The Vegetarian: Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

812I+tp4jcLEven when I was little, I apparently understood that writing would never pay the bills. I went through a variety of day jobs, answers to the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question. The firm conviction that I would eventually be a writer was unshakeable, but on the side, I was also going to be a vegetarian veterinarian, among other career choices (including a ballerina briefly, until I started lessons with the mean-spirited Miss Pam). The two were inextricably linked in my young mind. You could not be a veterinarian without being a vegetarian, and vice versa. But then I found out that being a veterinarian meant that I would have to hurt animals (giving them shots, surgery, etc.), and I knew that I could never be a veterinarian. But the dream of vegetarianism lived on. I hassled my parents about it constantly, until they promised that I could stop eating meat when I turned thirteen. I think they thought I would lose interest. But I was laser focussed on never eating another animal, and so on my thirteenth birthday, I declared myself free of the horrible burden of meaty dinnertimes, and I never looked back.

But after moving to Japan, my own vegetarianism became an unexpected issue. This was back in the nascent days of the internet, so the information I had about my new country of residence was basically limited to whatever was in the Lonely Japan guide my friend gave me as a going-away present. And they were not super veg-focussed. So I was surprised to discover how vegetarian-unfriendly this country was (and still is). I was forced into a constant state of negotiation, just by living here. One of the first things I learned to say in Japanese was, “Does that have meat in it?” Even today, when the concept of vegetarianism is so much more widespread (albeit as a lady diet trend [ask to hear my rant about how even my choice of diet is gendered!]), I am still negotiating with servers, insisting on no ham on a vegetable pizza, asking for a shrimp-free tempura platter. (Although my language skills have advanced considerably, and I am more certain that the negotiations will result in food I can eat.) So naturally, given the amount of time I have spent thinking about this word, the title of the Korean novel The Vegetarian alone was enough to pique my interest.

As is my wont, I ignored the jacket copy and bought the book based on the title and the cover. The deeply disturbing cover. And as usual, the contents did not betray my snap judgement. (Seriously. Judge those books by their covers, people.)

The novel is divided into three sections. The first “The Vegetarian” is the origin story of the titular vegetarian, told from the perspective of her awful, self-serving husband. He basically wanted a lady slave, so he married the “completely unremarkable” Yeong-Hye. But then she went and got a personality that interfered with his dinnertime. The slithering unlikeability of the husband conveyed in this first section is a testament to the skill of both author and translator. The tone in which he narrates events implies that he himself is entirely rational—anyone would do and think the things he does—while showing how despicable he truly is as he grapples with his wife’s sudden vegetarianism.  A lot of his thinking is coloured by deeply entrenched sexism, which seems to be the norm in Korea from the way the other characters also think, and Kang subtly critiques these outdated ideas with this husband character, writing him in a way that suggests he is hopeless and wrong while seeming to pass no judgement at all.

Yeong-Hye becomes a vegetarian because she had a dream. The dream, conveyed in bits and snatches in her husband’s narrative, is disturbing and bloody. So as a reader, you’re sympathetic to her right from the start. She has this awful husband, this terrible dream. All she wants is to not eat meat. But things progress in an increasingly bizarre and surprising direction. The second section is from the perspective of our vegetarian’s sister’s husband, a video artist who becomes somewhat obsessed with a project involving Yeong-Hye. And the third section picks up the story in the voice of that sister. The whole thing is beautiful and haunting and poetic. And entirely, utterly unexpected.

Kang has managed to create something shockingly original. She uses these three voices, this cast of characters to interrogate what it means to submit, what it means to be free, what exactly is agency, and what is so bad about dying anyway. Her words, thanks to Smith’s deft translation, have a poetic concreteness to them, moving from lyrical dreams to the ho-hum of every day life with a distanced ease. Despite the strange and somewhat difficult subject matter, I had trouble putting The Vegetarian down. Kang put all these thoughts in my head, but at the same time, managed to make me keep turning the pages in a way I’ve come to expect from more story-driven works. Like this passage: “This was the body of a young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her—rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented.” Suddenly, Kang is making me think about representations of the female body in the media and modern life, about the nature of desire itself, right when shit is about to get real with the brother-in-law.

The Vegetarian is gorgeous and disturbing. It’s a slap in the face. It makes me want to read more literature from Korea if this is the kind of thing they’re whipping up there. And it definitely makes me want more from Kang.

4 thoughts on “The Vegetarian: Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

  1. I don’t really get what you meant with this sentence, “…what is so bad about dying anyway.”

    I read this book during the holiday and man, it’s intense. I agree that the author described the husband in a very detached way and to me, it’s the best way to illustrate how much of a jerk and how egotistical he was. I have several very close Korean friends and as far as I know, men are put on a pedestal in their society. They take the concept of 大男人主義者 (male chauvinist) even further than the Chinese. This is the main reason why my Korean friends always laugh at how over the top the guys in Korean dramas when it comes to romantic gestures or how the female protagonists are treated like princesses. Real life is not like that, at least according to them.

    This book hits a bit too close to home, however. I have been struggling with depression since I was a teenager and Yeong-Hye’s rapid descent into madness is one of my worst fears. It is a testament to the author’s skills that she managed to keep the story so fascinating and gripping even when told from three different perspectives, until the last page. I feel so sad for Yeong-Hye’s sister, though. Having said that, the open ending is the best. I would like to think that she would be able to accept that Yeong-Hye is not going to make it and that both sisters would find peace.

    • I mean that Kang is just asking “what is so bad about dying”, like why are we all afraid of it, consumed by it. The “anyway” is just a casual deemphasizing word, I guess. Sorry I’m not being very clear.

      I know that a lot of Asian cultures are pretty chauvinistic (Japan too!), but I had no idea how far they take it in Korea. What your Korean friends say sounds like way too much!

      And I’m sorry that you are struggling with that monster, depression. I can totally understand how Yeong-Hye’s slide would affect you differently, given that you have that history. But maybe it can give you new insight into yourself and your fear? The best literature is often a lens into our own selves. I totally agree with you, though, that the author’s skills are really on display in how tight and gripping the narrative is, right up until the last page. And I agree that the open ending is really the best. I don’t think either sister will ever be happy in this situation, but like you, I like to think that they both make their peace with it in their own ways. It’s a difficult book, and I’m still thinking about where these women ended up.

  2. Ah okay, got it. Thanks for the explanation.

    I also think the author deliberately chose the sequence of the narrators that way, from the husband, showing the start of Yeong-Hye’s deterioration in small ways, to the brother in-law where she got worse and so obviously lived in her own world, to the sister where everything was painful and hopeless and most unsettling. It’s like a creepy musical score whose main feature is a crescendo. Some people might feel that the ending is too abrupt. I personally think it’s hopeful in a twisted way.

    Thank you for the kind words, btw. Depression sucks. I would never wish it on anyone. During my bleakest days, I remember seeing some obituaries and I remember thinking how lucky those people were. At the same time, I have extreme anxiety about my own mortality so it’s just this awesome cocktails of debilitating and conflicting emotions. Fun times. I am lucky to have pretty wonderful support systems, so yeah, keep on trying my best, I guess.

    • Absolutely. I feel like everything about the author’s choices was so deliberate. She forces us to empathize with Yeong-Hye in the beginning, simply by putting her in contrast with the petty, despicable man that is her husband. And then the framing of her as a strange object of desire by the sister’s husband, which gives us distance as we watch her slip further away from the “normal” world. And then the sister’s pain. She’s viewed through all of these outside lenses, but she’s never viewed truly as herself. It feeds into that idea of the objectification of women’s bodies that is a thread throughout. You describe it so perfectly as a creepy musical score! I completely agree with you about the ending too. It’s twisted, but so beautiful. Like everything else in this book.

      And I’m so glad you have a good support system in place! I’ve never suffered from it myself, but friends have, and I’ve seen how depression can lie to you. But maybe your cocktail of debilitating and conflicting feelings will always keep you from being too jealous of the peeps in the obits! (I understand the anxiety shot in that cocktail only too well!) And hey, if you find yourself needing an extra bit of support, feel free to email me anytime. We’re lucky to have you here, and maybe you need someone outside to remind you of that from time to time. Seriously. Keep up the fight! I always love reading your truly insightful comments here. You give me new things to think about the books I write about, and that’s why I’m doing this blog to begin with. So thanks.

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