Sunday, August 14, 2016

difficult themes in writing cloaked in metaphor

Metaphor/Sketch for difficulty in aging

Occasionally one pauses early on when reading a new novel to reflect on whether there seems to be a compelling story arc, or whether some difficult thematic material will somehow enrich one's imagination or life experience.  Such questions arose for me when reading The Vegetarian, by Han Kang (as well as in A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, discussed in my post of Dec. 28, 2014).  Those considerations can be very subjective for different readers, and following is my take on The Vegetarian.

The Vegetarian was translated from the Korean (by Deborah Smith), and won the prestigious English Man Booker International Prize.  It's a short, compact novel at 188 pages, and one of the qualities that captured this somewhat hesitant reader was the good writing.  In broad brush outline, the story concerns a Korean housewife, Yeong-hye, her sudden plunge into a haunted, vegetarian eating obsession, and the tumult it causes in her own life and the lives of her husband, sister, brother-in-law, and parents.  

Perhaps the vegetarian obsession was brought on by an onset of mental instability--Yeong-hye has begun to suffer dark, violent, carnivorous related thoughts--and her new eating practice is, in various degrees, distasteful or repugnant to her extended family.  Some book critics say it may reflect a broader, Korean attitude toward vegetarianism.  At a family dinner the father tries to force a piece of meat into his protesting daughter's mouth, and ends up slapping her, whereupon she slashes her own wrists.  

Yeong-hye's husband divorces her, and the husband of her sister, In-hye, becomes attracted to Yeong-hye.  He's an artist and filmmaker (oddly unnamed as a character throughout), and clandestinely arranges for Yeong-hye to help him make a film.  He paints her body overall with botanical art, and films her making love with a similarly painted young man.  In a subsequent filming, he paints his own body as well as hers with the botanical theme, and films them making love together.  Sometime later, they repeat the same performance in Yeong-hye's apartment, and are discovered there by the sister, In-hye.  In-hye is so shocked she telephones a municipal Emergency Services number, and the authorities bundle the assumed deranged couple off for an examination.  Yeong-hye is committed to a mental hospital, where she is visited by her morose sister.

At this point, Yeong-hye's mental condition has deteriorated to where she imagines she is becoming a tree, and no longer needs to eat any food. I'll stop short of giving a complete, 'spoiler' description, in hopes blog readers will try Kang's worthy book.

One  critic, Diane Johnson, in the NY Review of Books (Crazy in Korea, 8/18/2016), presenting a review of this novel, writes: 

a short, absorbing novel that readers and reviewers have declared to be about--besides meat-eating--marriage, obedience, care-giving, adultery, art, human violence, post-human fantasy, taboos, the resolution of the desperate, "the crushing pressure of Korean etiquette," and much more.  One of the glories of novels is that their complexity allows for different interpretations, and perhaps this partly explains the Vegetarian's appeal for judges specialized in literature and translation from various language traditions and with, no doubt, different preoccupations.

There are metaphorical constructs so flexible and capacious as to allow for all of these meanings: generally, the more terse and minimalist a narrative, the more adaptable its metaphorical repertory to a wide range.
I agree with Johnson's suggestions that there are many metaphors folded into this novel, and I'll probably muse over interpretive possibilities for some time to come.  So, in spite of my pauses for consideration I described earlier on, I continued reading The Vegetarian, and concluded it was indeed a worthwhile book.

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