by barely giving us the protagonist’s own point of view except snippets here and there. We see her through the eyes of people around her and with them, we, too push into the gap. We become voyeurs in her most brutal moments, we, deprived of a reasoned explanation for her denial, also have to guess, have to divine from the few sources we have what her reasoning is. This is not one of those he said, she said situations. The brutality of the book is one in which we are complicit.

DSC_1950With all that said, Han Kang is not subtle about much of this. The first novella, which deals with the impact of the incipient Vegetarianism (Veganism, really, I think?) on husband and family, makes no bones about it: the husband’s behavior is indefensible. And yet, by making the grab for knowledge, the nosy eyes and minds of family and friends the culprit (speaking about obviousness, the second novella is about a video artist) in this, we are automatically part of the problem in a way that we cannot easily escape. In a way, this makes Kang’s novel a sibling of some of Haneke’s best movies. The obviousness of the husband’s and family’s despicable behavior just compounds our complicity in the whole affair. This is important because surely, part of the novel’s concern is all of our concern with female bodies and the expectations we put on them. This gaze is too often simplified into guilty actions by heterosexual men, but the male gaze as part of patriarchal oppression is systematic and institutionalized and women can and do compound its effects. It’s a rotten system of assumptions and expectations and women, especially young women, mutilate their bodies and minds in order to conform. Han Kang’s book can be seen to be about that pressure finally breaking its subject. The obvious predecessor to this book is Bartleby The Scrivener, and while Bartleby succumbs when he also “prefers not to” eat, Han Kang prefers to start her protagonist’s denial at that point. The effect, I think, is an interesting one. Bartleby angers his environment by declining to participate, enfin, to move. That’s what gets him jailed. Nobody in Bartleby’s world would have been interested to know whether the poor man lived off a diet of potatoes or whether he enjoyed a piece of meat now and then. The mere fact that the refusal in The Vegetarian results in such virulent reactions shows that the author believes we live in a time of much more policed bodies, especially when it comes to the female body.

The novel does offer an explanation of sorts for the protagonist’s behavior, an explanation that appears, as the novel ends, to affect the protagonist’s sister, as well. However, part of the novel’s power derives from the fact that it discusses a mode of behavior that is fairly common in the surveillance of female behavior and mental deviation. On some level, and this it also shares with Melville’s dense masterpiece, the book also functions as a comment on the way society deals with anxious and depressed members, especially women. If you can’t function any more, it conversely becomes harder to function (much like it is more expensive to be poor). The solutions in the novel to the protagonist’s plight are all bad: there is coercion, deceit, medication and exploitation. Everyone in the book does one of those things (or multiple) or is complicit in them being done. The sister, who declines to abuse, lie or exploit her sister, ends up pushing her into a hospital stay where her condition is primarily treated medically. Nobody in the novel makes a real effort of understanding the protagonist’s plight. The novel keeps lobbing solutions at us that everybody inside the novel is blind to. They range from speaking, listening, understanding, accommodating, to the redemptive power of art. That last one is the most brutal because the artist is the one character in the novel best equipped to help the protagonist. Not just because he found the key to relieving her stress and unhappiness, but also because she opens up to him. He knows the solution but proceeds to ignore it because he cannot see beyond his own desire, the limits and agitations of his own mind. This reading of the novel as being applicable to people not as specifically afflicted or obsessed as the protagonist is supported by the fact that her sister’s husband is similarly disinterested in her sister without any ‘obvious’ reasons for it. At some point, he slakes his thirst for the protagonist by having rough, hungry sex with his wife in an act that I’m fairly certain should be labeled rape.

When it was all over, she was crying. He couldn’t tell what these tears meant – pain, pleasure, passion, disgust, or some inscrutable loneliness that she would have been no more able to explain than he would have been to understand. He didn’t know.
I’m scared, she’d muttered, turned away from him. No, it wasn’t that. You’re scaring me. At that point he was already slipping into a death-like sleep, so he couldn’t be sure if those words had really passed his wife’s lips. She might have lain there sobbing for hours in the darkness. He didn’t know.

The repeated line “He didn’t know” might as well end with the explanation “…and he didn’t care.”

The novel powerfully channels the feeling many women share of being the object of men’s desires and emotions, not subjects in those situations. In pop theory, terms like “fridging” and the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” have evolved to describe cultural manifestations of this androcentric world view, this male appetite to seeing one’s own interests merely mirrored in the women we are sharing our lives with. Institutions (in the novel: family, marriage, the medical profession) are set up as implicit barriers, as limits that are additional to the limits of the body itself. This is maybe where the novel most sharply diverges from Bartleby. Melville, like Edwards and Emerson, if I’m not mistaken, believed in a freedom of will that may be impeded by society but once we step outside of that logic and those expectations, we can be wholly free. Not so in The Vegetarian. Declining to eat meat, losing connections to her husband and family (which, to be honest, good riddance) does not provide freedom or solace to the protagonist who is more, I would suggest, a literary manifestation of the limits to choice as laid out by Merleau-Ponty. Multiple distinctions in his work appear to be in play in this novel. One is the distinction between the corps propre and the idea of a mere, isolated body, the meatsuit, if you will. That latter one does not exist as an entity in the world. We cannot split the way our body works and interacts with the world from the way our minds use and inhabit that body. But, importantly (take note, Joshua Ferris!), we can’t make the opposite distinction either, according to Merleau-Ponty. Our minds don’t exist as brains in a vat. In a way, the protagonist’s affliction is a depiction of the resulting complexities of choice and freedom. Han Kang does not really depict a true feedback, and some of it reads a bit like able-bodied fantasy of physical choice and autonomy, but the tense, tragic movement of the book does reflect the sense in MMP’s work that (physically, socially determined) choice comes before thought and is thus limiting.

The book’s conclusion is less clinical that you’d think, in fact, the last novella opens up the novel into interesting directions that I don’t want to spoil. However, that means that, ideally, the language must accommodate both the distance of a cold, existentialist novel and a warmer novel of possibilities and weirdness. I cannot read Korean and while now and then, Korean phrases seem to shine through (I have issues with a particular phrase that I noticed), this is extremely rare. Deborah Smith creates a language for the book that reaches all the right registers, that is smooth and readable and functions perfectly as an English text without the crutch of exoticism. The ultimate test of a translation, the accuracy, is one I cannot perform, but from my limited angle this is a fine effort, and Han Kang is fortunate to be translated by Deborah Smith, almost as fortunate as we all have to have such a good novel around. If you find the themes I mentioned unpleasant, I would understand you staying away from this book. If that is not an issue you have, I strongly recommend The Vegetarian. It is very good.


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Young-Ha Kim: I have the right to destroy myself

Young-Ha Kim (2007), I have the right to destroy myself, Harcourt
[Translated by Chi-Young Kim]
ISBN 978-0-15-603080-9

DSC_1910So, as you’ll notice in this review, I am so extremely under-read in Korean literature that all my frames of reference for this book are non-Korean. I have read a paltry handful books by Korean writers, but not enough to notice resemblances or traditions. Certainly none of the Korean books I have read resembles this one in any way. This does not, however, lead me to suppose that Young-Ha Kim’s novel I have the right to destroy myself is unique among Korean books. My reading is just shamefully, miserably lacking. That said, I do think that the novel works well even for a reader who is not acquainted with the larger cultural and literary contexts. One reason for this is that many of the literary allusions and references are actually European and American ones. For a European reader, it’s interesting to see Europe treated as a geographical other, which allows the book’s narrator to take a break from his life, and implicitly compare & contrast with his life back in South Korea. There’s an almost Irvingian whimsy to the role that Vienna plays in the novel’s structure. As a whole, the book is certainly worth reading. It’s a dense narrative about a love triangle and suicide, about ekphrasy and life, and it’s also a -possibly unintentional- meditation on the misogyny that underwrites our narratives on each of these things. There is an air of immature disaffection throughout the book, but apart from the occasional banal meditations on life, much of Kim’s novel is fairly exact, all of its parts serving a purpose. If anything, it’s too overdetermined, too focused. It lacks a certain levity, a certain creative freedom. For a short book that I ended up enjoying quite a bit, all told, I came remarkably close to abandoning it mid-way. It can appear to be nothing more than a smug intellectual exercise, a kind of book that I’ve only ever seen men write. I recommend sticking it out. The final discussions of suicide ring remarkably true to me and I feel that the book does an exceptional job of tying together its various threads without actually offering a resolution to most of its characters.

So as I said on the outset, I have not read a ton of Asian literature, in part because I am wary of translation, in part because of availability issues, in part because I dislike some of the popular writers. So when I read a book like this, there’s a temptation to read it in some vague pan-Asian context. The harshness – is this like Murakami and his use of American noir? Clearly, Western literature is an influence, but my mind, instead of reading is broader, considering Handke, maybe, or French existentialism or the roman nouveau, immediately went to American crime fiction, one of the few cultural touchstones that’s not actually dealt with in the book. So why? The only reason coming to mind is some dim connection to one of the few other Asian novelists I’ve read, Murakami. Similarly, the desolation and bleakness of the book made me think not of other Korean writers, or of one of the many explicit literary references, or, again, the Austro-French cohort of darkness. It made me think of Osamu Dazai, whose novel No Longer Human has been a touchstone to me for many years. There is, to my reading, no obvious textual element in the book that would make me connect it to Dazai and not to some other writer of despair and suicide. The only connection, again, is the shared ‘Asian’ heritage of their authors. If I were to review Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s recently finished trilogy, and I was discussing the parts set in Asia, my mind wouldn’t associate the spareness of the book with Japanese writers, at least not primarily. Toussaint’s roots are elsewhere, in a tradition that includes Robbe-Grillet. But for French literature, I can access -correctly or not- a context. For Asian books – especially Korean – I cannot.

That’s actually what makes this book -for me- so rereadable. It’s like the first read, for me, helped to wash off my first wave of associations and then try to look at the text again in a second or third reading. And despite its spare writing and the sometimes flat pop-cultural discussions and quasi-philosophic statements, the novel is intricate enough to warrant and reward rereads. As I said earlier, it’s a bit lacking in energy and inspiration, but its construction is frequently remarkable. Take this example: the novel tells us two stories. One is of two brothers who fall in love with the same woman, Se-yeon, who is also called Judith for her resemblance to Adèle Bloch-Bauer in Klimt’s painting of Judith and Holofernes. The other strand of narrative is about an unnamed narrator who sidles up to sad, lost-looking people, primarily women, and offers them a way out, for a fee. A curated suicide, if you will. He listens to their stories and gives them advice regarding methods, means and timing. Once his task is completed, he takes a trip abroad and writes a book telling the women’s stories. So it’s basically two novels in one, but they are connected through the women, as the two brothers, and the narrator both encounter Judith/Se-yeon. So the struggle, silent, unspoken, between the two brothers is mirrored in a struggle between the brothers and the narrator, a struggle that serves as a larger conflict between life and death. A second woman, later in the book, even goes back and forth between one of the brothers and the nameless narrator, similar to how Judith slept with both brothers. In this literary game, women have very little agency. When Mimi picks death, she says about one of the brothers “He couldn’t save me.” The narrator does answer “Nobody can save anyone,” but the novel never makes the alternative explicit: that we have to save ourselves. That it is this passivity that allow death to enter the lives of all the people in the book, even, if only in the form of a death wish and a contemplation of suicide, the lives of the two brothers.

DSC_1911The narrator is the only one completely untouched by this. That is certainly in part due to the fact that he is the only truly active person. He literally writes the story of the lives he touched. They blink out, and he puts out a book. This is an unsubtle, but nifty allusion to the way society generally structures narratives between the powerful and the powerless. It is no accident that the novel starts with a contemplation of Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat.” That picture was meant to stir up revolutionary fervor, and it draws heavily on Christian iconography. Marat was murdered by a woman, Charlotte Corday, but she’s not in the picture. She’s not really important. A letter in his hand records her anger, but the final word, unwritten, belongs to Marat, who is shown to have died pen in hand, asking the revolutionaries implicitly to finish that reply for him. Corday is really unimportant to the larger picture which is about a great man dying in the manner of a saint. Even the knife she stuck in Marat has been removed by the artist. Similarly, I have the right to destroy myself is about the actions and passions of men. Women may appear, but of the three women featured prominently, only the last one’s emotions and passions are actively discussed in even minor detail, and that only serves to illuminate the ineffectiveness of one of the brothers’ efforts and entreaties. I have no idea whether the title (titles are often not even picked by translators but by the publisher) is accurately translated, but if so, it’s the oddest inversion, given that the only person consistently speaking in first person singular is the unnamed angel of death, who is, by far, the person least likely to destroy themselves in the whole book. I have difficulties deciding whether what I see as a more or less explicit spin on gender and misogyny is intentional or accidental. The title’s interesting spin on the book makes me think intentional. Other elements of the book are more ambiguous.

The reason for this is the general air of comfy laddish existentialism. You know the kind. It’s not atypical of debut novels written by men. It starts with all these inane, flat, faux-insightful phrases like “An artist’s supreme virtue is to be detached and cold.” or “There are two kinds of people. Those who can kill and those who can’t. The second kind is worse.” Most of these are spoken by the nameless narrator, but some, like that second quote, are given to the other characters – that suggests a lack of control. Or rather: a lack of awareness of the flat properties in these statements. Another element typical of the laddish ‘bleak’, detached style is an almost dismissive, derisive treatment of female sexuality. Now, it’s true that none of the book’s characters are bundles of joys between the sheets, as far as I can tell, but quotes like the following have a certain haut goût that’s a bit brazing, especially because it’s reserved for the female characters:

I thought of something fun to do,” she says, packing the snow into a small ball, the size of a golf ball. She parts her legs, giggling. The snowball slides up inside of her. She still has a lollipop in her mouth. She shivers. Her brow is furrowed for a long time, as if she can still feel the snow on her skin.

Nothing slides up in any of the male characters. Other female characters are given water that makes them vomited, filmed intimately etc. Female bodies are used as symbols, as objects, as means to a narrative end. Finally, it’s the language itself that feeds into this perception of laddish misogyny. That quote represents the book overall fairly well. Short sentences without the depth that we find, say, in Hemingway’s early work, and a disaffection without the stylistic control that Bret Easton Ellis’ good books exhibit. I have not mentioned the translator so far, because I have no idea how good Chi-Young Kim’s work is. I’m inclined to believe it’s good, because in this book, style and content complement each other. It’s plausible that this book would be written in this style and the book overall is short enough for this writing not to become grating. What’s more, the style is similar to the sparse writing that the poems of Ko Un exhibit, in a collection that was translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach.

51xSM1bBv4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_That previous paragraph offers some evidence, I think, for the book’s faults to be the author’s and not elements that Kim was aware of and critiqued. At the same time, I was never able to shake the feeling that the book as a whole was a kind of performance. The final chapter is the only one where we really see the narrator accompany a woman to her death, and in it, the narrator offers us a third painting and his description of it. That painting is The Death of Sardanapale by Delacroix and in his enthusiastic description, the narrator ends with this dubious but interesting statement: “Delacroix understood the inner thoughts of a person presiding over death.” That is it – but that sentence is so absurd, so self centered and unaware that it’s impossible not to read this description as really being an unflattering description of the narrator’s state of mind – after all, this is a common function of ekphrasis. What’s more, his books, the ones we are told are being written and published, the books that contain the lives of the women whose death he has supported – I find it interesting to consider those books, to their audience, to be part of a canon with a particularly enduring tradition, starting in the 19th century: of men writing books on the desperate lives of women, frequently ending in suicide. The most famous, at least for this German reader is Arthur Schnitzler’s masterful novella Fräulein Else (collected in English in Desire and Delusion: Three Novellas, translated by Margret Schaefer), a book generally praised for its intense yet nuanced psychological portrait of a woman driven to suicide. Kim shows us the commonalities among those books and what they share with that more modern or postmodern laddish literature of disaffection. It is, finally, the title, after all, that, for me, unlocks the book. The odd inversion that I mentioned carries all the weight of balancing so many ambiguities. Jean Améry, still the author of the best book on suicide, despite the awful, harmful pap recently published by Jennifer Michael Hecht (Stay) and Matt Haig (Reasons to stay alive). In contrast to these writers, Améry points to the validity of making such a decision for yourself. In making the title the one space where the suicidal women of his book get to really express an active wish, Kim exposes the gap at the root of so many books on suicide, men or ‘modern society.’

And yet – is this enough? An intelligently structured and clearly written book does not great literature make and the flatness of the style, while fitting the structure of the book, does not transform into an aesthetically pleasing object for all that it is well considered. I liked reading this book, and rereads enhanced my pleasure, which is a good sign. But I, as a reader, am biased. I have been in the headspace of women like that, and I’ve had a friend who took the role of that nameless narrator – and despite squandering that opportunity, the few things we learn about the women, the few words they get to speak about their death, they ring true to me. So take what I said with a grain of salt. But if you want even less ambivalently positive takes on the book, you could read this one from Tony and this one, by MAO himself.


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Ghosts of our Youth: On Hwang Song-yong’s "The Guest"

Hwang, Sok-yong (2001), Der Gast, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag
ISBN 978-3-423-24563-0
[translated from the Korean by Katrin Mensing, Young Lie and Matthias Augustin]

The well read among us are well acquainted with the presence of ghosts in literature, in good and bad books both. One of the best post 1945 novels employing that technique is Pedro Paramo. It’s this novel that Hwang Sok-yong’s novel reminded me most of, despite the numerous significant differences. I may be returning to this.

“The Guest” is about the time that Communism became the prevailing political ideology of North Korea, and about civil war like fights between fanatical Catholics and fanatical communists, both committing countless atrocities. The focus here is not, as usual and common in reports of atrocities committed by communists, on the evil reds. This tendency is so common in literature, especially with all the Gulag literature and the GDR literature, showing, iterating and reiterating ad nauseam just how unbearable life under socialism was, that I was irritated at the fact that it’s not the focus here, but ultimately positively surprised. Catholic fanatics. Well. What do you know.

The protagonist is an expat catholic priest, living in the US, who travels to Korea in his brother’s stead. His brother’s a catholic priest as well, apparently long tormented by guilt. He committed countless atrocities in his home country, murdering many communists in an attempt to seize control of their county before Communist backup arrived. The urgency of his youthful follies is apparent. The atheistic Communists, driven by an ideology that seemed imported from abroad, going against all traditions, political as well as religious, must have seemed an imminent danger to the priest-to-be.

The fact that they had large backers all across the country and abroad provided the urgency to do away with those in their home country once and for all. The same applies to the Communists, of course. After the brutal colonial rule of the Japanese, they looked to the north and east and saw new beginnings.They decided to make it new in their own country as well. And then the old retaliated, the old, politically as well as religious. Catholicism is so strict, so much of a ritual, that it’s the perfect fit for a religion that one sees as an obstacle, just like the Russian Orthodox Church was.

Both parties were in the wrong, so wrong it’s tough to find the right words for it, and yet one is tempted to refer to the atrociousness as “youthful folly”. Hwang Sok-yong found the perfect literary expression for this. There are so many problems with depicting the brutality en détail, not the least of which is the question whether a description will do justice to what happened, for the mind of the reader who is too young or too unkorean (yes, neologism) to remember. It’s like A.O. Scott’s musings on the American remake of Haneke’s classic “Funny Games”. The ghosts are the personified atrocities, they are the a Derridean trace (not really, I’m just joking), the personified lack. It shows to the reader who’s missing. Fathers, brothers, daughters, mothers. They are right there, looking him in the eye. And here’s where the author’s second brilliant move kicks in. He did not use the criminal brother as protagonists, even though he’s the one who originally saw the ghosts. He hands the reader a reader-like mirror, the brother who had nothing to do with it all.

For him, the ghosts help unravel the convoluted story, family tragedies, the tragedy of a country stumbling from one dark place to the next and then the following one. And they help us understand as well without trying to shock us with gratuitous violence. It’s not that I am not always up for copious amounts of violence, my deep adoration of Sarah Kane’s slim but brilliant oeuvre speaks for itself. But here this may be the wrong road to go down. Making the reader guess, look, see the lack and the aftermath has proven to be as effective a literary move as I’ve known, see for instance a work such as Semprun’s magisterial (ministerial) Le Grand Voyage. And it’s effective here. Read this book. While not as good as the abovementioned Pedro Paramo, which is absolutely mesmerizing, depicting a village tragedy as well, it’s something else. It’s necessary. Read it.