A dialogue about Han Kang, The Vegetarian

This article has been orignally published on the Italian site Bookavenue on the 14th of February 2017. 

the-vegetarian-han-kangDear readers,

we have decided to review in a different way Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Notwithstanding its conciseness, it’s a book that generates lacerating questions, emotions and thoughts. The text below is a dialogue between two of us: the director of Bookavenue Michele – between Rome and Padua – and Silvia, in Frankfurt.

Despite the distance, this exchange has made us feel close as if we were sitting in front of a coffee. Isn’t it what we feel when we share a good book? Thus, this article is the result of a conversation: a rare experiment both online (apart from interviews) and in printed magazines.

In Bookavenue, it has already happened that more than one member of the editorial staff gave an opinion on the same book, but this time is different. We have been prompted by the urgency of sharing an experience that has been important for both of us and by the necessity to understand it deeper. We have not written our opinions, but our emotions.

***

Hi Silvia! After reading The Vegetarian, it seems to me that the Man Booker Prize has been fully deserved. Despite the title, perhaps confusing, all this clamour and the appreciation of the readers seem justified. But I admit that I found the book disquieting. The progressive abandonment of life chosen by the protagonist, for instance: far from a vegan diet! It seems to me an obsession and a choice transformed into a catharsis of the body….

***

Hi Michele! I read The Vegetarian in November in order to take part in a Book Club here in Frankfurt. I remember the three evenings I spent reading it: hours of intense reading, till my eyes closed. I had not met such an imperious book for years.

It has shocked me as well. Initially, I felt a physical revulsion because of some extreme aspects of the story: body pain, madness, physical violence, psychological torture and food deprivation. Then all of this disappeared in order to leave space to a subtle message. There is a powerful point of view in this book and it is embodied by the feeble – and nevertheless so solid – voice of the protagonist. It’s the claim for the right to say “no” to the brutality of the world; a right that includes the philosophical reconsideration of death.

The experience I lived at the book club shocked me more than the novel itself, because of the discussion generated by the book. It made me think about the relationship between writer and reader and about the role of literature in our minds. The participants interrupted each other continuously and labelled the characters: “Yeong-hye is anorexic! She is mental! Her sister should have forced her to eat!”, “her sister is a better person because she is integrated in the society, has a husband and a job!”. But the author was not spared: “it’s clearly a story written by a woman!” (as if being written by a woman was a quality that made the book less worthy… ). All of this, even if in the novel the words “anorexia” and “madness” never appear.

I was fascinated by the powerful phenomenon I was observing. In front of me there was a microcosm of people who summed up the ideologies of greater groups. Readers from different countries defended or attacked the characters as if they were real people. Emotions ranged from pity to rage and disgust, but the common denominator was the denial of one or more aspects of the story. We felt that our inner values were at the stake: we were not speaking about a book but through a book! By the way of an opinion on The Vegetarian, we were defending the ideological structures of our lives. Good books do this, don’t they? Perhaps. Then The Vegetarian deserves the prize it has won.

In your opinion, why is it so difficult to accept Yeong-hye’s choice to transform herself into a plant in order not to take part in the violence of the world? Why do we need to label her madness? Don’t you think that extreme novels like this force the reader to reveal himself and his value in front of a mirror? I am thinking about two “extreme” novels we love: Blindness by José Saramago and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Don’t they work in the same way? I mean… Michele, what would we do if we were the doctor’s wife in Blindness or the child’s father in The Road? What would we do in the place of Yeong-hye’s sister when Yeaong-hye stops eating in order not to belong to the human species? What would you do in front of a philosophical revindication of death? What would you tell her in front of her smiling words: “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

We know that literature means making extreme questions and being aware that the boundary between us and the extreme is an illusion. This Apocalypse is an escamotage. Perhaps Apocalypse in literature is this: something that reveals the characters. It takes them to self-revelation, to confront themselves with whom they are inside, and to make new questions about the meaning they give to the word humanity. The problem is that this imaginary Apocalypse takes us readers to do the same (it’s not a casualty if, after Trump’s election, people reread 1984 by Orwell). Thus, I asked myself: what kind of Apocalypse did Han Kang generate if the members of a book club reacted like this? What part of the readers did she expose? Why does this woman, who stops eating, drive all the others crazy?

hankang

***

Hi Silvia, I answer immediately because I feel an urgency to speak about this book and give space to the words I have inside. The silence I would oppose to such extreme situations – The Road and Blindness – is the only condition with which I would express my shock. How can one go against the post-bomb nuclear winter and the absolute impossibility to do anything and survive? How can one oppose the sudden loss of eyesight when you are waiting for the traffic light to become green?

Sometimes, literature forces us to confront with our most “lateral” feelings. Nevertheless, I think that the clusters within which our codes as living creatures are catalogued – family, education, and the social dimension we have built on these values – do not include giving up life, because it’s an extreme value. It’s too much and it’s out of the cultural perimeter that defines who we are. It’s out of our human measure.

Perhaps there are exceptions. If the choice is to save the life of a child… I, you, everyone would search for a warm place, as the father does is Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Even if the price is our life. In that extraordinary book, it was the mother who gave up life: do you remember? But I think that to compare ourselves with an imaginary of this weight is in the end just an intellectual exercise.

Yeong-hye is insane when she wonders about the beauty of death. There is no good and bad death: only death exists. I criticize her surrender and oppose my rationality: there is no logical explanation!

In his conversations with young samurais, Mishima exalts the beauty of the body and the national pride; for these reasons he killed himself. In retrospect, one understands that the act – terrible in its modality – was the only way for him to imagine his end. But it’s not something that makes it acceptable.

There’s a lot of Japan in Han Kang’s book. I would like to speak about Murakami – some images in 1Q84 in particular – but I am tired after a heavy working day. Instead, I ask you if you have found Kafka’s Prague in these pages. Don’t tell me that the decay of Yeong-hye’s body has not made you think about Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis, and that conscious surrender to death has not reminded you of Josef K in The Process. The same, passive acceptance…

I have a question for you. Isn’t a metamorphosis what happens to Yeong-hye and all the other characters? Yeong-hye’s husband – Mr. Cheong – commits sexual abuse on his wife. He is a mediocre man living a mediocre life without ambitions and expectancies. He is a coward who runs away at the first sign of difficulty. Then there is Yeong-ho, the brother-in-law, another mad man who confuses sexual abuse with a refined act of surrealist art. Just to fulfil his sexual impulse, he depicts flowers on his body in order to join them with flowers depicted on the desired body. Finally, Yeong-hye’s sister. Tell me: isn’t this scene destructive? I mean, the one when the father beats his daughter in front of her husband, the day they inaugurate the house? In front of Yeong-hye’s catatonia, her sister is the only one who stands up and puts her body between the father and Yeong-hye, here a victim of a new offence and a new physical violence. Her being near is the effort to alleviate the lacerating guilt. In Yeong-hye’s eyes, she sees her absence from the world, exchanged for a false spirit of devotion.

In the end, we are in front of a story about dysfunctional familial bonds.

***

Dear Michele, have you noticed it? Like the members of the Book Club, we have ended up in feeling a mysterious necessity to speak through the book. Both of us – each one in his and her own way – confirm that The Vegetarian presents to the readers an extreme philosophical hypothesis, a sort of apocalypse. I wrote that I think that this apocalypse is an escamotage – a machinery that leaves the characters naked and forces the readers to imagine scenarios that are far from everyday life. These scenarios are nothing more than metaphors and if we cut them to the bones and carry them to extremes, they end up in resembling our life in a disquieting way. Think about the sister’s choice to rip Yeong-hye’s feeding tube off in order to save her from the violence of a world that Yeong-hye refuses: doesn’t it resembles a debate about euthanasia?

In Blindness, it’s clear what the readers are deprived of: eyesight, that is the capacity to see the others and the world (an effective metaphor for today’s narcissism). In The Road, it is clear as well: humanity is deprived of itself, as if the world had been transformed – all of a sudden – in a huge extermination camp. But what has Han Kang robbed the readers of?

My opinion is that The Vegetarian deprives us of the certainty of being able to say what is rational and what is not. We are deprived of the power to define insanity inside precise, easily identifiable parameters. As a consequence, we are deprived of a second certainty: knowing what is “right” and what is “moral”. Perhaps insanity and moral are the two key subjects of the novel: the entire story has been built on this limit – this insurmountable taboo – and the characters organise themselves like iron dust around a magnet. This is how the extreme metaphor – the extermination camp, the apocalypse – operates in literature: it forces you to stay either on the one side, or on the other side. No moderate position is possible in front of Yeong-hye in a hospital bed: the ultimate choice is surpassing a limit or not, that is leaving the feeding tube or not. Where does violence lie? In acting or in omitting to act? This is a choice we make naked, like the protagonist.

You mention a metamorphosis. I agree that this book speaks about a metamorphosis that involves different souls. The topic of the “double” – the doppelgänger – emerges as its natural structure. Each character has a double on the other side of the mirror, the version of himself who would exist if the character decided to pass the limit or come back, whatever the meaning of the action: rationality or insanity, moral or immoral, social or outsider. The characters travel towards and away from their double, or sometimes they simply observe it.

Yeong-hye has her double in her sister, who has a family, a job and a clear role in the society. A member of the Book Club defended this woman from every attack: “as a mother, a woman, a sister, a worker… she always tries to do the right thing!”. However, this is the very aspect that the character puts under discussion in the end, when she decides to pass the limit and free Yeong-hye from the feeding tube. Both Yeong-hye and her sister live a similar social death but they realise it in different moments. The sister says that “her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of endurance”, her interpretation of facts changes and she decides to spare Yeong-hye the violence of the Righteous, of the Rational and of Society. Who are we to object to this metamorphosis? Nevertheless, it was difficult for people at the Book Club to accept it. It was probably difficult for readers everywhere.

You are right, there is something we react to because of biological reasons. If in euthanasia we discuss the right – of those who have been already condemned – to die “softly”, in The Vegetarian the very concept of death as something negative is put under discussion. I mean, we discuss the right of revendicating death not only as a moral act, but as a positive experience. It reminded me of Small Moral Works by Giacomo Leopardi, the famous dialogue between Plotinus and Porphyry and the intense debate it created in my high-school class.

To mention Christa Wolf, perhaps this book touches a “blind spot”. Wolf wrote that a blind spot is that area of reality we are not ready to accept. All of us have one: but if it’s a problem at an individual level, when society experiences a blind spot… a catastrophe is at the door. Christa Wolf was pointing at Germany’s refusal to face its past, but she explained that there is no difference between that blind spot and nowadays blind spots. She denounced them in her later writing: for instance, the environmental problem. In The Vegetarian the paradox emerges: in an insane society, the problem of insanity cannot but be a blind spot. In fact, insanity is the paradigm of interpretation that we build to defend ourselves from what we don’t want neither to see nor to recognise. Insanity is the other, the one who is different from us and who defines ourselves and our necessary boundaries. Insanity is also the territory of non-empathy, because the price to pay for empathy would be the destruction of what we are accustomed to consider our identity. Is it not absolutely logical that this is the territory against which literature makes war?

***

Platone wrote about after-death life only to make people avoid bad actions during their life and he said that the only medicine is in the end death. However, he deprived men of the consolation of the extreme act, since he declared suicide illicit. Dear Silvia, who am I to say that Porphyry is wrong in his idea of killing himself?

I agree with your thought but with some differences: both Yeaong-hye and her sister live the inevitability of their end, but they just do it in different ways. Yeong-hye has emptied the fridge as the initial act of her subtraction from the world. She has done it on the basis of an incontrovertible certainty of unhappiness, ultimate and insurmountable. She thus prefers non being to being. As if she finally took the mask off, I mean the mask of her habit of complying with the desires and expectancies of those around her. She becomes “vegan”, loses weight and refuses the fats that are necessary to exist. She defies expectancies and desires that are not her own. She refuses to live as a wife whose only object in life is cooking for her husband and sleeping with him. She refuses to please her family through socially accepted behaviours.

Instead, her sister ask herself who she is in the tragic scene you mention, at the hospital. Behind her resistance there is a sort of resignation to the end of her sister and to her own end as well. Is that thing life? Or is it just another attempt at going through the affective hell in which she lives? The feeding tube appears to me just as the ultimate attempt to save herself from the sense of guilt that already hunts her. I agree with you that in-Hye tries to spare her sister the violence of the world. But she does it through another act of violence. Moreover, her family already thinks that the woman has no chance and in-Hye does nothing to change things.

I stop writing. This novel has been intense, visceral and “lived” beyond every expectation. It is sensual, provoking, violent and full of powerful images. It left me with the echo of disquieting questions. The story of Yeong-hye changes the imagery of literature that makes questions on social models and has generated in me a feeling divided between irritation and bewilderment.

From first person narration – that miserable Mister Cheaong! – to the dense and bloody voice of Yeong-hye and the seductive descriptions of painted bodies… sentence after sentence, The Vegetarian has been an extraordinary experience.

***

Dear Michele, I also stop writing. I really dissent only about one point: that “to compare ourselves with an imaginary of this weight is in the end just an intellectual exercise”. Saramago’s blindness, the post-atomic world of McCarthy and now this dystopian tale – that forces us to take position about rationality and insanity – are nothing but metaphors. It’s already a long time now that the world suffers from white blindness, chemical and psychological pollution, Big Brothers and a society that assumes the right to say what is “insane” on the basis of parameters that are not always embraceable. Nevertheless, we attack this inner child and her wish. A wish that comes, in the end, from the research of an aesthetics of the soul. It’s true, there is East in this different distance from life and death.

Han Kang writes that “Yeong-hye can appear insane but in reality, in her own universe, she is deeply sane, perhaps too much. So mentally healthy that she cannot bear the world as it is”. Perhaps we can just try to understand and accept that there are many “universes”, and that perhaps the one we have built is not the best of the possible worlds.

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