The Vegetarian – Han Kang

The Vegetarian

 

“…. I went on and came to a tree. The tree told me that one could not talk here because human beings do not understand feelings. I went on, I was sorry to part with the tree because the tree understood me.” – ( The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky)

Abstinence – The passage of self-denial, the resolve of sheer restraint; where does it all begin and where will it eventually end? The steady shedding of birthing desires, the restriction of outwardly impulses marred by internal nightmares, slowly culminating into a growing silence. Silence – the sin of resilience or a rickety salvation from a venomous psychotic turmoil or a falsified symbol of complacency? Complacency , it’s obeisance revered, it’s rebellion sued. The superficiality of an acquired complacency steeped in the will of ignorance, the façade of normalcy shamelessly taking refuge in someone else’s mediocrity. A sense of superiority acquired by the bullish masking of your own imperfections within the blemished veil of others. Power- The artillery of dominance menacing the societal hierarchy, becoming a fateful pawn in haunting gender games separating individual and the community. The woes of patriarchy are magnified by the cultural power play of resilience and rebellion. The loneliness of the body, an individual, muddled in the patriarchal conformism embodying the egotism of a person’s disposed ignorance to the needs of others. The entrapment of individuals within their own individualities; the legitimacy of a human disseminating in societal iniquity. The possibility of violence and the impossibility of beauty thriving in the chaotic mesh of human feelings; abstinence being the only respite to an existing nirvana.

Yeong-hye’s proclamation of being a vegetarian triggered a distressful cycle of abuse and self-annihilation. The status of women in a patriarchal society is marred with agonizing conflicts. The aching desire to maintain normalcy in a gingerly structured survival balancing the hierarchical constitution burgeons with a sense of superiority and the thriving of a submissive spouse. The thought of quitting the existing conflicts, the surreal yearning to sprout from the earth, the undertaken path of abstinence frees the body from the vicissitudes of the mind. The radical spirit of a woman powerless in a world enveloping values that demands a bona fide conformity, endures the burden of her choices being ruthlessly interpreted on a communal dais.

“This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated.”

The entrapped melanocytes claim their dermal existence in a patterned bluish-gray birthmark. The ugliness of the Mongolian Mark disproves the beautiful distinctiveness of the melanocytes condemning the presence of the dermal cells that are different in their formation. The psychedelic floral patterns painted on Yeong-hye’s naked body bury the unsightliness of the Mongolian Mark in the alluring work of art. The beauty of the art evoking a repulsive guilt of carnal desire. Art is escapism. Sex, the beaten path to escape into a fantasy. The worlds of art and sex collide merging the flesh and identities, faceless humans, the body becoming distinct, free-moving into a whole new entity. The ultimate nullification of personality and identity. The intensity of the emotions clashing over the quandary of body over mind wrapped up in surrealism of unrestricted art. Free-will convulsing within the bounds of insanity, drives the notion of sexual freedom to the edge of a carnal conundrum.

“ Was he a normal human being? More than that, a moral human being? A strong human being, able to control his impulses?”

When the fear of losing everything overrides the self-assured convictions deterring a restrictive conscious encompassing unrestrictive art, freedom becomes a luxury. The discomforting anxiety burdens the agony of self-realization. The notion of an ‘absolute freedom’, an untainted freedom beyond the realms of self-examinations trapped between the battles between normality v/s animalistic fervour and morality v/s immorality. The impulses of self–obliteration hovering over Yeong-ho.

Identity becomes a farcical metaphor floating in its own singularity. The human body is torn between its own language and the language imposed by others. The individual and the community segregated by the former’s quest to explore the terrains of freedom confronting the limitations of the society; the sum and substance of ‘identity’ collapsing within an individual. Han Kang is meticulous in layering the intricacies of mainstream Korean Society laminating the cultural fringes in the dual domains of “social-self” and “solitary-self”. The concept of freedom and identity carved in harmony with the workings of societal dogmas rather than those of an individual is tactfully highlighted through the firm notion that people are somehow in debt of the socio-cultural benevolence. The menacing arcs of gender, food, sexual liberation, sexual violence, abuse, mental maladies and suicide dismantles the values of personal freedom with asphyxiating constraints. Thus, the fatalities of individualities misplaced in the struggles, societal responsibilities and imposed taboos; the denied personhood exiled in the feelings of displacement.

“Whether human, animal or plant, she could not be called ‘a person’, but then wasn’t exactly some feral creature either – more like a mysterious being with qualities of both”

Personal identity becomes highly subjective in this three-tier narrative. Each of Han Kang’s focal characters struggle amid the legitimacy of their personhood. Be it In-hye, who has this incredible ability to adapt to any dire circumstances with staunch endurance, binding up her wounds with an ingrained smothering stability. Yeong-ho , who weighed down by his own battles of moral obligations and self-depravity. Lastly, Yeong-hye’s husband who exemplifies the nitty-gritty of a patriarchal society. But, the greatest irony of the identity clash stems in the portrayal of Kim Yeong-hye. Despite Yeong-hye being the pivotal common thread throughout the audacious narratives, fails to take the centre-stage. Her personhood becomes secondary forging its way around and through her, in the course of her emaciated life. Yeong-hye is steadily pushed in the background. Her own individuation clings on the opinionated strings of the people around her.

“ Look , sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands……they delve down into the earth. Endlessly,endlessly…….yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide……..”

Respect – Who deserves the core of its sentiment? The oppressed body that uproots itself from the surface of the human race or the resilient body that submerges under an ocean of emptiness to survive among the human race? Or then, is it the inescapable individual existing within the two claustrophobic bodily milieus, who is the rightful beneficiary of the justified reverence? The predominant existentialism theme encircling this literary reserve, probes the legitimacy of human existence in the state of chaos amplifying the very core of human nature. The individual remains incomprehensible; the significance of kith and kin disseminating in a ruthless abandonment. Unlike the black bird soaring the blue skies, the earthly bound tree runs short of absolute freedom. A tree may stand solitary on the mountain top, sturdy on the fertile ground, still, its roots run deep, firmly rooted into the earth below. Akin to a tree rooted in its earthly codes, an individual is forever rooted into the societal dogmas. An individual is far from being truly free, the cost of an absolute freedom paid through self-annihilation. The supreme exemption from the morally reprehensible decoding of the totality of being attained in the final uprooting of a human being from the society. Is then, the path of abstinence a bane or a boon? At the risk of bizarre insanity devoid of a definite beginning or an end, is then the onset of abstinence a daring last resort to establish identity? And, how farther can a person keep running, far into the deep darkness before crashing into his/her own fractured soul?

4/5 ****

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