“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang
“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang is a stunning example loaded with powerful visual and archetypal imagery. This Kafkaesque tale exemplifies how people suffer when oppression is lifted and freedom abounds. Set in Korea, Kang uses a variety of narrative voices shifting from first to third person as the story of main character, Yeong Hye, who’s in an arranged marriage suffers from nightmare distortions of animal consumption. Yeong Hye struggles with independence and marriage falls into acute depression which pushes her into self-starvation. Yeong Hye wants to be free of her body and pain. She believes in not participating in any destruction she will transcend from her place on the food chain. As her family both nuclear and extended are drawn into her demise, we witness the impact totalitarianism has on its citizenry when risking creativity and the pursuit of individual choice. Readers witness family destruction and the erosive effect when people choose love while others choose tradition. Dramatic tension is enhanced when character’s dreams are dramatized. “The Vegetarian” was not easy to read as it touches upon abuse and institutionalization and does so in a quiet, tragic and beautiful manner akin to Madame Butterfly. Do not look for happy endings, but do find a very touching and thoughtful story of survival and defeat.
The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“And After Many Days” by Jowhor Ile
Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 1995. A place where people disappear and bad things are always about to happen. Paul Utu, a 17 year old boy goes missing and Ajie his youngest brother is saddled with seeing him last.
The Utu family is one of dignity, achievement and balance. The challenge of assimilating social, economic, political and technological change is handled with honesty and respect by Jowhor Ile. Ile’s characters are strong, complex and so much can be learned from them during biblical discussion, social exchange or the pronounced expressions of a political points of view.
Told in third person, often through Ajie’s memory we learn about Paul, the quiet lion, first son and eldest sibling. Paul is a symbol for any young man, walking the right line, doing the right things to lead a correct life only to disappear without a trace or explanation. Foreshadowing is used to develop suspicion as to Paul’s whereabouts and the moment of discovery is quietly surprising.
Themes of human greed for power and excess and its impact on the natural world are burned into the story framework. Ma, the mother of Paul and Ajie, writes a book, “Ferns and Fauna of the Orashi Plain.” In it she catalogs and describes every living thing in their changing landscape being plagued by dried up swamps and fuel pipelines. She notes, “–one day all these things will be extinct, but at least we will know what they were–” The thing she forgets to note is us because we are a part of nature too.
“And After Many Days” leaves us thinking which is one of the most powerful things an author can encourage us to do.