fiction, review

Human Acts

Indonesian edition’s cover

Humanity and repressive governments will always be interesting topics to discuss in literature, for in this realm all traumatic experiences of living under bad regimes can be perpetuated, forever stay on papers and in people’s mind, if not solved. Books are an effective medium to pass over to the next generation the painful history they should know, though they may not have the capability, or will, to make it right or give justice to those who had been wronged in the past. Human Acts, the wonderfully narrated novel by Han Kang, is clearly intended to do just that, so people will never forget there was a certain dark period in South Korean modern history.

The novel starts—in an atmosphere that’s more than merely depressing and in a somewhat vague manner—with a young boy looking for his missing friend, dead or alive. There has been some sort of a riot, as it is later gradually told, where the government-backed military fired bullets blindly to random citizens on the streets and killed many people, even those who weren’t actually part of it. Dong Ho, the young boy, keeps wandering through the Provincial Office to find Jeong Dae, this friend of his, but to no avail. He lingers there however, still in the hope of finding Jeong Dae, and helps sorting and dealing with corpses. Never does he know that Jeong Dae’s body, dead already, has been stacked somewhere behind bushes and slowly decaying. He only knows that he actually saw Jeong Dae when he was shot, and left him in the middle of the riot.

It needs a string of subtle guilty on Dong Ho’s side and slow paces of storyline to get to what truly happens to the two young boys, and what truly happens to the country. Throughout the next chapters, readers are told how the government becomes more and more tyrannical—tightly censoring books, imprisoning innocent people on false charges and treating them like worthless animals, causing incurable trauma across the nation—and how South Korean people at that dark period have to live their lives where committing suicide and insomnia are not something unusual.

The main event told in the book took place in the early 1980s and 1990, when an authoritarian ruler had been assassinated only for people to see another one coming up and making even bigger chaos. It was a horrible time South Korean people in the past had to experience—and hopefully won’t repeat itself in the future—when even a self-claimed democratic government used an excuse of banishing northern infiltration from their southern part of the peninsula to punish people without mercy and oppress them just to maintain the status quo. It was when university students held demonstrations on the streets and got arrested, when common people were dragged—voluntarily or not—and got shot. In fact, this particular period seems very common everywhere. Here in Human Acts, both innocent and guilty people are imprisoned and being questioned inhumanely, left hungry for days before being released after a very strange, without-any-evidences trial. Traumatized, some of them even commit suicide, or, worse, try to kill people.

Han Kang tells the depressing, goosebumps-giving story from the points of view of those who are involved in, or become victims of, the riot handled with cruelty by the military: from the young boys, the prisoners, the eyewitnesses, to the writer herself. And though Han does make an enough effort to introduce all those characters early in the first chapter (alongside with Dong Ho), but still the plot, and subplots, where they dwell are not easy to deal with. The narrative is so “thick” that readers need to peel it layer by layer in order to see crystal clear where the storyline goes. Han doesn’t make it easy for readers to enjoy her tale—as if she wants them to suffer together with the victims—and forces them to really follow each of the characters to know exactly what happens inside and what effects it has on them.

Han’s writing style in Human Acts is neither truly realistic nor the opposite. To describe all the hardships and violence, Han doesn’t shy away from taking the realistic approach to display horrible scenes as explicit as possible. On the other hand, Han uses an almost surrealistic style to tell about the trauma all the victims have to endure. It is perhaps to make it more dramatic, sharper that readers can’t help but feel uneasy and disturbed upon absorbing the fear, the restlessness, the insanity brought about by dictatorship prevailed in that era. It is really hurtful to see those things written blatantly on the paper, and Han Kang really pulls it off.

All in all, Human Acts by Han Kang is a book that is so depressing, so sad, so hurtful to read, not only for the dark period the reader has to experience through letters, but also for the way Han Kang wrote and presented it to her audience. If anything, it is a book that forces the reader to see inhumanity clearly through its heavy words.

Rating: 4/5

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

Dijual: Keajaiban

32918651421_ddb0ce58f9_oNine different writers from various Asian countries with nine different stories. Dijual: Keajaiban is an anthology that provides you with this wonderful miracle. Despite the geographical question you might be left with after perusing the list of writers contributing to the collection, the nine short pieces bring you thought-provoking ideas, deep, vividly drawn characters, emotional plots and thoughtful messages. This book is something we can call a hidden gem, something that might not be popular among readers (here in this country) but has the value of a treasure.

All the stories contained in this book are of high quality, there is no doubt about it. But there are four that can truly tear your heart apart, or at least leave you dead silent and aware of the reality around you. The first one is also the first to welcome readers to the collection, a very subtle love story by the Chinese Nobel laureate, Gao Xingjian, entitled In the Park. It’s about a couple of childhood friends who meet again when they are grown up and are talking about their past and present, while watching a restless woman waiting for the man she loves nearby. The way Gao composes the dialogs tells us how both of them are actually in love with each other, unluckily, destiny doesn’t seem to want to see them together. But there has to be someone to blame, and the woman doesn’t conceal the fact that she intends to do so. However, it is not this attitude, or the subtle conflict being told she has with her male friend, which pulls the reader to the depth of the narrative, but the idea of how women, even in a personal love affair, has always to be on the losing side. It is crystal clear from what the woman says to the man:

“If the woman falls in love first, it’s always unlucky.”

The second lump-in-the-throat story of the book is Qismati and Nasibi by Naguib Mahfouz. Imagine you have a Siamese twin sibling and you cannot get away from the fact, much less from them. Characteristically, you both are so different you might as well be two different people born from two different mothers, and nothing unites you but your conjoined bodies. You cannot help but hate each other and fight almost everyday, sometimes willing to take the defeat only to get spurred again and determined to get what you want without an ounce of care about your twin’s feelings. Life is like a hell on earth, so much worse than that even. Unfortunately, even death cannot do you apart.

To Look Out the Window by Orhan Pamuk is as much heart-breaking. With its rather flat narrative, it surprisingly has the ability to set fire to the reader’s heart and make what seems to be a simple idea of family affair feel more moving and profound than any other Pamuk’s story ever did. Told from a first-person point of view, this long short story talks about a father secretly leaving his wife and children without so much as a word but telling his youngest son, who doesn’t have the faintest idea of what actually happens, not to tell anyone about his leaving for Paris. It appears, though, as the story progresses, that he leaves them for another woman. Pamuk is very clever in how he employs the viewpoint of an innocent little boy to elaborate his creation of a plot and describe the feelings of adults around him. On the one hand, it indeed makes it seem like nothing is really happening, but on the other, from the way the little boy relates his mother’s state of mind and conversations we can tell that she is suffering from severe depression and trying hard to deal with it, and to find out what she should do next. It’s a very sad story, and it’s my most favorite of all.

Yusuf Idris’ A Tray from Heaven is also moving, but in its own funny, stinging way. It hilariously relates the life of an old man named Syaikh Ali—poor, jobless, uneducated, with no family at all. His bad temper never leaves the people of his village upset, instead, they think his rage and the way he takes it out on his poverty are funny and entertaining. Until one day he gets them into a panic because he takes it out on God and curses Him for he hasn’t eaten the whole day. His neighbors are all afraid God will retaliate against the entire village for his foolish act. So on their own initiative, they give Syaikh Ali any food they have in store on a tray. And they keep doing it every time he gets cranky and starts to verbally attack the Almighty.

All characters inhabiting each story in Dijual: Keajaiban are portrayals of ordinary people, they are there to reflect our complicated, gray life with all the bitter-sweet: poverty, patriarchy, destiny, humanity, and, of course, miracles. They are, in some ways, not the center of the story where they live and look alive, but they are the center of attention to the reader. It is through their existence, then, that readers are able to look into the depth of each narrative and find out what the writer wants to say. This is especially true of The Blind Dog (R.K. Narayan) and Miracles for Sale (Taufiq el-Hakim). Both the blind dog and the priest are not the narrators, nor are they the aspects we should give more emphasis to, but it is through their characterizations that we see the messages and criticisms expressed strongly in each of the storylines.

With the exception, unfortunately, of Yukio Mishima’s The Seven Bridges, every short story put into this anthology is very affecting and incredibly moving. The writings grip you, so much so that you need to pull yourself together to carry on reading. This kind of prose needs undoubtedly a superb writing technique and a perceptive mind, and the translated version needs a superb translator to do it. Tia Setiadi could really do it. It seems like he could naturally catch the tone used by each writer and follow their writing styles. It read so smooth and natural, as if those stories are his own. There are, however, some questioning diction and several sentences translated too much literally. It was a little annoying but fortunately it occured only rarely. No harm done. What actually bothering is the line-up of writers the publisher, or the editor, chose to get their stories put together into this “all-Asian” collection. There are two writers from Egypt and one from Turkey. When the entire literary world, people in general, and even Turkish people themselves think of Turkey as a European country, the editor of the collection put Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate, into the list. Perhaps, it’s just perhaps, the editor thought that since Turks were originally coming from Central Asia, and the majority of the land geographically lies in Asia, then Turkey is fundamentally an Asian country. But what about the two writers from Egypt? The last time I checked, this country is still located in Africa. Why were they chosen to contribute their pieces to the book? Is it only because they write in Arabic? If so, then it sounds like Isabel Allende is thought of as a writer from Spain just because she writes in Spanish while in fact she comes from Chile in South America. I’d rather have writers from South Korea or South East Asia. We’ve got plenty here.

Having said that, I’d still like to thank the editor and the publisher for bringing out Dijual: Keajaiban. It really is a miraculous book, some kind of hidden gem that will make you feel rich only by reading the whole nine stories.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The White Tiger

It’s pretty hard to find a great fiction book which is both entertaining and able to remind us that many things are not what they seem to be. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is one of those literary gems we rarely discover among so many notable works. Adiga’s sarcastic manner and dark humor help the book present itself as a piece of criticism in style. His bravery and unbelievable daring to write about his country in a “poke-fun” way of narrative make this debut worth reading even more. Not that I support sarcasm, but the brutally honest way in which Adiga sees his country and its people triggers a certain amount of weird amazement in me, despicably yet respectfully.

From the viewpoint of Balram Halwai, the story unfolds before the reader’s eyes by way of a very long letter for the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao. Knowing Wen is going to India to learn how the entrepreneurship runs there, Balram writes to him right away, telling him about his wonderful “success story” and describing, in a darkly ridiculous way, his long journey to become the true entrepreneur. In a nutshell, Balram is just a poor man like any other one you see in India, forced to drop out of school despite being prophesied to be the white tiger, waiting tables in a tea joint, jumping from waiting tables to working as a chauffeur, and, lastly, deciding to commit a murder. In his estimation, murdering his boss is the only way to master his own destiny, to get out of every restriction and limitation denying him the successful life he always dreams of.

Balram Halwai is a representative of the victims of Hindu caste system in India, doomed to imprisonment in the Chicken Cage, condemned to a life of the pauper. He is just an ordinary poor man who wants to be rich, but unlike any other poor men in other parts of the world, the caste system he holds in distaste prevents him from pursuing the success he wishes he could reach. He may seem innocent in some ways, but he’s not a man of resignation. His evil nature and his refusal to stay poor for the rest of his life spur him with such great force to rebel against the system he is living in and do everything people would think criminal and morally wrong. At some point, in the middle of his crime scheme, readers may think that he is actually smart and sly, that he’s not that innocent. But that characterization comes later when he’s learned his “lesson” and experienced many unpleasant things.

What so regrettable about the character of Balram, in my very personal opinion, is his description of Muslims. It’s not that I naively don’t realize that Balram is portrayed as an “innocent” person with no knowledge nor education, but somehow I found the way he describes Muslims as illiterate and stupid and keen on bombing everything very much repellent. I know I shouldn’t demand him to know that all those bombings are only an act of evil politics and have nothing to do with Islamic teaching, but I really wish I could tell Balram not to be smart only in the money department. However, looking at the sarcastic manner in which Adiga tells his narrative, it just makes a very good sense to have a character rambling on uncontrollably about anything, including the false stereotype of a certain people.

Adiga is actually very genius at making a story and has a considerable talent for writing it in an entertaining and captivating narration. The White Tiger is undoubtedly a gem of a book. Though irritating in some ways, the sarcasm by which it is told is just in the right amount of dose. Also, it has a nice plot to follow, not too hasty nor too slow. It’s proven in the steady step-by-step progress Adiga sets to bring to the climax and the conclusion at the end. He starts it with Balram’s childhood, blended with the description of his family and the society he lives in, and then elaborates how Balram is dragged from one underpaid job to another, and ends it up with Balram being a criminal. The pace is undeniably absorbing, so incredible that you’ll turn the pages without even realizing it. And I have to give Adiga certain credit for portraying such detailed characters in the book, and it’s not only Balram. Every one of them seems alive and believably real. They are one of the reasons I really like this book. But what the most tickling about The White Tiger is the devilishly honest way it is written. These days, criticizing everything around us is not a new thing anymore. Everyone is a critic now. People can channel it into anything, books, music, movies, random articles. What Adiga does with his The White Tiger is something people should take for granted, but his forthrightness in delivering his criticism is just frustratingly indescribable.

So, overall, The White Tiger is an intriguing fiction book about something which is actually non-fiction. It has, I should say, everything you want in a work of modern popular literature. Such a shame, had I not had a personal objection to some parts of it, I would’ve given it higher praise.

Rating: 3.5/5