The Vegetarian, by Han Kang: The Anguished Wait for Nature’s Embrace
I approached ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang for two main reasons. The first because the author, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, is South Korean and I had interest in reading a contemporary novel from this particular Asian country. The second one, because the cowinner of this prize was Han Kang’s English language translator, a 28-year-old American woman, Deborah Smith, who picked up Korean only seven years ago. It intrigued me how Smith had gone trough a learning process – as she called it with modesty – while translating this work, and how this allowed her to better her skills in the foreign language. Despite not knowing Korean, I found Han Kang’s novel beautifully written and skillfully translated by Smith, as the tone of the prose is conveyed in a very intimate way, and the diction and syntax are sharp.
‘The Vegetarian’ is a book that, in my opinion, stays with the reader for a long while and – using a simile from the vegetable world – acquires more taste with time, like a jar of homemade kimchi left to stand for a few days for fermentation. The fact that ‘The Vegetarian’ has been written by a Korean may make it more specifically related to its country of origin, as in general Korean people are meat-lovers. It is not so, as vegetarianism transcends its implications here to become a profound personal choice that leads to starvation, subversion, but also submission and abuse, as the main character, Yeong-hye, is all the while yearning for rebirth and salvation from her haunting thoughts.
‘The Vegetarian’ shows how Yeong-hye’s personal choices and extreme behaviour are seen and interpreted by the other family members as catastrophic and how the reaction to these triggers a series of events that lead to the destruction of all relationships. This unavoidably also unveils the hypocrisy of the same people who not only should know each other well, but who are supposed to be closer to the woman.
The story is divided into three parts and told from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s insignificant husband (Mr. Cheung), of her obsessive brother-in-law – a failed artist – and of her overburdened older sister, In-hye.
In the first part, the way in which Mr. Cheung considers his wife says all about him.
‘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.’
The longer his wife persists to stick to vegetarianism, acting oddly, the more he admits the failure of their relationship ‘I just couldn’t understand her. Only then did I realize: I really didn’t have a clue when it came to this woman.’
On the other hand, Yeong-hye’s routine gets weirder. She admits that she refuses to eat meat due to a dream that she had, but her way of dealing with this new choice leaves the reader aghast: the kitchen floor is covered with frozen meat, scattered allover as she tries to get rid of it; she almost stops eating and sleeping altogether; she peels potatoes with her upper body bare to the waist.
In between her husband’s considerations, which show his inadequacy and inability to even try to take her to see a doctor as she get thinner and weaker, we read what happens in Yeong-hye’s mind: dreams of murder, knives, dripping blood, meat, confusion, darkness, and a newly developed trust in her breasts only:
‘Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening – what I am going to gouge?’
As Yeong-hye is being forced sweet and sour pork into her mouth during a family dinner, she slashes her wrists and is taken to the hospital.
The second part of the novel is seen from the point of view of her artistic brother-in-law. Despite Yeong-hye’s skeletal look, the man becomes obsessed with her Mongolian mark and asks her if she is willing to be part of one of his artistic projects, as a naked model. Yeong-hye agrees with it and finds herself in his studio, where the man paints flowers and leaves on her body and has the chance to admire her Mongolian mark that ‘…called to mind something ancient, something pre-evolutionary, or else perhaps a mark of photosynthesis, and he realized to his surprise that there was nothing at all sexual about it; it was more vegetal than sexual.’
He decorates her body with ‘…half-opened buds, red and orange, bloomed splendidly on her shoulders and back, and slender stems twined down her side. When he reached the hump of her right buttock he painted an orange flower in full bloom, with a thick, vivid yellow pistil protruding from its centre.’
He then continues to paint flowers in yellow and white, from her collarbone to her breasts. Yeong-hye accepts everything with calm, unperturbed. She loves having the body painted with flowers and refuses to wash off the colours later on.
The story takes a sharp turn and we are then drawn into the third part of the novel, where Yeong-hye’s hardworking and responsible sister, In-hye – the breadwinner of her family – tries to come to terms with Yeong-hye’s physical weakness. At first we feel pity for the sister who, for fraternal duty, is trying her best to save the ailing woman. But we soon understand that the task In-hye forces herself to accomplish becomes a way to explore her own frailty ‘Time was a wave, almost cruel in its relentlessness as it whisked her life downstream, a life which she had to constantly strain to keep from breaking apart.’
As Yeong-hye becomes more and more – in her own way – part of the vegetal world, and dreams that ‘I was standing on my head…leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands…so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide…’, In-hye’s fears reawaken and she realizes how her devotion, her goodness and humanity had most of the time been driven by cowardice. This gives her ‘…The feeling that she had never lived in this world…Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her success had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely.’
‘The Vegetarian’ is a powerful novel, in all its cruelty. With remarkable skills, Han Kang manages to transport us from one character to the other, even when the focus of the story is Yeong-hye’s transformation: from Yeong-hye’s lousy and insignificant husband, to her brother-in-law’s obsession; from the protagonist’s cool and algid, determined passivity (and note the oxymoron) to In-hye’s perception of her wasted past life and her struggle with the present one.
Despite much agonizing and alienation, vegetarianism, the vegetal life, the painted flowers and the numerous trees that appear in the novel represent an ideal dimension, in which both Yeong-hye and her sister could feel free and reborn, while at the same time stay rooted to Mother Earth. In In-hye’s vision ‘The innumerable trees she’s seen over the course of all her life, the ondulating forest which blanket the continents like a heartless sea, envelop her exhausted body and lift her up…’
But is it just a vision? We ask ourselves, as we think about Kafka.
I recommend this interesting article, appeared on ‘The Guardian’, where the author and her translator ponder upon their writing relationship and daily routine