After reading just the first fifty pages of The Vegetarian, I’d filled almost two pages with notes about this meaty little book. When I picked it up, I wondered how such a slim volume, only 183 pages, could contain the brevity of a Booker prize winning novel. But, it had me spell bound from the first toe I dipped between its covers. Han Kang gives us her first English translation , translated from the Korean into sparse and ethereal prose by Deborah Smith. Dark, dream-like and evocative, it blends the surrealism and ambiguity of a Murakami novel with the grotesque eroticism of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher.
Yeong-hye’s husband comes home in the dark hours of the morning to find his wife standing, trance-like, in the glow of the open refrigerator. A disturbing, blood-drenched dream drives her to pursue a vegetarian diet in order to assume a more plant-like existence. The resulting narrative follows her Kafkaesque descent through the spectrum of human cruelty and obsession
As I was reading, I was struck firstly by how important point of view was in telling the story. For such a seemingly private story, concerning itself with one woman’s psychological transformation, it is told exclusively from the point of view of others, albeit for a handful of dream-like interruptions in the first section. Given such a limited insight into her innermost experience, we witness her from the point of view of three outsiders: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, each given a separate section of the text. This conscious decision to exclude Yeong-hye’s narration only serves to heighten the mystery and ambiguity surrounding her character, the inexplicable and dreamlike world that she inhabits that others strive to repress, possess, understand.
The text speaks to me both of the restrictions of living as a woman in a patriarchal society, and also to a larger extent perhaps simply of living as a human in a society dominated by conservative social protocols. We first encounter intolerance in Yeong-hye’s husband, who regards her subversion of the societal norm to eat meat with disgust and embarrassment. Both he and her family use her non-conformity as justification for violence towards her, which leads to her psychological breakdown. No longer the dutiful wife he married, her husband abandons her. Her brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her, fixating on a petal-like birthmark on her buttocks that becomes the muse for his erotic art films. The floral paintings he covers her body with become a talisman for her, guarding herself against the violence of her nightmares and fulfilling her fantasies of transformation. In Yeong-hye’s pursuit for a plant-like existence, and in her brother-in-law’s films, they both seek to be searching for something wilder, something free.
“Covered with flowers and leaves and twisting green stems, those bodies were so altered it was as though they no longer belonged to human beings. The writhing movements of those bodies made it seem as though they were trying to shuck off the human.”
Her sister, In-Hye, perseveres alone in her care for Yeong-Hye, and is haunted by her mental and physical deterioration as she strives to transcend her human body and its physical needs to become a tree. However, she begins to understand the significance of her sister’s rebellion, as draws further away from the limitations of society:
“She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.”
The Vegetarian was inspired in part by Han Kang’s memories of the Gwanju uprising when she moved to Seoul as a child, where hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were attacked and killed by government soldiers. Contrasting imagery of the constraints of civilisation against the dark purity of nature, the text weaves an allegory of Korea’s political climate. It explores the contradiction inherent in human nature, with its capacity both for violence and innocence. In-hye’s long, rainy bus-rides through the Ch’ukseong mountains give us a glimpse of the “undulating forests which blanket the continents like a heartless sea”, the dark, primeval forests battened against humanity, suggesting something wild and untouchable. Yeong-hye’s transformation reverts her to a primal state of being, connecting her to this sacred wilderness and incorruptible by human callousness.
In The Vegetarian, Han Kang creates a lyrical fable about one woman’s abandonment of self as she seeks to transcend her being to become a tree. It throws into question the nature of our identities and what it means to be human, and binds it all together with swirling, hypnotic prose. It leaves me so much to think about – even now, a day after finishing the book, I’m not sure I’ve digested everything it has to offer.