fiction, review

The Vegetarian

34023328233_df89591553_oWhat is our body? A bunch of flesh and blood? A soulless entity? An empty creature devoid of civilization? Whatever you think of your body, it is yours and it is yours to do anything with. At the very least, this is a message that The Vegetarian, a short novel by Han Kang which has drawn an enormous amount of attention in the literary world, seems to intend to deliver. Quite vividly, here Han Kang lays emphasis on the idea that “yours to do anything with” includes harming that body of ours—that if you think harming is not actually harmful—when our traumatic experience leads us to anger and self-hatred resulting in the urge to destroy ourselves.

So many people seems to have already read this book, so let’s be brief. Upon having a horrible dream where she’s got blood all over her hands and mouth, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat and turn herself into a vegetarian. It bothers her family and society, for eating meat has been an inseparable tradition in their culture, and hence their insistence on her getting back to it. But her will is so much stronger than theirs, so she continues with her own way and eats nothing but vegetables and fruits. It costs her everything: her job, her marriage, her family. She doesn’t care, though, and is persistent, even if putting an end to eating meat doesn’t really stop that dream from hunting her nights over and over. Only when her brother-in-law paints flowers on her skin does she stop having such a dream, but that doesn’t mean everything turns the better for her (that if you think so). After a shocking incident involving her brother-in-law, her older sister In-hye is forced to put Yeong-hye into a mental hospital. And there, she starts to refuse to eat at all, because she thinks a tree doesn’t need to.

“I’m not an animal anymore.”

Yeong-hye apparently believes that she is an animal merely because she eats meat. But, are we? Does eating meat make us some kind of carnivore, a cannibal? Does it make us a horrible creature who has the heart to take the lives of other living creatures without mercy? Do you think, really, really think that by being a vegetarian, only eating vegetables, you’re not a killer? Do you not think that plants are also alive, breathing, growing, and breeding? Do you not think that when you eat them it means you kill them, too? Forget about blood, you’ve certainly taken the lives of others. In any way, being a vegetarian is not an answer to the question of our humanity, or will challenge our nature as human beings. Unless you stop eating at all and kill yourself slowly like Yeong-hye, that is.

“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

The broader your point of view on the story, however, the more you will realize that this is not only about being a vegetarian. This is about our body, about oppression imposed on our body. What happens to Yeong-hye—her psychological disturbance—seems to date back to when she received violent behavior from her father. She was weak and didn’t fight it, and was therefore left wounded physically and mentally. In a father-daughter relationship, where the father has more power over his children, more often than not, in any culture, this domestic violence practices occur. And when this happens, it always feels like we don’t own our body, like our body belongs to someone else. Some children cannot endure it, but continue to live with it, with the memory of it. So, eventually, Yeong-hye fights back and seeks revenge for what her body must have suffered from. But then, is it worth it? Does it really solve the problem of physical/emotional violence? Does it stop violence at all? But, of course, a book is sometimes not about finding an answer.

The Vegetarian is composed of three separate novellas, so it somehow reads incoherently. Luckily, Han Kang seems to mean it as one unity, making the next installment the next chapter to explain the aftermath of the previous event. And we can enjoy it thoroughly and easily, what with the smooth translation by Deborah Smith and no particular, skillful writing style. What makes this novel appear more extraordinary than it might actually be is how incredible Han Kang is (supported by Smith, of course) in using diction to build the atmosphere the story needs and in describing her characters. The narrative feels so simple to read yet so artfully created. It brings out a sense of horror in the reader and manages to make them feel as if they plunge into the horrendous world Yeong-hye is living in and witness the psychological torture she has to deal with. Readers will also be able to feel what In-hye feels, see what she sees and follow where her thoughts wander. It is a quite great prose.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang might work for so many people, but it is not for me. Technically, it doesn’t have the writing style I would call genius, and essentially, I have so many disagreements with it. It challenges my thoughts, yes, but not in a way that will change my mind.

Rating: 2.5/5

fiction, review

Interpreter of Maladies

Indonesian edition’s cover

How does loneliness affect you? How will you deal with it? Can you interpret it? Jhumpa Lahiri, in her own way, has done it in Interpreter of Maladies, a Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection revealing several different embodiments of loneliness, and of alienation. It is not wrong, I should say, to think loneliness and alienation as maladies, for the two things are indeed what’s gnawing at us most. And Lahiri can cleverly describe those feelings through characters and simple narratives. I wouldn’t say that Interpreter of Maladies is a masterpiece, but it is a showcase for her literary ability to capture and transfer a seemingly belittled problem, which is truthfully never unreal in anyone’s life, into words.

The book consists of nine short stories, all of them are pretty well narrated. However, I won’t deny this, only four of them really captivated me, holding me hostage all through the few pages. In A Temporary Matter, the reader is presented with a married couple who seem to regret deeply the loss of their baby. They have not talked to each other for months and let silence invade their previously-full-of-passion home. The way Shukumar, the husband, describes it, his wife Shoba seems to be the one who becomes so distant after her pregnancy ends in miscarriage. But beyond that, he cannot help but to admit, though only to himself, that he has lost his love for her far before that happens. Later on, he finds out that Shoba shares the same feeling for all this time. The question of love is also present in the story entitled Sexy. It shows the reader the contrast between a woman whose husband is having an affair with another woman and a woman with whom a man is having an affair. Craving for love and attention, Miranda doesn’t have even the slightest hesitation to develop a relationship with a man who is already married. Here Lahiri conveys how loneliness can secretly sneak its way through people’s hearts and make them craving for something that results in others being treated unfairly. But loneliness can come in any form, bringing with it toxic feelings we cannot run away from. Depression and alienation are what poisonous to the immigrants in Mrs. Sen’s and The Third and Final Continent, forcing them to develop a new habit and cope with social and environmental challenges that are so strange to them. Being isolated in loneliness doesn’t seem to harass them enough, and they still have to do what any immigrant should do: fitting themselves to the puzzle.

Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of stories about lonely people, those who are far away from home and those who are isolated in the society, and even in their own relationships. Shoba and Shukumar in A Temporary Matter had caught my attention instantly the moment the two appeared in a kitchen scene. Both were so silent, as I read it, creating an atmosphere so cold and unfriendly that they might as well be not a man and his wife. They were so out of reach, but the revealing narrative helped me understand their characters: dishonest, disloyal, distant. However, of the two, Shoba is the most attention-gripping to me. Perhaps it’s because I can relate to women more than I can to men. Shoba is a complicated person, her silence hiding more things than what we can guess through the reading. Her depression and disappointment do not show in her behavior nor in her attitude toward her husband, but in the hidden decision she’s made in silence, without even the reader knowing it. And, perhaps for the same reason, I feel sympathy for Miranda. I know she’s in the wrong, partly, for another woman’s ruinned marriage. She is so weak at first, falling easily into passion and hope of a true love, which happens to be concealed by mere lust. But then her sense of righteousness forces her to realize that she’s being unfair to that other woman.

There are some other interesting characters in Interpreter of Maladies, but I’m afraid I’m not capable of elaborating all my amazement for them. One thing for sure, though, they are portrayed so strong and fit each narrative they inhabit. All the stories tend to be ordinary, easy to read. They have no twists nor turns, no surprise, and even no emotional atmosphere such kind of stories should have. They all, I’d rather say, seem so flat. But, and I think this is the most important thing, their meaning feels so poignant, conveying the sense of loneliness and alienation in every possible way. Some stories end up cliffhanging, and some others are concluded in a bitter way. Oddly enough, that’s magical to me although I don’t think the narratives are quite engrossing, nor the storytelling is exceptional. However, the fast pace really helped me in enjoying and finishing them without substantial difficulties.

Seeing how flat all the short stories are written, yet how varied and deep they are, I can only say that I feel undecided whether or not I like Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri knows very well how to tell of, and talk about, loneliness, the one thing that keeps lurking within everybody especially those who are alien to their surrounding. I just wish it could be better than it already is.

Rating: 3.5/5