Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is viewed as one of the great writers of the 20th century. His big works like Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle dealt with isolation, anxiety and guilt often in absurdist and surreal set-ups. Many have focused on Kafka’s philosophy or use of surrealism and seen subsequent writers like Milan Kundera and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as his heirs. But I think one the most powerful contributions of Kafka was the focus on isolation and difference in conformist societies. On that measure, I think the latest winner of the Man Booker International Prize, Korea’s Han Kang could be his latest heir.
Her book that won the prize was The Vegetarian. It describes the journey of a women who gives up meat. This may seem uneventful to many in Western Europe, but in South Korea vegetarianism is usually the preserve of monks alone. Her family reject her to varying degrees, while an artist accepts her as a piece of art with consequences that reverberate throughout the book.
It reminded me of Kafka’s Metamorphosis where the main character turns into a giant beetle and his family slowly reject him. It may sound far removed from Kang’s book, but both deal with the consequences of a dramatic change in a person and the fall-out with those that cannot accept it. These quotes from both books will show you what I mean:
Metamorphosis:“On the contrary, as a family there was a duty to swallow any revulsion for him and to be patient, just to be patient”
The Vegetarian: “Spring came, and still my wife hadn’t backed down. She was as good as her word – I never saw a single piece of meat pass her lips – but I had long ceased bothering to complain. When a person undergoes such a drastic transformation, there’s simply nothing anyone else can do but sit back let them get on with it. ”
Metamorphosis:”Who, in this tired and overworked family, would have had time to give more attention to Gregor than was absolutely necessary?”
The Vegetarian:“These days she goes every Wednesday to see how her sister [the vegetarian] is getting on, but before that rainy day when Yeong-Hye [the vegetarian] went missing, once a month had seemed sufficient”
Metamorphosis: “We have to get rid of it [the transformed Gregor]”, said Gregor’s sister, now speaking only to her father..”it’ll be the death of both of you, I can see it coming. We can’t all work as hard as we have to and then come home to be tortured like this, we can’t endure it. I can’t endure it any more.”
The Vegetarian: “Because of meat, I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate are lodged there..I want to shout, I want to throw myself through the pitch-black window. Maybe that would finally get this lump out of my body.”
Both books are relatively short reads (Kafka’s is a novella), so well worth reading one after the other. Enjoy!