The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) – #BookReview

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The Vegetarian (채식주의자) by Han Kang
Published by Hogarth Press on February 2nd 2016
Genres: Korean Books, Literary Fiction
Pages: 188
Format: eBook
Source: Amazon
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five-stars

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

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Synopsis of The Vegetarian (by Han Kang):

In The Vegetarian (by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith), Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life before the nightmares began. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat.

In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy.

In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.

 

First Sentence:

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.” The Vegetarian (by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith).

 

My Opinion of The Vegetarian:

The first time I read The Vegetarian (by Han Kang), I thought it to be a very strange book. But after the second and third times I read it, I finally understand why it was considered such a great book.

Especially in a time where the #MeToo movement is spreading across not just the United States of America but also South Korea and the rest of the world.

Just take a look at these protest movements by Korean women this year:

“My Life is Not Your Porn” – 60,000 South Korean women take part in the fifth protest against hidden-camera photography in Seoul (South China Morning Post, 13 October 2018)

“How a masturbating monk and ‘Korea’s Obama’ drove Seoul to say ‘me too’ (South China Morning Post, 9 March 2018)

#MeToo movement takes hold in South Korea (BBC News, 26 March 2018)

 

Despite being published earlier than these kind of #MeToo movements across the planet, The Vegetarian is all about the suppression of the freedom of thought and action of women in South Korea.

The start of The Vegetarian begins with Yeong-hye’s husband talking of his wife. He says that she was unremarkable in every way. That the first time he met her he wasn’t even attracted to her. Yeong-hye is described to have a passive personality and to be the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world.

(Love Korean books? Then you need to check out The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong!)

This description is given by a man who describes himself as mediocre and wanting nothing extraordinary from work or life. This too reveals that he wants nothing extraordinary or unpredictable in his wife. He wants to merely be married with a simple woman and spend his days idling his time away watching TV while his wife silently reads dull books in her room.

But this simple life of passivity and plainness changes suddenly when Yeong-hye has nightmares of blood & meat and decides to become a vegetarian.

“But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees. Crouch down, don’t let anybody see. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what have I done?”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang p.20

This seems to be a great shock to Yeong-hye’s husband.

The one time where his wife decides to do something for herself is where everything starts to fall part for him as well as the other people in Yeong-hye’s life.

Why must making decisions for oneself that goes against the grain of society push everyone else’s lives off a cliff?

Why does attempting to go outside the tiny box of an uninteresting, submissive wife and mother cause everyone to jump ship?

Why must Yeong-hye live her life according to the expectations of her husband, her family and other strangers?

“What threw him was the way that his brother-in-law seemed to consider it perfectly natural to discard his wife as though she were a broken watch or household appliance.”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang p.78

Just a simple choice of deciding to stop eating meat can cause so much trouble… why?

These kind of choices by individuals no matter their background, gender or personality are deemed to be so normal by people in United States, Australia and the UK. But here, in Han Kang’s novel this is the start of a nightmare for not just Yeong-hye but everyone in her life.

 

Han Kang on the Passivity and Oppression of Korean Women:

In fact, this theme of passivity and oppression of women is a common thread in other novels written by Korean women.

In South Korean modern literature, women are often depicted as helpless and presumed to be merely passive and uninteresting characters. Also, it is presumed that Korean women must be submissive and unyielding to not just men and society but also the forces of capitalism and the state.

“Don’t you understand what your father’s telling you? If he tells you to eat, you eat!”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang p.45

This theme of the hopelessness of Korean women gives a feeling of sadness and despair in most other novels. (Of course, the poor, the marginalized and workers of South Korea are also depicted in Korean novels in this way too).

There is nearly always a theme of sadness and hopelessness in Korean novels:

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook ShinPlease Look After Mom (엄마를 부탁해) by Kyung-Sook Shin (translated by Chi-young Kim) is a story about how the disappearance of sixty-nine-year-old So-Nyo causes her family to undergo a process of self-discovery in how much they actually know their mother. This book also explores the self-sacrifice of mothers in Korea for their children and families.

Pachinko by Min Jin LeePachinko by Min Jin Lee is a story about Sunja who immigrates to Japan after falling pregnant by Koh Hansu. Koh Hansu is in fact a married, wealthy business person and to hide the shame of the pregnancy Sunja marries Baek Isak, a Christian minister. This book explores the themes of the Zainichi in Japan (Koreans who immigrated to Japan after the Japanese colonization of Korea in 1905), who are considered as undesirable, second-class citizens.

One Hundred Shadows by Jungeun HwangOne Hundred Shadows by Jungeun Hwang (translated by Yewon Jung) is about the people who work in a set of buildings scheduled for redevelopment. It considers the lives of people who are stuck in the cycle of poverty, as well as the underclass who live on the margins.

But, in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian there is an important difference:

Yeong-hye’s quiet and passive resistance to the outside forces pushing her to conform to society’s expectations is led to its conclusion.

“I expected an answer from my wife along the lines of ‘I’m sorry, Father, but I just can’t eat it,’ but all she said was ‘I do not eat meat’ – clearly enunciated, and seemingly not the least bit apologetic.”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang p.45

Without spoiling the ending of the novel, I can’t describe exactly what happens.
But I can say that it isn’t what you would expect.

 

Han Kang on Passive Resistance and Rebellion

There is a kind of special form of resistance to be found in Han Kang’s novel. As seen in the recent protests in Seoul this year, this kind of resistance can be found in many young and old woman’s hearts.

Like Gandhi has shown the world in his passive resistance to the British, rebellion can take many different forms. What is surprising is that those with all the power can lose to someone with little power.

This is seen in Han Kang’s novel as well. Let me explain:

The Vegetarian is written in three sections. The first is titled “The Vegetarian” and is from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s husband.

“Look at yourself, now! Stop eating meat, and the world will devour you whole. Take a look in a mirror, go on, tell me what you look like!”
THe Vegetarian by Han kang p.55

The second section is titled “Mongolian Mark” and is from the point of view of the husband of Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye. While the third section is titled “Flaming Trees” and is from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye.

What is interesting is that Han Kang decided to write the novel from the point of view of everyone surrounding Yeong-hye, while denying Yeong-hye’s own voice from coming through the novel.

We never hear from Yeong-hye’s perspective directly, and only have the dream-like sequences of nightmares that Yeong-hye had which started her desire to become vegetarian. So truthfully, we never get to experience first-hand why Yeong-hye is doing these acts of desperation in her struggle to remain free of the pressures of society and her family. The only voices we hear are those outside of her plight. That is, those who are the agents of the suffering she has to endure while attempting to have a little independence and freedom in her life.

(Love translated books? Read the latest book from Korea here: The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo)

Despite these kinds of forces in her life, Yeong-hye is able to continue to her passive resistance. In the last section, her sister In-hye is the only one left who attempts to understand what is happening in Yeong-hye’s life. The others have all deserted her.

But in the end, it seems that Yeoung-hye did achieve what she set out to do.

 

Who is Han Kang (author of The Vegetarian)?

Han Kang is a South Korean writer who the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016 for The Vegetarian. The Vegetarian is a novel which deals with a woman’s decision to stop eating meat and its devastating consequences.

Han Kang is the daughter of novelist Han Seung-won. She was born in Gwanju and at the age of 10 moved to Suyuri in Seoul. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University.


Han Kang got the idea of writing about plants or vegetation when she came across a quote from the Korean author Yi Sang. The quote was: “I believe humans should be plants.”

Han Kang has a lifelong fascination of the themes of violence and humanity. She writes about these themes in her other books as well, including: Human Acts (Portobello Books, 2016) and The White Book (Portobello Books, 2017).

 

Summary:

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) is one of the most popular and fantastic books to come out in recent years.

It won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016 and has been wonderfully translated into dream-like prose by Deborah Smith.

If you haven’t read The Vegetarian yet, you really need to get a copy and read it today!

 

My Rating: 5/5

Find all details about The Vegetarian (written by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith) on Goodreads and Amazon.

Peace!
A.J. McMahon
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The Impossible Fairytale by Han Yujoo – #BookReview

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The Impossible Fairytale (불가능한 동화) by Han Yujoo
Published by Graywolf Press on March 7, 2017
Genres: Korean Books
Pages: 192
Format: eBook
Source: Amazon
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

(This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you purchase from Amazon using these links, I will receive a small commission from the sale. This doesn't affect the ratings or my opinion in my reviews. If a book is not worth reading, I will tell you truthfully and openly.)

The Impossible Fairytale by Han Yujoo (Korean books)

Buy The Impossible Fairytale from Amazon now!

Synopsis of The Impossible Fairytale:

The Impossible Fairytale tells the story of the nameless ‘Child’, who struggles to make a mark on the world, and her classmate Mia, whose spoiled life is everything the Child’s is not.

At school, adults are nearly invisible, and the society the children create on their own is marked by soul-crushing hierarchies and an underlying menace. Then, one day after hours, the Child sneaks into the classroom to add ominous sentences to her classmates’ notebooks, setting in motion a series of cataclysmic events.

First Sentence:

“Dog.
See the Dog.
See the dog drifting by.”

My Opinion of The Impossible Fairytale:

It was incredible!

The fantastic literary experiment that Han Yujoo did with The Impossible Fairytale was a wonderful trip down a scary and exciting forest path for me. Han Yujoo (and her translator Janet Hong) has a wonderful way of words.

Some parts of the story are a bit out there, but you can easily skip them.
The gems however are when you get to the really scary meta-literary passages full of confusing and enticing power.

The Child, a small girl, seems to be a ghost in her own classroom but decides to enter her classroom in the dark and change the words in her classmates’ workbooks. The next day the teacher sees this changes and this sets the stage for the deepening trouble to happen.

“It hurts. Friction spreads through her whole body. But she doesn’t have the luxury of feeling pain. Blood oozes from her chin.” – The Impossible Fairy Tale p.61

The Child and Mia are both set down a scary tunnel of exciting and unnerving consequences. But we too are brought into a sort of dream-like world where there is murder and betrayal.

The meta-literary parts of the The Impossible Fairytale were entirely like Alice in Wonderland, but far worse. Whereas Alice in Wonderland can be easily read by children, The Impossible Fairytale has some actions and themes that would be best for adults.

But I think the main point of this novel is the question “what is the consequences of writing a novel where you have your characters commit such an awful thing like murder?”

Han Yujoo (the author) needs to comes to grip with what her character has become and what she herself forced her to do by writing the novel. Is the character responsible for her actions? Or is it the author’s responsibility?

“When I look up from the attendance sheet and survey the lecture hall, I spot an unfamiliar face. She wasn’t here the first day of class. Her name isn’t even on the attendance sheet.” – The Impossible Fairy Tale p.156

By creating art through writing, the author creates another world where there is no independence in actions but instead a force of the hand. In this case, the Child comes out of the novel in a sort of strange dream like state where the reader as well as Han Yujoo needs to come to grips with what the story has become.

The Impossible Fairytale is like a slippery slope where the reader drops down into a rabbit hole full of impossible but exciting events. It made my hair twitch and my insides gurgle. This is a book which you can’t read anywhere else. The full crushing experience of Korean classroom culture and Korean home life as seen in Our Twisted Hero by Mun-Yol Yi comes to the forefront.

If you love Alice in Wonderland on acid, then this is for you.
It is the ultimate road trip down a dream world of impossibility and slippery images of pain and hate.


Summary:

The Impossible Fairytale is really an experiment in writing, but because of that is just another experience altogether. You really just to keep reading and immerse yourself in the emotional song of the Han Yujoo’s book.

Some parts can be skipped, but that doesn’t mean you need to toss out the baby with the water.

If you like trance-like states and amazing detail in disturbing classroom life, along with meta-literal thrills, you really need to get this book. It’s something you just need to do.

I would highly recommend The Impossible Fairytale to anyone who is open to out-of-body experiences and to push the limits of their comfort zone.

My Rating: 5/5

Find all details about The Impossible Fairytale on GoodReads and Amazon.

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A.J. McMahon
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Pachinko Machine – what does Pachinko mean? #MinJinLee

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What exactly is a Pachinko Machine in Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko? 

In Min Jin Lee’s latest book, there is a very interesting metaphor being used in the title. Her book is called Pachinko and describes Korean immigrants experiences and lives in Japan. But wait, you say – what exactly is a Pachinko machine? Add what does Pachinko mean in English?

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Well, Pachinko is a Japanese word that refers to a machine which is like a Japanese slot machine but a little bit different.

With a slot machine, you pull the handle and wait for the pictures to line up. If the pictures match, you can win big (especially the hard-to-get pictures).

But with a Pachinko machine, you pull back a spring loaded handle and launch the ball (much smaller than western pinball games) into a metal track.

(Love Korean books? Check out The Kinship of Secrets of Eugenia Kim here)

The ball then flys to the top of the playing field and begins to fall.

Pachinko Machine Balls

Pachinko Machine Balls. By MichaelMaggsOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The playing field is full of brass pins, several small cups (about the width of the small ball), and a hole at the bottom.

If the ball fall into one of the cups, the player gets a payout – a number of other small balls drop into the tray in the front of the machine.

If the ball fall into the hole at the bottom (which it will if it doesn’t fall into one of the cups), then that ball is gone.

The goal of the game is to collect as many balls as possible. These balls can be exchanged for non-cash prizes within the Pachinko parlor. Then these non-cash prizes can be exchanged for cash outside the premises of the Pachinko machine parlor.

Pachinko Machine in 1951

Pachinko Machine in 1951. By 朝日新聞社 – 『アサヒグラフ』 1951年9月19日号, Public Domain, Link

Although gambling is illegal in Japan, exchanging for non-cash prizes within the premises and exchanging for cash outside keeps the game in a legal gray zone.

So, why does Min Jin Lee use Pachinko as the title for her book?

Pachinko machines are essentially a vertical slot machine where winning is not related to the player’s skill. Instead, after launching the ball, winning or losing depends entirely mostly on luck.

Min Jin Lee uses this as a metaphor for what happens to the Korean family in the story.

Pachinko machines are a constant take on chance against overwhelming and unknown odds. So too for generations of the Korean family coming to terms with their exile in Japan, caught between the physical difficulty of exile and the internal feelings of loss.

Pachinko Machine Gambling Hall

Pachinko Machine Gambling Hall. CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

In particular, throughout the novel Min Jin Lee shows how fate (or even patience) can snap, thus showing the bareness of its aftermath.

(Check out the hottest Korean fiction – The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon here!)

Sunja (the main character of the novel) has two sons, however the fate of each son is piercingly divergent.

Noa buries himself deep in imagining himself as a Japanese, attempting to rid of the feelings of loss.

On the other hand, Mozasu embraces what life he has by lowering his sights and trying to pull himself up.

The result of this is thick with compromise and tragedy.

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As Mozasu’s wife says, “Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

Mozasu in turn replies, “Adapt. Wasn’t it as simple as that?”

I hope this clears things up in regards to what a Pachinko machine is, and how Min Jin Lee uses it as a metaphor in her latest novel Pachinko.

If you have any other questions, let me below in the comment section.

Peace!
A.J. McMahon
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(P.S. Got any other books you want me to read or review? Then…)

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