Tag Archives: violence

The Vegetarian & Human Acts

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)

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The Sound of Things Falling

I was really affected by this book, to the point that it was difficult for me to finish. I left it sitting on the windowsill by my bed for weeks and weeks. At times, it was painful for me to read. Why was this the case?

Well, I guess it just reminded me a lot of my childhood and Colombia in general, which for whatever reason I’ve been missing a lot lately. I look at old photos and I marvel at the green, the color, the flowers, the yellowness of the sunshine (is it just winter in England that’s been getting under my skin? The temperature was -3 degrees last night!!). When I tell people about growing up in Colombia, I tend to speak in a half-amused tone of voice and say things like When I read non-fiction now about what life was like there in the 80’s and 90’s, sometimes I wonder what were my parents THINKING, raising a family there! It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because I know the answer. You raise a family there in the same way you would raise a family any other place. You keep your head down and your nose clean. We got up in the mornings and went to school, and when school was over we came home. “It must have been a very sheltered existence,” said the person who leant me this book, and what else could I do but agree, in the most neutral way possible. What would be the point (especially now) of criticizing it?

This book is, at its essence, a detective story, a mystery about a man name Ricardo Laverde. The narrator is Antonio Yammara, a lawyer who opens the novel by reading in the newspaper about the shooting of Pepe, Pablo Escobar’s infamous hippopotamuses, shot and killed by the army (already discussed and marveled over by me in this blog). The article leads him to a series of reminiscences about past encounters with Laverde, whom he used to play pool with in a sketchy Bogota bar in the mid-90’s. One day Laverde shows up with a cassette tape and asks Yammara for help in finding a place for him to listen to it. Shortly afterwards, Laverde is shot dead on the street by a motorcycle-riding assassin. The driving force of the story then becomes Antonio’s attempts to figure out the story behind Laverde: who he was, what was on the tape, why he was killed. Some of these questions are answered, others aren’t.

There are a lot of things to commend about this book. I think my favorite parts of this book were descriptions of Colombian scenery and well-chosen details, of city versus country life, the distinctiveness of bogotanos. Guavas on the ground half-eaten by ants, soldiers with weapons hanging around their necks “like sleeping animals”, guanabana trees, sandals made from old tires, freshly squeezed orange juice, cicadas and crickets. God, I just wanted to keep a list of it all! I felt at times like I was watching a film or flipping through a book of photos. I also really appreciated the moment in which an American Peace Corps volunteer receives a copy of Cien años de soledad as a gift, and later complains that it’s too hard to read; “everybody has the same name.” (179) It was also fascinating for me to read passages like the one I’ll quote below, summaries of things that were going on in my childhood that I didn’t have the words or knowledge to comprehend at the time: (Alma Guillermoprieto articles are also great at evoking this same feeling in me):

Then came the rest, the other attacks, the other bombs. The DAS one with its hundred dead. That one at the shopping mall with fifteen. Then the other shopping mall with fifteen. A special time, no? Not knowing when it might be your turn. Worrying when someone who was supposed to arrive wasn’t there. Always knowing where the closest pay phone is to let someone know you’re OK. If there were no pay phones, knowing that anybody would lend you their phone, all you had to do was knock on a door. Living like that, always with the possibility that people close to us might be killed, always having to reassure our loved ones so they don’t think we are among the dead. Our lives were conducted inside houses, remember. We avoided the public places. Friends’ houses, friends of friends, houses of distant acquaintances  any house was better than a public place. (263)

Animals are a big motif in this book. So are planes, and accidents. The title refers to the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Cali mountains, killing everybody onboard, the majority of whom were traveling home to see their families for the holidays. One of them was the daughter of my school’s director–I remember making and signing condolence cards for him in my 4th-grade classroom (one of the boys in my class drew a picture of a plane on fire, which the teacher tactfully commented that it might not be the best thing to include).

Vásquez has quite the task before him and he succeeds quite admirably. Any Colombian novelist has two heavy legacies to contend: the long history of violence, kidnappings, cartels, drugs, bombs and shootings, and the magic realism of Gabriel García Marquez. The wikipedia article on Juan Gabriel Vásquez includes an interesting comment by Vásquez on dealing with the latter legacy, in which he states that what makes Gabo’s novel interesting is “the massacre of the banana workers or the civil wars of the 19th century, not in the yellow butterflies or in the pigs’ tails. Like all grand novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude requires us to reinvent the truth.” I TOTALLY agree with this. (This interview with him also contains some fascinating passages.)

I’d recommend this book to basically anybody, especially those interested in seeing a fictional representation of a country attempting to cope with decades of violence. It’s like a post-apocalyptic novel without the apocalypse; instead, the violent “collapse of society” in question isn’t a singular event, but is rather an ongoing legacy. What’s worse, it’s not even a legacy of violence that’s related to ideology (as in the Holocaust, Vietnam War or even 9/11). What is it related to? Arguably, nothing. Or money. Drug running, cartels, landing strips in the jungle, fields of marijuana and coca leaves (the book proposes that campesinos learned the technique and acquired the technology to process coca leaves into cocaine from U.S. Peace Corps volunteers–interesting, but I wonder if it’s true).

Reading this book felt a lot to me like grieving. Page after page I was just left with the most incredible sadness; a deep sense of melancholy. The book ends with a question: Should I try to convince her, tell her that together we could defend ourselves better from the evil of the world, or that the world was too risky a place to be wandering on our own, without anyone waiting for us at home, who worries about us when we don’t show up and who can go out to look for us? (297) This is maybe the only possible way to end a book: leaving us in suspense, unresolved, dangling. What else can you do, right–how do you answer unanswerable questions?

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The Insufferable Gaucho

I love Roberto Bolaño so, so, so, so much. I don’t know how much longer his publishing company can maintain this 2pac-like post-death output (is a Bolaño hologram in our future?), but once it comes to its inevitable end, I will be a very sad girl indeed.

It doesn’t yet feel to me like his literary output has reached a point where it’s just cashing in on his legacy. For now, every new Bolaño book still feel like a luxurious treat to me, one I have to savour and devour as slowly as possible. While reading his latest, The Insufferable Gaucho, my heart pounds. I feel anxious and jittery. I feel like Patti Smith’s description of what she feels like when she writes: “I go crazy, I move like a monkey, I’ve wet myself.” I can only read one short story at a time and then I need to take a break: clean my room, put away the laundry, prepare and eat a black bean salad, letting his ideas and words and themes fully sink it before I can move onto the next piece. I only have two short stories to go in this book before I’m finished and I’m already sad at the thought of it coming to an end.

To me, Bolaño is an ARTIST in every sense of the word, like Patti Smith or Rimbaud or Bob Dylan. Someone who lives and breaths and dies by their art. Check out these excerpts from his long poem “A Stroll Through Literature”: this is a man who loved books, who really knew his shit.  That being said, Bolaño’s feelings towards literature’s ultimate place in human society still seem ambiguous to me (and this ambiguity is mainly what makes him so interesting). I still don’t know if Bolaño is saying that books and fiction and poetry and literature are a salvation of sorts to all the Pain and Suffering and Darkness and Death and Abyss that is life (especially Life in Latin America). I don’t know if he’s saying that the structure of fiction, as in a detective story, can act as a salve or beacon for real-life disorder. I don’t know, I don’t know. Bolaño provides a lot of ideas but not a lot of answers, an uncertainty which again feels more realistic to me than some kind of false, illusionary sense of comfort or order.

The stories in this book are delicious. The first one, “Jim,” is like a three page prose poem, about the titular North American friend of the narrator’s. I think this is one of the few pieces in which Bolaño has explicitly written about a gringo. I like the description of Jim’s stoop “as if he were still weighed down by his pack” the best. (4) Like a lot of Bolaño, the main theme of this story deals with staring and looking at death and darkness straight in the face, represented here in the form of a fire dancer in the Mexico City streets. To his credit, Jim doesn’t turn away (I like how his vaguely hinted-at Vietnam veteran past provides a lot of insight into his character); instead it’s the narrator who drags them both off, since “I was eighteen or nineteen at the time and believed I was immortal.” (4) If I could type this whole piece up and post it here for people to read without fear of copyright infringement, I would.

The next story is the title one, “The Insufferable Gaucho.” I’m assuming the titular gaucho is the main character, a Buenos Aires-residing judge who moves out to his abandoned, collapsing family ranch on the pampas during the 1999-2002 economic crisis (not gonna lie, had to check Wikipedia for the dates). The judge honestly didn’t seem that insufferable to me and I don’t think he is to Bolaño either; he’s handled pretty tenderly and affectionately throughout. I feel like this story would be a good addition to a college curriculum about Argentinean short fiction (all the references to the Borges short story “El sur” throughout this piece provide great fodder for discussion). I don’t know if Bolaño ever went to Argentina, but in a way it doesn’t matter, because to me it feels less like Bolaño’s main subject isn’t the REAL Argentina but rather its literary history, and how Argentineans deal with that in the face of their mundane lives. I guess in a way this is what makes the judge an insufferable gaucho, because he too is obsessed with “seeming” like the classic historical conception of a gaucho, when in reality all the gauchos that surround him are pretty sad and pathetic.

The absolute best thing about this story (among many very excellent things) are the bloodthirsty rabbits. Yes, that’s right. I present to you the paragraphs in which they are introduced, as the judge looks out through the train window on his way to the ranch:

Out on the dry plain he saw a rabbit that seemed to be racing the train. There were five other rabbits running behind it. The rabbits in pursuit seemed to be running in tandem, like the cyclists in the Tour de France. Rabbits, he thought, how wonderful! … When he rested his forehead against the window again, he saw that the rabbits in pursuit had caught up with the lone racing rabbit, and were attacking it ferociously, tearing at its body with their claws and teeth, those long rodent’s teeth. (16)

 Talk about a bienvenidos to the pampas! There is no clearer way to say “you’re not in Buenos Aires anymore homeboy.” I also liked the part where a rabbit jumps up and bites the publisher on the neck.

The third story in the collection is “Police Rat,” which is a traditional detective story crossed with Kafka and Cesar Aira. Much to my delight, the main character wasn’t a policeman who solved crimes related to rats (which is what the book jacket description made me think), but rather a RAT solving rat crimes, down in the sewers. How delightful!

I think this story is absolute genius. First of all, I love its connection to the Kafka short story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” If you haven’t read this story yet I highly recommend it. It was written near the end of Kafka’s life (I think it might have even been the last piece who wrote) and is a good summary of Kafka’s thoughts about the role of the artist in society and his feelings in regards to his own fiction. I like how Bolaño doesn’t beat around the bush and makes the main character of “Police Rat,” Pepe the Cop, directly related to Josephine (she was his aunt). I like how Bolaño links these two stories right off the bat because it’s a very effective way of bringing in a theme that’s often apparent in Bolaño’s own works, that of the artist in society (especially in a really fucked up society filled with violence and insanity). I especially liked this passage:

Every now and then a rat who paints, for example, will appear in our midst, or a rat who writes poems and takes it into his head to recite them. As a general rule, we don’t make fun of those individuals. On the contrary, we pity them, because we know they’re condemned to solitude. Why? Well, because creating works of art and contemplating them are activities in which our people as a rule are unable to take part, and the exceptions are very few, so if, for example, a poet or even just a reciter or poetry comes along, it’s most unlikely that another poet or reciter will be born in the same generation, which means that the poet may never encounter the only individual capable of appreciating his efforts. (48)

The other theme I liked a lot in this story was that of the role of violence and how it leads to the ultimate decay of civilization. In this sense, “Police Rat” reminded me more of “2666” than anything else by Bolaño that I’ve ever read (I really need to reread that book one of these days). The scenes in which Pepe is uncovering rat corpses killed by a rat serial killer reminded me of all those descriptions of dead mutilated raped female bodies in “2666.” Just look at this, Bolaño seems to be saying, just look at what we are capable of doing. What does that imply about us as a species, about our civilization in general? How can a couple of good short stories, novels or poems possibly hold a candle in face of dead tortured babies, decapitated corpses or wells full of corpses? In “Police Rat,” the rat characters make a big deal about how inconceivable and unacceptable it is that a rat will kill another rat: “We must remember that he was insane, that we are in the presence of the monstrous—rats do not kill rats.” (71) It seems to me that Bolaño is saying that this is the absolute worst, most depraved thing about human society: that the monstrous and insane can become mundane, commonplace even. Boring, inevitable, a daily byline. By the story’s end, Pepe seems to have accepted that the fact that rats can kill other rats as an inevitable sign of their society’s end (to me Bolaño is showing a very strong Cormac McCarthy vibe here):

That night I dreamed that an unknown virus had infected our people. Rats are capable of killing rats. The sentence echoed in my cranial cavity until I woke. I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it was only a question of time. Our capacity to adapt to the environment, our hard-working nature, our long collective march toward a happiness that, deep down, we knew to be illusory, but which had served as a pretext, a setting, a backdrop for our daily acts of heroism, all these were condemned to disappear, which meant that we, as a people, were condemned to disappear as well.

It’s already too late, I thought, for everything. I also thought: When did it become too late? Was it in the time of my aunt Josephine? Or a hundred years before that? Or a thousand, three thousand years before? Weren’t we damned right from the origin of our species? (72)

I definitely feel like these passages are Bolaño at his darkest (did he, like Kafka, write this rat story near the end of his life, when he was ravaged by illness and disease?). Nevertheless, to his credit Pepe continues working as a detective (there was nothing else I could do) (71) and goes to what is likely his death carrying out his police rat duties to the very end. I don’t know if Bolaño is implying that this is one way to approach death, by doing your job to the best of your ability up to the very last possible moment. I don’t know if that’s the only way or best way to approach death. But he seems to be saying that it’s one way, and maybe, for him, that was consolation enough.

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