By Poonam Singh
Last June I read Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and I couldn’t put it down. Later that year, I read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and it turned out to be the best book I’d read all year. And the latter reminded me, over and over, of the first one. Coincidentally, both happen to be translations.
The Days of Abandonment is the story of Olga, a woman whose husband, Mario, leaves her. She soon discovers that Mario has been having an affair and is living with a much younger woman. The story of a woman abandoned for a younger model. Now where have we heard that before? Only every other work of art, literature or film. It’s truly a matter of art imitating life.
Olga soon realises that Mario had been sexually involved with the woman for a long time, and that she was underage when they began the affair. Olga had suspected that something wasn’t quite hunky dory but her self-doubt wouldn’t allow her to draw the logical conclusion. She turns a blind eye to her husband’s shenanigans. When he announces the separation, she’s taken aback.
She was a smart confident woman, with a job, while he was a nobody, when she had met him. She had pumped him up, blowing him up into a life-sized doll of ambition and drive and helped him succeed, while she had withdrawn into household chores. She had limited her world to first building their home — cooking and cleaning — taking care of him and later, nurture their two children. Voluntary confinement.
So at first, there’s disbelief, followed by grief. Olga then goes through a phase where she tries to get Mario to return to the family. Failing in her attempts and with increasing desperation, her actions become more and more unhinged and slowly she tips over the edge.
Towards the end, she is brought back from the edge, by her children and her need to care for them. The author uses the maternal instinct to anchor her and bring her back to reality.
Women coming undone, slipping over the edge of sanity, leaving hold of the slender, slim threads that tie them to sanity. The intricate gossamer webs we weave around us to keep us connected to all that’s real and solid is also about accountability.
The pressures on women to conform, to keep going in the face of insurmountable odds aren’t always obvious or external . It also comes from within, in the ways that we are connected to those around us. Parental abuse that ties us to siblings and motherly bonds, to children.
We are the women our mothers willed us into being and we are petrified that if we don’t show our femininity well enough, we will not be wanted. And to not be desired, is there even an existence beyond that, according to society?
“… now I know what an absence of sense is… and what happens when get back to the surface of it…You, you don’t know. At most you glanced down, you got frightened and you filled up the hole with Carla’s body.” says Olga. An absence of sense may sometimes be the only way to make sense, because being sensible gets you nowhere and you are left threadbare and discarded .
Culture constantly tells women to limit themselves, to take up less space, draw themselves inwards, and hide their desires. So much of our performances are about ‘psychic self mutilation’. bell hooks talked about this in the context of masculinity, but it applies to women too.
Bend, mould yourself. Be frangible, let yourself be broken, so you fit into the spaces you are given; a corner or a crevice will do. Let the man settle in and pour yourself all around him and take the shape he allows you, become a shape-shifter. Weave your passions into the weft of your family. You build.
The brutality of words, sharply spoken, and the constant policing of behaviours are also forms of violence women are constantly subjected to. The demand that we sit in a certain way, or dress conservatively, and do everything to not attract attention — certainly not the wrong type — is on us and is relentless. These violations of our freedoms is carried out incessantly throughout our lives.
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian begins with the shock announcement of the protagonist declaring herself a vegetarian, in a culture that is predominantly meat eating. She is visited by the same horrific, blood-drenched dream repeatedly, and it seems to be the reason behind her abrupt decision to quit meat. In trying to reclaim her mind, she must first purge her body.
Yeong-hye, the protagonist, is an unremarkable woman by all accounts. Indeed, this is the reason her self-absorbed husband picks her to be his wife. She is already in a disturbed state of mind when the family gathers to try to get her back on track. In a sudden act of violence, her father forces a piece of pork into her mouth and in retaliation, she stabs herself. Yeong-hye has hurtled over the edge.
The book opens with the statement of how unremarkable Yeong-hye is, yet as it proceeds, the attention is focused on her in a most remarkable way.
Insanity and women are closely knit. Although, women have been declared overly emotional and prone to hysterics, when we do slip over the edge, we are horrified at the display of raw emotion. The tearing down of the boundaries of niceties that hold up our well-ordered world can be a frightening spectacle. The display of emotion “too gaudy a grief” to behold. For many women, it is perhaps, the only way to draw attention to their pain and maybe even to the fact that they exist. An existence which is humdrum is still human.
Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a failed artist, becomes obsessed with her body. He hits upon the idea of painting flowers on her body as part of an art project but it also gives him a chance to gain physical proximity to her. I read askance as he invades her privacy, gradually pulls down boundaries, invades her personal space and finally rapes her.
While Yeong-hye seems to acquiesce to the act of intercourse, the lack of objection on her part stems from a detachment from reality. Her fixation on the alternative reality in her head and her attempt to purge herself of the recurring nightmare, blurs the boundaries between the various versions of reality. For her, the only motivation is to merge her body into nothingness, to erase it.
When a woman is not in a position to give informed consent, the act of intercourse is rape. Similarly, in The Days Of Abandonment Mario rapes Olga — a violation which Olga looks upon as almost a chore. A kind of giving in, to keep the peace. To keep her man.
When marriage comes, can motherhood be far behind? Having a child sucks away all the carefully contrived sexiness from a woman’s body. A mother is no more the woman she once was, never will be. Her vagina violated in a way no human who hasn’t been through childbirth can envisage. The pain, the blood and the tearing of the body are life-altering experiences, we are told. And yet, we valorise motherhood. We sing peans to it, going into overdrive shoring up the impossible standards women are expected to live up to.
Look at the most hypersexualised part of the female body — the breasts. What are breasts but two orbs of fat, meant to provide nutrition to helpless human infants. Of all animals, humans have the longest infancy and need constant warmth, support, nutrition and breasts serve only this function. Yet, in the popular imagination the evolutionary role is all but obliterated.
In the later part of The Vegetarian, the focus shifts to the sister of the protagonist, In-hye. Like Olga, she too is a mother. Once again, here is woman who runs the home and cares for their child, unassisted, while her husband pursues his art. She has pulled herself up with bootstraps, built her life, inch by ferocious inch, and the life she shares with her husband has come through sheer grit.
All forms of madness, bizarre habits, awkwardness in society, general clumsiness, are justified in the person who creates good art, writes American novelist Roman Payne. In-hye’s husband seems to be the embodiment of this aphorism. While he has the luxury of dabbling in art, having no fixed or steady income, she cannot afford to relax. She is forced to organise their lives and keep its steady hum going.
In-hye then turns into the caregiver for Heong-hye towards the close of the book and the interactions between the two women are the most poignant sections of the book. In-hye, now abandoned by her husband, longs to forsake her streamlined existence for the chaos of the other side, but the nitty-gritty of motherhood keeps her sane. She is anchored into reality by the fact that she has to care for her little son.
Sanity is the clinging on to the set order of the universe, yet each one of us perceives it differently. What happens if our perceptions diverge from the norm — when the tightly knit controls loosen and the innards and blood and plasma spill out, chaos is inevitable. What if the seams come undone and the fabric of reality, so tenuously held together, splits? Insanity ensues.