THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang (Hogarth Books, 2015)
By turns surreal and nightmarish, this is a short but complex novel which is full of secrets.
In very broad terms I would describe it as a book about descending into silence and , quite possibly , incurable madness.
The main character is Yeong-hye who is, by all accounts, an unremarkable woman. In the words of her brother-in-law: “The only thing that was especially unusual about her was that she didn’t eat meat”.
Her husband is beyond himself with a combination of rage and repulsion over his wife’s sudden change in eating habits. Her father turns to violence and attempts to force feed her meat. She tries to kill herself and is eventually institutionalized. She gives the impression that she would be happy to die and/or become a tree.
It is hard to fully comprehend why a switch to a vegetarian or, more accurately, a vegan diet should produce such an extreme reaction. The implication is that by rejecting social norms she has brought shame to her household and proved herself a bad citizen. This all takes place in South Korea where such an interpretation make a little more sense than if the setting was Europe or America.
However, as a vegan, I find it disturbing that Yeong-hye’s diet morphs into a full-blown eating disorder. The only reason she gives for rejecting animal products is say “I had a dream” and then suddenly it is revealed that she is receiving treatment for anorexia nervosa as if this were a condition on a par with veganism. The language is simple yet enigmatic, at least as rendered by Deborah Smith, and I wonder is this is one area that is lost, or at least blurred, in the translation from Korean.
In the second of three parts, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law develops a sexual obsession with her birth mark and recruits her for an erotic/soft porn/art movie after painting her body with flowers.
In the final section (Flaming Trees), her sister tries in vain to provide support in the asylum but has mental health issues of her own.
Blood, food and sex serve as metaphors but for whatever personal baggage you bring to the story. As a man I find some of the video art scenes to be erotically charged whereas I am quite sure a woman might see these as examples of exploitation.
It is possible to read ‘The Vegetarian’ as a general criticism of a repressive society or , more specifically, as an illustration of how difficult it is for women to express themselves in a male dominated world. Otherwise, you could see it as a kind of kafkaesque body horror story.
Either way, its strength lies in keeping the reader guessing.