‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang (Review)

It’s not often that a work of translated fiction, particularly one from a writer whose full-length work hadn’t previously made it into English, is eagerly awaited by Anglophone readers, but I’d have to say that today’s offering is one such book.  It’s a novel I’ve been aware of for around a year now, and I’ve been waiting patiently for it to appear.  Of course, huge expectation can often bring disappointment in its wake; luckily, that’s definitely not the case here.  This is a book which does live up to the hype 🙂

*****
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith, review copy courtesy of Portobello Books and Australian distributor Allen & Unwin) started life as a novella, becoming a novel once the three related stories were completed.  Ostensibly a look at a woman descending into the depths of madness via vegetarianism, it’s actually a well-constructed criticism of a society where everyone, and everything, has its rightful place, and where rebellion, however harmless, leads to problems for all involved.

The central figure of the novel is Yeong-hye, a young woman in a humdrum, loveless marriage.  While living a life which could have lasted for decades, a bizarre dream is the catalyst for a decision which is to shatter the lives of all around her.  One morning, her husband wakes up to see her emptying the fridge and freezer of any animal products.  Yeong-hye has decided to become a vegetarian, her house now a meat-free zone.

While it’s an abrupt decision, the Western reader will probably sympathise with her, but in a country where vegetarianism is rare, if not freakish, she is unlikely to receive much support.  In fact, her family and husband see it as perverse and destructive, an insult to those who are responsible for her well-being, refusing to accept that Yeong-hye is capable of making her own decisions:

“As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion.  In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.”
p.14 (Portobello Books, 2015)

The family decide that it’s their ‘responsibility’ to put Yeong-hye back on the path to sensible eating – what follows is a spiral of anger, violence and destruction…

The Vegetarian, as mentioned above, is actually a story in three parts.  The first part, ‘The Vegetarian’, is narrated in the first person by Yeong-hye’s husband, an uncaring, controlling businessman who feels insulted by his wife’s disobedience.  Unable to comprehend that it’s actually his behaviour which might be causing events, he continues to ignore her feelings, commanding her to wear a bra, forcing himself upon her and demanding she accompany him to meat-laden banquets at company outings.

The second part, ‘Mongolian Mark’, sees the point-of view switch to Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, this time told in the third-person.  A visual artist, he becomes obsessed with his sister-in-law, dreaming of a video project in which she will be his canvas.  Once events here have run their course, the final section, ‘Flaming Trees’, has Yeong-hye’s sister take up the story, as we see what has become of the doomed heroine of the piece…

On the surface, The Vegetarian is a novel which details the disturbing transformation of a woman who seems to have rejected the outside world.  The idea of telling the story through the eyes of other characters works well as it gives the impression of closeness without ever letting us into Yeong-hye’s psyche.  The only times we are able to peer beneath the veil are the rare occasions in which we see into her dreams:

“Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump.  Because of meat.  I ate too much meat.  The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there.  Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.” (p.49)

The scenes are full of confusing, bloody images, driving her to reject the food which is stopping her from becoming one with nature.

The beauty of the novel, however, is that it’s more of a criticism of the society around Yeong-hye than about the woman herself.  As the story progresses, the people around the central character are forced to re-examine their own lives.  While the husband gets off quite lightly, happy to carry on with his work and drinking, others become more involved in Yeong-hye’s issues.  Her sister, a successful businesswoman and devoted mother, discovers that she too is tired, worn down by playing her role in society, and begins to question the reasons for her marriage:

“It wasn’t long before she realized something: perhaps the one she’d so earnestly wanted to help was not him, but herself.  Was it not perhaps her own image – she who had left home at nineteen and gone on to make a life for herself in Seoul, always entirely under her own steam – which she had seen mirrored in this man’s exhaustion?” (p.132)

By this time, it’s far too late for things to go back to how they were, but can In-hye learn something from her sister’s troubles?

The Vegetarian is beautifully written, with an excellent translation from Deborah Smith (her first major work) which reads well throughout the book.  It’s an aggressive novel at times, deliberately disturbing and confronting, an attack on the smug conformism of Korean society.  The writer is attempting to make people reconsider accepted norms, such as male domination and the insane work lifestyle, while examining views of issues such as mental illness (and otherness…).

Yeong-hye’s decisions, her diet, her longing for nudity, are symptoms of a problem, not causes, and this ‘disease’ is the sickness of capitalism and modern life.  Throughout the novel, she acts as a catalyst, forcing the other characters to face up to situations they would rather ignore. The reality is that is these things would have happened anyway – you can’t hide away from an inconvenient truth forever.  In some ways, while Yeong-hye hurts, it’s actually just as much a story of release as of suffering, a reminder that stepping outside the expected can be the first step to real freedom.

According to Smith (who can be found on Twitter under the @londonkoreanist handle), there’s more from Han Kang on the way, with another book in English tentatively slotted in for early 2016.  Another long wait, but on the basis of The Vegetarian, I’m sure it’ll be well worth it.  And speaking of long waits, while the announcement of the longlist for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is just around the corner, I can’t help thinking that this is a book which has every chance of making the cut for the 2016 version.  Quite apart from the obvious merits of the book, it has all the features of a work which will catch the eye of a panel looking for something a little different from the norm…

…we’ll only have to wait about thirteen months to see if I’m right 😉

6 thoughts on “‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang (Review)

  1. I’m really intrigued by the premise of this book and your comments on it being a critique on the society around Yeong-hye. The LRB Bookshop held an event with Han Kang and Deborah Smith a couple of weeks ago and I would have loved to go. Couldn’t make it in the end so I’m hoping they’ll podcast it (they usually do).

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  2. Jacqui – I hope they do – I’d love to see it! This is an excellent book, and well worth the (lengthy) wait. The countdown’s now on until the next one appears…

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