The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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Translated by Deborah Smith

Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

The first of Korean writer Han Kang’s books to be widely available (in Deborah Smith’s superb translation) to English-speaking audiences, The Vegetarian was originally published as three separate novellas, then as the original novel in 2007. Each part is told from the viewpoint of a different character – none of whom is the titular vegetarian herself. The first part introduces us to a Mr Cheong, who likes a nicely ordered existence, and was pleased to have found a wife who facilitated that:

The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground. There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose in fashion catalogues, and she didn’t get worked up if I happened to be late for one of our meetings (p. 3).

All this is disrupted, however, when Yeong-hye (whom Cheong refers to only as “my wife”, never by name) suddenly decides to stop eating meat, and throws all animal products out of the house. Cheong does not take this news too kindly, especially as Yeong-hye gives him no more concrete explanation for her sudden change of diet than “I had a dream”. Although it’s not necessarily unusual to eat vegetarian in South Korea, it is rather unusual for someone to declare themselves vegetarian. And this is the main reason for Cheong’s anger: that Yeong-hye has done something unexpected, thereby disturbing the equilibrium of her husband’s life (“The very idea that there should be this other side to her, one where she selfishly did as she pleased, was astonishing,” p. 13).

So, from Cheong’s viewpoint, Yeong-hye is to be defined only in relation to him. We only get to see things from Yeong-hye’s perspective in passages representing her dreams – abstractions or scattered episodes that link suffering and violence to meat, and whose jagged prose stands in sharp contrast to the smooth certainty of Cheong’s narration (for example: “Try to push past the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin,” p. 12). More generally, Smith’s translation deftly captures the complex emotions embedded in and underneath each character’s point of view.

I should say at this point that I don’t think The Vegetarian is ‘about’ vegetarianism per se – the depiction of Yeong-hye’s choice and its consequences seems to me too abstract and remote to be taken literally. Rather, I see this more generally as a book about an individual stepping outside the norms of society for her own reasons, and how that is seen by others. It’s telling that each part of Han’s novel focuses on how other characters relate to Yeong-hye. Moreover, their relationships revolve around progressively deeper parts of Yeong-hye’s self. For example, in the first part, Mr Cheong (and, as it turns out, Yeong-hye’s blood family) is most concerned with her behaviour – she is no longer playing her appropriate role as wife and daughter, and this must be corrected.

However, Yeong-hye refuses to go back. In the second part, Cheong is out of the picture; the viewpoint turns to Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a video artist (who remains unnamed). He is particularly focused on Yeong-hye’s body: she hasn’t taken much care with her diet, and is beginning to waste away; but the artist sees more than this:

This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her – rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented (p. 85).

He is attracted to her (aesthetically and sexually; the two tend to bleed into each other for him), and wants to use her in his work. Yeong consents to have her body painted with flowers; in fact, she likes it so much that she keeps the paint on. What the artist really wants to do, though, is film sexual tableaux of Yeong-hye with a man painted in similar fashion – and he can only find a male subject by fudging his intentions a bit. In this part of the novel, Yeong-hye becomes a blank space for her brother to fill as he wishes (and she is quite happy to let him). It’s only towards the end that this becomes disrupted (and the tone of Smith’s translation shifts) when characters with different ideas intrude on the situation.

In The Vegetarian’s final part, Yeong-hye has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital; her only visitor is her sister, In-hye. So the sphere of Yeong-hye’s existence has been reduced drastically; and, in a very literal way, so has she – her body continues to weaken, as she refuses all food (even an intravenous drip). She tells In-hye that she doesn’t need food, only water, because she wants to become (or perhaps believes she is) a tree. In this chapter, In-hye is concerned with her sister’s mind, trying to work out how she can save Yeong-hye from herself. But there is the nagging sense that – unlike her sister – Yeong-hye has found a kind of serenity in life, even though she’s effectively had to destroy herself in the process. In-hye is ultimately faced with a difficult choice, perhaps one as significant in its own way as the choice Yeong-hye made.

As a character, Yeong-hye fills this novel even while remaining an empty space for much of it. In some ways, she lacks agency; in others, she is firmly in command of who she is. We’re never quite allowed to come to a definitive conclusion on why Yeong-hye does what she does; but then, neither are the people around her – and the ramifications of how they react to her spiral through – and beyond – the pages of this fine novel.

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David blogs at David’s Book World

Han Kang, The Vegetarian, trans Deborah Smith (Portobello Books: London, 2015). 978-1781846275623, 183pp., paperback original.

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