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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On Herman Melville’s “Omoo”

Melville, Herman (1982), Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Library of America
ISBN 0-940450-00-3

Herman Melville is among my very favorite writers. Everything about his work is subtle, fresh and interesting, whether we talk about the Great American Novel, Moby Dick, or the very early works: Typee or Omoo. I have spend quite some time thinking about Typee early in February, but as this blog shows, it didn’t amount to anything. After having had a few thoughts rumbling through my skull again after finishing my reread of Omoo today, and since I have nothing better to do, I’ll just bother you with them. As I said, Omoo was the second book Melville published. It was printed in 1947, a year after Typee. Within ten years he would go on to publish all of his other novels, among them marvels such as the aforementioned Moby Dick, The Confidence Man or the scintillating Pierre. One masterpiece per year. Since most of them are concerned with life at sea and since Moby Dick is the most famous novel about the sea and especially whaling, the preceding novels are seen as studies for the grand masterpiece.

It is, as many people have pointed out, a great injustice to read Typee and Omoo only as imperfect tryouts. They are both completely and utterly astonishing, and bear almost no direct resemblance to each other, since they treat different modes of travel. Omoo is the direct sequel to Typee, picking up the plot where Typee leaves off: the protagonist who has finally escaped Nukuhavi, which is one of the Marquesas Islands, has entered service on the ship that saved him, not that he had much of a choice there. That ship, the lovely Julia, is a breeding ground for unrest, which is a good indicator of many of the concerns in Omoo. Guy, the captain, is not a sailor, he is

in no wise competent. He was essentially a landsman, and though a man of education, no more meant for the sea than a hair-dresser.

He shows, time and again, that he does not understand the necessities of a sailor’s life. The captain is little more than a meek and weak figurehead, since he isn’t able to handle even the smallest technical decisions and the one he does handle leads to mutiny and him losing a large part of his crew.

The actual work of a captain is done by the chief mate, John Jermin. Jermin is a strong, smart and pugnacious man, able to make the crew obey his commands. As a member of the ruling caste, especially since he is the one who has to make tough decisions and has to ensure that the captain’s unpopular commands are carried out, he is constantly at odds with the crew. He looks and acts like one of the crew yet the mere fact of his being in power sets him apart. We encounter quite a different situation with the resident doctor, who only goes by the name of Doctor Long Ghost. He, who could be the third member of the ruling caste, is actually a jester of sorts. Although he is educated and could possibly wield power, he is too unruly, too much of a “wag”, for the captain to put up with him. In due course he has to set up camp amongst the sailors. As we all know, rulers and workers are clearly separated on a ship, so forcing Doctor Long John to literally change sides is highly significant. The physician, however, quickly accommodates himself to the new situation, becoming, in effect, one of the crew. As we see, the main difference here is not education: it’s both power and the line of work you’re in. This may seem uninteresting at this point, yet the novel dwells extensively upon the dynamics on board and rightly so, as we will see.

Upon coming to Tahiti, the captain gets off the ship, being friends with Consul Wilson, who is the British representative on the island. In the meantime, he expects the crew of the ship to stay on board. This, apparently, is viewed almost as an offense by the sailors, who subsequently contrive to get ashore despite the captain’s strict orders. The captain’s behavior is shown to be due to his not being a sailor, to his being a land man. A different captain, later on, is described as “a sailor, not a tyrant.” The contrast between sailors and people who live and work on land, is marked, and it’s not a simple difference either. The sailors show clear contempt for so-called “landlubbers”, as the character called “Rope Yarn” shows, who is not nearly as unlikeable as the captain, who is part of the crew, yet who is not suited to work on a ship; the crew is constantly making fun of him and harassing him at every turn. Among the crew, on the working-class end of the ship, there is a hierarchy as well, equally strict as the one I previously mentioned. The main difference, however, is that it is solely based upon merit.

In a way, although I referred to the sailors as “workers”, this word, with its modern connotations, is not quite fitting. The sailors are more like nomads, with a division of work as in a nomadic hunter-gatherer (and are whalers not, to an extent, hunter-gatherers?) society, which is usually based on merit and not entitlement or race or even gender. This strong focus upon the society aboard ship is a stark difference to Typee, which was largely concerned with a reflection upon a single village in a vale on Nukuhavi. I would argue that one of Omoo‘s main concerns is work, and, at that, work in different environments, and by people of different cultures. Our protagonist is going off board with the others, and due to a mishap, finds himself apprehended by the consul as one of the ring leaders.

This appellation is thoroughly undeserved, if we can trust the protagonist’s assurances, but he and we quickly see that it is due to his being an intellectual of sorts, who can write and reads books, that he is thought and assumed to be a ring leader. The captain expresses a deep dislike ans suspicion towards the readers/writers among the crew. Since the captain’s logic is not ship- but land logic, he thinks in terms of class. In his understanding of the world, a worker doesn’t read, he works. The dangers of being able to read and write are all too obvious: they lead to, or at least aid, mutiny, revolt, and similar distasteful incidents. In a way, it is hard to argue this point with the captain, since, after all, a mutiny has taken place and the two readers are involved. As readers we must never make the mistake of believing the protagonist’s testimony. He is the one whose voice has carried far enough for us to hear it, but must we not think of the sailors, too, as a silenced class, and of the protagonist’s narration as a colonization of sorts?

The concepts of speaking for someone else, of displacing a former way of reading and understanding the world with a new, alien form, is also a central concern of the novel, which dwells quite extensively upon the work of the missionaries. In Typee, which is a novelization of an ethnographer’s wet dreams, we found an almost untouched society, which dealt with the British and French intruders only at its borders. Tahiti and its surrounding islands, has been subjugated by the French and British and is accordingly much changed. Although the events take place at roughly the same time, a few weeks after Typee, the reader is under the impression of seeing the aftermath of aggression and proselytizing upon the society he came to know in Typee. And it has been a disaster which has led to a destruction of a culture and to the death of numerous individuals. Officially, the Tahitians are Christians now, although the narrator never tires of explaining why the Christian creed is ill fitted to the Polynesians:

An air of softness in their manners, great apparent ingenuousness and docility, at first misled; but these were the mere accompaniments of an indolence, bodily and mental; a constitutional voluptuousness; and an aversion to the least restraint; which, however fitted for the luxurious state of nature, in the tropics, are the greatest possible hindrances to the strict moralities of Christianity.

I will not go into details on the proselytizing of Tahiti, it’s an interesting topic in itself, but not the focus of these remarks.

However, the quote on the hindrances is interesting in other ways as well. Omoo expounds on the links between Christian religion and the Western economic system as evidenced by their interaction with the Tahitians. Both of these elements are not suited to the native culture in Tahiti, they are both built on an idea of discipline and sensual renunciation, whereas the Tahitians have parameters such as need, interest and passion. The re-invention of leisure time in the course of industrialization may be the Western countries’ valve to let off some of the steam generated by the need created by being so strict on the passions, but this has come from a state of oppression. The Tahitians are expected to give up their freedoms all at once and that they’re not prepared to do. They do not, however, resort to classical western ways of expressing their reluctance: when their interest abates, they just stop working, creating, to the uncomprehending Colonialists an impression of “sluggishness” or even plain laziness.

Several years ago, the cultivation of cotton was introduced; and, with their usual love of novelty, they went to work with great alacrity; but the interest excited quickly subsided, and now, not a pound of the article is raised.

I found this attitude to work and duty reminiscent of Melville’s slightly later short piece of greatness, “Bartleby the Scrivener”, and that story’s protagonist’s mantra “I’d prefer not to”. As Bartleby dies at the end, so the Tahitian civilization suffers from the fact that those who subjugated them failed to understand the culture of those they meant to rule. It is the old confusion of the man-made, culturally conditioned with the natural, that obfuscates issues to this day. This makes the progression from Typee to Omoo particularly salient: Typee focuses on seeing and reading a culture that is so very different from one’s own, while Omoo shows what happens when we actively rule a country without investing into our understanding what makes it what it is. We just assume, so often, that the basic reading of things is alright for everyone. The conditio humana is so often invoked in so idiotic contexts that it makes you, at times, despair. That’s just how we are? Please.

And Omoo, as most of Melville’s stupendous work, concentrates upon these issues. We find variations of people who live their lives according not to their individual creed (and isn’t, for example, the hypocritical celebration of the individual in American popular culture/criticism among the most depressingly inane ideologies?), but according as to how their culture understands life and work (take care: again, no false identifications: cultures do not equal nations, so don’t come complaining). The strongest characterization besides the British and the Tahitians are Zeke and his associate, the Yankees who believe in working hard and partying hard. After having been imprisoned and let free again, the protagonist and Doctor Long Ghost roam the island. The further they progress inland, the healthier and happier the natives become, at the same time, paradoxically, they are working more:

The next day we rambled about, and found a happy little community, comparatively free from many deplorable evils to which the rest of their countrymen are subject. Their time, too, was more occupied. To my surprise, the manufacture of tappa was going on in several buildings. European calicoes were seldom seen, and not many articles of foreign origin of any description.

Melville is all but shouting at his countrymen to stop calling the Tahitians lazy or deficient.

The most fascinating passage in Omoo, however, can be found in the last fifth, where he tells us about white travelers (“roving whites”) to the islands who are “generally domesticated in the family of the head chief or king” and become personal attendants, violinists, cupbearers or what Melville winking refers to as “commissioner of the arts and sciences”. These people are travelers, or rovers in more ways than one, the cultural contexts, the power relationships are shifting slightly, for these few individuals. I hope that the previous paragraphs have made it clear how magnificently Omoo shifts to and fro in terms of cultural preconceptions as related to work etc. and now we see how well Melville chose to pick the sailors as a ‘control group’. The sailors’ friction with the landlubber captain demonstrates their difference to the dominant culture on the islands; there are other, more obvious reasons why they don’t mesh with some of the other, the Polynesian cultures. On land, they have turned even more into hunterer-gatherers, hunting with Zeke and gathering food, shelter and goodwill from the Polynesians.

In the end, the protagonist returns to his own culture, signing on on a whaler once again. It is a completely different whaler from the two he’s been on before. In a way, experiencing that travel has changed something in both of the rovers. As I indicated earlier,these insipid remarks touch but upon one aspect, which is hard to separate from others, possibly more important ones, such as religion or race. Omoo, as any novel by Melville, is stacked with subtle and not so subtle ideas and criticism. Melville is always in need of being read. A grand, grand writer.