17 | The Vegetarian [채식주의자] by Han Kang

Winner of the Man Book International Prize in 2016, The Vegetarian is quite a horrifying novel to read as I often found myself clenching my teeth in agony as Yeong-hye, the protagonist, suffers. Narrated in three parts by Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, and Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye, the novella reveals how Yeong-hye’s spiral downwards into schizophrenia, anorexia and mania affect each of their lives. The plot begins from the perspective of Mr. Cheong, as he explains that Yeong-hye, after experiencing a violent dream, suddenly renounces meat, finding her throwing all of the meat in their kitchen in garbage bags. When pressed, she simply says: “I had a dream.” She rapidly looses weight as her mind unfurls, also refusing to wear clothes and abide by conventional social norms, alarming her husband and her nuclear family. One day, at a family dinner, Yeong-hye’s father announces he has had enough of his insolent daughter disrespecting her husband’s and his own demands for her to eat meat. To the horror of the other family members, he forcibly grabs her, attempting to shove meat down her throat. After writhing away, she grabs a knife and slits her wrists.

The second part of the novella, Mongolian Mark, is told by In-hye’s husband, who realizes he has a perverted sexual desire to be with her. He convinces himself that as an artist, he has the authority to ask her to pose nude for him, so he can paint flowers on her body. His ultimate goal is to film them having sex, under a fabricated guise of artistic creation. He is disgusting; having witnessed her slash her wrists himself, he knows she isn’t sane, yet pursues her relentlessly and incessantly, pushing his wife and young son aside. Eventually he does make the film of the two of them; Yeong-hye at first feels that the flowers painted on both of their bodies has freed her from her bloody nightmare, but she realizes somehow he is raping her as he ejaculates inside. While he is asleep, In-hye comes to check on her sister, only to discover the film of her husband raping her sister. Yeong-hye is admitted to a psychiatric hospital while In-hye separates from her husband, unable to stomach what she now knows.

In-hye narrates the third part as she cares for her sister in the hospital and the reality of being a single mother sets in on her. She witnesses Yeong-hye begin to refuse to eat as Yeong-hye tries to become a plant, claiming all she needs is sunshine. Yeong-hye’s mental state worsens as predictably, the doctors do nothing but medicate her, even tranquilizing her in order to insert a feeding tube. In-hye’s life looses vigor as she struggles to stay afloat, contemplating suicide herself, but feeling she needs to live for her young son who is she says is still a happy child. Perhaps Yeong-hye turned out like this because their father abused her, her husband failed to protect her and her brother-in-law used her. In any case, there is no resolution at the end as Yeong-hye presumably looses her life because she refuses to eat.

Han’s prose is stunning, even translated in English. I was astonished how horrendous each of the male characters were portrayed as mysoginistic and egoistic beings who punished women at the expense of their carnal desires. One of the most gut wrenching lines was when In-hye’s husband says of her nude body something along the lines of it being something any man would desire as it was stereotypically beautiful, yet the body itself had renounced all desire. It was distressing how Yeong-hye says that nobody understood or listened to her, that all the doctors, nurses and her sister were the same. I wanted to help Yeong-hye, but her will to become a plant was so strong I had to let her go. In the end, I can’t say I liked the novel, but I appreciated Han’s explorations of mental illness, abuse and guilt and what the manifestations might looks like in a patriarchal and normative Korea.

16 | Human Acts [소년이 온다] by Han Kang

Human Acts is one of the more difficult books I’ve ever read. The descriptions of such overt violence and the suffering of the characters is hard to bear, knowing you are powerless in this story. I had never heard of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising or the Korean dictators Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. I could not believe this book was historical fiction, that the Gwangju Uprising isn’t known or even remembered in most of the world. There are only estimates of how many people were killed, 600, almost all students or young adults, the youngest of victims still in middle school. The story follows six main characters: Dong-ho, a fifteen year old boy who is looking for his best friend, his best friend who unbeknownst to Dong-ho has already been killed, an editor struggling against censorship, a prisoner being tortured for his involvement in the demonstrations, a factory worker being pestered by an author to share her story, and the best friend’s grieving mother as each recalls their involvement, their torture and their nightmarish trauma.

Originally written in Korean, I wondered what had been lost or muddled in the translation. Given the massacre was in 1980, most Koreans are probably aware of what happened and have knowledge regarding the political climate of the time. I, however, was completely unaware of these events, and found myself a little lost because of the absence of context. Context isn’t necessary to read the book and understand what happened, but knowing why would certainly enhance the reading process. As Korea was plagued by political instability following the assassination of Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, Park’s protégé assumed power through a coup d’état and implemented martial law, believing North Korea was going to attack the South. Chun ordered universities and political activities to shut down and sent the military to occupy all urban areas to police citizens. However, due to the handover in political power, the democratization movement was gaining momentum, having been previously suppressed by Park. On the 18th of May, protesting the closure of their university, some 200 students gathered and military troops clamped down, killing an unknown number by clubbing, using bayonets and firing into the crowd. Two days later, the number of protestors swelled to over 10,000, and Chun ordered an all-out suppression by killing anyone involved. On May 27th, civilian militias had been defeated the Korean military.

In the epilogue, Kang writes about her recollections of the Gwangju Uprising at age nine. Her family had just moved from Gwangju where her father had been a teacher at a local school. She recalls her father and aunt speaking in low voices in the kitchen about a young student named Dong-ho who was killed during the massacre. The novel centers around Dong-ho, a boy who goes looking for his best friend, Jeong-dae who has disappeared during the uprising. Jeong-dae and his older sister lived in Dong-ho’s family home on the top floor and they had been as close as brothers. Dong-ho doesn’t know if Jeong-dae was killed or was injured, so he goes to where the bodies have been sent and is roped into helping cover the newly arrived corpses as family members come looking for their lost loved ones. Completely overwhelmed, Dong-ho goes to the center of the action looking for his friend and is murdered. He is fifteen.

Each chapter weaves through each character’s past and present, as even the deceased characters recall the time of their deaths, their aspirations and the trauma inflicted on their bodies. The prisoner recalls the routine torture and what happened after finally being released. He’s haunted by the years in prison, by the pen used to inflict pain, by the face of the prisoner he was forced to split meals with. He’s haunted by the suicide of acquaintances, the visceral dreams he experiences and the drone of life he struggles to live. Kang makes clear how each of the characters suffer in profound ways even after they are released from prison and are no longer being physically tortured. Drowning in grief and anger, confusion and hysteria, no two characters suffer in the same way, yet they are bound to constantly reliving traumatic memories both while awake and asleep.

After reading Human Acts I find myself questioning why all this violence is possible in so many permutations. Is violence a cycle? A default? A norm? I would think that the Japanese Occupation in Korea, World War II, the Korean War, these events would drive all Koreans to put peace above all, but it seems ego triumphs no matter what. The Gwangju Uprising, where thousands of students tried to incite political change peacefully ended up being one of the most violent demonstrations in modern history. I feel grateful that Kang and those she spoke to were able to find it in themselves to speak about the events that occurred just decades ago so that readers like myself might stumble across the book and try to understand why things like this happen. Grief and terror are such universal emotions, and Kang’s novel transmits these feelings tenfold to the reader, leaving you stunned and longing for peace.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us us capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered– is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?”

1 | Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Over the past two years or so, I’ve seen this book everywhere– from high-end department store bookstores to airport kiosks– Pachinko was not a book that stuck out to me, at least, not enough to make me immediately want to read it. But I did mark this book down in my Goodreads account a half year ago. After thinking the book might be a good one to start on my way to Japan (as the story of Sunja and the many characters in her orbit eventually takes the reader), I finally picked it up.

I don’t know how to start off other than by writing: this story was extremely heart-wrenching and uncomfortable to read. Page after page tells the story of Sunja and her family during the period from the early 1920s, beginning with the Japanese occupation of Korea and ending in the 1960s with Japan’s imminent defeat during WWII by Allied Powers. I found the story to be difficult to read due to the repeated battering each character endured and suffered, dealing with themes of starvation, rape, religious persecution, suicide, patriarchy and racism to name a few. About halfway through the book, what really got to me were glimmers of hope the characters seemed to almost grasp, but then were consequently squashed somehow or another by forces out of their control.

What you think is a story about Sunja, who makes what she believes to be a trans-generational sacrifice by marrying a man who is not the father of her unborn child, but who promises to keep this secret and take her as his wife, turns out to not be so clear cut. A mistake she made when she was in her early teens will haunt not just her, but the rest of her family, until the last page of the nearly 500 page book. The narrative caught me off guard– when I thought Lee might dedicate more to an event that occurred, she left the reader with little explanation. Yet strangely, at certain points, I felt that the examination of certain events or characters was extraneous. In attempting to reflect on why she omitted certain details yet lavishly explained others, perhaps in all it is a feature her character’s lived reality as second-class citizens in a country Sunja’s children and grandchildren are born in. They know what they know, and don’t ask questions, simply due to fear.

If this book was entirely fiction, I might not have finished; or it might have taken me much much longer. This book is historical fiction– I reminded myself that each event was someone’s lived reality lifted from the mortal world onto the pages. This thought is what kept me going but what also wore me down.

I visited Korea in the fall of 2017 and much to my dismay, I felt Seoul was just a carbon copy of any other East Asian metropolis– more specifically somewhere between a flashy fashion-forward Tokyo and a congested, new-money Beijing. I am not exaggerating when I say almost every young woman in Seoul looked like a copy of each another– pearl colored skin, long eyelashes, slim noses, a cropped hairdo and their boyfriends, usually a little on the heavy-side with their signature Korean male haircut, in tow. These couples were everywhere, from the streets of Seoul to seafood markets of Seoraksan. On the bus ride to Seoraksan, I was stunned how poor much of the countryside looked to be– tarps and corrugated tin roofs covering shack-like structures, worn-down machinery, and many older people working in the fields. Seemed a lot like China’s countryside, where the average person lives well below the means of their urban counterparts. In my imagination, I always thought Korea and Japan were in the same boat- historically, culturally and religiously divergent from China, and more similar to one another. But I began thinking about how Japan was never colonized by another nation looking to exploit resources and control people. They were the colonizers- Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, Singapore, Malaysia, Austronesia and numerous other places in South East Asia. Korea had been occupied by the Japanese since 1910, a fact not visible to tourists– but nevertheless still a painful and relevant fact that Lee drove home in Pachinko. When I view Korea in light of the fact it was occupied by Japan, the site of the Korean War and other conflicts between Russians, Chinese, Japanese, and Americans, my initial judgement feels ill-informed and wrong. In considering the past century and how many people suffered at the hands of just a few egoists’ political ambitions, it makes me wonder how life can be so unjust.

And that’s just it; Sunja lives an unjust life. No matter how many sacrifices she makes to right the wrong, she can’t.