The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
Favourite line: “Sister…all the trees of the world are like brothers and sisters.”
I have been a vegetarian, to the best of my ability and wavering self-discipline, for seven years. It happens less often in the U.K. these days, but whenever I’m asked the reason why I don’t eat meat (quite often in Japan), I tend to overcompensate and generalise to avoid having a moral discussion or to diffuse a repetitive debate before it can begin. I just don’t like it all that much. It’s healthier. It’s become habit now. These examples all have some truth to them but are definitely unsatisfactory in explaining wholly why I made this choice. Honestly, I’m not completely sure myself. That’s OK with me and seems to fly with all but the most obscenely carnivorous.
The Vegetarian, however, presents us with a South Korean woman named Yoeng-hye who is entirely earnest in her answer. “I had a dream,” she repeats, unshaken by the puzzled and even offended reaction to her response. Her family cannot accept this; Korean food consists of meat abound, and they are of traditional stock. As the story develops, however, it becomes clear that Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is the least of their, or the story’s, issues.
Full disclosure: this is a reread. I read The Vegetarian for the first time last winter, in one sitting. This time, though, I spread it out through three or four days, and I was surprised at how I’d repressed quite the extent of the cruelty of this story. Kang’s prose makes me ache for Yeong-hye; it nauseates me in its unflinching depiction of abuse and the decline and eventual demise of her mental stability.
The Vegetarian was originally written in Korean in three separate volumes. Each volume is from a different perspective – first the husband, then the brother-in-law, and lastly the sister of Yeong-hye. Interestingly, we only gets fleeting insights into Yeong-hye’s thoughts through her narration of these dreams, which become a motif throughout the novel. The “cruelty” of this story lies in the points of view of the men in the first two parts.
According to Mr. Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband in the opening line, she was “completely unremarkable in every way”, and that’s what attracted him to her. This sets the tone for the kind of guy he is. He steadily becomes even more repulsive, treating her diet choice as if it were an unseemly defect he was duty bound to hide from their acquaintances. It’s clear that his biggest concern here is himself – his wife makes the food, his wife does not eat meat, therefore he cannot eat meat as he likes. He reacts to his loss of control over his wife’s actions with violence reminiscent of a Sarah Kane play.
Mr. Cheong’s character is deep and vivid in its awfulness because he is a common part of many socially conservative households, a self-declared patriarch with an inferiority complex. Kang’s characterisation paired with Smith’s sharply worded translation create a man who cannot see beyond himself, and is ultimately deeply complicit in Yeong-hye’s downturn.
In contrast, the cruelty of Yeong-hye’s unnamed brother-in-law is much more insidious and cloaked in the apparent sensitivities of an introspective artist. He uses Yeong-hye’s altered mental state to his own advantage and exploits her vulnerability and loss of social awareness. Does this make him worse than Mr. Cheong? Maybe, in that I really feel he should have known better. Her husband is objectively dull and brutish, whereas her brother-in-law at least shows some capacity for compassion. He’s an artist who sees an opportunity to use Yeong-hye without remuneration or his wife’s knowedge – not an uncommon figure in creative industries.
Yeong-hye’s big sister, In-hye, takes the brunt of the unfolding familial disaster. She is the breadwinner of her family – still a rarity in Korea – and seems to take on all the responsibility she can possibly handle in order to atone for whatever pain her sister must endure. She feels guilt at her relative freedom as the eldest daughter throughout a difficult childhood, even going so far as to label herself a coward for accepting this role. In-hye’s own mental state is compromised, as we see through the gruesome dreams she begins to have, too. I consider In-hye to be the true victim of the story, as her persisting lucidity increases her suffering.
Kang is obviously not suggesting that Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is a mental defect, but rather one of the several ways in which her mental illnesses manifested. The crucial point is that this fairly superficial symptom is the only one her family paid attention to. If she’d had other, less obstrusive indicators, how long would it have taken Mr. Cheong to notice a change? If he had, would he have cared?
This, then, is perhaps Kang’s greatest achievement in this phenominal work: as Yeong-hye’s condition worsens – for In-hye’s sake and her own – we are left to consider whether we want her to live or die.