Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Vegetarian

Ok, the new year has arrived and my resolution is to not beat myself up about stuff ... so I am not going to beat myself up about the fact that I read 'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang several months ago now and no review has been forthcoming. In fact the review queue is getting a little out of hand. I had requested this from the library before I read 'Convenience Store Woman' and although the author is Korean not Japanese there are some striking cultural similarities, mainly their discomfort with unconventionality. 

The book is written in three parts (apparently it started out as a short story); the first from the perspective of the husband, the second from the perspective of the brother-in-law and the third part from the perspective of the sister, so at no point do we get to know what is going on in the mind of Yeong-hye. She stops eating meat. It is not explained why, but to me the story is one of an emotional/mental breakdown that this young woman suffers utterly without care or support from her family. They are all so focussed on their own feelings about what she is doing to try and understand her experience. I spent the entire book wanting someone to just show her a little compassion, until the end when the sister finally realises how much Yeong-hye needs her and decides to side with her rather than with society and the medical profession. I found the book very curious, a window in a very different set of cultural attitudes. The style is rather reserved, almost distanced from any emotional engagement, the relationships between the characters quite formal. I cannot add much more than that since it is long gone back to the library, but it certainly deserves all the interested it has received since it was translated to english.

"My mother-in-law gathered up the chopsticks with an attitude of despair. Her old woman's face seemed on the brink of crumpling into tears, tears that would explode from her eyes and then course down her wrinkled cheeks in silence. My father-in-law took up a pair of chopsticks. He used them to pick up a piece of sweet and sour pork and stood tall in front of my wife, who turned away.
My father-in-law stooped slightly as he thrust the pork at my wife's face, a lifetimes's rigid discipline unable to disguise his advanced age.
'Eat it! Listen to what your father's telling you and eat. Everything I say is for your own good. So why act like this if it makes you ill?'
The fatherly affection that was almost choking the old man made a powerful impression once, and I was moved to tears in spite of myself. Probably everyone gathered there felt the same. With one hand my wife pushed away his chopsticks, which were shaking silently in empty space.
'Father, I don't eat meat.'
In an instant, his flat palm cleaved empty space. My wife cupped her cheek in hand.
'Father!'  In-hye cried out, grabbing his arm. His lips twitched as though his agitation had not yet passed off. I'd known of his incredibly violent temperament for some time, but it was the first time I'd directly witnessed him striking someone." (p.38-9)

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