14 nov. 2017

Han Kang's The Vegetarian: A Review

Han Kang, The Vegetarian (London: Portobello Books, 2015). 183 pages. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.
The number of articles and essays outlining the ever-increasing risks of eating the meat of chickens and other animals that are being treated with antibiotics and/or chemical substances is alarming. The presence of microplastics and fibres in ocean-caught fish has been proven and is yet another threat to any attempts to live a healthy life. Even the most widely used herbicide, glyphosate, appears to leave dangerous levels of residues in vegetables and fruits. It’s enough to drive one crazy, isn’t it? Should we eat only what we grow ourselves? Should we eat anything at all?

The premise of Han Kang’s novel is not too dissimilar: Yeong-hye, married to boring office worker Mr Cheong, wakes up one morning after having had a dream. Hers is nothing like Martin Luther King’s, though. Whatever her dream may have been, what it means is that she will no longer eat meat. The couple’s fridge and freezer are promptly emptied of all meats and fish (much to her husband’s wrath). When a few days later they have to attend a corporate dinner with the families of his bosses and other employees, Yeong-hye refuses to eat and is disparaged and sneered by every person at the table.

Her own family cannot understand or even accept why she has turned vegetarian. During a family reunion, Yeong-hye’s father reacts violently to her refusal to eat the many dishes that have been prepared. After he tries to force-feed her, she slashes her wrists. The commotion is of course huge, and as a result her marriage will soon be over. Yeong-hye goes down in a spiral of violence, psychosis and suicidal thoughts compounded by anorexia.

The novel is in fact a series of shorter narratives. The first one is narrated by Cheong in the first person; this provides the story with a rich point of view while allowing Kang to depict Korean society as coldly patriarchal and man-centred. Cheong describes his vegetarian wife as unattractive and uninteresting when he met her, reasons for which he sought to marry her. Go figure.

The second part is narrated in the third person, and tells of how Yeong-hye’s sister’s husband, an unsuccessful visual artist, convinces her to get her whole painted with flowers and act, together with a colleague of his, in a profoundly erotic video. When her brother-in-law suggests they perform actual sex, his colleague feels insulted and leaves. Yeong-hye shows enthusiasm for the sensations flowery skin arouse in her, so he gets painted by a former lover and returns hours later to film the sex video. They are found a few hours later by the artist’s wife and Yeong-hye’s sister. A birthmark in Yeong-hye’s buttocks gives this second part the title: ‘The Mongolian Mark’.

The third and final part adopts the protagonist’s sister’s point of view. Some time has passed since her sister kicked out her artist husband, and Yeong-hye is now in a residence for mental patients. She now refuses to eat: nothing at all will make its way into her stomach and an intravenous drip has been attached to her emaciated and fast-deteriorating body.

This is not a story about vegetarianism, which in any case is always a completely respectable ethical choice these days. The Vegetarian shows the clash between a dreadfully traditional society and the search for personal freedom of a woman trapped within the strictures of such a society. It is also a thought-provoking tale on death and the right to put an end to one’s life. Although there is no actual justification for Yeong-hye’s stubborn descent into emaciation and physical and mental ruin other than her insistence on avoiding contact with animals and loving trees, the question is asked: why is dying such a bad thing?

Personally, I’ve never given vegetarianism much of a thought. I still remember the most delicious bife con papas I’ve ever had, in a place called Energía in the province of Buenos Aires. If only all meats were this good!
The place is called Energia. The beef was superb! Photograph by
luis1977. 
The Vegetarian was awarded the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for literature translated into English. If you feel like reading further about it, I recommend this insightful article by Tim Parks, who raises some meaningful questions about Deborah Smith’s prized job. Naturally, the book has now been translated into many other languages. But is it really such a worthy winner? Hard to say.

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