The Bottom Line: 'The Vegetarian' By Han Kang

In Han Kang's 'The Vegetarian,' a clean eating obsession is a subversive act of self-reclamation.

Vegetarianism or, as the diet of the central character in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian could more specifically be described, veganism, has lost the power to shock ― at least among American coastal metropolitan populations. It’s gone from a niche preference to a fairly common one, and cities like New York have sprouted vegan-only eateries all over.

But The Vegetarian, a novel of three linked novellas, was first published in South Korea in 2007, though it took almost a decade for an English translation to hit American bookshelves. In South Korea, meat and animal products have traditionally been staples of the societal diet ― bulgogi, bibimbap with a steaming egg on top, grilled pork belly, seafood pancakes ― and when character Yeong-hye suddenly gives up all meat and animal products, it rends her entire social fabric.

In three parts, none of which are narrated by Yeong-hye herself, Kang probes the range of reactions and consequences of the character’s defiant decision, which throws her family into a state of upheaval.

The first novella, also called “The Vegetarian,” is told by Yeong-hye’s callous, success-oriented husband, who has viewed his wife as more of an efficient domestic servant than an object of desire or affection. With his wife suddenly refusing to prepare him meat dishes and embarrassing him at company dinners by refusing to eat anything made even with beef broth, she’s become a liability rather than a convenience. What’s more, Yeong-hye has become averse even to sex, telling her husband he smells of meat.

Repeatedly, he asks his wife why she’s given up foods she once loved, and she replies only “I had a dream.” In interstitial nightmare sequences, however, we glimpse the horrorscapes of bloody slaughterhouses that leave her disgusted by meat ― the only passages Yeong-hye narrates throughout the novel.

Her family, equally horrified, tries to save the marriage by urging her to eat meat again ― her father, a stern and patriarchal man, even seems deeply ashamed of her dietary choice ― but to no avail. Her resolve only deepens.

In the second novella, “Mongolian Mark,” it’s Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law who takes over the story. After hearing that his wife’s sister still has her Mongolian mark, he finds himself sexually obsessed with her. (A Mongolian mark is a bluish birthmark, very common among infants of color though uncommon among Caucasian infants, that typically disappears by the time a child is around five.) A video artist, he becomes consumed by the idea of painting flowers all over her naked body, and his own, and making love to her on film.

In the third and final novella, “Flaming Trees,” In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, speaks. Yeong-hye’s repulsion toward meat has progressed toward what a doctor describes as anorexia nervosa; she refuses food, but seems to crave light and water as a plant does. In-hye, visiting her sister at an inpatient mental facility, is desperate for nothing more than for her sister to cling to life, and as she sits at her bedside, she casts her mind back over their abusive childhood, Yeong-hye’s slow change, and her own unwitting complicity in her sister’s suffering.

Han’s realist horror story ― though it may seem over-the-top to American readers by now comfortable with gluten-free, sugar-free, lactose-free cupcakes ― convincingly pulls out quotidian issues of vegetarianism, such as the fear of judgment behind omnivores’ mocking of vegetarians, and the binding power of food and sharing meals. “Imagine you were snatching up a wriggling baby octopus with your chopsticks and chomping it to death ― and the woman across from you glared like you were some kind of animal,” exclaims one of the husband’s coworkers during a dinner. “That must be how it feels to sit down and eat with a vegetarian.”

The novel’s real concerns, however, are stickier, like abnegation’s relationship to self-destruction, and the necessity of violence for survival. Yeong-hye’s extreme craving for a non-violent way of being leads her to choose a plant’s life, existing without consuming other living creatures. Meanwhile, the human world around her grows more and more aggressive and destructive in comparison to her self-contained passivity. Human appetites, even the natural ones, can appear savage and require selfishness to fulfill.

In a mostly elegant translation by Deborah Smith, Kang paints Yeong-hye’s devolution in precise, clear prose. The matter-of-factness heightens the eerie effect of Yeong-hye’s sudden self-denial, and the brutality of the more human behavior of her family.

The treatment of her harmful behavior as idealistic can be somewhat troubling, even as it slowly becomes clear there’s far more behind her slow gravitation toward vegetal life; the nuance is literary, but slightly romanticized. And yet, by the end of the book, it’s clear that we’re wrong to romanticize, as The Vegetarian paints a confounding portrait of not one woman, but two damaged sisters seeking desperately to deal with the violence of living in their world.

The Bottom Line:

An elegant tale, in three parts, of a woman whose sudden turn to veganism disrupts her family and exposes the worst human appetites and impulses.

What other reviewers think:

The Guardian: “This is Han Kang’s first novel to appear in English, and it’s a bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to the Anglophone reader’s diet. It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colors and disturbing questions.”

The Independent: “This is an odd and enthralling novel; its story filled with nihilism but lyricism too, its writing understated even in its most fevered, violent moments.”

Who wrote it?

Han Kang is a South Korean poet and novelist. She studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. She has published numerous books and won several literary awards; The Vegetarian was published in 2007 and is now coming to English readers via this translation by Deborah Smith.

Who will read it?

Readers who enjoy stripped-down, thoughtful narratives about human psychology and physiology. Readers who like their realism with a twist of the horrific.

Opening lines:

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know.”

Notable passage:

“She was crouching, still wearing her nightclothes, her disheveled, tangled hair a shapeless mass around her face. Around her, the kitchen floor was covered with plastic bags and airtight containers, scattered all over so that there was nowhere I could put my feet without treading on them. Beef for shabu-shabu, belly pork, two sides of black beef shin, some squid in a vacuum-packed bag, sliced eel that my mother-in-law had sent us from the country-side ages ago, dried croaker tied with yellow string, unopened packs of frozen dumplings and endless bundles of unidentified stuff dragged from the depths of the fridge. There was a rustling sound; my wife was busy putting the things around her one by one into black rubbish bags.”

The Vegetarian
by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith
Hogarth, $21.00
Publishes February 2, 2016

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