At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

I had a hard time following this novel as I read. It seems simple enough: a story about Moon Hollow, a slum in Korea where parents and their children have to fight for their existence. But there are many points of view, many different names, and no heading at the beginning of each chapter to indicate which character may be narrating the story.

Is is it Park Minwoo, who was able to lift himself out of poverty, go to college, become an architect, and all the while fail to consider the people he’s left behind in the slum? Is it Cha Soona, the beautiful girl who loves him? Or, is it Jung Wohee, the beginning playwright and director who has inserted herself, unbeknownst to Minwoo, into their lives? It all becomes clear in the end, while on the way to the conclusion there are terrible stories of life in the slum.

Park Minwoo’s father fries fishcakes, Cha Soona’s family make noodles, and one group of children establish a shoe shine business. A group of ten raggedy-looking boys all work as shoeshine boys for Jaemyung, including his younger brother, Jaegeun.  They are not about to lose their business to a kid named Tomak, who suddenly comes in from another neighborhood and tells them to find work elsewhere, especially as it is Jaemyung who keeps the family together after the death of his father. The fights that ensue, as he earns the right to keep his shoeshine stands, are terrifying and brutal. They are what is necessary to survive.

It is disturbing to me that Park Minwoo is able to extricate himself so completely from this environment. On one hand, he is to be commended for gaining the knowledge and skill necessary to be a skilled architect, one who has worked himself up from such extreme poverty. On the other, how is it that he is able to distance himself so completely from his family and friends in their ramshackle houses?

In the past, when slum neighborhoods were rebuilt, construction company employees would go door to door to offer some form of appeasement and get their signatures, but nowadays the process went no further than a reconstruction committee’s approval…Perfectly good buildings were ruthlessly demolished, the excavators letting out their terrible roars, while helpless shouts and cries rang out from among the protesters. The families would hold out for three or four days, but as the street filled with wreckage and rubble, they would start to leave, one or two at a time, and the community would fall apart, as splintered and fragmented as their demolished homes.

Hwang Sok-yung’s novel is surely not appicable to Korea alone. With it, he causes us to look at the poverty around us, much of it overshadowed by mansions behind thick walls. How much responsibility do we bear to alleviate some of the suffering, not only for the good of the people, but for the good of ourselves?

On the last page, Park Minwoo is divorced and living alone. His professional success has brought him neither love nor family, and the last line is this:

And so I stood, in the middle of the sidewalk of what was once Moon Hollow, like a man who’d lost his way.

It is a bitter, sharp awareness that he has come to, facing the consequences of the choices he has made.

(Thanks to Scribe publishers for a copy of At Dusk to review for the Man Booker International Prize. Find another review of this book at Tony’s Reading List.)

The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

Reading The White Book is like reading an exquisite poem. It is not written in free verse, exactly, but the images conveyed, the very sharpening of our senses, is revealed in every phrase.

The narrator mourns the death of her sister, a sister “white as a moon-shaped rice cake”, a sister she had never known. Instead, she had been “born and grown up in the place of that death.”

“I think of her being weaned and raised on rice porridge, growing up, becoming a woman, making it through every crisis.

I think of death deflected every time, faced with her back as she moves firmly forwards.

Don’t die. For God’s sake, don’t die.

Because of those words knitted into her, an amulet in her body.”

Han Kang examines a multitude of things that are white: snow, salt, a lace curtain, handkerchief or sugar cube…

“She isn’t really partial to sweet things any more, but the sight of a dish of wrapped sugar cubes still evokes the sense of witnessing something precious. There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is colored by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.”

Her writing sparkles, but the end result for me is a certain detachment. I am unable to connect with the loss of a sister I never knew, to feel a shadow over my life from the death of a sibling. But, for those who can, they will surely be moved by this novel, and especially the final sentences Han Kang writes:

“With your eyes, I will see the chill of the half-moon risen in the day.

At some point those eyes will see a glacier. They will look up at that enormous mass of ice and see something sacred, unsullied by life.

They will see inside the silence of the white birch forest. Inside the stillness of the window where the winter sun seeps in. Inside those shining grains of dust, swaying along the shafts of light which slant onto the ceiling.

Within that white, all those white things, I will breathe in the final breath you released.”

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Man Booker International Prize Long List)

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Every single one of them – her parents who had force-fed her meat, her husband and siblings who stood by and let it happen – were distant strangers, if not actual enemies.

What a strange, compelling novel. It’s the first one I’ve read for the Man Booker International Prize which didn’t feel almost arduous. It isn’t ever boring; it’s very brevity makes it a fast read. But don’t think that because it’s under 200 pages that diminishes the impact of the content.

The story is told through the point of view of Yeong-hye’s husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. Through their eyes we learn that Yeong-hye has one morning decided to give up eating meat, simply because she says she had a dream. In fact, to me, her entire character is depicted as if she’s in a dreamlike state, except for the times she acts out against people trying to force her to do something they want. At one point, her heavy handed father holds her down and forces a piece of meat into her mouth, after which she suddenly grabs a fruit knife and slices her wrist.

The cover of the novel depicts the flow of blood quite vividly in its brilliant red shade; the image of roots and leaves and branches depict the state of Yeong-hye’s desire with ever increasing accuracy.

I found it to be more of a psychological nature than a physical one. Yeong-hye is clearly disgusted at the state of the human condition, and it seems she is trying to shed any semblance of such.

“What other dimension might Yeong-hye’s soul have passed into, having shrugged off flesh like a snake shedding its skin? In-hue (her sister) recalled how Yeong-hye had looked when she’s been standing on her hands. Had Yeong-hye mistaken the hospital’s concrete floor for the soft earth of the woods? Had her body metamorphosed into a sturdy trunk, with white roots sprouting from her hands and clutching the black soil? Had her legs stretched high up into the air while her arms extended all the au down to earth’s very core, her back stretched taut to support this two-pronged spurt of growth? As the sun’s rays soaked down through Yeong-hye’s body, has the water that was saturating the soil been drawn up through her cells, eventual to bloom from her crotch as flowers? When Yeong-hye had balanced upside down and stretched out every fiber in her body, had these things been awakened in her soul?”

Author Han Kang says, “The Vegetarian is the story of Yeong-hye who decides on an extreme vegetarian diet in order to reject the violence inherent in human nature. Eventually wanting no more part in the human race, and believing that she is becoming a plant, she refuses to consume anything but water. Though this is a desperate effort to save herself, the irony is that in reality she is bringing herself closer to death.”

We follow her story with a mixture of curiosity and awe, and when we come to the end, we find a strange sadness, even from her sister and her sister’s son. Surely Yeong-hye is not alone in her alienation, or her dream-like perspective.

Undoubtedly, The Vegetarian will be on the Man Booker International Prize short list.

Find Lori’s review at Words Without Borders, Clare’s review at A Little Blog of Books, Athira’s review at Reading On a Rainy Day, and Tony’s review at Messengers Booker.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Published in English in 2015
188 pages