Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books In Translation (page 1 of 4)

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Once in a while, when you’re lucky, the book you pick up will have an opening line that will catch your eye and drag it down the page. Take this one, from The Vegetarian: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” Isn’t that just… *chef’s kiss*? It promises a fascinating story to come. The Vegetarian is “a beautiful, unsettling novel in three acts about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul”, and it’s off to a strong start.

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As the opening line suggests, The Vegetarian is a story about Yeong-hye, an ordinary woman with an ordinary husband, who up-ends her life and the lives of those around her by deciding to commit to vegetarianism. In Part One, narrated by her office worker husband, she wakes from repeated visceral dreams of slaughter and blood. He finds her standing in front of the fridge in the middle of the night, calmly removing all animal products and summarily binning them.

To her husband (who gave me a Humbert Humbert vibe, though not in a way I can articulate clearly – is it his self-interest? his unshakeable expectation that the whole world should naturally submit to his inclinations?), this is a shocking act of subversion, only worsened by Yeong-hye’s steadfast commitment to the whole thing. She attends one of his business dinners, with colleagues he’s desperate to impress, and offends them all by refusing to swallow their meat, and their attempts at small talk into the bargain. His reaction runs the gamut from frustration to horror to rage. When even Yeong-hye’s family cannot convince her to take a bite of pork, he declares her unwillingness to submit to his will untenable, and divorces her.

“Now don’t go making me out to be some kind of villain. Anyone can see that I’m the real victim here.”

The Vegetarian (Page 70)

Throughout this initial section, the husband’s narration is occasionally interrupted, in shocking contrast, by italicised passages from the perspective of Yeong-hye (the only opportunity in The Vegetarian that she has to speak for herself). These interjections are visceral, stomach-churning, and I must offer a big-time trigger warning for cruelty towards animals (specifically a dog). That was almost enough to put me off The Vegetarian altogether, but I persisted for the purposes of this review.

Part Two of The Vegetarian is set two years after Yeong-hye’s conversion. It’s told in third-person, and focuses this time on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a flailing (slash failing) artists with his own bizarre obsessions. He is haunted by images that he struggles to distill into art, a love-making scene between two people decorated with painted flowers.

Conveniently enough, Yeong-hye has a petal-shaped birthmark. Now that she’s all crazy and vego and everything, he figures she might just be game to pose for him – which she does. He paints flowers all over her body, and that of a male model too, but unfortunately the male model is unable or unwilling to, ahem, perform as he should. So, the brother-in-law steps in to do it himself. What a guy!

When his wife, Yeong-hye’s sister, discovers evidence of their, ahem!, “art”, she calls emergency services and claims that it’s evidence of mental illness. They are both escorted away, and Yeong-hye is institutionalised for “treatment”.

In Part Three, Yeong-hye’s sister visits her at the psychiatric hospital every Wednesday. Yeong-hye is still refusing to eat meat, eventually refusing to eat altogether, and seems to have started identifying as a tree. The sister is confused, fearful, and – strangely – a little jealous. She wonders if she had no children, like Yeong-hye, whether she might be free to tether her thread to reality as well. The doctors try to force feed Yeong-hye, in front of her sister, which is thoroughly distressing to all involved. The story ends with Yeong-hye and her sister in an ambulance, Yeong-hye being transferred to another hospital for end-of-life care (if you don’t eat, you don’t shit, and if you don’t shit, you die).

So, The Vegetarian is a pretty fucked-up twisted story, all told, and one that (ironically) says very little about the philosophy of vegetarianism or why one might wish to eschew meat from their diet. It actually began as a short story, which Kang says drew on her strange idea of “a woman turning into a plant”. Don’t come to this book looking for an impassioned defense of animal rights or the case for plant-based foods; instead, you’ll find an allegory about patriarchal oppression in Korean society and the ways that etiquette can kill.

The bait-and-switch of the title doesn’t seem to have affected the book’s reach, however. Since its initial publication in Korean in 2007, it has been translated into 23 different languages around the world. This version, “elegantly translated into bone-spare English” by Deborah Smith, was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 (it beat out the front-runner, Elena Ferrante’s The Story Of A Lost Child). The award catapulted The Vegetarian to the top of book wishlists, and the publishers had to work overtime to fulfill 462,000 orders. Kang said she was “overwhelmed, [she] thought the previous 20,000 copies sold was good enough”.

I’m not sure whether I actually enjoyed The Vegetarian, or whether it was simply a gruesome scene from which I couldn’t pull my eyes. It was certainly well-written, and short – I read it in a single sitting without actually trying to do so. It’s a compelling read, but also (at times) a horrifying one. The vegetarianism angle is interesting, but I’m not sure it makes any points that haven’t already been made more memorably elsewhere. All in all, the only way to know if The Vegetarian is for you is to try it – as it is with everything, suck it and see.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Vegetarian:

  • “I can honestly say that after reading this book I felt dirty and offended by its very existence. And in case you were misled by the title — no, it’s not about vegetarianism. This book is grotesque, bizarre, and has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I found myself wanting to violently torture to death the main character almost from the first page. I read it through to the end only because I was waiting for the non-horrible parts to emerge or at least to watch this miserable wretch of a main character finally die. Neither thing happened. Every line of this book was a defilement of my brain cells and an assault on my will to live. This book literally made me wish I were dead just so I could escape the memory of having read it.” – Chloe pitbull
  • “I didn’t read this- but my sister did, her name is bucky. she liked it a lot. talked about it a lot. She even finished reading it (usually she just pretends to finish books) but she finished this one, which is why I gave it five stars.” – Muna Amry
  • “After the first twenty pages, I was like “Yeah, this is great.” By the time I got to page 80, I was like “Hmmm, I don’t want to finish this.” Would have been a good short story. Also, this made me want to eat more meat since the vegetarian in the book is so unlikable.” – Eli Cook

Like Water For Chocolate – Laura Esquivel

Let’s kick this off with a fun fact, shall we? Like Water For Chocolate, the 1989 novel by Laura Esquivel, takes its name from the Spanish phrase como agua para chocolate, which is an expression to say that one’s emotions are on the verge of boiling over. It’s a neat nod to the book’s contents, the story of a woman named Tita whose overwhelming emotions are often cooked into the delicious food she serves to her family. This edition was translated into English by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen.

Like Water For Chocolate - Laura Esquivel - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The front cover of Like Water For Chocolate promises “a novel in monthly instalments with recipes, romances and home remedies” – and that’s exactly what you get. Even though the timeline of the story is far longer than a year, it’s divided into twelve months, each preceded by a recipe that the characters cook in the following chapter. Hot tip: make sure you’re not hungry when you pick this one up, because the recipes and cooking chat will have you drooling!

The story is a bizarre history of sorts, of the De La Garzas: Mama Elena (husband deceased), her daughters (Gertrudis, Rosarua, and Tita), the cook (Nacha), and the maid (Chencha), all narrated by Tita’s grand-niece sometime in an unspecified future. They live on a ranch in Mexico, near the U.S. border. The family legend is bolstered in the South American style of magical realism, where tears can turn into rivers and bitterness alone can kill.

It begins in January with a recipe for Christmas Rolls (not one of the more delicious offerings: sardines, chorizo, and chiles serranos? Ho, ho, no!). They are youngest daughter Tita’s favourite dish. Tita is the star of Like Water For Chocolate, though her supporting cast is also stellar. As the youngest, she is forbidden – by long-standing family tradition – from marrying, so that she can stay home and care for her mother for the rest of her life. Tita’s fine with this, until she meets the hunk-a-spunk Pedro. It’s love at first sight, for both of them, but Mama Elena isn’t having a bar of it.

When Pedro comes to ask for Tita’s hand, Mama Elena suggests that he marry Rosarua instead. Pedro reluctantly agrees, reasoning that at least marrying into the family will allow him to stay close to his true love, Tita, for life. Yeah, yeah, that’s a little problematic, but let’s not let it ruin the romance, eh?

The only thing Tita loves as much as she loves Pedro is cooking. Unfortunately, her dishes are infused with her emotions, sometimes with disastrous consequences. The lust of her rose petal sauce (made from the roses Pedro gave her) causes her sister Gertrudis to run away naked and work in a brothel. Tita’s desperate longing baked into Rosarua’s wedding cake causes everyone who attends the wedding to become violently ill (and delays consummation, ahem!). This supernatural effect is woven into the narrative very naturally, so that it almost feels like a given.

Despite the looming specters of death and heart-break, Like Water For Chocolate reads like a well-written rom-com. It’s certainly a lot more fun than, say, One Hundred Years Of Solitude – I’d say it’s closer to the love-child of My Brilliant Friend and The Alchemist, with a sprinkle of romance and magic. It’s easy to read, but it’s not without substance. The recipes are a neat hook, but that’s not all there is to love about this short, bittersweet family saga.

Like Water For Chocolate has sold over a million copies in Spain and Hispanic America, and a whole bunch more in translation around the world. It was also made into an award-winning film of the same name (no, I won’t bother watching it, the book was delightful enough and I’m worried they’d ruin it). I can certainly understand its enduring popularity, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to wade into the pool of South American literature, rather than diving all the way into the deep end.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Like Water For Chocolate:

  • “Read this or stab yourself in the eye? Stab yourself in the eye. Hands down the worst thing I’ve ever read (and I’ve read ‘Mansfield Park’).” – Ben

Adèle – Leïla Slimani

Leïla Slimani is probably best known for her debut novel (Lullaby, for which she won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt), but for some reason I was more drawn to pick up this one – which, incidentally, she actually wrote before her best-seller. Adèle was first published in the original French in 2014, then this translation into English by Sam Taylor did the rounds in 2019, as the #MeToo movement was ramping up.

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The #MeToo connection is significant because of Adèle‘s premise and content. The titular character Adèle is a respected journalist who appears, from the outside, to have a perfect life – husband, kid, and a swish apartment in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris. It’s all a mirage. Adèle is actually a sex addict, seeking ever-more brutal carnal encounters to satisfy her desperate need. She’s kept her addiction a secret, from her husband and colleagues (well, the ones she hasn’t slept with, anyway), but the cracks are beginning to show.

Adèle begins with her leaving the house early, before her husband and child wake up, to search for sex on the way to work. You should know that Adèle is a Moshfegh-esque protagonist, one whose single-minded desire and self-interest will undoubtedly turn off a lot of readers. It’s hard to fathom her logic, or keep up with her swings from self-chastisement to self-abasement, unless you’re familiar with the rhythms of addiction on a personal level. Adèle is effectively delusional, and she (almost) sucks the reader under with her.

Adèle‘s sexual encounters are ultimately unsatisfactory and unfulfilling, because – really – it’s not about sex. As Slimani tells the reader directly, “Her only ambition is to be wanted,” (page 52). That means that the dirty bits aren’t erotic or titillating, at all. The sex scenes will make you shudder, but not in the good way. Even the most generously-minded reader would struggle to find anything actually arousing in this novel. For a novel about a sex addict, that’s quite an achievement on Slimani’s part.

The story is told in short, sharp chapters. There’s not much of a plot, and very few other characters besides Adèle and her immediate family. The tone is flat, humourless, and pacy as a standard domestic-noir thriller. There’s nothing to distract from Adèle’s descent into complete self-destruction, until a shift about two-thirds of the way through, which introduces her husband’s point of view.

I’ve seen Adèle described as a “modern-day Madame Bovary”, which works for the most part as a parallel, except that as I remember it, Flaubert’s protagonist was, in some small measure, understandable. Emma was raging against the patriarchy, against the oppressive society and marriage into which she was bound, and heck – she liked a drink, at least. She had fun. Adèle (the book and the character) is completely humourless, completely anhedonic, and it’s hard to see what she even gets out of the addiction that has wholly consumed her. Of course, that’s the point, but… as a reader, I wished I’d had some kind of “in” with her character. It would have made Adèle a story, rather than just a commentary on power.

Because that’s what I’ve decided this book is: a comment on how men and women find power, how they give it up. The “truth” of the character of Adèle is evasive. Adèle is all effect, with little interrogation of the cause. It’s interesting, it’s a good conversation-starter, but it’s not going to sweep you away or pull on any heart-strings. I’d recommend this one for your book club if the chat has been a bit stale lately, but skip it if you’re looking for something to curl up with on the couch.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Adèle:

  • “I usually plow through a book even if I don’t really like it to see if it gets better as I get into it. I started reading this book on my reader, and when I was about 40% through it, I realized that I didn’t really care what happened to any of the characters at that point, so I decided to cut my losses and move on to something else. I didn’t think it was even good porn.” – William
  • “A thin short book vaguely portraying a drab cynical view of the human condition through a married couple living a miserable empty life. About the best thing a reader could say is “hmm, well, I’m glad I’m not them.”” – Daniel Stuelpnagel
  • “those looking for a biography of the singer Adele should look elsewhere” – J. R. Baillie

Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay – Elena Ferrante

I am gradually making my way through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (see my thoughts on books one and two, My Brilliant Friend and The Story Of A New Name). Today, I turn to book three in the series, Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay (or, in the original Italian, Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta), first published in 2014. It documents the “Middle Time” in the lives of Elena and Lila, their adulthood proper against the tumultuous backdrop of Italy in the 1960s and 70s.

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Elena re-introduces the story by describing the last time she saw Lila, skipping ahead briefly to 2005, when they were out for a walk in Naples and a body was discovered in a nearby garden, that of their childhood friend Gigliola Spagnuolo. “The old neighbourhood, unlike us, had remained the same,” Elena says. Then, her mind reels back to where The Story Of A New Name left off, at the reading of Elena’s debut novel.

Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay tells two very different stories – Elena’s and Lila’s – almost entirely separate from one another. Lila already has a child, she has left her husband and is living in sin with the kind-hearted computer student Enzo, and she works in a salami factory where the conditions and pay are (needless to say) very shitty. That, in her friendship circles, makes her a poster-child for the communists, who take up Lila’s supposed “cause” and cause a whole lot of trouble for her along the way. Her “brilliant” mind saves her though; her encouragement and enthusiasm for Enzo’s computer studies leads her to learn alongside him, eventually joining him as an assistant at IBM. Towards the end of this installment, she takes on a highly-paid well-respected technician role of her own, working for the Solaras family (Michele Solaras is in love with Lila, and determined to keep her in his orbit).

Meanwhile, Elena enters into married life, happily at first, but after a while not so much. She has two children of her own, and attempts to write a second book. She seems to feel an overwhelming frustration with her life, but lacks Lila’s willingness to take any action to change it. She doesn’t even know what the “right” action would be. Both women have found themselves in cages, beating against the walls of patriarchy and politics, forced into misery and submission. Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay depicts how they each find their own escape route. For Lila, that comes through employment and empowerment, and for Elena, it’s a plane ticket for a trip with a man who is not her husband. Yes, that’s right, she and Nino finally get it on. Woo!

There’s a lot more politics in Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, compared to the earlier Neapolitan novels. I think that’s attributable to both the time period over which it’s set (with the sexual revolution and communist uprisings and whatnot) and Elena’s growing political awareness with age. As always, Ferrante has managed to distill the social unrest into the lives of her characters, without ever making Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay feel like an “issue” novel. Lila and Elena have to contend with pay disputes, domestic violence, state violence, contraception, and more, each in their own way. Ferrante’s subtlety is the master-stroke, with class distinctions cloaked in social niceties and language.

I must mention that in Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, I found the very first (albeit small) faults in Ann Goldstein’s translation. Goldstein has translated all of Ferrante’s work, and done a spectacular job of it, but in this one she was ending sentences with prepositions (drives me nuts!) and I found the occasional bum note which disrupted the “flow” of the story. The translation is still lyrical and beautiful and compulsively readable, don’t get me wrong – just perhaps not as superb and faultless as the others have been.

Ultimately, it was a pleasure, once again, to immerse myself in Lila and Elena’s “furious friendship”. The story naturally progresses, beyond the bounds of their Naples neighbourhood and the youthful concerns of the previous novels, a very logical continuation akin to a well-written biography. Except Ferrante’s subject isn’t an individual, it’s a friendship and a country and a century. Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay is perhaps not my favourite of the Neapolitan novels, but honestly, Ferrante could write a novella about the one time Elena stepped in dog shit, and I would devour it with glee.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay:

  • “It would require an exorcism to remove Lila and Lenu from my heart and mind.” – Miss Lee Lee
  • “Once again Lila is testing the limits of a fifth grade education by becoming a computer engineer and business manager. Elena is being boring feeling sorry for herself most of the time. Skip it.” – Barbara Lerner
  • “I felt the characters became repetitive and was very annoyed at Lenu’s irrational insistence that she loved her child crush. She hardly knew the loser.” – Leslie000
  • “Exhausting continuation of dysfunctional relationships” – Debra D. Bandera

Death At Intervals – José Saramago

Here we have yet another book I came to via the wonderful The To Read List Podcast: Death At Intervals (or, in the U.S., Death With Interruptions). Aside from their recommendation, it was the premise that had me hooked. In an unnamed country, on January 1 of a brand new year, death just… stops. “New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities,” the narrator explains on page one. Death is on strike. Come on, Keeper Upperers! Tell me that doesn’t pique your curiosity!

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People who are unwell or injured neither improve or deteriorate – they simply don’t die. Initially, the population is dancing in the streets. I mean, it sounds like great news, right? No death! Woohoo! But of course, before long, some unanticipated consequences take the shine off the apple. Undertakers and funeral directors face bankruptcy. Religion has to take a new approach. A black market emerges, a “maphia” (spelled that way to avoid confusion with the traditional mafia) who will smuggle the elderly across the border where they can “expire” naturally. All of the outcomes are logical, once Saramago lays them out for you, but they’re definitely not the first ones that spring to mind when you hear “eternal life”.

Although Death At Intervals isn’t a comedy per se, I found it hilarious how quickly the “disappearance of death” became a bureaucratic and administrative nightmare. Saramago dedicates a lot of time to pondering: what’s to become of all the life insurance policies? Would legislating the need for pet funerals save the floundering funeral industry? He also interrogates what this situation would mean on the household level. After all, if hospitals are overwhelmed with terminally ill people who won’t die, the logical next step is that they’d be sent home to their families. What’s to become of them? Can we just stick Grandpa in the attic until death starts up again? (That’s where the aforementioned “maphia” come in, angels of death as it were, offering a solution to families who can’t bear the financial and emotional burden of caring for the nearly-dead indefinitely).

Saramago also delves briefly(ish) into the philosophy of linguistics. See, the “disappearance of death” really throws all the philosophers into a post-modern tizzy.

“It seems you don’t understand that words are the labels we stick on things, not the things themselves, you’ll never know what things are really like, nor even what their real names are, because the names you gave them are just that, the names you gave them…”

Death At Intervals (Page 64)

In the second half of Death At Intervals, we transition from treating death (or the absence of it) as a phenomenon, and she (yes, she) becomes an actual, anthropomorphised character. She decides to get back to work (“The seven months that death’s unilateral truce had lasted produced a waiting list of more than sixty thousand people on the point of death,”, page 98) and she also decides to try something new: sending letters to the soon-to-be deceased, warning them of what’s to come. She also announces this new development in a letter written to the media, and then chastises them when they correct her spelling and punctuation.

The final twist comes in the form of one of her you’re-going-to-die-soon letters that is mysteriously returned. An otherwise-unremarkable cellist, against all odds, appears to have defied his mortal fate. This drives “death” up the wall, and she devotes all of her energies to unraveling the mystery of why this man simply won’t die.

Saramago wrote Death At Intervals in his native Portuguese (original title: As Intermitências da Morte) and it was first published in 2005. This edition was translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa (#NameTheTranslator!) and published three years later. Although it’s a short book, just a couple hundred pages, it reads like a far longer one, mostly due to the fact that… well, I hesitate to say this about a Nobel Laureate, but here goes: Saramago writes weird. There are almost no paragraph breaks, not even for dialogue. Oh heavens, the dialogue – not only does he not use inverted commas, he doesn’t even break the sentence! You’ve got to read each page a couple of times to make sure you’re really clear on who’s saying what to whom. Apparently, this is Saramago’s “thing” (eschewing the agreed-upon rules of grammar and punctuation), and that’s almost enough to put me off trying any of his other books.

Still, if you can grit your teeth and put your grammar-pedantry aside, Death At Intervals is a really interesting book. It’s a modern satire dressed up as magical realism. It might force you to confront all kinds of heavy questions you weren’t expecting – could humanity exist without mortality? what about religion or philosophy? not to mention what it says about euthanasia! – but Saramago manages to keep it fun.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Death At Intervals:

  • “Having a hard time reading this book. It’s implausible of course but dry and uninteresting” – sheri
  • “interesting look on life and death. i enjoy all of Jose Saramago’s take on life.” – Lauren
  • “Wonderful author, great story, too bad he has passed away.” – hdf
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