The Vegetarian and Human Acts are two recently translated books written by the South Korean author Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith. Both novels are haunting, unusual, obsessed with eating, violent to the point of being disturbing, and subject to much acclaim. The Vegetarian was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Human Acts receives similar critical accolades.
The Vegetarian was in many ways a much less accessible novel to me than Human Acts. I definitely want to read it again. Told in three sections, The Vegetarian follows Yeong-hye, a young, recently married woman who begins to have blood-soaked, disturbing nightmares (narrated in oblique, italicized sections, the only section in the novel in which we have direct access to her thoughts; the rest of the time we see her through the eyes of people like her husband and sister). Her decision to stop eating meat and embrace a more “plant-like” existence puts her at odds with the strict social codes of her husband, family, and society. And I mean AT ODDS. Is Yeong-hye’s act of rebellion something to be admired or to be eyed warily (I couldn’t help but think of the conversation scene with the priest in the Bobby Sands movie Hunger, or the finale of Into the Wild)? Is her protest anti-capitalist, or even anti-modern life? Is her suffering a form of release? Don’t even get me started on what this book is potentially saying about the male gaze…
Overall, The Vegetarian is dark, beautiful, and disturbing read. It felt deeply allegorical in a way I couldn’t quite grasp with only one reading. I like how it’s a mystery story in which the essential question (why is the main character starving herself?) is never answered.
In terms of Human Acts, I finished it today and it is definitely one of the most intense, violent books I’ve ever read–maybe even a runner-up to Blood Meridian. Human Acts focuses on the events before, during, and after a series of anti-government protests known as the Gwangju Uprising, an event I’d never heard of (guilty as charged :/). The book, then, is very much about violence, or “human acts” of the decidedly negative kind.
I like the set-up of this book: it’s a novel told in different voices, almost like an interlinked collection. My favorites were the ones narrated by the torture victim and the dead boy (yes, that should give you an idea of what this book is like…). The epilogue narrated from the point of view of the author is also clever, as it invites us (the readers) further into the world behind the novel and why it was written.
All in all, you better come to this book emotionally braced. Reading Human Acts made me understand the meat vs. vegetarian imagery in The Vegetarian a lot more. There is SO much imagery in Human Acts comparing the massacred corpses to “butchered lumps of meat,” (181) or moments in which acts of eating are compared to either a hunger for life (89) or terrible sense of shame and disgust. (76) An essay comparing the two novels would be fascinating. In my personal opinion, Human Acts ends on a rather more optimistic note than The Vegetarian, but at that point I was so numb by the rape-shooting-torture scenes that it was hard for the tiny uplifting moment to to sink in and make me feel anything other than completely and utterly bummed by the relentless cruelty of humans against each other.
Human Acts constantly asks if there is such a thing as a human soul, or if “to be degraded, damaged, slaughtered–is this the essential fate of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?” (140) Ironically, the chapter narrated from the point of view of the dead boy’s soul comes off as much more vivid and alive than the ones narrated from the emotionally dead survivors, as the soul longs to feel a hot potato “juggling” in his mouth, or to eat watermelon without spitting out the seeds. (60) Ultimately, I think the strength of this book emerges not just from the brutality of its images, but in the clarity and precision of its language, the specificity of its details (like the aforementioned potato and watermelon). Now that’s good writing AND translating.
Here are some other sentences I liked:
“The thread of life is as tough as an ox tendon, so even after I lost you, it had to go on. I had to make myself eat, make myself work, forcing each day down like a mouthful of cold rice.” (195)
“If life was the summer that had just gone by, if life was a body sullied with sweat and bloody pus, clotted seconds that refused to pass, if life was a mouthful of sour bean sprouts that only served to intensify the hunger pangs, then perhaps death would be like a clean brushstroke, erasing all such things in a single sweep.” (129)
“She had no faith in humanity. The look in someone’s eyes, the beliefs they espoused, the eloquence with which they did so, were, she knew, no guarantee of anything. She knew that the only life left to her was one hemmed in by niggling doubts and cold questions.” (101)