The Vegetarian by Han Kang was the 2016 winner of the Man Booker International Prize. Originally in Korean language, The Vegetarian was translated to English by Deborah Smith. Despite international acclaim, in Korea, the translated version was criticized by the people for having been translated incorrectly or not as faithful to that of the original work.
(Can I just say, I LOVE the cover of this book. It’s dark, yet inviting.)
Synopsis from Goodreads:
Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.
The book is divided into 3 parts: The Vegetarian, The Mongolian Mark and The Flaming Trees. It was originally released in Korean as three separate novellas and then compiled together as a novel when translated into English.
The first chapter, The Vegetarian, is narrated by Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, in the first person. It shows Yeong-Hye’s sudden change from being a normal, reserved wife into a manic vegetarian/vegan from her husband’s perspective.
“I’ve always inclined toward the middle course in life. At school I chose to boss around those who were two or three years my junior, and with whom I could act the ringleader, rather than take my chances with those my own age, and later I chose which college to apply to based on my chances of obtaining a scholarship large enough for my needs. Ultimately, I settled for a job where I would be provided with a decent monthly salary in return for diligently carrying out my allotted tasks, at a company whose small size meant they would value my unremarkable skills. And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world. As for women who were pretty, intelligent, strikingly sensual, the daughters of rich families – they would only have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence.”
This excerpt from the first chapter, second page in, would best describe Yeong-Hye’s husband. He’s a self-absorbed, selfish man whose decisions in life are solely made based on what would best serve him. Practical, you might say, but there’s a thin line between self-preservation and being self-serving. Judging from the way he treats his wife, Yeong-Hye, in the book, it’s as if he expects her to exist only for his benefit. When she suddenly turns vegan and decides to cut off all meat products in their home, he goes berserk and asks how she could be so selfish? Even as he asks this of her, his selfishness comes out seeing that instead of wondering what is happening with his wife and being concerned for her well-being, he, instead questions why he has to suffer just because of her sudden change in lifestyle.
The whole vegetarianism started when Yeong-Hye, one day, had a dream about having a blood-soaked shirt and a violent urge to consume more meat. In fear of this pent up violence inside her wanting to claw its way out, she refused to eat meat thus refusing to even serve it for her husband, which causes Mr. Cheong to go bananas at her. For months, she refused to eat meat and eventually she rarely slept because of those dreams she had of violence and aggression. She felt that the moment she succumbs to eating meat, the urge to hurt someone, even murder, would surface. Ironically, despite repressing this violence she feels inside, her actions explicitly bring out violence from other people surrounding her.
The Mongolian Mark, the second chapter of the book, is seen through the perspective of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law. He is an artist, searching for an inspiration, which he finds in a Mongolian Mark in Yeong-Hye’s body. He eventually becomes obsessed with an idea to film a video involving his sister-in-law painted with flowers.
“In precisely that moment he was struck by the image of a blue flower on a woman’s buttocks, its petals opening outward. In his mind, the fact that his sister-in-law still had a Mongolian mark on her buttocks became inexplicably bound up with the image of men and women having sex, their naked bodies completely covered with painted flowers.”
The final chapter, The Flaming Trees, shows the perspective of Yeong-hye’s sister, In-Hye. She, herself, struggles from the events that happened especially with her husband’s involvement with her frail-minded sister. After what transpired in Chapter 2, Yeong-Hye has now been admitted to a mental institution. It’s been three years since she first became a vegetarian and she has barely slept since then. Her condition does not seem to get any better and now, she has even held onto the idea that she wants to become a tree thus refuses to eat at all. When the people told her she would die if she continues to not eat, she responds, “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”
I find that The Vegetarian is a book that speaks about different hidden traumas that ultimately affect one even years later. That pent up emotions eventually start to devour you from the inside.
It’s interesting to note that Han Kang appears to be really affected by the Gwangju uprising seeing as how this event briefly crops up in The Vegetarian while it is also the main plot in her other book, Human Acts (which I plan to blog about sometime soon).
I will admit that there are things I do not understand about this book but I appreciate that it makes one think and internalize the ideas brought out in The Vegetarian. I truly want to completely understand Han Kang’s thought process but obviously, that’s not possible.
NinthMelody rating: 8/10