15 May 2017

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Korea, 2007

When I began this short and beautifully written novel, where strange blood-thirsty dreams are intertwined with mundane, domestic interactions, I thought that it may have been about the central character’s, Yeong-hye, attempts to free herself from the male-dominated society in which she lives. Her decision to stop eating meat was, for me, a sign of a new independence and an awareness of the soul-destroying relationships – husband, family – all of which are threatening to destroy her.

However, as I read on, I realized that Han Kang’s book delves much deeper than male dominance and female acquiescence. It may be about the restrictions imposed by a male-dominated society, but I feel that it is also about the many other restrictions that limit both men and women. Most people are unaware of the limitations, because they are not interested in pushing boundaries: they spend mundane, unfulfilled lives somewhere in a safe middle zone. Han Kang herself has said that the book is an allegory for present-day Korea, and, as such, it is probably a description of Korea’s attempt to find herself and realize her potential.

Yeong-hye knows that there is something else, but to reach this something else she also knows that she has to extricate herself from everything that is holding her back – first meat and eventually any kind of food: she needs to become as one with the natural environment around her. Her brother-in-law, the artist, is subconsciously aware of the beauty that exists beyond that point of letting-go, but he is unable to let go, fettered, as it were, by his animal desires. At the end of the book, Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, begins to understand that Yeong-hye is not mad, and she finally understands what it is that her sister has been trying to communicate.

Like a painting, this is a beautiful but disturbing book with many different levels and, no doubt, many individual interpretations.

Photo of Han Kang above from Barnes & Noble

02 May 2017

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, USA, 1980

A man washed up on the coast of the Mediterranean is not only frightfully wounded but is also suffering from amnesia. He cannot remember why he is where he is, and he cannot remember who he is.

Over the next 500-plus pages, the man slowly remembers snippets of his past while all around him it is obvious that professional killers are intent on eradicating him. Like a blindfolded man with one hand tied behind his back he must still try to remain one step in front of these killers, using each small piece of information gleaned to complete the jigsaw. Who is he? Why is where he is? Why do people want to kill him?

The book is very well written. The pace is fast; the content is intelligent and obviously researched. It is the type of book that wants to be read in one long reading: in other words, it is a book that is extremely difficult to put down. Although there are many characters, both major and minor, and a multitude of plot twists and turns, many provoked by the intricacies of politics and high finance, the reader remains captivated, wanting more.

Set mainly in Europe (Paris, Switzerland, the Mediterranean… ) it also extends across the Atlantic to New York. The occasional use of French phrases is handled particularly well, and at no point does it feel forced or out of place; it helps to emphasize the European atmosphere that is such an important part of the story.

The ending hints at a possible continuation (The Bourne Supremacy), and although I was disappointed that the roller coaster ride had come to an end, I knew that there was another book, and another ride, just around the corner. A great book; I would recommend it to anyone.

Those of you who have seen the film by the same name (released in 2002) should not believe that you do not have to read the book: the film and the book are two completely different realities. The film has grown out of several ideas in the book, but in no way does it replicate the book, even though it has retained the name. Watching it after I had read the book was a great disappointment, because had it kept to the book it could have been ever so much more intelligent, exciting and believable.

Photo of Robert Ludlum from Goodreads