The Vegetarian: A Novel by Han Kang (2015)

, 30 Jun 2016

The Vegetarian (채식주의자) is a Korean novel, and the winner of the 2016's Man Booker International Prize.

This is a tree-part novella, each narrated by a different character. The main character is Yeon-hye, a young married woman who suffers a mental crisis and becomes a vegan in a country and family where veganism is almost unknown and not well-seen. Her crisis will affect all members of her family in unexpected ways, opening a box of Pandora that will varnish with emotional turmoil everyone it touches. The other two major characters are her sister In-hye, and her brother-in-law (an unnamed artist and In-hye's husband.)

The three parts are:
The Vegetarian = We are told the story of Yeon-hye through the eyes of her husband Mr Cheong, a dull pragmatic traditional businessman, who narrates the chapter in the 1st person. However, Yeon-hye's voice appears inserted in italics, narrated also in the first person, describing some of her dreams and childhood traumas.   
Mongolian Marks = We are told the story through Yeon-hye's brother-in-law, a talented audiovisual artist, now somewhat lethargic, who has an artistic epiphany after Yeon's crisis, and develops an artistic and erotic obsession with her after learning he has a Mongolian spot on her body. The story is narrated in the third person.
Flaming Trees = We are told the story through Yeon-hye's sister In-hye. The story is narrated in the third person with some intercalated visionary elements narrated in the first person. .In-hye tells us part of the missing story about Yeo-hye's traumatic childhood and about In-hye's inner life. In this process we see dream and reality, the past and present, the In and Yeon mix in ways that become less and less separated. 

The Vegetarian is Yeon-hye's vanishing act in three chapters as each part shows a progressive deterioration of Yeon-hye's body and state of mind, and her progressive transformation from a fleshy human into a light tree. The Vegetarian is also about ways of self-immolation: work on self-destruction, self-obliteration, and self-denial (Yeon, the artist and In respectively).   

Ω Ω Ω 

The Vegetarian is not an easy book to read, sad, tragic and depressing, but also artistic, erotic, lyric an poetic. The book has layer upon layer of meaning, and touches many different subjects that are organically intertwined.  
Ж Some of these subjects and themes are immediately obvious: 
~ The social and family structure in South Korea. 
~ The objectification of women.
~ The nature of desire.
~ Social and personal boundaries.  
~ The nature of artistic creation.
~ The effect of trauma and the suppression of emotions on the psyche.
~ The many facets of violence in our daily dealings.
Ж However, I see four major themes in the novel.
~ One is the seek for the real self, because that true self is what we really are, no matter we display it to the world or not. The true self is that voice in our speech, behaviour and actions that matches who we really are inside. That is the only way to true sanity. Yeon-hye's true self has been stepped on since her childhood, her inner voiced mute, so when it comes out it burst into rage and insanity.  
~ The second is reality as perception. Reality does not exist. Everything is subjective perception or view of the others, which is tarnished by our psychological projections. Besides, reality can be a dream and dream is always reality. All the characters say at certain point in the novel, that the other person is a stranger to them, or that they don't really know them, even though they are family. We can only know other people to a certain extent, even when we think we know them well. We are projecting all the time.
~ The third is mental illness. What is the line that separates sanity from insanity? Who is most insane, the insane person whose mind exteriorises the trauma, or the sane person who cannot deal with the trauma within their own sanity?
~ The fourth is Human Nature vs. Nature. In the book, the former is equalled to violence, suffering, lack of peace, and being stuck, while the latter is equalled to peace, fluidity, happiness,truthfulness and life as in Zen. In fact, the three characters develop a special relationship with Nature and feel it in powerful ways. Yeon-hye wants to be a tree, the artist wants to self-obliterate himself into nature through bodies covered by painted flowers, while In-hye sees trees and forest as beholders of the mysteries and answers she is still to discover. This links well with Korean culture and Korean connection with the forest, trees and mountains and with some ancestral animist believes that still permeate Korean culture.


The unbearable heaviness of being is an expression that comes to mind when I think of all the characters in this novel. The three main characters are masterfully composed, and we come to understand the three of them, to put ourselves in their shoes and see their view of the world and experience their inner pain. None of them oozes happiness.

I love the way the character of Yeong-hye is portrayed, like an ethereal ghost-like being even though there is little lightness about her. The depiction of her mental crisis and conversion to veganism is very real. I have come across many cases of real women in the 19th century, just to use an example, who developed food phobias and anorexia nervosa as a part of severe mental problems, some of them with deeply spiritual roots. There is something about the way you feed you body affects your soul, and vice versa, and this is masterly captured in the book.

I love the character of In-hye. I think she is a reflection of most of  us, we who endure life and don't live it to the fullest, we who mute our inner voice, we who please instead of enjoy, we who repress anger to show how civilise we are but really angrier than those who do the contrary. To me, the character of In-hye is the most insane of all even though she is sane in her mind.

It is very difficult, at least for me, to like the character of In-hye's artist husband as he appears as a selfish, self-centred, and self-absorbed prick. He, like Yeon-hue, wants to die, but in a different way. His art comes from his core, is created to feed his soul, and in this case to die, to be one with the Universe, with Nature, to become one with humans, animals and plants as he expressly says. It is not a surprise that the character mentions as a source of inspiration an untitled audiovisual work by the avant-garde Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, which I think is self-obliteration


There is a heavy presence of oneiric elements and moments in the novel that I find remarkable:
  ‘I had a dream … and that’s why I don’t eat meat.’ (Locations 1079-1080).
In-hye has also dreams, as does her son, and her husband. Dreams are mentioned throughout the book, even at the very end.
‘I have dreams too, you know. Dreams … and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over … but surely the dream isn’t all there is? We have to wake up at some point, don’t we? Because … because then …(Kindle Locations 2174-2176). 

The oneiric element works perfectly in the novel because, dreams are the messengers of the psyche, they are the bed where the soul rests, the mirror of the true self, that part of the human being that is honest and says to you how you feel even when your conscious mind doesn't want to accept it. Dreams are also a space where reality and non-reality mix in organic but mysterious ways. The dream is the seed of our hidden truth, of our moments of elation, despair and anguish. The dream is always emotional. We see our characters' frigid emotionality in their awaken life, but very emotional in their oneiric life and very connected to their inner truth trough dreams. We see their dreams speaking their inner truth.

However, the dream is not only an literary element here. There is a strong dream culture in South Korea, still alive nowadays. Jeremy Seligson says in his entry on traditional Korean Dreams that:
"In traditional Korea, clairvoyant and precognitive dreams have played a vital role in the individual's and family's life at every level of society"
and also, and relevant for this novel, 
"Once an event is foreseen in a dream, the dreamer takes steps to prepare for its arrival" (see Deirdre Barrett, D. & McNamara, P.. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreams: The Evolution, Function, Nature, and Mysteries of Slumber. Greenwood, 2012, vol. 2, pps. 774-776.)


Regarding influences, we Westerners have a western-centric view of the world that we project all the time, especially with successful Asian artists. We tend to see the influence of any major Western artist on any successful Asian artist who becomes popular in the West, or a tendency to put in the same bag all those Asian artists who become popular in the West. In a way it is understandable. Those are the cultural anchors we have because, when it comes to South Korea, we don't have enough knowledge of the language and culture of the country to do differently. Besides, we are reading a translation and, no matter how good this is, this is never the same as reading a work in its original language. What can we say about the use of language, play of words, choice of words, sentence structure and on any other linguistic characteristic that is intrinsically linked to the literary value of any literary work? Some critics with too much space to talk nonsense have made connections between Han Kang's writing and Murakami, and found all sort of Western literary influences on this book.  Well, I don't see the connection with Murakami at all, mind you. The connection with Kafka's Metamorphosis could be made, albeit quite vaguely.

I also have my own projections, of course. Here my mental association. The second chapter and the erotic flower theme resonated with me and brought to mind a video that I saw many-many years ago, the scene of the copulating flowers in Pink Floyd's The Wall because, somewhat, I found there was a similar energy, the madness, and darkness . 

Han Kang has personally said in some interviews, that her work is indebted to Korean literature, that some of darkness and themes in her works are directly linked and indebted to her experience of the massacre in Gwanjiu in 1980, and that she writes from an Universal standpoint even though she is Korean. She is the daughter of a writer, grew up surrounded by books and artists, she says, but she doesn't really mention any major Western author as her major literary impromptu even when asked about this.  So, why keep insisting on the contrary?


The book spans out for only 160 pages. The story and narrative are brilliant, the language I don't know. I always prefer that to three volumes of epic adventures full of fluff that are populating the charts of best-sellers around the English-speaking world.

There are images powerfully lyric and visually artistic and cinematic in this book. One of my favourites is in the fist part, when Yeong-hye in the courtyard in the hospital with a bird in his hand.Almost like a modern painting. Or the image of In-hye reflected in the mirror with a bleeding eye, very surrealist. Others, on the contrary are very dramatic, shocking and horrific, like the dream with the dog. Those images will stay with you for a long time, tattooed onto your retina long after you finish the book.


The translation by Deborah Smith is good. Most of the book flows and that is the sort of experience we want as translators and readers to have when translating literary works.  However, as I reader, I thought that the first chapter needed of a better editing because, personally, I found it lacking in punctuation at times, some unnecessarily wording others, and the choice of some words over others a bit distracting, at least to me.


Ѫ The Vegetarian was originally published in 2007, compiling three novelettes previously published separately. However, the story, according to Hang herself, developed organically, but turned dark, from  a short story of hers "Fruits of my Woman" written in the year 2000:
The main characters are a man and woman, and one day when the man returns home from work, he sees that his wife has become a plant. So he moves her into a pot, waters her, and takes care of her. As the seasons change, the woman spits out her last hard seeds. As he takes the seeds out to the balcony, he wonders whether his wife will be able to bloom again in spring. Overall the story isn’t so dark, and is also magical, but after writing it, I wanted to write it again from a different perspective. So I thought for years about how to write it. From the very first page, The Vegetarian came out very dark and different. (in "Violence and Being Human: A Conversation with Han Kang" by Krys Lee (World Literature Today, January 2016).
 Ѫ The book was taken to the screen in 2009 under the direction of Woo-Seong Lim. The movie was also called The Vegetarian.

> I couldn’t get my head round it. (Locations 48-49).
> natural it was to not wear clothes. (Location 1220).

This word contains explicit violence, human and animal, and explicit sex scenes.
Why was the book called Vegetarian in English is the character becomes a vegan? Was the title in Korean the same? 

Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web by Joseph M. Reagle Jr. (2015)

, 27 Jun 2016

"Reading the Comments" is an exploration of online comments, of their nature, their authors, what is good, bad and funny about them. Reagle shows how comments inform (reviews), serve to improve your own works or projects (via feedback), can be manipulative and serve to alienate people (through abuse and hatred), and shape how we see the world and ourselves (via quantification and social comparison). Reagle uses a humongous amount of data, using the main platforms generating comments:Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, fiction writers communities, and personal blogs.
The book poses and answers intriguing questions with a more or less degree of success:
> Why do people like disclosing info about themselves in their comments?
> Is society more narcissist today as a result of the Internet?
> Is anonymity the mother of all problems in abusive comments?
> Is fakery the exception or the norm in review?
> Who is writing false reviews and why? And what is being done to counteract it?
> Who are those creating sock-puppet accounts?
> Why do review sites benefit from your comments?
> How do Facebook and Google+ use your profile and contact list every time you rate a product?
> What is the difference between a comment and a review?
> What is the key to providing a good feedback that is useful to the author without hurting their feelings?
> Is a bullied person bullying a person as bully as the bully?
> Can good communities, in self-defence, morph into what they try to avoid?
> Do the gazillion comments processed during the day affect our ability to concentrate and our well-being?
> Is the pervasive rating and ranking of people and services dehumanising?

The book is divided in seven chapters:
1/ Comment, offers a contextualisation of comment, of what makes people comment, interact or to look for another place.
2/  Informed, is an introduction to reviews, ratings, unboxing videos and other informative commentary on the web.
3/Manipulation, is about the use of fake reviews and online fakery in general.These manipulators are fakers (those who deceptively praise their own works or pillory others), makers (those who do that for a fee), and the takers (those who avail themselves of such services).
4/ Improvement, deals with feedback: peer feedback, feedback in formal writing communities, and feedback in communities where the line between feedback and collaboration blurs.
5/ Alienated, describes online trolls and haters, bully battles and  misogyny, and tries to frame this "culture" with what we know about the effects of anonymity, deindividuation and depersonalization.
6/ Shaped, poses the question of how this infinite stream of information, status updates, and photos affects self-esteem and wellbeing and our view of ourselves.
7/ Bemused, focuses on the puzzling aspect of commenting as comments can be slapdash, confusing, amusing, revealing, and weird.

 I found this statement one of the most interesting in the book:
All forms of writing that have gone before are present on the Web— and at a very large scale. These types of comment existed before the twenty-first century, but never were they available in such great numbers or were they as easily accessible as they are today.
I love the historical contextualisation of commenting, and to learn that many attitudes we find online nowadays were very much alive in the past, and that well-known writers, philosophers and artists of the past were involved in actions or activities that are today found online. I found really good the section on feedback and the section on trolls very exhaustively informative. When you provide with historical antecedents for online behaviour that are rooted in morphed off-line behaviour, we can have a mini-epiphany because then, some behaviour and attitudes are not only contextualised but can be tackled in different ways. Reagle's analysis on quantification or rating, which are more relevant by the day in our times. was also really good.

I agree with Reagle about the search for intimate serendipity being one of the reasons why some people aren't in big social sites or social networks in general, they join when they are small and quit then when they become too big, too popular or the first scum appears, or they don't allow comments on their personal sites. That is my case, and that is great putting a name to what I do.

I really loved some of the comic strips from The Geek & Poke, a German nerdy comic-strip, reproduced in the book, which are really relevant for some of the matters discussed in it. I especially feel connected to the the one below, but this is precisely one of the comments I get most often from people I don´t know or have interaction with me, and the other one, that "the free gift" (above) use preached by corporations, major social networks and dot com start-up companies and geeks.

Reagle clearly mentions at the beginning that the book isn't about the future of online sites or of commenting online. This being the case, one of the most interesting and controversial aspects of commenting is hurdled over, which is very disappointing to me. In that regard, the book scratches the top layers of the subject, leaving many of the issues associated to commenting just described. Which is not bad if you want a comprehensive analysis of the subject without digging down.

Although I enjoyed the book, Reading the Comments is a bit a sum-up of things and research found in other works, and Reagle  does not always expresses his opinion on important matters; for example, how would he tackle some of the problems he describes? However, he does give his honest opinion other times, as when he says that he doesn't think anonymity is the problem for the state of the online world. In fact, some of the most abusive people I've come across online had their real photo and name displayed. I always appreciate solutions, or at least proposals on how to change things online, especially when an expert is writing. Reagle is, after all, an academic, an expert on communication and on the Internet so I expected more prognosis, diagnosis or  even personal involvement.

The book reads well as a course for students, where his students would learn about things and the teacher wouldn't always need to express his views upfront unless questioned. That is OK for a course, I expected more on bleeding matters: like sexist misogynist comments, the level of verbal aggression thriving online, why does trolling occur beyond those groups who made an entertaining of doing so? In that regard I found Sarah Jeon's book necessary to read after this, because she digs on the subject and provides readers with personal answers and solutions on how to turn things around. Both books complement each other quite well.

The book is wonderfully edited. I didn't notice any typo, the reference system and endnoting are flawless, something that, as a reader, I always appreciate.There is always a lot of work to get to that point, and you cannot take it for granted. I think the first chapter should be called Introduction, because that is what it is, and where the author mentions what he is going to do and describes the subjects discussed in each chapter.

The rendering for Kindle is excellent except for the index at the back, which isn't linked for Kindle, therefore, worthless. I always feel cheated when this happens.

The book reads really well, is engaging, entertaining and digs on many aspects of the web that aren't well known to people who don't live on or research the Internet. Three and half stars rounding to 4. That is why the five-star-rating system sucks...

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (2015)

, 24 Jun 2016

"SYBPS" is a compassionate X-ray of shaming, shamers and shamees. Although the main focus is online and media shaming, other areas of life are also mentioned. SYBPS is Ronson's quest to learn how shaming works: why, who, and how, and how affects people. Ronson poses poignant questions to the reader and try to answer them by talking to people who experienced shaming first-hand. The questions are really good, intriguing and the answers worth pursuing:
~ Is modern shaming similar, better or worse than shaming in the 18th and 19th centuries?
~ How do we explain the shaming frenzy in our time?
~ Who is doing the shaming these days?
~ Who are those shamed and why?
~ Is shaming justified any time?
~ Does the online mob needs of constant drama?
~ What rush overpower us at times to turn us into a lynching mob?
~ What do we get out of vitriolic shaming?
~ Why do we dehumanise the people we hurt and shame?
~ Why is modern shaming so hardly and clearly misogynistic?
~ Did any of the shamees escaped unscathed?
~ If so, how do they did it? Was something they did? The way they behaved? The way they felt? Good luck? 
~ Does shaming only work if the shamee feels ashamed?
~ Is shamelessness something that some people just have or can be taught?
~ How long does it take for a shamee to be forgotten online?
~ Does shaming works outside the online world?


Shamed tells us the stories of shamed people (those who were destroyed by the shaming and those who weren't) and of some shamers: 
> (Publicly shamed and destroyed) Johah Lehrer, a young pop-science journalist and celebrity author who was exposed by a modest hard-working unknown Michael Moynihan for making up things in his books. After being exposed he apologised publicly in front of a giant screen with real-time twits to be further vilified, shamed and destroyed.
> (Publicly shamed  and destroyed) Justine Sacco who made a stupid joke on AIDS on Twitter before catching a holiday flight to South Africa. The joke went viral and she was vilified, abused and had received death and rape threats before landing. She lost her job.
> (Professional shamer) Ted Poe worked as a judge for 30 years in Houston (Texas) and was renowned for publicly shaming defendants and also for giving sentences in which public shaming was part of the redemption.
> (Publicly shamed and destroyed) Hank, a tech developer who made a sexist joke to his friend Alex when attending a national tech conference in Santa Clara in 2013. A female tech overheard him, took a photo of them, twitted it with their comment and complained about their conduct. Hank was fired and vilified by  women's right groups.
(Public shamer and publicly shamed and destroyed) Adria Richards, the tech developer who exposed Hank, suffered a backlash to her exposé and received death and rape threats, verbal abuse and personal stalking as a result. She was also fired.
> (Publicly shamed and unscathed) Oswald Mosley, a formula-1 chief was filmed in a sadomasochist session with several hookers, which was labelled "nazi orgy" and exposed to the public by News of the World. A trial followed and he was cleared, compensated for defamation, and became  more popular than ever.
>  (Publicly exposed and forgiven, almost)  Andrew Ferreira, a pastor of the Church of the Nazarene, and six other people were videotaped having sex in a covered-up brothel located in a Zumba studio. The Police investigation exposed the place, exposed them and brought them to Court, with the cameras looking at them. The exposé had repercussions in their private lives, but shaming was never part of it except for the only woman in the group. 
> (Publicly shamed and unscathed) Mike Daisey was caught lying by journo Rob Schmitz in a story about a trip to China where he had supposedly met some workers in a factory making Apple products. He was interviewed for This American Life, one of America’s most popular radio shows, and although he tried to divert the questions he ended the interview admitting his lies and saying sorry. After the shaming began he reacted strongly against his critics until those stopped bothering him and disappeared.
> (Publicly shamed and destroyed) Lindsey Stone and her friend Jamie were used to getting silly photos in front of public signs, one of them happened to be taken in front of a Silence and Respect sign in the Arlington Cemetery and posted on Facebook. The viral reaction got Lindsey, abused, threatened, fired from work, and into a deep depression.  


This is my favourite book by Ronson, purely because for the most part Ronson is able to transcend his doppelganger self, the one that looks like a character in his books, to focus way deeper this time into a subject that seems close to his heart.What is more, unlike other works of his, Ronson is not interviewing weirdos, extremists or people who live on the edge but normal people, and what matters the most if not even them, it is shaming. I admire Ronson's compassion and empathy and his ability to dig beyond the surface to show us people as human beings and individuals, not as objects. We see him the most compassionate in SYBPS and also the most openly honest about some issues and shamees. Yet, Ronson's dare devil is still here, like other times, his quest takes him to dangerous territories: the set of a porn movie for example (hilarious!) and  he joins a group go get to know information about shaming in the judicial system. 


 SYBPS is really an enjoyable, intriguing and fascinating read overall. There are a few parts that I found really interesting. Some of them are: 
1/ The historical antecedents on shaming used to contextualise the research on modern shaming.
2/ The discussion on the validity and limitations of the Philip Zimbardo's social experiment in Standford in 1971, which is endlessly mentioned in pop-psychology books, without further questioning, to explain group psychology.  
2/ I loved Ronson's reflections on the long-life effects of shaming on shamees, even when everybody has forgotten about them. Google will get them out on the front page of certain searches. The Right to Be Forgotten Law issued by the European Court, the work of online reputation management companies and, how important is to trick Google's algorithm  to get the job done show how much collateral damage brutal shaming does to  shamees.
3/ The hints about how shaming is an integral part of the judicial system. That stupefies me even more than online shaming, to be honest.
4/ The references to the psychiatrist James Gilligan work with dangerous killers and how shame is an intrinsicate part of the mutation of their personality into monsters.
5/ The epilogue, in which Ronson mentions the backlash he suffered because some of the things he says in the book were decontextualised and manipulated before it was published. 


Personally I hate the shaming that comes from the Media and online sites. After reading this book I have witnessed two popular cases of mob shaming, one for a "joke" and another for an abusive counter-attack to a troll insults. However, I think that shaming can be good if done in private. People can be nasty on purpose, they *are* nasty on purpose, they would bully you, make denigrating comments to you and "joke" about you to undermine your psyche, your soul and your self-esteem. I feel is *my* right to let them know close doors that this is abuse, that is disrespectful behaviour and that I will take professional or personal action next time they think it is OK to do so. No yelling or lynching is necessary. If they think is OK to continue with their attitude and behaviour, public shaming is justified to me. This is very different, to me, from public shaming, mob shaming, mob lynching and Twitter mobbing. I believe that legal punishments, like those by Ted Poe might work wonders, as did for some people, but might destroy others.

I am sick of people being nasty, offensive, racist, sexist and "-ist" in general and then excusing their behaviour because it was a "joke". There is not need to lynch those people, but they need to learn that those jokes are not really jokes but camouflaged verbal abuse, and, because many of them already know that is the case, that you won't tolerate them or stand it. Some domestic violence examples show how jokes, demeaning jokes, are normally used to denigrate partners and are at the beginning of the relationship.I don't want to lynch anybody, but I will shame anybody who does shameful things to me or people I love.


One of the main takes from the book to me are Ronson's queries about why some people don't feel ashamed or shamed. The cure for shaming is empathy, Ronson says.That is very true. I agree that if everybody had a bit of empathy, put themselves in other people's shoes, people would not do certain things, would not offend, use or abuse other people, and mobs would not form as easily. Yet,manipulators, psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists, and even borderlines do use other people's empathy as a tool against the empaths to use and abuse those very people. The cure for shaming is, Ronson adds, speaking up when you think a mob is lynching somebody for a bad joke. I agree. Mind, you will be lynched as well. Be ready and prepared. One my favourite recipes is given by Daisey, who refused to be shamed by his shamers despite doing something shameful:
"...The way we construct consciousness is to tell the story of ourselves to ourselves, the story of who we believe we are. I feel that a really public shaming or humiliation is a conflict between the person trying to write his own narrative and society trying to write a different narrative for the person. One story tries to overwrite the other. And so to survive you have to own your story. Or . . .’ Mike looked at me, ‘. . . you write a third story. You react to the narrative that’s been forced upon you.’ He paused. ‘You have to find a way to disrespect the other narrative,’ he said. ‘If you believe it, it will crush you.’ (Kindle Locations 2226-2231).

Ronson is a journalist, not a novelist, so don't expect the book to be literary. Obvious, no?

>  Jonah Lehrer, Justine Sacco, Lindsey Stone, Hank, Adria Richards, and Raquel had never  before spoken to a journalist about what had happened to them before this book.
> Ronson's interviews with Troy and Mercedes Haefer from 4chan appared published before in a column for the Guardian Weekend magazine as well as his story of how his son forced him  to re-enact being thrown into a lake.

Barely any. I noticed just two, which are the result of the conversion from printing format to digital format
> loc. 550 pointed outto me
> loc. 942 dehumaniz-ing them
Another great cover for the Kindle edition of the book!