The Vegetarian by Han Kang

9781846276033

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

(Portobello; 2016)

Favourite line: “Sister…all the trees of the world are like brothers and sisters.” 

I have been a vegetarian, to the best of my ability and wavering self-discipline, for seven years. It happens less often in the U.K. these days, but whenever I’m asked the reason why I don’t eat meat (quite often in Japan), I tend to overcompensate and generalise to avoid having a moral discussion or to diffuse a repetitive debate before it can begin. I just don’t like it all that much. It’s healthier. It’s become habit now. These examples all have some truth to them but are definitely unsatisfactory in explaining wholly why I made this choice. Honestly, I’m not completely sure myself. That’s OK with me and seems to fly with all but the most obscenely carnivorous.

The Vegetarian, however, presents us with a South Korean woman named Yoeng-hye who is entirely earnest in her answer. “I had a dream,” she repeats, unshaken by the puzzled and even offended reaction to her response. Her family cannot accept this; Korean food consists of meat abound, and they are of traditional stock. As the story develops, however, it becomes clear that Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is the least of their, or the story’s, issues.

Full disclosure: this is a reread. I read The Vegetarian for the first time last winter, in one sitting. This time, though, I spread it out through three or four days, and I was surprised at how I’d repressed quite the extent of the cruelty of this story. Kang’s prose makes me ache for Yeong-hye; it nauseates me in its unflinching depiction of abuse and the decline and eventual demise of her mental stability.

The Vegetarian was originally written in Korean in three separate volumes. Each volume is from a different perspective – first the husband, then the brother-in-law, and lastly the sister of Yeong-hye. Interestingly, we only gets fleeting insights into Yeong-hye’s thoughts through her narration of these dreams, which become a motif throughout the novel. The “cruelty” of this story lies in the points of view of the men in the first two parts.

According to Mr. Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband in the opening line, she was “completely unremarkable in every way”, and that’s what attracted him to her. This sets the tone for the kind of guy he is. He steadily becomes even more repulsive, treating her diet choice as if it were an unseemly defect he was duty bound to hide from their acquaintances. It’s clear that his biggest concern here is himself – his wife makes the food, his wife does not eat meat, therefore he cannot eat meat as he likes. He reacts to his loss of control over his wife’s actions with violence reminiscent of a Sarah Kane play.

Mr. Cheong’s character is deep and vivid in its awfulness because he is a common part of many socially conservative households, a self-declared patriarch with an inferiority complex. Kang’s characterisation paired with Smith’s sharply worded translation create a man who cannot see beyond himself, and is ultimately deeply complicit in Yeong-hye’s downturn.

In contrast, the cruelty of Yeong-hye’s unnamed brother-in-law is much more insidious and cloaked in the apparent sensitivities of an introspective artist. He uses Yeong-hye’s altered mental state to his own advantage and exploits her vulnerability and loss of social awareness. Does this make him worse than Mr. Cheong? Maybe, in that I really feel he should have known better. Her husband is objectively dull and brutish, whereas her brother-in-law at least shows some capacity for compassion. He’s an artist who sees an opportunity to use Yeong-hye without remuneration or his wife’s knowedge – not an uncommon figure in creative industries.

Yeong-hye’s big sister, In-hye, takes the brunt of the unfolding familial disaster. She is the breadwinner of her family – still a rarity in Korea – and seems to take on all the responsibility she can possibly handle in order to atone for whatever pain her sister must endure. She feels guilt at her relative freedom as the eldest daughter throughout a difficult childhood, even going so far as to label herself a coward for accepting this role. In-hye’s own mental state is compromised, as we see through the gruesome dreams she begins to have, too. I consider In-hye to be the true victim of the story, as her persisting lucidity increases her suffering.

Kang is obviously not suggesting that Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is a mental defect, but rather one of the several ways in which her mental illnesses manifested. The crucial point is that this fairly superficial symptom is the only one her family paid attention to. If she’d had other, less obstrusive indicators, how long would it have taken Mr. Cheong to notice a change? If he had, would he have cared?

This, then, is perhaps Kang’s greatest achievement in this phenominal work: as Yeong-hye’s condition worsens – for In-hye’s sake and her own – we are left to consider whether we want her to live or die.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

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The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (translated by Carol Brown Janeway)

(Vintage; 1997)

Favourite line: “We should not believe we can comprehend the incomprehensible”

This is another book I lent from my local library in Tokyo- seems like they have enough English stock to last me the summer! The Reader is set in postwar Germany and follows a teenager named Michael Berg as he falls in love with Hanna, a thirty-something streetcar conductor. In his later years, Michael finds out under striking circumstances the extent of the role Hanna played in the Holocaust. I have conflicting feelings about this story. I picked it up because of its reputation and because I’m interested in fiction set around the time of WWII. The Reader is set after the war and spans multiple decades with impressive fluency. However, my gripe with the novel comes partly from a moral angle, and partly a stylistic one.

The length of the chapters come in at 2 or 3 pages on average. With few exceptions in mind, I prefer shorter chapters in a story, simply because I do a lot of my reading on the train or in my breaks at work. This form in this particular book makes the obviously difficult subject matter easier to digest as a reader – though is “easy” what it needs? Do we actually need to be thrown in a little deeper to fend for ourselves against one of the most monstrous events in history? Or have we reached a point at which we do not need painstaking detail to conjure up the horrors of it, because we know it all too well already?

Additionally, Michael’s sympathy towards Hanna and her participation in the Holocaust make for uncomfortable reading. The protagonist is close to Schlink himself in terms of his age, nationality and family circumstances (Schlink’s father was also lost his university job due to his openly anti-Nazi views). So, Michael’s apparent condoning of Hanna’s actions cannot be seen as separate from the author himself. This isn’t to call Schlink himself a sympathiser at all, but maybe since the mid-nineties when this book was published, far-right nationalist ideology has had somewhat of a resurgence in the West, leaving me as a reader in 2017 highly sensitive to any medium through which a character can find his ways to excuse anyone’s dehumanising views. I’m glad we can see everything not as black and white, but as highly nuanced. However, the scope of Michael’s support for Hanna borders on excess for me, despite the “mitigating circumstances” surrounding her character which encourage his goodwill.

Stylistically, Schlink breaks some writing rules that I’m sure I’m not alone in having internalised so deeply that I couldn’t believe his audacity. Since I can’t read German, I’m only assuming that these are Shlink’s quirks and not those of the translator, Carol Brown Janeway. I was impressed with his disregard for convention, but I was also distracted by them through noticing them to the extent I did. For example, towards the end of the book, Micheal uses the word “fresh” in relation to Hanna TEN times in one page. It was funny in the midst of a non-funny scene and distracted me from the action, which is why I begrudged it enough to remember it to write about. I also noted each time a colour was used to describe something in the first thirteen chapters – eighteen – until I gave up because there wasn’t much correlation between the colours or the meanings (and I was running low on sticky highlighter strips). Clearly there’s nothing wrong with using a basic colour word to describe something, and often the simple word “blue” does the job better than sickly metaphors about the ocean. Again, it was the frequency that put me off it.

There is a definite switch in power between the couple in the course of the story, which I found intriguing. Fifteen-year-old Michael is in puppy love with Hanna, whose aggression and flippancy only fuel his passion. She sets the boundaries and the tone of the relationship. She leaves him behind. But as Michael becomes an adult, he come to realise more and more how Hanna must have been motivated to act the way she did through fear and guesswork, not worldliness as he thought at the time.  In Hanna’s absence, he matures and overtakes her as the most authoritative of the two, whether he realises it or not. What intrigued me most about the couple’s dynamic is that in so many of the stories I know with of an age difference in a relationship, the senior is a man. Seeing how an older woman steers the situation . I don’t condone this kind of relationship, but seeing how it played out from the other side made me question how differently women are viewed an expected to be in relationships.

Another translated book for me, The Reader has given me a lot to think about and has been pervading my thoughts for days. I find that if I’m uncertain on something, whether it be literature or music or art, and I still find myself seriously considering its content after time has passed, it probably means I like it. Furthermore, I would consider reading Schlink’s work again, as his much of his work seems to loosely follow similar themes and I’d like to understand him better.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

OnChesilBeach

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

(Jonathon Cape; 2007)

Favourite line: “It is not easy to pursue such hard truths in bare feet and underpants.”

Lent to me by a colleague after seeing me read McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (maybe an odd place to start on such a prolific author’s bibliography?), I read this novella in two sittings over a weekend. Set in 1962, the story is of Florence and Edward, newlywed virgins on their wedding night in a hotel on the Dover coast. They must overcome their respective anxieties about the night ahead while trying to hide this from each other, in a manner typical of the era and place.

McEwan dissects the truth of Florence and Edward’s year-long relationship in the first hours of their marriage through prodding some fun at now – almost – completely outdated attitudes to sex. However, through doing so he also raises concerns that it would be fair to assume many of us in a more “liberated” age still have. Left with just each other, with no distractions or everyday quibbles to diffuse the tension, he puts the couple at a bottleneck in which insecurities are squeezed out of them. The thought that something may be secretly wrong with them, that something horribly grotesque is on their body or part of its function and will be pointed out to them by another, is surely not one solely of decades gone by and can be related to by many.

Although the motif of personal insecurities is a timeless one, I also think this story could not have plausibly happened even in the 10 years preceding or succeeding 1962. Florence and Edward are on the cusp of consummating their marriage, but they’re also on the cusp of the new societal attitudes. Any earlier, the couple would have been young adults in wartime Britain and its immediate aftermath – a more pressing matter than honeymoon sex. A decade after, the characters’ innocence would have seemed antiquated and a little prudish. A year in the early sixties is the only time for this tale, as it is a reaction to the stirrings of a new way, of rock ‘n’ roll and the Pill. They are straddling the old and new worlds, and as a result they’re feeling confused and uncertain. Neither want to emulate their respective parents, who we come to know through anecdotes about their polarised upbringings, but they’re also resisting the unknown alternative.

This uncertainty is compounded, I think, for Florence by the rules of how women were expected to act for their husband. Edward’s worries extend only to the prospect of sub-par performance, whereas Florence has all those feelings alongside the pressure to give her husband something he has been steadily closing in on on for a year with little encouragement on her side. Marital rape was not even considered a crime in England and Wales until 29 years later in 1991, which offers some context as to how women were expected to conduct themselves in their marriage, regardless of their approval. I find McEwan’s descriptions of this worry don’t always quite ring true; his metaphors for Florence’s feelings throughout the act are at points nauseating in their sugary hyper-femininity. However, the nuances of the man and woman’s individual apprehensions are explored thoroughly and sensitively. Of course Florence could not bring herself to speak up; of course Edward would not invite her to.

This novella may ring some best-forgotten bells for baby boomers who were reaching adulthood in the early sixties. For me, On Chesil Beach was both a voyeuristic, and at times amusing, look into the attitudes and values of the era, and an uncomfortable reminder of the power imbalance that is still prevalent in heterosexual relationships now.  Incidentally, a film adaption is due to be released in January, so I am intrigued by how a work so time- and location- specific is translated on to screen. I found the story beautiful in its simplicity – despite McEwan’s tendency to overwork metaphors. I’ll certainly be thinking with vaguely disturbing detail about the marriages of the older people in my life now…

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Unbearble Lightness

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim

(Harper Perennial; 1984)

Favourite line: “Missions are stupid. I have no mission. No one has.”

I feel I should preface this post with somewhat of an admission of ignorance, but no apologies. Although my limited knowledge of existentialist literature can only produce a limited opinion of the philosophy examined in this book, what I want to write about here is my experience of reading it. I will consider how it made me feel and the thoughts I had during the hours I spent with it. This isn’t a review as much as an exploration, so here’s a spoiler warning (if it so happens that I’m not the last person on Earth to read this).

I enjoyed The Unbearable Lightness of Being so much that there were many times during it that I felt sadness at having only picked it up so recently. Perhaps this was the ideal time for me to come across it, however, as I did in a relatively small library in my Tokyo neighbourhood. There are only around 200 English books across two floors of tightly packed rows of shelves, and of them only around half that I have never read before and would want to. (Kundera might describe this series of events leading to my reading his work as “Fortuities”?) Furthermore, the content of the book itself came at an apt moment for me as a reader too, as I will elaborate on in this piece.

The story is ostensibly of two couples’ lives in and around the Prague Spring period of Czechoslovakian history – but the author was equally a part of their story. Kundera makes no secret out of his fiction being just that – fictitious – and I welcomed his occasional asides and remarks on his characters, like an unobtrusive guide, offering a hand with grasping the complexities of his characters while artfully reminding the reader that it’s all in his head, anyway. For example, to introduce the second part, after establishing three of the four members of the couples in the first, Kundera breaks the fourth wall with the theatrically grand claim, “It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived.” We discover the “I” is not another character as narrator, offering Kundera a layer of anonymity, but himself. This goes against what we have accepted and internalised about the whole concept of stories. We dive into given characters’ lives, suspending our disbelief so long as we “buy” the circumstances we find them in. Interestingly, I thought that an effect of these authorial interjections wasn’t to distance the reader from the characters or their circumstances, but rather to consider their maker as another character. A neighbour or distant relative of Tomas, perhaps. The conversation Kundera takes up with the reader gives a second opinion to confer with, consequently strengthening the believability of the characters while simultaneously reminding us that we are only making believe.

Kundera uses time in a manner reminiscent of falling in and out of a light sleep (as indeed his character often are). I wrote “sleepy waltz” in my notes, referring to how time moves forward in strides, followed by a small step back. In these backward steps we are presented with a familiar scene from another point of view, or alongside information previously withheld, that has since been supplied to us in the interim chapters. We find out that the reason Tomas is touched by Sabina’s act of answering the door to him wearing an old bowler hat (depicted on the cover of this edition) in an earlier chapter is that it belonged to her grandfather, and Sabina last put it on for Tomas years before, when they were young lovers. These moments of clearly understanding a past scene are satisfying – we’re finally intimate enough with Tomas and Sabina to know these small details about them.

Another aspect of the novel that interests me is the theme of love. While this theme is obviously recurrent across all literature and art forms and always has been, I found Kundera’s vision of Love intriguing in its autonomy. Love is not felt by the characters in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: they have love thrust into them like medicine down the throat. Tomas’ love for Tereza “declares itself to him”. Love “makes itself felt” in the desire for shared sleep. In the context of exploring weight/weightlessness, Kundera makes love seem like a heavy burden, an outside force felt by its victim, pinning them to another, making them travel across occupied countries for them.

Perhaps the theme that rang truest for me as I was reading here in Tokyo was that of foreignness. Here is a passage I found particularly resonant:

Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood.

As a foreigner living without fluency in the country’s language, I empathise with Tereza’s “tightrope walk”. Everyday tasks can quickly become a feat of endurance. Unlike Tereza, however, am a foreigner in the age of the smartphone – my “safety net” is my ability to easily contact almost everyone I know in the world, whenever I need them. Without that thread between me and my comfort zone, would I have strayed so far? Would I be as happy? Probably not. On the other hand, I came here alone, not with a partner who treats me like a piece of the furniture… But I digress. Foreignness is also explored in this novel not in terms of countries but as foreignness within oneself – this is why the title quote about there being “no mission” left such an impression on me. Tomas wasn’t born to be a surgeon, as he had believed and as Tereza still did. By putting ourselves into these categories – doctor, photographer, painter – we become foreigners to ourselves, devoting ourselves to a supposed mission which we and those around us have constructed to make life neater. This could be described as a “lightness of being”.

The comparisons between lightness and heaviness tie this novel together, and seem to underpin everything Kundera writes. He asks which of the two is positive and which is negative, and encourages the reader to abandon what might be their instinctive answer: “is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?” As the title of the book references, Kundera’s characters suffer an “unbearable lightness”. In particular, Sabina’s lightness interests me. She moves almost without a trace from her married lover’s life “because she felt like leaving him. […] Her drama was not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being.” Her absconsion leads her to feel an emptiness, while Franz, the lover deserted, retains a sense of being grounded due to the heaviness which being abandoned placed upon him. Franz is held down, therefore he can live well, whereas Sabina’s weightlessness leaves her scattered, like lifting a paperweight from loose sheets. Faced with the reconsidering of long-held conceptions about the positive/negative dichotomy between lightness and burden, I found myself holding this new concept up to aspects of my life. Which burdens are good, even healthy? Which reliefs are not?

For the sake of authenticity and as a means of keeping my own initial thoughts in tact, I  chose not to watch the 1988 film adaptation or read any essays on the novel or the author. I’m sure my thoughts will change and evolve with reflection and further reading and I’ll write about this novel again, not so far into the future.

An Introduction

Hello, and welcome to My Week in Books. My name is Stephanie Warden and I have created this blog as a space to share what I read each week. I want to discuss and explore why and how I read what I do, at the time that I do. My hope is that by doing this I can create something between a reading journal and a visual journey, mapping out exactly how I conduct my biggest passion. Of course this is as much personal as it is professional. With this in mind, I will introduce myself.

I graduated in the summer of 2016 with a degree in Drama and Creative Writing. Since then I have taught English at a high school in Tokyo. My job has taught me a lot about the complex, dynamic nature of language, both through the experience of teaching my own language and embarking on learning a new one. Of the many obvious (and not so obvious) differences between English and Japanese, something they have in common is the strength of storytelling through them. Learning Japanese (albeit painfully slowly) has served to reinforce and widen the breadth of my love for language and story.

english baking
I didn’t ask my students to decorate them like this, honestly

 

I will return to the U.K. in autumn with a passion for literature which will not be new, but surely deepened. I hope this blog can consolidate how I am influenced by literature and how it is intertwined with – or even dictates – my early adult life.