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Wednesday 25 February 2015

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translator: Deborah Smith)

The Vegetarian is a novel about non-conformity in a highly conforming society. In the opening section of the book, Yeong-hye, an ‘ordinary wife’ decides to become vegetarian after experiencing a recurrent bad dream. The people around her, her husband and wider family, do not understand. Apparently it is uncommon in South Korean society for people other than Buddhist monks to become vegetarian. What follows are three connected stories, beginning with Yeong-hye then moving on to her brother-in-law and then her sister. Each is affected by Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is slightly different way.

The story begins with Yeong-hye, as described by her husband: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” Yet what follows is the story of a woman who is anything but unremarkable. Yeong-hye suffers from extremely vivid and disturbing dreams. Dreams of blood and slabs of meat, dreams of sucking down blood, blood on her skin and clothes. These dreams drive Yeong-hye to become a vegetarian; she can no longer face eating meat and can barely sleep, she is so unsettled by them. Her husband reacts without understanding, he can only see that Yeong-hye is behaving strangely and this strangeness is quite the opposite of what her husband desires. Instead he desires a plain and ordinary life. Yeong-hye’s behaviour does not fit into this.

Image result for the vegetarian han kangThat Yeong-hye’s husband and her family find her switch to vegetarianism disturbing becomes quite apparent very quickly. What I found disturbing as a reader was the reaction to Yeong-hye’s choice: no one attempts to understand her, they only seek to force her to comply. In the case of her husband, this means ignoring the problem and trying to ignore Yeong-hye, as he describes here:

“I sometimes told myself that, even though the woman I was living with was a little odd, nothing particularly bad would come of it. I thought I could get by perfectly well just thinking of her as a stranger, or no, as a sister, or even a maid, someone who puts food on the table and keeps the house in good order.    “

This ignorance descends into marital rape, which her husband describes in such a matter of fact way it made me feel slightly sick. In the case of Yeong-hye’s family their approach to her refusal to eat meat is an attempt at force feeding, followed by physical violence on the part of her father, which results in Yeong-hye slitting her wrist with a fruit knife. Consequently Yeong-hye is admitted to hospital and, following this, a mental institution. By this time Yeong-hye is desperately thin and emotionally distant. No one can reach her, and she clearly doesn’t want to be reached by anybody.

The story then moves to Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an artist who becomes sexually obsessed with Yeong-hye. He confesses to have always been more attracted to Yeong-hye than his wife, and his wife’s casual mention of Yeong-hye’s ‘Mongolian Mark’ on her back send him spiraling into an obsession over which he has no control. This obsession takes the form of a particular sexual fantasy: the idea of painting Yeong-hye’s body with flowers and recording someone (himself) having sex with her. He cannot get this vision out of his mind. Against his instincts, he approaches Yeong-hye (now released from the mental institution and reintegrating into society) and asks her to model for his art. To his surprise, she agrees. Though his motives are sexual in nature, he is surprised at his own reaction to Yeong-hye once he has painted her:

“Only then did he realize what it was that had shocked him when he’d first seen her lying prone on the sheet. 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.”

Eventually he follows through on his desire, finally recording himself having sex with Yeong-hye. It is at this point his activity is discovered by his wife In-hye. Both Yeong-hye and he are captured and sent to a mental institution.

Here the story turns to In-hye as she tries to come to terms with what has happened in her own life, and the slow descent into madness of her younger sister Yeong-hye. In-hye’s story is the least impassioned of the three, and perhaps the most poignant. In-hye reflects on Yeong-hye’s state as she visits the hospital on the day they attempt to insert a feeding tube into Yeong-hye’s nose. By this point Yeong-hye is convinced she has transformed from something human into a plant, that she need only plant herself by her hands into the cool soil of the forest for her transformation to be complete. We see In-hye struggling between what she is supposed to do (force feed Yeong-hye) and what Yeong-hye wants her to do (let her go). She reminisces on their childhood, the way in which Yeong-hye had been abused by their father and her cowardice in never confronting it. As though she could. This culminates in a realization that the whole of her life, she had never really lived. As she describes here:

“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure.”

These three stories, approaching the subject in very different ways, show three characters undergoing a process of self-discovery, of transformation. Each character confronts the social norm, and finds themselves set against it. In the case of Yeong-hye the process is violent, disturbing and ultimately self-defeating. Is she mad? It is a question the book neither asks nor answers. Yet Yeong-hye represents the person standing at odds with the social contract, the silent promise we each make not to rock the boat, not to be too individual, to behave in accordance with the wishes of others. In the case of her brother in law, it is his sexual desire which is at odds with the world; his desire to take part in a physical union which is extraordinary and consuming. In-hye desires only to live, but is restrained by fear from doing so. Only in the end, and through the extremity of Yeong-hye’s actions is she able to let go.

The Vegetarian is an astonishing book, powerful and magnetic and deeply disturbing. I found it inspiring and terrifying in equal parts; in particularly Yeong-hye’s story which, seeming so ordinary from a ‘western’ viewpoint, the way in which the people surrounded her reacted is perhaps a sadly familiar story. There was a disturbing lack of understanding, a lack of desire to understand which was driven solely by the need for things to go on as painlessly as possible. Yeong-hye forces those around her, reader included, to consider what it means to live, and not just to live but to live a life which has meaning and personal service, not just for the good of others. A read as extraordinary as its cover (which is stunning).  

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