Last week I looked at a Nordic mystery as part of Women in Translation month, and this week I thought I’d make it the central theme – head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth. The need for Women in Translation month was brought home to me when I went to my TBR shelves thinking “No problem! I have loads of translated literature waiting to be read.” Well, yes, I do, but looking at the titles I suddenly realised it was very much dominated by male writers.
I’m glad you asked, Mads. Firstly, The Vegetarian by Korean writer Han Kang (2007, tr. Deborah Smith 2015) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. You probably don’t need me to tell you how good The Vegetarian is; it was the glowing reviews and enthusiasm from bloggers that led me to pick up this novel in the first place. The hype was well deserved – The Vegetarian is an unsettling, brutal and beautifully written tale which has stayed with me long after I finished it.
It is the story of Yeong-hye, the titular herbivore, told from three points of view: her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister, over the course of a few years, from the point she starts refusing to eat meat. Her husband can’t believe that his wife – whose main appeal was that she impinges on his life in no way whatsoever – would do something so antisocial.
“As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.”
Yeong-hye’s behaviour is not rooted in any of these ‘reasonable grounds’ but in a deep disturbance at thought of eating meat, something which is not easy to cope with or explain:
“Something is lodged in my solar plexus. I don’t know what it might be. It’s lodged there permanently these days. Even though I stopped wearing a bra, I can feel this lump all the time. No matter how deeply I inhale, it doesn’t go away. Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of all the animals I ate are lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives stick stubbornly to my insides.”
Yeong-hye’s behaviour exposes the fractures in her family: the tensions, hidden desires, and loyalties which on one occasion spills over into physical violence. She can’t be what her husband wants her to be. Subject to her brother-in-law’s sexual fetishes, she cannot answer all of his needs either. Nor can she start eating to please her sister who sees her wasting away. Her deterioration – mental and physical – is painful but her determination is relentless.
“Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absent minded, as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn’t bright or light-hearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.”
The Vegetarian is a short novel, 183 pages in my edition, but it punches far above its weight. Kang’s voice is strong and unique, her writing all the more dramatic for its concise understatement, and she refuses to offer any easy answers. Disturbing and brilliant.
Secondly, a classic of Spanish literature, Nada by Carmen Laforet (1945 tr. Edith Grossman 2007). Andrea, a young student, leaves her rural home to attend university and moves in her with grandmother, aunt, two uncles, her uncle’s wife, a green-toothed maid and a dog. Although filled with youthful hope for opportunities and change, the atmosphere is unsettling from the start:
“We rode down Calle Aribau, where my relatives lived, its plane trees full of dense green that October, and its silence vivid with the respiration of a thousand souls behind darkened balconies.”
Once inside the house, things worsen. The house is cluttered, dirty, filled with layers of past glories.
“That bathroom seemed like a witches house, the stained walls had traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair. Everywhere the scaling walls opened their toothless mouths oozing dampness. Over the mirror, because it didn’t fit anywhere else, they’d hung a macabre still-life of pale bream and onions against a black background. Madness smiled from the bent taps.”
The Spanish Civil War – over six years previously – is mentioned in passing but never dwelt upon, though there is the sense that this is a family and a city, possibly a nation, dealing with the aftershocks of trauma. The family are entirely dysfunctional, locked in abusive, sado-masochistic, manipulative relationships to a greater or lesser extent. Andrea’s uncle Juan savagely beats his wife Gloria; her aunt Angustias tries to control Andrea through a mix of overbearing affection and oppressive boundary-setting; her uncle Roman plays cat-and-mouse with just about everyone he encounters. Andrea’s friend Ena offers a possibility of escape:
“Ena never resembled on weekdays the rash girl, almost childish in her high spirits, that she turned into on Sundays. As for me – and I came from the countryside – she made me see a new meaning in nature that I’d never thought of before. She made me understand the pulsing of damp mud heavy with vital juices, the mysterious emotion of buds that were still closed, the melancholy charm of algae listless on the sand, the potency, the ardour, the splendid appeal of the sea.”
Nada is a gothic tale without a doubt, but never quite spills over into the camp that gothic often skirts along. The novel had to pass through Franco’s censors, and while its not overtly a political tale, I think the Gothicism helps disguise the fact that it is a tale of a society in shock; of resistance to oppression; of survival and escape.
“The memory of nights on Calle de Aribau comes to me now. Those nights that ran like a black river beneath the bridges of the days, nights when stagnant odours gave off the breath of ghosts.”
To end, an example of gothic that doesn’t skirt around camp but rather dives straight in – quite the maddest film I’ve ever seen: