by Jan Filart
Han Kang (author), Deborah Smith (translator), The Vegetarian, Hogarth, 2016. 188 pgs.
For the longest time, literary works from Korea have been relatively underappreciated by the rest of the world, partly due to lack of translation. Korean literature now has at least a foot in the door towards broader international recognition following the 2016 Man Booker International Prize being awarded to The Vegetarian, Han Kang's chilling novel about one woman's uprooting of her own being. The eerie premise explores what becomes of a person when she abandons her humanity.
In an interview with Bethanne Patrick for Literary Hub, Han said that her radical novel was partially an exploration of the "(im)possibility of innocence," as well as an investigation into the nature of human violence against the rest of the world. Many vegetarians-by-choice forgo eating meat because they don't want to contribute to such a culture of violence, particularly against animals. The novel's titular vegetarian, Yeong-hye, however, decides to stop eating meat simply because of a dream that has her running through a barn full of bloody meat. This dream drives her down a dark path in search of an unreasonable sort of deliverance from violence.
The narrative is told chronologically through three long chapters, each one borrowing the perspectives of characters surrounding Yeong-hye. Two of these characters are her husband and her brother-in-law, who both provide unreliable narrations. Her older sister's perspective is the most sympathetic, though still not without flaws. Yeong-hye is a very complex character whose actions and thinking are difficult to fully comprehend or understand. For the reader looking through tinted lenses, it's hard to disagree with the characters who regard her as mad. Even her mere vegetarianism is seen as strange—because who turns vegetarian in meat-loving Korea?
Korean cuisine is very rich in meat—Korean restaurants normally offer a variety of scrumptious chicken, pork and beef dishes. It's perhaps no surprise, then, that vegetarianism is rare in the country.
One night, Yeong-hye's salaryman husband, referred to only as Mr. Cheong, brings her to a company dinner. She openly refuses to eat any meat, drawing raised eyebrows among her husbands' colleagues and their wives. Vegetarianism becomes an instant hot topic at the dinner table. "Meat eating is a fundamental human instinct, which means vegetarianism goes against human nature, right? It just isn't natural," says the wife of a boss. When Yeong-hye is asked her reason for turning vegetarian, she automatically responds that it was due to her dream. To save face in front of his colleagues, Mr. Cheong quickly covers for his wife, saying that she has gastroenteritis.
He tries to get help from Yeong-hye's mother and sister, leading to a fateful family reunion where Yeong-hye still stubbornly refuses to eat meat, even as her mother begs her to do so and her violent father beats her while attempting to force a piece of pork into her mouth. Her feral side comes out in this startling scene, as she clamps her teeth completely shut even as all hell breaks loose among her family members.
It's often mentioned that The Vegetarian involves themes of personal rebellion and nonconformity in Korea's collective society, but I think that only scratches the surface of a novel that's a lot deeper than its title suggests. Even though Yeong-hye gives up meat, she stops sleeping and continues to be haunted by her dream. "I thought all I had to do was to stop eating meat and then the faces wouldn't come back. But it didn't work," she says. As the narrative moves to its second act, we find that Yeong-hye is in rebellion against something far deeper and far more personal than just societal norms.
The novel's second chapter sees Yeong-hye discovering and embracing a new sensuality. She becomes sexually aroused by flowers painted on her body when her brother-in-law uses her as part of a video art project. Eventually, in the third chapter, she has become a patient in a psychiatric hospital in the mountains. Triggered by yet another dream, she becomes convinced that she has turned into a plant and does handstands while thinking herself a tree. "I'm not an animal anymore … I don't need to eat, not now. I can live without it. All I need is sunlight … Soon now, words and thoughts will all disappear," she ominously warns.
By this point, her only non-estranged family member is her older sister, In-hye, who pays weekly visits to the hospital. In-hye struggles to comprehend her sister, as she deals with her own demons at the same time. She frequently begs her sister to eat just to stay alive, but after one particular episode, Yeong-hye coldly retorts, "Why, is it such a bad thing to die?"
In-hye then recalls from childhood the time she and Yeong-hye got lost in the mountains. It's from this memory that In-hye catches a glimpse of the core of her sister's madness. Ever since her youth, Yeong-hye has harboured deep within her a refusal to live (as opposed to an outright desire to die). This desire lay dormant, until finally it was unveiled by her initial dream.
At her worst, Yeong-hye reduces herself to all but a mere carcass, ceasing to eat, speak or even move, as if she were an inanimate object. But it is also in this condition that she ceases to inflict even the slightest violence on anything and achieves her ideal state of innocence. In her attempt to achieve such an ideal, she gradually pushes the boundaries of her own life until reaching the brink of death. Yeong-hye's case ultimately reveals the absurdity of total innocence. Violence proves to be inescapable—a necessary evil for survival.
Han writes with visceral imagery and a smooth flowing style to deliver this haunting tale. Readers familiar with Korean will appreciate that the nuances of the original language have been well-incorporated into Deborah Smith's elegantly efficient English translation. The Vegetarian is a suitable introduction to contemporary Korean literature, which I hope will continue to gain much-deserved international recognition following this award-winning novel's breakthrough and through the growing effort among translators to provide access to Korean works.
Jan Filart is a graduate of Ateneo de Manila University and aspires to be a writer. Passionate about Asian literature, he writes his own book reviews in a personal literary blog, The Asian Reader
. He has a particular interest in translated works from Korea and Japan. Just like most bibliophiles, he also happens to write about Formula One racing in his other personal blog