Last January I imposed vegetarianism on my family. Just for the month. We all survived. It was pretty good actually; the challenge of rethinking our entire menu choices appealed to my need to do something different to herald the new year. We are doing it again in 2018. The kids aren’t happy but took great delight in the realisation they can eat meaty things at the school canteen, which is beyond my jurisdiction.
Our commitment to going veggie is nothing to the “completely unremarkable” Yeong-hye’s in Hang Kang’s award winning novel, The Vegetarian. Being vegetarian is not well received in Korea. In fact, it’s viewed with suspicion. A violent and disturbing dream is the catalyst to Yeong-hye’s dietary decsion. The following day she throws away all the meat in the house and refuses to eat anything but vegetables. Her family is unsupportive and none of them understand her choice. The isolation spirals Yeong-hye’s mental and physical well-being to beyond even medical help.
Yeong-hye’s story is told from three points of view over a number of years. The first is her husband’s testament. He describes how her decision is met by other family members and society in general. The second narrator is Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an unsuccessful artist who becomes obsessed with her body and it being the key to his much desired commercial success and artistic acceptance. The last part is told by her sister who guides us through the familial fall-out and feuds that result from Yeong-hye’s decision to turn veggie.
All three sections describe a conservative society not designed to deal with choices outside the mainstream. It is a society obsessed with how others view you and one constantly concerned with reputation when someone dares to break with tradition. Yeong-hye is a frustrating character. She is passionate about her decision yet entirely dispassionate at every point, almost blank and expressionless – we never get her view though and so the 3 narrators describe her with the same lack of passion they are expected to display themselves in a community so obsessed with the “right” image.
This is a visceral and violent novel (there is a force-feeding scene that made me feel physically sick), which goes against the grain of everything I associate with being vegetarian. Yet it works in this context. The only means of breaking out of the social constraints placed on Yeong-hye, is for her to abuse her body and maintain control of her mental and physical self. The unpleasant scenes are necessary.
The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International prize in 2016 for a reason; because it is unique and extraordinary.
In an effort to write up some of the scribbles I’ve penned in my notebook this year, I’m shamelessly stealing an idea I saw at The Tate bookshop in November. More of these to come.
P.S. I know my handwriting is appalling – sorry.
I’ve just spent a tense couple of days with this book. Tension is definitely the overriding emotion I take from this compact family saga. I’m not very good with any sort of familial stress – I don’t cope too well with it, so the tensions between the three sisters in this story and the strain between each of them and their father as well as the mounting political hostility in revolutionary Bolivia, put me on edge.
Hasbún’s fictional account of the Ertl family’s experiences in La Paz, Bolivia isn’t a rip-roaring adventure tale, although they are not a straightforward family by any means, instead he tells their less than ordinary story with an understated air of something falling apart until it’s beyond repair. German Hans Ertl was a explorer and legendary cameraman, famed for filming Nazi propaganda with Leni Riefenstahl. He fled Germany after the war. This book starts shortly after his wife and daughters join him in South America in the early 1950s. Hasbún chronicles their individual stories and a basic history of revolution in Bolivia through a series of commentaries and accounts told by various characters in and around the family. As the book progresses it is clear that eldest daughter Monika’s radicalisation and involvement in the Marxist guerrilla movement still just about intact and operating in difficult conditions post Che Guevara’s capture, torture and murder, is central to the story and ultimately the fate of the family. Monika’s experiences when accompanying her father on a filming expedition in the jungle and her failed marriage into an old German mining family, part of the rising Bolivian expat elite, drive her underground and earns her the title of “Che Guevara’s avenger.”
This is fiction short on factual explanations of the Ertl family’s back story. There is also no information relating to South American politics or the reasons for the rise in post-war Marxist revolutions and guerrilla skirmishes in countries like Bolivia. Hasbún does not expand on Cuban and Russian involvement in funding and training radicals, nor does he elaborate on the CIA bankrolling hit squads and far reaching spy networks to stamp out any sign of communism in South America. I had to do my own background reading to fill in some gaps. If you like your fiction complete with every factual detail ticked off, you may find this book frustrating. It’s not Hasbún’s intention to give us a history lesson. What his narrative suggests and the structure of this novel alludes to is a family never quite unified and now in free-fall. The eventual geographic dislocation of the Ertl family members and the gaping differences in their values mirrors the national political turmoil and divisions amongst Bolivia’s people.
This is a book about being an outsider; an outsider in your birth country, an outsider in your adopted country and an outsider in your own family. What Hasbún does so brilliantly is expose how the family members are never quite accepted in their chosen employment or choice of home and cause. On page 13 alone there are two sentences demonstrating two types of isolation:
“La Paz wasn’t so bad, but it was chaotic and we would never stop being outsiders, people from another world: an old, cold world.”
“With her recurring panic attacks she had somehow managed to wangle it so that everything revolved around her even more than before, and Trixi and I had to resign ourselves to being minor characters, a bit like Mama in relation to Papa.”
Hasbún deftly highlights the extremes of values and morals in one family unit by drawing the readers attention to Monika’s actions as antithesis to her father’s notoriety as they act in polar opposite political systems. There are also flashes of violence and gore, nothing too extreme and often mentioned in passing, just to remind us how tough, dangerous and perilous it is to fight for your cause. And we don’t only witness conflict on a macro level, Hasbrún also shows us internal strife. Monika is only one of several conflicted characters; showing utter disdain for her father and what he stands for while idolising him and desperate for his approval. In such a short narrative he’s invaded our consciousness with all of this information. Clever.
If you are interested in stories about how our actions affect the lives of others and how those actions can ripple through time or stories about how family members can have opposing values despite having the same experiences or fiction based on fact where not every detail is set out for you so you can investigate further at your leisure, then I absolutely recommend this book to you. It’s an elegantly put together family chronicle and beautifully translated. I found it fascinating and a pleasure to read, despite the family tensions putting me on edge.
Stu is currently doing a Pushkin Press fortnight – check out his blog for loads of great translated fiction
Nell Zink’s writing is a bit left field, her storytelling quirky. Reading this book was a bit like seeing something in my peripheral vision and not quite being able to make out what it was. If you like oddness in fiction, then maybe you’ll like this. As I read it, I wasn’t convinced I was enjoying it much, only after, once I’d put it down and moved on to something else did I realise I appreciate it exactly because it’s not straightforward.
Administrator Tiff and scientist/twitcher/dubstep DJ Stephen have known each other all of 3 weeks when they decide to get married. They are selfish characters and their self absorption doesn’t change just because they are now a couple. The only momentary period of unity coincides with the pair nursing the titular Wallcreeper back to health having struck it while out driving, causing them to crash and putting Tiff in hospital for a couple of days.
This book is Tiff’s account of their chaotic romp through Europe moving from Eco cause to Green scheme in an effort to find personal meaning and yet it’s all done at such a superficial level you can’t help but think of them as slightly pathetic environmental activists. Tiff makes no apology for her half-hearted efforts to do something meaningful with her life. She admits wanting to avoid paid work for as long as she can get away with and is happy sponging off Stephen. They both have numerous affairs and make no attempts to hide them from each other, it’s all very disrespectful. They lurch from venture to venture with no real plan, spiralling further out of control as though being together compounds their ability and need to self destruct.
I couldn’t work out whether Tiff was a lazy, wet blanket of a woman or whether, a bit like Chris in I Love Dick, she was an ardent feminist by just getting on with what she pleased, because she could. The Wallcreeper is less intellectually challenging than I Love Dick, yet I was constantly reminded of Dick as I read it; the two books are very similar in tone, capturing female insecurity and determination in a comparable first person voice. This book is strongest though when Tiff and Stephen debate their existence. These are often witty, dry observations and well crafted sentences or paragraphs giving us a glimpse of Zink’s clear ability with words. My gripe is that these are few and far between and over too soon. I didn’t love this book, I didn’t dislike it either. I think the problem is that I’m not entirely convinced I knew what was going on. On the whole I’m fine with having questions when I finish a book, I’m just not that comfortable with feeling like I’ve missed the point but I defend Zink’s right to craft a narrative that leaves me wondering what the hell it was all about.
The first in a detective series marketed as folk crime, Turning Blue is a slight departure for Myers. He’s never written outright crime before. However, this is definitely not a police procedural, it is more rural crime noir with flawed but decent heroes at its heart.
Obsessive and antisocial Detective Brindle and ex-hedonist journalist Mace form an unlikely alliance to uncover why a local teenager has mysteriously disappeared. They expose so much more than a run of the mill missing persons case. In a work where art often imitates recent real life news stories and police investigations which have shocked the British public, Brindle and Mace wade through sleaze, establishment corruption and cover ups involving the police, close knit silent communities, a grotesque character who seems to be a mash up of Jimmy Saville, Jonathan King and Stewart Hall and a revolting, disturbing loner pig farmer whose behaviour as the story progresses goes from the bizarre and creepy to alarming and sinister. His pathetic existence invades every page cultivating a feeling of unease from the beginning.
It’s easy to compare Ben Myers’ writing to the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Derek Raymond or James Ellroy – I’ve done it myself before. Here’s another comparison: There’s a touch of the David Peace Red Riding about Myers’ latest offering; hard Northern men, institutional corruption, sleaze and violence in small, overlooked communities. Such comparisons are useful to allow those who’ve never come across his books to get a flavour of what to expect, but also slightly erroneous. Ben Myers’ writing is difficult to define or pigeon hole. He seems unsure himself of how this new book should be described. But does it matter? Do I need to compare it to other work? Do I need to identify it as writing of a particular genre? I don’t think so.
Myers has his own style, he is an exciting writer of extraordinary talent with an ability to weave heart-breaking tales about marginalised communities and individuals with brutal, bleak and stomach-wrenching stories into the evocative tapestry of a landscape setting. This creates a dichotomy for the reader; admiration for the perceptive descriptions and economy of writing mixed with feelings of revulsion at the violence and horror. Myers has never been for the faint-hearted or easily offended and Turning Blue is no different to its two predecessors in that respect. It is visceral. Human beings can be sick, we just don’t like admitting it to ourselves and Myers continues to make no apology for holding the mirror steady so we can’t avoid the myriad of vileness and the depths some of us can stoop to. This is what I love; honesty in fiction. I’m pretty sure the stuff Myers writes about in Turning Blue does/has happened, no matter how uncomfortable that makes me feel.
The outdoors is the scaffolding on which Myers overlays the plots of all his recent fiction and Turning Blue continues that trend. The countryside sometimes feels like an afterthought in some “nature” writing, but Myers has always used it to represent emotion and propel a plot onwards. In Pig Iron the landscape provided solace and refuge (and there is a lovely nod to John John Wisdom’s green cathedral with its mention in Turning Blue), in Beastings it was a menacing means of escape, in this book, the Yorkshire countryside is brooding, an irritant obstructing the investigation. It is harsh and bleak, wet or snowbound and difficult to navigate if you are not from the “Hamlet”. You know the ancient sod and dirt will triumphantly remain long after these characters are dead and buried. It is the constant.
I am continually excited and blown away by Myers’ awesome writing. I swallowed down this book with the thirst of the seriously dehydrated. I suggest you all get the drinks in as soon as you can because Myers is the landlord serving up intoxicating fiction.
Thanks to Ben and Moth Publishing for sending me a review copy and the lovely tin of moss, wire and plastic pig.
Other Ben Myers stuff to read on here:
Sometimes it is useful having a husband who works in the publishing industry…although he doesn’t work in fiction publishing, he got hold of this gorgeous edition of John Fante’s Wait Until Spring, Bandini by Black Sparrow Press some years ago, but I only picked it up last year; what a shame I waited so long.
From the very first page Fante’s spare but energetic writing allows the reader to form a vivid impression of Svevo Bandini, his family and their pathetic existence. Debt ridden, dirt poor and living on the edge we follow this Italian immigrant family’s attempts to survive another winter in depression era Colarado. Chancer and smooth talking builder and odd-job man, Bandini abandons his family for 10 days over Christmas to escape his vitriolic and spiteful mother-in-law. He thinks he’s found an answer to his miserable debt situation with a rich local widow who he shacks up with for a while. Meanwhile things at home go from bad to worse with his wife having a nervous episode and his eldest son experiencing an adolescent crisis of identity. This is very much a story of identity, fitting in and the importance of family and heritage. Wait until Spring deals with familiar themes and in some respects Fante has nothing new to add to depression era writing, but the vivid description of his characters’ emotions, desires and motivations are so energetic, moving and often funny that it is a pleasure to read despite the grim situation of the characters. Writing at its best.