The Vegetarian by Han Kang

When I was studying my A Levels I had a friend from Southern Japan. I was with her the first time she saw England in the snow. It was a small country town with plenty of trees and pretty cobbled streets and though everything was covered in glistening layers of whiteness the snow was still falling. My friend turned to me and said, “It is so beautiful. Like feathers being shaken from a dead swan.” The Vegetarian has much the same aesthetic.

Split into three sections, each from a different character’s perspective, the novel tells the story of Yeong-hye who has a terrible dream that turns her vegetarian. Up until this moment Yeong-hye has been the meekest most absent of people who fulfilled her family’s and husband’s expectations and lived quietly in the background. Her refusal to eat meat causes surprising upheaval and leads Yeong-hye into a world in which one unconventional behaviour breaks many barriers.

Her story is told by first her husband, then her sister’s husband, and then her sister. It is her sister who remarks of herself, “It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.” And the book is all about what we do to our bodies, why we do it and how these actions are interpreted. We are physically bound to the world around us and The Vegetarian explores how little we think of our intermingled physicality, employing dreams to break through the surface of our conventional real through the use of the surreal. I don’t want to spoil the plot but her brother-in-law’s narrative is all about bringing the surreal into reality in a cleverly lustless congress of floral blossoming.

We do hear snippets of Yeong-hye’s voice in her husband’s narrative. It seems a strange place for them to come free given his almost complete distance from her even when he chose to have her in his life. I think I would have taken them out of his narrative entirely, given them their own place outside of the three sections, but I could easily be misunderstanding something.

Ultimately, The Vegetarian is a pleasing, engaging read full of ideas and provocative images. It is probably at some disadvantage coming after László Krasznahorkai’s writing because it feels light in comparison but perhaps that lightness is a positive, invasive thing. You’ll know if the idea of the story appeals to you and whilst I can’t promise you’ll be blown away by The Vegetarian, you will enjoy it and it will leave you with questions to ponder.

Next week I’m reading The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector.

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai

“… already I am ascending, I still see the troubling chaos of the villages and the cities, the lands and the seas, the valleys and the peaks, and the moment that enclosed so much into itself comes to an end, and as I ascend, everything ascends with me, a magnificence rises there, a magnificence – back to the purity of the Heavens, to the sphere inconceivable – which in its own form, resplendent, streaming forth, swelling, is nothing else than a return back to that place where nothing is, to the Radiant Empire of Light, the boundless plains of the Sky, for that is the place where I exist, although I am not, for this is where I may place my crown upon my head, and I can think to myself that Seiobo was there below.” (p214)

Thus the gods move through the Noh theatre of the story ‘The Life and Work of Master Inoue Kazuyuki’, one of the seventeen stories that form the formidable Seiobo There Below.

I say formidable because Krasznahorkai’s work is not something you can pick up lightly. The stories themselves are erudite, full of studied learning about history throughout the world, and, like the writing, there is a refusal to bend for the reader. If an explanation of an event or thought requires a sentence several pages long, or a ritual must be described in painstaking detail that refuses to break into the sort of fresh territory in need of a new paragraph, then so be it. These stories demand attention in such a way that even though you feel the reading is at times an ordeal, you end a story with a sense of having actually lived through it, of having moved through the heads of the characters and sensed what they experienced. To read these stories is to be these stories. And of course this way of experiencing a story mimics the way we experience life (it seems to me no surprise that Krasznahorkai returns again and again to the idea of the copy, the renewed icon, the new representation of a temple which is more authentic for its recreation – again no surprise that Japanese culture is therefore so prevalent, a land whose relationship to simulacra is entirely different to a typical western relationship where even the word reproduction has negative overtones). What you bring with you to the story allows you to see and experience only what you can comprehend. It is like being a fly on the wall with internal privileges. You see but you don’t necessarily understand.

In many ways the writing has the labyrinthine qualities of Borges and the grandiloquence of Sebald. The workings of literature are clearly in motion, making the miracles of the world manifest, asking readers, the characters even, to observe. Yet even that is not enough because the act of our observation and consequent action must in its turn be observed. Like the Ooshirosagi, the snow-white bird, hunting motionless in the Kamo river in Kyoto, from the opening story, if no one notices the way in which your stillness gives meaning to the human world of activity around it, you may as well creep into the weeded grass and die because “there will be no one at all to understand, no one to look, not even a single one among all your natural enemies that will be able to see who you really are … for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear” (p15).

My favourite story is ‘Something is burning outside’. It is a story of a creative retreat in the mountains. The routine of the retreat is disrupted by one of the artists who appears to have arrived on foot. For days he seems to do nothing but observe the other artists and in order to get to the bottom of what he is doing, the other artists decide to watch and follow him. They discover that he has been working. For all those days he has been rising at dawn, digging an enormous pit at the edge of the camp in the middle of which stands a “life-size earth-hewn horse … holding its head up; sideways, baring its teeth and foaming at the mouth; it was galloping with horrific strength, racing, escaping somewhere … as if he had dug it out, freed it, made this life-sized animal visible as it ran in dreadful terror, running from something beneath the earth” (p319).  When they show their admiration for his work, he stretches his arm out over the landscape. “There are still so many of them, he said in a faint voice” (p319). And the story ends with him walking away from the bus that delivers the artists back to civilisation, as if, we imagine, he has seen another creature for when they look after him, he has disappeared. “Only the land remained, the silent order of the mountains, the ground covered in fallen dead leaves in the enormous space, a boundless expanse – disguising, concealing, hiding, covering all that lies below the burning earth” (p320).

It seems to me that for these stories, art is all about concentration and the revelation of observation that almost always requires some form of repetition, some kind of physical repetitive craft be it endless careful movements with a chisel or the repeated words of a prayer; ritual is everything. So it doesn’t matter that he tells written history in many of the stories, or describes famous landmarks or works of art, because the power is in the going-over, in the endless turning this way and that of the meaning of all that is and has been. The action of art – the brush stroke, the chisel stroke, the hand moving the pen – that represents observation, as both physical and spiritual, holds the key to the story of conscious being. Because these acts of creation are impossible to do with the certainty of perfection, it must be practised, it must be done again and again.

Seiobo There Below is not an easy read but it is a rewarding one. If you want to feel you have an understanding of modern literature then I think you can’t afford to miss him from your reading list.

Next week I’m reading The Vegetarian by Han Kang.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

One day the narrator, Elena, is telephoned by the son of her dear friend, Lila (Lina to everyone else), and told that her friend has disappeared without trace. Now in their sixties, the true story of Elena and Lila begins in their childhood and before all trace of Lila can be lost, Elena takes it upon herself to tell the story of their friendship, the story of Lila, as closely as she can.

The tale that unfolds is gripping, eloquent, and beautifully evokes the intensities of childhood and adolescence where one believes true knowledge and feeling are only things that young people can really access. They are the story of the world, the characters of novels; adults, old people, have had their time and have bound themselves in ways which give them no room to manoeuvre and given that Elena and Lila come from a poor area of Naples, manoeuvring, escaping, changing, is everything.

Lila is fascinating because she observes, questions, and formulates her own opinions. Quite simply, Lila is brilliant in the way that most of want to be. She has a force that draws people in, that demands attention and devotion regardless of her often less than nice behaviour. She drives others, the narrator included, to behave in certain ways. Elena in particular strives to be good enough, to know enough, to converse as eloquently, in order to remain Lila’s friend because Lila is more than an intelligent, kindred spirit, she has what Elena considers to be a destiny. Elena feels Lila is going somewhere and Elena wants to go somewhere too, even if, ultimately, that means they go in different directions.

Both girls are learning to navigate the adult world. The novel charts both Elena and Lila as they journey towards an awakening of self-awareness, a journey as much about disappointment as fulfilled expectation, and it is a journey well worth reading.

In some ways, even though the outcomes of their early choices suggest their onward journeys, I wish there were a third section that took Elena and Lila into adulthood. I have no doubt that the story would be written well. Perhaps, however, this novel is not about what happens once you are bound, but the memory of that youthful energy and desire for change. And yet the novel opens with Lila, in her sixties, performing the most amazing change of all: disappearing. Energy and desire, emotional intensity, these aren’t only for the young.

I also wish that the magical real elements of Lila were explored further. Though again, it could be argued that the magic Elena describes is a by-product of intense feeling, an expression of the fullest living of experience, a kind of hyper-real, how wonderful to feel that. Why not explore that further?

Whatever else I may want from My Brilliant Friend, you can’t read it without being reminded of that feeling of wonder. Even when that feeling expresses the most painful isolation, there is within it a suggestion of progress, an upward trajectory that the narrator exposes and exploits. We are the heroines of our own narratives, but how often do we step back, observe and take charge? What does it really mean to come of age?

I would recommend My Brilliant Friend. Don’t be put off by the cover. Yes, there is a wedding and shoes are important to the plot, but this is chic lit only in the sense that it is literature written by a woman whose protagonists are women; this is chic lit in its purest, most relevant, and critical form. Austen and Duras would sit happily on the same bookshelf with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

Next week I’m reading Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, followed by The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Do keep your comments and suggestions coming.

Descent by Ken MacLeod

Ryan has a UFO experience as a teenager. Descent follows Ryan through the unraveling of this experience as its effects shape his adult life. Conspiracy theories abound and truth crosses paths with belief and with paranoia as we move in a near future world where everything can be seen and tracked through satellites, remote flying cameras and the internet. Descent would seem a strange title but for the other implications of the plot. It seems the human race isn’t one species. Future space travel and human survival both rely upon different forms of descent.

Everything about the sound of the novel promises tight plotting, complex character developments and provocative sci-fi theories. I was looking forward to a mind-bending journey that would invade my dreams but instead found a novel which simply wasn’t for me. There are undoubtedly readers who would enjoy Descent. Somehow, though, I couldn’t quite climb aboard the ride. Ryan didn’t draw me in or win my sympathy. I wasn’t uninterested but nor was I gripped and the writing itself wasn’t enticing enough to carry me along regardless. Ken MacLeod has written many books though, and I suspect there are others that would have me screaming my way around the rollercoaster, just not this one.

Next week I’m reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, followed by Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

Peter is at the Russian front of Germany’s war, fighting for Hitler. He is desperate for leave, for something to fight for, so he chooses a woman from a group of photographs and heads to Berlin to marry her. Katharina offers him leave and Peter offers her a soldier’s pension should the almost inevitable take place. This is the undertaking.

It is a brilliant premise for a novel. Even if the two like each other, as Katharina and Peter do, how will war affect their transaction? Can two people who barely know each other create a real marriage from a few days’ leave and letters? The novel follows their attempts looking at life as a woman in Berlin and life at the front in Russia. Both lives are fascinating and compromising and ultimately survival manipulates and challenges politics.

Again, the plot reads like a moving and thought-provoking novel and The Undertaking does breathe the painful monotony of war into Peter and Katharina’s lives, but somehow, something falls short. Perhaps it is the weight of expectation I brought to the novel. It came highly recommended and the premise was enough to entice all kinds of imaginings. The end, however, just seems to underwrite all the salacious and illicit intrigue the plotline first initiated. In some ways this must be intentional. This isn’t tabloid history. These are lifelike characters acting in a kind of calculated desperation and sometimes true-to-life storylines don’t follow pantomime emotions. Normally I admire and seek the stark but I’m not sure about where this novel goes and what it is meant to leave the reader feeling. I hoped for more. I understood where Katharina ended, but not Peter, almost as if the novel rushed to a close.

The Undertaking is an interesting read, well written and pleasing in that it takes German perspectives on the Second World War. This is a good book many will, and have already, loved, but it doesn’t quite do it for me.

Next week I’ll be reading Descent by Ken MacLeod followed by My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante and then Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Keep the comments and suggestions coming.