Book of the month: Han Kang

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Some books follow you around. At least, that has been my experience this month with The Vegetarian by the South Korean novelist Han Kang. No sooner had I resolved to read it after seeing a tweet about it from Gary Perry, assistant head of fiction at Foyles, than it seemed to be popping up everywhere.

When I went into the Guardian newspaper’s offices to record a podcast about my forthcoming book, it cropped up in conversation with the literary editor Claire Armitstead. Next, I saw that Chad Post, editor of Three Percent, had picked it out as one of the texts for his translation students at Rochester University to discuss this semester.

Then, before I knew it, an enthusiastic tweet of my own somehow led to an invitation to the London launch. And so last week, there I was in the London Review Bookshop, listening to Han Kang (speaking through an interpreter) and her translator Deborah Smith discuss the novel with Deborah Levy, author of the Man Booker prize-shortlisted novel Swimming Home.

It’s not surprising that The Vegetarian has captured so many people’s imaginations. The premise alone is bound to intrigue: centring on a hitherto apparently unremarkable woman, Yeong-hye, the narrative presents the fallout from her abrupt decision to reject meat – and with it the food culture she has grown up with – after she has a violent dream. As her eating becomes more and more restricted and her body shrinks and weakens, the cracks in her relationships deepen, allowing glimpses of the traumas, assumptions and impossible dreams that lie beneath.

The novel’s tone is one of its great strengths. Indeed, despite the weightiness of the subject matter, the opening pages have a levity and dry wit as Yeong-hye’s husband sets the scene of his marriage to ‘the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world’. This lightness makes the shock all the greater when the husband and his in-laws round on Yeong-hye, attempting to overcome her resistance and act upon her with violence that they find frighteningly easy to justify.

Han’s (and Smith’s) beautifully modulated sentences weave their way through a series of increasingly outlandish, alarming and yet alluring images as the narrative barrels further and further away from the apparent normality of the outset. From fleeting tropes, such as the idea of a wound consuming an entire body, to the monstrous yet exquisite flower-copulation video created by Yeong-hye’s video artist brother-in-law as a way of enacting his own particular ambitions for her body, the text astonishes and challenges the reader.

As in most ambitious works, the writing takes risks that occasionally threaten to destabilise it. At the start of each of the novel’s three sections – which are narrated by a different family member, although never the title character herself – it is as though the narrative is thrown up into the air until we deduce whose gaze we have borrowed and everything falls into place once more. Similarly, a few of the flashbacks emerge so subtly out of the texture of events that it is sometimes difficult to locate yourself – a technique that adds to the dreamlike quality of much of the writing but can distance the reader from the narrative too.

Overall, though, the effect is utterly absorbing. Poetic, shocking and thought-provoking, this is a book that forces us to confront some of the darkest realities of the human experience: the violence with which we are forced to be complicit simply through the fact of our existence, the way we manipulate and objectify others, and our ability to become inured to horror and abuse. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2015)

South Korea: telling tales

‘A man needs to understand where he comes from in order to be truly human’

The question of what counts as national literature keeps cropping up in this project. As recommendations for books from different countries continue to flood in, I’m struck by the different interpretations people have.

For some of us it’s about whether a book is set in a particular country. Others think that books have to be by people who hold citizenship or were born and brought up in the nation. Still others say it’s down to whether the author, who may hold citizenship for several states, identifies him or herself as being ‘from’ that place. Meanwhile countries themselves are often very quick to claim great writers with very cosmopolitan backgrounds as their own.

As I’ve been researching the titles for the list, I’ve found myself leaning towards a definition of national literature that requires the writer to have a strong connection with the country in question. Frequently this will mean that he or she was born there, but it can also be the case that the writer has adopted a country or lived there for a large chunk of his or her life, as in the case of South Korean-born Austrian writer Anna Kim.

But what happens if you were born into a nationality that no longer exists?

Celebrated South Korean dissident writer Hwang Sok-Yong — himself born before Korea was divided after the second world war — explores the scars that such nation making and breaking leaves on individual and national psyches and the stories that we tell to explain them in his haunting 2002 novel The Guest.

Following an elderly American pastor, Yosop, who joins a government programme to visit the region in North Korea where he was born, the narrative explores the legacy of a 52-day massacre that saw around a quarter of the population of Hwanghae Province killed during the 1950 Korean War. The massacre has long been attributed to the US forces by the North Korean government, but Yosop’s memory of events is somewhat different. As he works his way around the initiative’s series of carefully stage-managed events and visits his remaining relatives inside the secretive communist state, he encounters a series of characters and ghosts who enable him to piece together a much more rounded and disturbing picture.

The book presents a refreshing contrast to the two-dimensional reports that make up the bulk of reporting on North Korea in the Western media. Less interested in attacking the regime than in illuminating the reasons for its development, Hwang presents a subtle and nuanced picture of the country, which he was jailed by the South Korean government for visiting illegally in 1989 — ‘It seems the communists, too, can be quite humane, eh?’ remarks one of Yosop’s companions in Pyongyang.

Nevertheless, the administration’s vice-like grip on the national narrative simmers beneath the novel, bubbling to the surface now and then — as in the scene where Yosop is forced to sit and listen to a series of hysterical survivors’ stories of US atrocities at a state museum, all the while knowing them to be false.

In fact, the role of memory and eye-witness accounts underpins the novel. Much of the narrative is stitched together from a series of somewhat surreal monologues delivered by the living and the dead.  At times, these can feel stilted and forced — not helped by the hefty chunks of exposition which the complex subject matter requires.

Nevertheless, the resolution depends on each of the beings having the chance to deliver his or her testimony; only once all the contrasting accounts have been heard and considered can Yosop’s ghosts be laid to rest.  The right to swap stories, however controversial, messy, provocative or contradictory, is essential to the way we understand and assimilate our origins, it seems, no matter where we’re from.

The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong (translated from the Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West). Publisher (Kindle edition): Seven Stories Press (2011)