What a strange creature of a novel this book is. Three big chapters, from three different perspectives at three different times, almost short stories in their own right, comprise the tale of Yeong-hye, The Vegetarian. Winner of the International Booker Prize this year, Han Kang has written a story (translated from Korean by Deborah Smith) about a woman without ever using her own voice, stunningly and infuriatingly layered, as those around her try to dictate her destiny.
The first part, ‘The Vegetarian’, is told by Yeong-hye’s husband; ‘Mongolian Mark’ by her brother-in-law; the final part ‘Flaming Trees’ by her sister. Yeong-hye has a dream one night, full of fear and blood and fury, and wakes to walk to her fridge. As her disbelieving husband tells it (a business man happy with his quiet wife, quiet life, quietly trying to get promoted at work) he wakes to find her one morning just staring at all the meat they have, all the creatures of the sea and land who have died for them to so mindlessly eat.
And this first part is so very hard to read. Her husband is cruel, dismissive; his wife is without autonomy in his own mind and for some reason the whole family takes on Yeong-hye’s new vegetarianism as some sort of shame. Almost obscene scenes occur at a family gathering as she is guilted, berated, physically forced into consuming meat. Her passivity can also be frustrating: she never explains the dream, never fully articulates why she chose to become a vegetarian but is quiet, obstinate, unmoving. It is a tough little novella to get through.
‘Mongolian Mark’ and ‘Flaming Trees’ feel different though. While still tragic in their own right, are written from the perspective of characters who hold a lot more care for Yeong-hye, despite their own agendas that they place upon her.
It is an interesting choice by Kang to put such a passive character at the center of all this drama and to totally deny her a voice. All we know of Yeong-hye is her husband’s thoughtlessness over her, her brother-in-law’s fantasies, her sister’s beloved suffering. But it also feels as if this is a tool in itself. By becoming a vegetarian, by meditating on vegetarianism, perhaps Kang is casting Yeong-hye as a part of the vegetation itself. I didn’t really understand it all, this character, the drama around her, until I thought of her as a tree. Silent, stalwart, surrounded. And then, towards the end:
“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands … they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly … yes I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide …”
It is a curious work that keeps you distant from its main character, its main source of drama and intrigue. It was not until right at the end did Yeong-hye reveal herself to me, and I felt more comfortable with the book as a whole. I came to think of The Vegetarian as not about a lady who does not eat meat, but Kang’s philosophical meditation on who or what you are when you are a vegetarian.