Translated by Deborah Smith
Hogarth, 2015, 188 pages
While The Vegetarian was for many their introduction to Han Kang’s work, she has been a literary presence for some time. Currently a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, she made her debut as a poet back in 1993, her first novel came out the following year, and she has written several other novels and short story collections, including three novels since The Vegetarian first came out in 2007.
The Vegetarian, Han Kang’s English-language debut, won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The novel’s spare and vivid English translation, which has itself won considerable praise, is by Deborah Smith, founder of Tilted Axis Press, which specializes in contemporary fiction from Asia.
Yeong-hye, the novel’s central character, is an apparently average married woman. A dream she had, the frightening, violent details of which gradually emerge, leads her to an embrace of vegetarianism. This choice, which has surprising and devastating ramifications, is examined from three different perspectives.
The first voice we hear is that of her husband. His statement that opens the book – “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way” – tells much with its matter-of-fact meanness. He values and derives comfort from ordinariness, and sees his wife’s sudden embrace of the new as somehow sinister, even perverse. She later embraces other behaviors that strike those around her as strange. For instance, she gives up wearing a bra, saying, mysteriously, “Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts.”
Other members of her family also find the changes in Yeong-hye’s life to be incomprehensible. And they respond with consternation, anger, and violence. Gestures like her father’s attempt to violently stuff food into her mouth at the dinner table – “My father-in-law,” says her husband, “mashed the pork to a pulp on my wife’s lips as she struggled in agony” – or even Yeong-hye’s slashing of her wrist right after, give their emotions a grim physicality. Read more
Time: 4:30 a.m. Sunday. I planned to get up early today to write, but I had hoped it would be a little later than this!
Place: At my desktop computer at home.
Listening: I’ve had the chance to enjoy two excellent concerts in the last couple of evenings. One was an orchestral concert presented by Classical Tahoe, featuring great musicians from across the country, including one of my favorite violinists ever, Bella Hristova, totally nailing the Mendelssohn Concerto. The other, a chamber music concert by the Aurelia Chamber Players, featured mostly local performers, and it reminded me how blessed we are in the Reno area to have so many wonderful musicians. In terms of at-home listening, a lot of the last two weeks has been spent with the music of Einojuhani Rautavaara, the great Finnish composer who recently passed away (an excellent tribute appeared in The Guardian, and another obituary at NPR’s website). Some would argue that Rautavaara is the greatest Finnish composer after Sibelius (Aulis Sallinen might also get some votes, as would more recent figures like Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, and Kalevi Aho). The Ondine recording company has been kind enough to collect many of its Rautavaara recordings in conveniently-priced boxed sets – one is devoted to the symphonies, another to the concertos, and a third to choral works. I’ve made my way through the symphonies, and there is some powerful, atmospheric, and colorful, music to be found there. My favorites are the Third, a sort of modernist take on Bruckner, the Fifth, and the more famous Seventh, “Angel of Light” (I also liked much of the Sixth, “Vincentiana,” derived from Rautavaara’s opera about Vincent van Gogh, but was put off by the somewhat cheesy synthesizer sounds that are a large part of the work). The boxed set of concertos is next. More on Rautavaara below.
Reading: I’ve recently completed Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s classic science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, wondering how it could possibly compare with the masterpiece of a film that was derived from it, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The answer proved to be that it doesn’t compare, although not in the way one might think. Roadside Picnic takes a very pragmatic view of its central concept – the Zone, a region that was affected by a recent visit to earth by an alien race. In the novel, the Zone has its strange and dangerous aspects, but is largely comprised of the objects and detritus left by the aliens. Those artifacts are are studied scientifically and – with the help of the Stalkers that lead people into the Zone – stolen for a very profitable black market. Tarkovsky, however, turns the Zone into a place of mysterious time- and space-altering properties, at the center of which – if one can make it there – one’s deepest wishes are supposedly granted. The characters and dialogue in Roadside Picnic are straightforward, even earthy, whereas in Tarkovsky’s film the conversation is of a much more philosophical nature. In watching the film again, I was surprised to note that the Strugatsky brothers also wrote the film’s screenplay. Some of the film’s much different tone and approach was attributable to them, I’m sure, but the overall vision seems much more Tarkovsky’s.
Viewing: Along with Stalker, I recently viewed a really fine documentary about the late filmmaker Chantal Akerman, I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman (I will always remember the impact her film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles had on me when I saw it at SFMOMA a couple of years ago – I had never seen anything quite like it). Other recent highlights include Mr. Holmes, in which the great Ian McKellen plays an elderly Sherlock Holmes trying, very movingly, to recall the details of the last case he worked on before retirement. The Criterion boxed set Julien Duvivier in the Thirties also provided many hours of enjoyable viewing. My favorite film of the set was Un carnet de bal (Dance Program), a visually striking chronicle of a woman’s revisiting, twenty years on, of several of her past suitors. Lastly, Dark Victory, the famous Bette Davis vehicle, is a total soap opera, but a very entertaining one.
Blogging: This is, honestly, my first blog entry in several months. But with a newly-free schedule, I will have much more time for writing, and I have some interesting plans for the blog – which I will keep to myself for now, waiting to see if I can actually follow through on them.
Pondering: Having recently left my job and ended a relationship, I find myself unmoored from my previous life. The attendant sense of freedom is wonderful, but there is also an unnerving feeling of disconnectedness. I need to find a new way of life, essentially, and I haven’t gotten there yet. Along those lines, I have a need to figure out how to convince the people around me to think of me as a multi-dimensional human being, even as a friend, instead of as a resource. While there are exceptions, of course, so many of the kindnesses that have been paid me recently were also preludes to requests for work. I’m glad that people have such trust in the work that I do … but there’s more to me than that.
Anticipating: A trip is in the works, which should, I hope, result in some interesting content for this blog. A consulting job that has dominated the last few weeks of my life is also nearing completion, and the freeing of my mental capacities that will soon be coming is much needed.
Gratuitous Arctic Birds: Returning to the subject of Einojuhani Rautavaara, I actually had the chance a few years ago to participate in the performance of one of his compositions when the Reno Chamber Orchestra, my former employer, presented his Cantus Arcticus. This very lovely work, dubbed a Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, features recordings of arctic bird songs in each of its three movements – a CD accompanies the printed score – and I was put in charge of the bird songs. Listening backstage and using the fiddly volume knob on a CD player, I tried to blend the songs into the orchestral texture as best as I could. After the concert, about half of the people I spoke to said the birds were too loud, and half said they were too quiet – which means that I must have gotten it about right! The work got a very fine reception, and when he went back onstage for a second bow, our conductor Theodore Kuchar grabbed my hand and pulled me with him to share in the applause. There I was, CD in hand, bowing to the audience. I appreciated the opportunity, but I couldn’t help but wonder … how many people in the audience actually had any idea why I was there?