The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize 2016
“I believe that humans should be plants”. This quote from the modernist poet Yi Sang is at the core of a story which is personal, vivid and occasionally bizarre. The vegetarian is a novel by the South Korean writer Han Kang which won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016. It was her first novel to be translated into English and my first Korean novel.
This book, which is divided into three parts and told from three different perspectives, was able to gain international recognition through the work of British translator Deborah Smith. Her non-profit publishing house, Tilted Axis Press, is on a mission “to shake up contemporary international literature”. Its specialization on less commercial work has given it a reputation as a modern publisher seeking innovative and well-crafted work.
The story focuses on Yeong-Hye, a housewife with a timid nature who is in all ways unremarkable to those around her. The only thing of note seems to be her distaste for wearing a bra due to how uncomfortable it can be. Aside from this she is perfectly suited to the needs of her husband, a man comfortable with settling into the middle track in life and avoiding the pressures of a large company.
The first part, titled ‘the vegetarian’, tells of Yeong-Hye’s decision to stop eating meat or wearing any clothing made from animals. This choice, according to the author, is an “extreme attempt to turn her back on violence”. The reason behind it seems almost impossible to express and so Yeong-Hye rarely tries to explain her reasoning. Her sole defense comes in the form of four words, “I had a dream”.
The nightmarish vision that comes to her is one of the rare moments when Yeong-Hye feels present in the story. Her response to most of the people she encounters is a rare indifference, almost as though she doesn’t acknowledge their existence. Her passive nature is at times overwhelming for those around her. These visions and dreams which she has regularly are a symbol of human cruelty and destruction.
The author’s inspiration for this book as well as her second novel to be translated into English, Human Acts, came from the Gwangju democratization movement of 1980. This was an uprising in which an estimated 200 people died and hundreds more were wounded. The hard line taken by the president of the time, Chun Doo Hwan, against pro-democracy student protests led to the deployment of special forces. Kang had been nine at the time and a citizen of Gwangju, it is purely luck that she moved to Seoul with her family just months before the massacre.
Korean society has for decades been heavily conservative and focused on rapid modernization. As a result, Korea has quickly developed into one of Asia’s most affluent countries. However, it can be difficult to stand out and Yeong-Hye’s choice to reject violence through vegetarianism is not understood by those around her. Her family and husband’s co-workers could perhaps accept her as a vegetarian but her extreme approach leaves her isolated.
As the story progresses, the character’s physical and mental state are frequently questioned. Her bouts of insomnia and failure to acquire adequate nutrition give her the appearance of a hospital patient. Her love for feeling the sun on her naked body also confuses her rather traditional husband who increasingly feels a sense of loss as he mourns her transformation.
While the first story is told from the perspective of her husband, the second is told by her brother in-law, a failed artist who relies on his wife, the owner of a successful cosmetics store. ‘The Mongolian Mark’ refers to a blue spot or patch which is common in Asia and is typically located on the butt, back or sides. Generally it disappears during childhood but in Yeong-Hye’s case it remains and when her brother in-law hears this he becomes fascinated. This intense and sexually charged story tells of his attempt to create a visual art project centered on her in which he covers her naked body with flowers.
The story tells of a desperate longing which seemingly splits the failed artist in two. As he attempts to deal with his doubt and agonizing self examination he clings to the image in his mind. The Mongolian mark, surrounded by flowers which adorn the body of the naked Yeong-Hye.
The third story, titled ‘flaming trees’, tells the story of In-Hye, wife to the artist and sister of Yeong-Hye. As the story progresses, the vegetarian continues to reject the world around her. Yeong-Hye becomes increasingly isolated and the only person left is her sister, a successful businesswoman with the strength to navigate this world.
The difficulty of caring for her sister increasingly becomes a burden though and her sleep is affected. She begins to suffer terrible nightmares as well, perhaps a sign that she has begun to understand Yeong-Hye’s rejection of cruelty and attempts to be free of violence in all its forms.
The fragility of this family is slowly unveiled as each member tries to make sense of Yeong-Hye’s choices and each member’s passions and longing is slowly unveiled despite their attempts to hold it back. The effect is extraordinary as relationships crumble. The story will remain with me for a long time.
Similar to the work of Haruki Murakami with the way it weaves dreams and reality, the vegetarian succeeds in drawing the reader in to a unique story. It also provides an excellent insight into some aspects of Korean society. Reading about the food I love and places near my home made me smile. For those of you who enjoy reading about rice snacks and life in Seoul then this book is highly recommended.
Until the 1980’s Korean literature was largely unknown but over the past few decades it has become a stronger force internationally. The influx of Korean cinema and music has led to an increased interest and respect for its traditions and culture. I only hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I did and it encourages you to read more of the published work coming from this fascinating country.