Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Siamese by Stig Saeterbakken

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

The Vegetarian by Han Kang


It's been a siege of spiteful characters, plots, and world views--months really, since through pure happenstance I started to read the backlog of novels I've been accumulating since year's end.

What exactly is spite? Not an easy word to define, spite evokes the worst character traits: simmering anger, bitterness, vindictiveness, pettiness, resentment, vengefulness. I imagine the spiteful would reside in Dante's Fifth Circle, hard on the banks of the River Styx. Filippio Argenti is one of the only souls in hell for whom Dante feels only spite ("I would see him pickled in that swill.") The spiteful imagine great wrongs done to their person; they feel deeply, but only to the end of exacting revenge. Spite presumes a form of justice that doesn't even accounts but obliterates those who have given offense. Perfect spite is nurtured, kept alive as a means of providing the spiteful a reason to live.

A nearly-blind Edwin Mortens lives in the bathroom of a flat with his almost deaf wife Erna. They hate each other but depend on one another physically and psychologically--they torment one another, suspect infidelities, are envious and spiteful--a marriage made in hell. Saeterbakken, author of Journey Through Night and Self-Control specializes in character studies of men and women living in extremis, surviving in the face of suffering and loss, spreading the wealth, so to speak, by tormenting those around them. Siamese is a novel Beckett might have written or brought to the stage. The sequential interior monologues of Edwin and Erna are perfectly suited to the theater--Edwin seated in the bathroom staring with milky eyes at nothing; Erna seated at the kitchen table in a run-down apartment muttering about her husband's vileness. Nurturing their hatred so as to continue living, after a fashion.

 Revenge isn't inherently spiteful: one might get back at someone coolly, just to even the score. But the best sort of revenge is obsessive and therefore steeped in spite--and the payback, ideally, will both duplicate the original offense and quote it. The finest novel of revenge-spite that I know of is Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness, a title that suggests the great Japanese writer's penchant for delicate stories of unhappy love, but which actually delivers a bitter tale of terrible revenge enacted long after the precipitating crime. As the novel opens, Oki Toshio is journeying from Tokyo to listen to the New Year's bells in Kyoto. But his real hope is to visit a lover whom he impregnated and abandoned twenty years before--Otoko Ueno. Ueno is now a famous artist who lives with a young lover and protege, Keiko Sakimi. Keiko is jealous of Ueno's former lover, but her feelings of hatred and her desire for revenge, as is typical in Kawabata, are just as much directed against what to her appear to be the cruel customs and repressive culture of traditional Japan. As Keiko plots exquisite and terrible revenge against Otoko and his family, Kawabata reveals deeper fissures in the social fabric of Japan: the subservient role of women is one of them, but more poignant is the Kabuki-like ritual of love-death. Ueno and Keiko share a destructive passion: Ueno's detachment and world-weariness are well suited to Otoko's deep-seated grief for his treatment of Ueno, but Keiko is nearly driven mad by the passivity and introspection that has allowed Ueno to live her life as a victim. Keiko dispatches her victim callously, methodically, and without a hint of passion. Her spite is reserved for Ueno--this is the genius of the novel--rather than for the man who abandoned her.

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way." Thus begins the most disturbing--I suppose I should use the word "transgressive"--of the three novels, the story of an ordinary woman who has a dream of blood and elects to become a vegetarian as a result. Where's the harm? Hardly as serious as the mad hatreds of the Mortens or as obsessive as the revenge described by Kawabata--vegetarianism, after all, would seem to be a personal and an ethical decision, to be respected and honored. But Yeong-hye's husband and family behave as if she had elected to become a serial killer: they torment her with arguments, they stuff food into her mouth, they treat her as if she were insane.  Yeong-hye's response is to become nearly catatonic, to abandon not only meat but her life and, eventually, her language. Her tormentors are ordinary people--her family--but the spiteful ways in which they insinuate that Yeong-hye has no rights over her own body suggest the brutal way in which men (and some women) assert the proposition that women are not agents and that their bodies belong to husbands and fathers and mothers.

The spite trilogy. Hardly cheering, but each of these three novels was compelling in the way that a traffic accident is compelling--you slow down despite yourself, relieved that it isn't you--this time. 

George Ovitt (4/19/16)

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