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.
This time last year, I suggested we talk about love. Shall we do it again? I think we should.
This year has seen even less writing here than last year. Despite the lack of new “content” I got lots of visitors (that story’s for another time). Although I’ve not been active here, I’ve been writing bits elsewhere and short pieces for work. My year’s been hectic beyond belief with nothing more than everyday life and surviving it, which has inevitably impacted my reading choices. In the main, I’ve chosen slim volumes this year; brevity has been everything.
Writers have to work hard with short fiction (I’m not suggesting that writers of longer fiction don’t work hard btw). I continue to marvel at how writers use style and language to convey a story in a short volume. What they leave out tends to be almost as important as the words they include. Their omissions make the reader toil for their literary enjoyment. This is a good thing for a reader like me – I like to be challenged. I like filling in the gaps.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ve fallen in love with shorter fiction. I got so much enjoyment from all the slim volumes I’ve read this year – I’ve loved being immediately plunged into a plot, getting swiftly to the nub of the tale and being propelled to a conclusion. My head can’t seem to cope any more with layered plots and lengthy, multi-character tomes. I’ve felt a massive sense of achievement when putting books back on the shelf in quick succession. Also, from a practical perspective, small books are much easier to commute with!
Much of what I’ve read this year has been about love – check the 3 books I wrote about earlier in the year as good examples. Other stand out titles include Ask The Dust by John Fante, Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, In Love by Alfred Hayes, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner and The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. I could go on, but I’m already breaking all the rules of brevity in writing….
All these books deal with love in its myriad forms; passionate, obsessive, platonic, married, secretive, contented, fractious. You get the idea. Tin Man by Sarah Winman is a beautiful example of a love story about longing and grief. It affected me emotionally (not with Essex Serpent-ine tears, admittedly). I got a tight, heavy feeling in my chest that means I’ve read something moving. I felt enormous compassion and empathy for the main characters. The warmth I feel for it has encouraged me out of my hiatus.
Tin Man is a story of 3 people whose lives are linked through shared experience, compassion, friendship and love for each other. The story of their lives is revealed through Ellis and Michael’s recollections and memories, with Annie featuring as the glue that binds them and the reason for their estrangement despite being firm childhood friends. It’s tinged with regret and sadness overshadowed by a tragedy only hinted at until near the end and which prompts the memories. With her subtle and muted prose, Winman manages to evoke a feeling of loss and yearning for the relationship, creative and career decisions that might have been. How would their lives be, had they chosen differently? A feeling I suspect most of us can relate to.
The bond and connection between Michael and Ellis is emotionally strong. There is a touching moment when Michael worries about how he will be received by his old friend after a long period away with no contact. He turns up unannounced and is greeted as though he’s never been away – it made my heart sing.
For me, this book and that passage in particular perfectly articulates what love and friendship is about. When two people experience intimate emotional moments and connection they remain unbroken by time and space. The moments and connection eternally bind them, no matter how many days or years go by or how much geography separates them, the moments, even if fleeting, still exist in their memories as though they were recent encounters. (I’m getting a lump in my throat just writing those words, and I’ve not even had a festive sherry yet!).
Winman navigates us through the decades, deftly providing a glimpse of working life disappointments, trips of discovery to the South of France, life with Aids in the 1980s/90s and carefree summer days by the river. Over a few pages we become intimately involved with these characters until we understand them fully. I love writing that does this. I know I’ve told you very little about what TinMan is about; It’s about love – you don’t really need to know much more and in hindsight maybe that’s all I should have written.
In the spirit of this theme of love and friendship, I’m going to add the same line I closed last year’s post with, and it’s as fitting this year as it was then.
Care for others even when they don’t care for you. All. The. Time.
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.
Do you ever feel you’re not a fully paid up member of the Grown-ups Club? I know I do despite being almost half way through my 40s; I regularly behave immaturely, have toddler type meltdowns or completely forget I’m no longer an invincible 24 year old. Tsukiko, the narrator of Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo feels the same. She seems to have regressed over time.
His behaviour was commensurate with his age….I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult….as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person.
Tsukiko is unsure about many things; how she came to be 37, alone, uncomfortable in her life and around others. She is a loner and lonely. One thing she becomes certain of is the importance of her friendship with Sensei. Mr Matsumoto is Tsukiko’s old Japanese teacher from school, widowed and in his 60s, to her he is only ever Sensei – teacher. They meet by chance in a bar and strike up conversation. They continue to meet at the bar, but never by design. Kawakami describes the development of their relationship through a series of short chapters outlining unspectacular excursions to markets, art galleries and amusement arcades until it is clear that this is no longer just a friendship, but love. Tsukiko declares herself early on and then immediately worries about it.
I had screwed up. Grown-ups didn’t go around blurting out troublesome things to people. You couldn’t just blithely disclose something that would then make it impossible to greet them with a smile the next day….It was somehow absurd. Me declaring my love for Sensei to his face, Sensei taking it almost completely in his stride yet without responding to my declaration – everything seemed as if it was part of a dream.
The age difference between the two is never a huge concern; Kawakami doesn’t allow them to dwell on it instead she reminds the reader through the characters’ very sweet exchanges. Sensei regularly teases Tsukiko and chastises her for unladylike behaviour and continued poor aptitude for identifying and reciting poetry. He is reserved and she blurts things out without thinking. He imparts his mature wisdom, making her feel even more childish and wonder at her behaviour. She thinks he’s old-fashioned and deliberately behaves in a way she knows will irritate him. Only near the end of the book does age become a concern for them both and they wonder how best to navigate around the issues they foresee – death and sex.
This book contains no sex (sorry for that spoiler), despite Sensei making it very clear to Tsukiko that physical intimacy is essential no matter how old you are, it’s extremely important but food plays a huge part in their story and I understood it as a literary substitute for sex. Kawakami describes in great detail various dishes the two eat at the bar and elsewhere, different ways the dishes can be prepared and how best to source the best ingredients. The pair also drink an inordinate amount of sake. Eating and drinking become the rituals that cement their relationship.
There is a dreaminess to Tsukiko’s narration and I was sometimes unsure whether she was sure of her reality. Some of her dialogue is in quotation marks, some not – this made me wonder whether she was having some conversations in her head rather than speaking out loud. She often talks to Sensei over distances, calls to him in the night, imagines a life with him. She wonders at the stars and moon, she enjoys living in her own head which reinforces her childlike qualities.
I haven’t read a lot of Japanese literature, but what I have read, I’ve throughly enjoyed. Strange Weather in Tokyo will now be added to my growing list of “Japanese books to haunt and admire.” There’s something quite comforting and satisfyingly challenging about the understated style, the magical realism and dreamlike quality of the writing from this region that pull me in. The exoticism of a culture I’ve never experienced also intrigues me. This short and gentle book about love that is destined to find its path was a beautiful place to start my reading year.