Tag Archives: review

The Vegetarian – Han Kang trans. Deborah Smith

20171230_175106.jpgLast 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.

 

 

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The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler trans. Charlotte Collins

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.

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

Affections – Rodrigo Hasbún trans. Sophie Hughes

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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.

 

Tony has tipped this book for The Man International Booker Prize long list

Stu is currently doing a Pushkin Press fortnight – check out his blog for loads of great translated fiction

Grant has reviewed this book too

So has Jacqui