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Review: Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”

Han Kang’s haunting novel, The Vegetarian, was recently awarded this year’s Man Booker International Prize, pushing out novels by Elena Ferrante, Orhan Pamuk, and others. It’s an odd novel, violent and disturbing, by the South Korean writer, who was born in 1970 and began her work as a poet. No surprise that the poetic bursts forth from virtually every page, thanks to Deborah Smith’s lush translation. The story is brutal and elliptical, appropriately unresolved. The main character’s decision to stop eating meat is troubling because of the reaction of the people (especially her husband and her parents) and the rigid society around her. No one seems to respect Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian or to give her any space to become what she wants. Ultimately, the novel becomes an indictment of patrimony and state. What kinds of choices can women make about their own lives and their bodies? No difficulty at all realizing that The Vegetarian is about women everywhere and their continued subjugation by men.

It’s from Yeong-hye’s husband’s point-of-view that we observe the opening of the novel. They’ve been married five years, and one evening when he returns from work, she tells him that she has had a dream. He admits that “The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground.” Thus, when she tells him that she has thrown out most of what is in the refrigerator—even the milk and the eggs—and that she will thevegetarianno longer eat meat, he regards her act as “self-centered.” He’s aghast that she has done something for herself: “The very idea that there should be this other side to her, one where she selfishly did as she pleased, was astonishing.” He can’t believe that she is capable of thinking about herself, meaning not him.

After some months of eating only vegetables, Yeong-hye becomes emaciated. She tells her husband that his body “smells of meat.” She’s stopped wearing shoes made of leather. He’s coped by eating his meals during the day at work. Finally, he’s so upset by her “vegetarianism,” that he takes her to see her family. At the table, she tells her father, “I don’t eat meat,” provoking her father into striking her. Then he attempts to force her to eat, by prying open her mouth. “My father-in-law mashed the pork to a pulp on my wife’s lips as she struggled in agony. Though he parted her lips with his strong fingers, he could do nothing about her clenched teeth,” so he strikes her again. In order to get her father to stop, Yeong-hye takes a knife and slits her wrist. Only then does her father stop his violent treatment of his daughter.

Hospitalized immediately, Yeong-hye is no better off. Her mother disguises goat meat in what is supposed to be an herbal concoction to restore her declining health, but once she’s tasted it, she vomits it up. A brief italicized passage takes us into her own thoughts: “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.” Clearly, she is troubled.

The narration takes a sudden shift, moving to the point-of-view of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a video filmmaker. He’s observed Yeong-hye’s recent transformation, including her divorce from her husband and her stay in a psychiatric hospital for several months. Yet, because of his own failed marriage (to Yeong-hye’s sister), he has discovered that he is attracted to her and talks her into modeling for him. He convinces her to remove her clothes and then he paints flowers over her entire body. Oddly, she so enjoys the paintings that when she returns to her own flat, she does not wash the paint off, convinced that her flowery body is now more closely connected to the vegetable world.

What are we to make of all this—and the novel’s curious ending that I will not describe? There are a number of clues, one of them pointing at Yeong-hye’s tyrannical father and the suggestion that he may have beaten her as a child. A second—perhaps more problematic—is another italicized passage that immediately follows the incident when her father tries to stuff meat into her mouth. In that passage, told in the first person, the narrator who is nine years old is bitten by a dog. The narrator’s father kills the dog by making him run laps behind his motorcycle, until the dog dies of exhaustion and heart failure. Then, that night, the dog is cooked and the narrator states, “The saying goes that for a wound caused by a dog bite to heal you have to eat that same dog, and I did scoop up a mouthful for myself. No, in fact I ate an entire bowlful with rice. The smell of burnt flesh, which the perilla seeds couldn’t wholly mask, pricked my nose. I remember the two eyes that had watched me, while the dog was made to run on, while he vomited blood mixed with froth, and how they later had seemed to appear, flickering, on the surface of the soup.”

It’s too easy to suggest that this is an actual event from Yeong-hye’s life when she was a child. Given later events in the narration, it is just as likely that the author has drawn on what should be regarded as an archetypal pattern in man’s past—the past of all men. There is much to suggest that Yeong-hye’s desire is to return to an earlier evolutionary state before human beings became carnivores. That possibility is also consistent with other indications in the narration that there are mythic patterns from Yeong-hye’s subconscious that draw her increasingly into the past, removing her from her current, violent environment.

Whatever, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian will make you think. You cannot turn the final page of this provocative novel without asking yourself a number of questions—not only about the author’s fascinating story but also about your own hegemonic world, especially the way men continue to control everything.

Han Kang: The Vegetarian

Trans. by Deborah Smith

Hogarth, 188 pp., $21

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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