I read South Korean writer Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian, for two reasons. Firstly, Kang won the International Man Booker Prize (for foreign literature) ahead of worthies such as Orhan Pamuk and Kenzaburo Oe. Secondly, I have not read a Korean novel, and, although I confess to not having a burning desire to evaluate Korean literature, I thought that if I wanted to do it The Vegetarian was as good a novel as any to start with (especially as it was available on discount on Kindle). I mean you’ve got to have a smidgen of talent to win ahead of Nobel Laureates.
What was I expecting of The Vegetarian? I like the novels I read to beguiling, spellbinding, comic, elegant, adorned with graceful prose, and also delivering incisive and devastating commentary on the human condition. They must not be overlong, but neither should they be novellas (which I don’t think are weighty enough; unless they are written by Stefan Zweig, who, because he died in tragic circumstances—but not only because of it—has a solid claim to greatness).
The Vegetarian fulfilled some of the above criteria. At less than 200 pages it is not overlong, but is longer than a novella. I would hesitate to describe it spellbinding. It is a strange novel, which is not the same as beguiling.
The Vegetarian is a novel written in three sections, at the centre of which is a young Korean woman named Yeong-hye, who, you might have guessed, decides to give up meat and become a vegetarian. The first section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr Cheong. The third section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s older sister, In-hye. Sandwiched between these two sections is the section narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, the husband of Yeong-hye, whose name, if it was mentioned in the novel, I have forgotten.
Back to Yeong-hye. She is, in every way, an unremarkable woman, according to her husband (who does not strike you as exactly a catch himself). Yeong-hye does not even have big breasts, the husband feels obliged to inform (said accessories, if of the right size, you guess, would have given the otherwise unremarkable Yeong-hye at least a couple of noticeable points). Yeong-hye decides to become a vegetarian after a gory dream which involves a lot of blood. Mr Cheong is concerned. He does not give two shits about what Yeong-hye eats so long he gets to chew on the bone marrow of a wide range of farmyard animals. But Yeong-hye is having none of it. She won't eat meat and she won’t cook meat. What is a (Korean) man to do? He is to inform the wife’s family of this mad obsession of his unremarkable wife, who is giving every indication of being enigmatic about it (either that or she is losing her marbles, the evidence in support of which is that she stops wearing a brassiere; the significance, if any, of this escapes Mr Cheong—who, it has to be said, does not appear to be blessed with imagination). Yeong-hye’s family, in particular her parents, react to the news as though Yeong-hye has decided to defect to North Korea. Yeong-hye’s father is a Vietnam veteran, otherwise known as a partially reformed vandal with a bad conscience, and who generally behaves as if he has been granted a license to go off the deep end at the slightest excuse (or no excuse). The family’s plan to make Yeong-hye give up this new-fangled idea is to arrange a feast where the table is overloaded with various incinerated animals, the idea being Yeong-hye would start watering (at mouth) at the spectacle and immediately come to her senses, diving head-first into the meant-fest. Yeong-hye’s father is incensed beyond endurance when this well-thought-out stratagem fails to yield the desired result, and decides that time has come to ratchet up a gear. Yeong-hye is pinned down by two male relatives while her father attempts to stuff her mouth (literally) with meat.
The second section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, the husband of her older sister. In this section we are not surprised to learn that Yeong-hye’s father’s attempts at forcing Yeong-hye back into the camp meat-eaters did not yield the desired results. Into the bargain Yeong-hye slashed her wrists and spent a night or two in the local hospital. She is still refusing to eat meat, and seems ever more removed from the every-day world. (The old man does not make any further appearances in the novel, which, you could say, is the only positive that comes out of the unfortunate episode.) We also learn that Mr Cheong has had enough of Yeong-hye’s insistence on not eating meat (and presumably not wearing a brassiere). Mr Cheong has left Yeong-hye (he, too, mercifully does not make any further appearance), and she is living alone in a flat. The brother-in-law considers himself an artist, but has not produced any work of art since his marriage to Yeong-hye’s sister, being content for his wife to work herself to death in order to maintain the household. While In-hye is working overtime, her husband decides to give art therapy to his sister-in-law, which necessitates, as dictated by the rules of art, Yeong-hye having to take her clothes off and having sex. Yeong-hye’s response to what most sisters-in-law would consider as very strange requests from their brothers-in-law is of nonchalance. She shades her clothes without demur, and is happy to allow her brother-in-law to paint her naked body. When the brother-in-law cajoles a colleague to have sex with her so that the act could be filmed, Yeong-hye has no issues (it’s the colleague who, despite rising to the occasion, balks at the last minute, and walks out). The brother-in-law, the true artist that he is, has no option but to take over himself. Regrettably, the great art experiment does not reach its fruition, as In-hye, whom he has neglected to keep informed of his art work which involves manipulating her sister’s orifices, walks in the apartment when the art work is reaching its climax.
The third section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. This section confirms what many astute readers would have suspected from the start. Yeong-hye has gone doolally. She is now a permanent resident of a mental hospital, and, has taken up her resolve of not eating meat to the next level. She is not eating anything, and as a result, is wasting. In-hye has left the artist husband (or maybe he has left her; I forget), and is now the only relative of Yeong-hye who visits her at the loony-bin, and watches helplessly her younger sister’s journey towards death.
The Vegetarian is a bleak and surreal story of a young South Korean woman, who finds it impossible to become a vegetarian, and goes mad. Whether Yeong-hye goes mad first and becomes vegetarian (I am not trying to suggest that madness is a prerequisite to becoming a vegetabalist; I am almost a vegetabalist myself; ‘almost’ because I eat fish), and the response of those around her, at times brutal, is in fact a response to Yeong-hye’s disturbed mental state (not that it’s justifiable, either), which is, until late, not recognised as such, and her increasingly eccentric behaviour is, therefore, regarded as wilfully bad; or whether this unremarkable woman with tiny breasts is driven to insanity because of the society’s cruel response and refusal to give her the choice of what she eats, is difficult to say. If the latter is the case (and aim of the author), the novel becomes an allegory—allegory of people (perhaps women, if you are so inclined to think) not being given the freedom of an individual choice, with sad consequences for all concerned. I do not think that novel is literally about vegetarianism. I have not visited South Korea, and I regrettably do not know many (in fact, any) South Koreans to make a confident statement about the eating habits and preferences of South Koreans. I have, however, eaten in Korean restaurants (or restaurants, which advertise themselves as Korean; for all I know, they might be run by the Nepalese), and there are vegetarian options on the menu; hence I should hazard a guess that the South Korean society is not vehemently against vegetarianism, and does not, on the whole, think that vegetarianism should be treated as a deviancy.
It is always difficult to comment on the prose of a translated novel. All I can say is that the English translation is very competently done, and flows smoothly. There is some overtly sexual language in the second section (which features the pervert brother-in-law), but you won’t find me complaining about it.
The Vegetarian is an easy enough read, and zips along at a good speed. It is not the most riveting novel I have read this year, and, despite my pontifications about what the novel might be about, if I am honest, I don’t have a clue.