'The Vegetarian' asks painful questions about the way we live

This American debut by South Korean writer Han Kang has been nominated for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.

The Vegetarian By Han Kang Crown/Archetype 192 pp.

Han Kang’s visceral and hypnotic novel, The Vegetarian, is so convincing that the translator, Deborah Smith, confessed to the author that she became a vegan after she finished. Han herself had been a vegetarian at one time but has since gone back to eating meat for health reasons. "The Vegetarian" is the American debut for the prolific South Korean writer, who grew up surrounded by books. Her father, Han Seung-won, is a novelist. She is the author of six novels, three short story collections, and one poetry collection.

Han read books for pleasure as a child, but when she was 14, she had a deeper purpose: attempting to understand life and death. “Suddenly I found out that literary works don’t contain answers, only questions,” she told me in an exchange via email. “The writers were weak and vulnerable [too].” So she wrote, and continues to write, as a way of questioning.

When she was still a teenager, Han read a short story called “Sapyung Station” by the Korean writer Lim Chul-woo. “I noticed with surprise that the story is driven not by a specific protagonist, but by the darkness of the deep night and the snow, the small, cold train station in the countryside, and the light of its stove burning sawdust – that life itself could become the main character and flow with its own inner rhythm.”
 What flows through "The Vegetarian" is an urgent need to detach oneself from the constraints of the human body, to transform and possibly transcend its limits completely. The novel is split into what Han calls three novellas and tells the story of a woman named Yeong-hye through her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, In-hye. Yeong-hye’s voice only comes across in descriptions of her terrifying dreams, “a palimpsest of horror” that turns her life into a phantasmagoric state. But it’s physical, too. There’s a lump in her chest: “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.”

Yeong-hye denounces meat, and gradually her control over her own body becomes so extreme that she thinks of herself as a plant, wanting to live off photosynthesis. She likes to be naked so she can absorb light.

“She refuses to eat meat to cast human brutality out of herself,” Han says. “I think that, in this violent world, hers is an extremely awakened state, a horribly true and sane state.”

Her brother-in-law, a stalled artist, becomes fixated on her once he finds out that she has a birthmark of the kind sometimes called a “Mongolian mark.”

“Its pale blue-green resembled that of a faint bruise,” Han writes, “but it was clearly a Mongolian mark. It called to mind something ancient, something pre-evolutionary, or else perhaps a mark of photosynthesis, and he realized to his surprise that there was nothing at all sexual about it; it was more vegetal than sexual.”

Art is a major theme throughout the book; the brother-in-law paints bright flowers on Yeong-hye’s body because he views her as something like a muse, and he wants to record her for a video – erotic or pornographic, depending on your point of view: “She might well be called ugly in comparison with his wife, but to him she radiated energy, like a tree that grows in the wilderness, denuded and solitary.”

Han is drawn to gallery shows and exhibitions, and in some ways, "The Vegetarian" feels like an exhibit. Here is the female body on display for someone to misinterpret (her husband), someone to desire (her brother-in-law), and someone to feel sympathy for her (her sister). “They are tenaciously failing to grasp the true face of Yeong-hye,” Han says. It’s her hope that readers can see Yeong-hye as she truly is, through three “contrary gazes.”

“In a certain sense, you can say that this novel is a story of sisters,” Han says. “And so I wrote [the third section] in the present tense to separate it from the two preceding sections, and tried to get closer to In-hye’s suffering. But I absolutely didn’t want to exaggerate that suffering; on the contrary, I wanted to constantly moderate it. Maintaining that disparity wasn’t easy to do.”

In-hye is left to deal with the ramifications of her husband’s obsession and her sister’s mental illness. According to Han, In-hye’s perspective was the hardest to write, and also the most significant part of the novel. It’s through her that we learn an essential truth: ” ‘It’s your body,’ In-hye said, ‘you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to just do as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.’ ”

From the very first sentence of the book, Yeong-hye is an object. “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way,” Yeong-hye’s husband says. He married her because he wanted to have an ordinary wife. Her decision not to eat meat leads to an unraveling and a transformation, but the more she asserts her independence, the more she endures. In a particularly brutal scene, her abusive father forces meat into her mouth, and she slashes her wrist with a fruit knife.

Through its multifaceted portrayal of Yeong-hye’s arresting journey, "The Vegetarian" places the reader face to face with a set of contradictions: Are we consumed by our appetites, both of the flesh and of the mind, or do our appetites consume us? During one dream sequence, Yeong-hye asks, “Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening – what am I going to gouge?” It’s a hollowing-out of her inner rhythm as she shifts from societal expectations to her own.

“Humans are such complex, precarious and vulnerable beings,” Han says. “It has been my long-lasting question about how humans can have such a broad spectrum stretching from the sublime to the horrific. I am a person who believes in human dignity, who wants to remember that whenever I have to face the difficult and painful questions about humanity.”

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