Title: The Vegetarian
Author: Han Kang
Translator: Deborah Smith
First published: 2007
Han Kang was born 1970 in Gwangju, South Korea. At the age of 10, she moved to Seoul. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University. Her writing has won several awards, such as the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today’s Young Artist Award and the Korean Literature Novel Award. With The Vegetarian, Han Kang was the first Korean who won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. She currently teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of Arts.
Since I have not read any Korean literature before, I was more interested to read about daily life in Korea from the perspective of a Korean. So, within the framework of this project, I was looking for a light novel depicting Korean society. Moreover, I was interested in the presentation of Korean women and vegetarianism which I expected to be the crucial parts in this novel.
The Vegetarian has been described by various authors and newspapers as extraordinary, mind-blowing, and visionary. That is why I was curious whether I can share these views about this novel. Besides, I was intrigued to read the novel, because of the following short description at the backside of the book:
“A darkly beautiful modern classic about rebellion, eroticism and the female body”
Although The Vegetarian has also been translated into German, I decided to read the novel in English. Since the translator has been awarded for this novel as well, I thought that the English translation was a better representation of Han Kang’s writing style.
Yeong-hye: A young married woman who, one day, suddenly decides to stop eating meat.
Mr. Cheong: Yeong-hye’s husband whose only goal is to live an ordinary life.
In-Hye: Yeong-hye’s older sister, a successful businesswoman and mother.
In-Hye’s husband: Yeong-hye’s brother in law who works as free-lancer and video artist.
The Vegetarian is about a young married woman who, because of recurring nightmares, turns vegan. The novel depicts how the sudden change in her behavior affects her environment, her mental health and especially the relationship with her family.
The novel consists of three parts, none of which are narrated by Yeong-hye herself.
Part 1: The Vegetarian
The first part is written from the perspective of the woman’s husband. It is written clearly and structured, representing the husbands’ rather simple character.
His reaction to the sudden change in his wife’s behavior has a strong impact on his life, his work and his relationship with Yeong-hye.
Since it is socially not only acceptable but required to eat meat, the husband faces humiliation and uncomfortableness when being invited to a company dinner with his vegetarian wife. In a certain way, he is accepting his wife, however, he does not help her when she is faced violence from her abusive father. Mr. Cheong is neither willing to help nor being able to understand his wife, so he decides to divorce her.
Part 2: Mongolian Mark
The second part Mongolian Mark is taken over by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law. According to the change in character, also the writing style changes. Since the brother-in-law is a (video) artist, the writing seems more creative, descriptive and colorful.
Having heard about the blue mark on the body of his sister-in-law, he starts fantasizing about her. At first, he solely wants to film her, modeling naked with only but painted flowers on her body. Then, being intrigued by her figure, he becomes consumed by the idea of having sexual intercourse with her while filming it. Yeong-hye agrees to have sex with her brother-in-law, only if he is painted in flowers as well.
The chapter ends with the sister finding the two colored in painted flowers in Yeong-hye’s apartment.
Part 3: Flaming Trees
The third part is written from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye.
Yeong-hye is admitted to a mental health facility. ’Suffering’ under anorexia nervosa, she refuses to consume food entirely. In-hye watches over her sister, begging her to stay alive. In-hye is contemplating about their childhood, their lives and her own weaknesses.
The first part questions the concept of marriage, love and understanding each other. It is about the difficulty to express oneself and to be understood and accepted. The sentences are short and well-written. Each sentence weighs into the story and seems important, that is why, one certainly must read carefully not to miss anything. Also, vegetarianism is often ‘discussed’ in this part. Yeong-hye’s passive rebellion takes ever more bizarre forms. The more the men around her try to use her, the more she fantasies of leaving her body and becoming a tree.
The second part is about erotic freedom, obsession and art. For me, it was difficult to understand the obsessions of the brother-in-law, and why Yeong-hye agreed to have sex with him. However, this part again deals with the attempts to understand others and in my case, the behavior of the characters.
The third part slowed down the pace of the events. We learn more about the sisters, their childhood and their abusive father.
The Vegetarian is not a light novel. It is bizarre and confusing. After the first time reading it, I could not comprehend why it is considered a masterpiece. However, there are parts that are intriguing and understandable. I liked the psychological aspects, and I could discover the Korean prejudices and stereotypes, I have been aware of before. In any case, it is definitely not an easy read. Therefore, it is difficult for me to give a recommendation.
I would not consider The Vegetarian a masterpiece, but definitely worth reading. It is provoking, thoughtful and different from anything I have read before. However, because of its graphic language and sexual themes, it is certainly not for the faint-hearted.