Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith)
Portobello Books, paperback, 160 pages,
The Vegetarian is a story about fragility. The novel begins with a housewife’s refusal to eat meat, a simple act of will that leads to unexpectedly dramatic events. By making this decision independently, Yeong-hye has stepped outside of the wife’s traditionally submissive role, causing first embarrassment and then rage amongst her family. The pressure this puts on her is unbearable, and as Yeong-hye’s identity begins to crumble, so the institutions which are supposed to provide a safety net are also exposed as hopelessly fragile, unable to respond to a situation they cannot fully comprehend. Yeong-hye’s family rejects her, and she is failed by those responsible for both her physical and mental health.
Up to this moment, Yeong-hye has generally been regarded as someone ‘completely unremarkable’, to the point where her husband Mr Cheong, who narrates the first section, doesn’t even deign to mention her name, preferring to refer to her as ‘that woman’. Her only eccentricity, which had confused and annoyed him without prompting any deeper level of enquiry, was her refusal to wear a bra. The way he describes their relationship says much about gender relations, but also hints at a deeper insecurity lurking beneath his complacent attitude. He is pleased that ‘there was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose in fashion catalogues,’ and talks of his ‘paunch that started appearing in my mid-twenties’ while still seeing himself as a rich prize for her. Her ordinariness is a benefit, for Cheong: ‘Women who were pretty, intelligent, strikingly sensual, the daughters of rich families – they would only ever have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence,’ he says, never doubting that he would have been able to marry such a woman, had he wished to.
So unexpected is Yeong-hye’s stab at self-assertion that her husband can only describe her actions in the language of horror stories: the sight of his wife standing in the kitchen in her night-clothes is ‘appalling’, ‘chilling’, ‘unnatural’. The concept of her self-determination is so alien and unmanning that her husband finds himself ‘unable to touch her’. There is some comedy in Mr Cheong’s panic, and his inability to think beyond the most stereotyped explanations for his wife’s behaviour: ‘I was convinced that there was more going on here than a simple case of vegetarianism,’ he frets – if she was just trying to lose weight, ‘then there would have been no need to worry’.
As with Bartleby, in Herman Melville’s novella, Yeong-hye’s simple act of defiance disrupts the lives of those around her. Her family are shocked and ashamed; her domineering, military veteran father is enraged by her behaviour at a family dinner. Like Bartleby too, her response is simple, definite, and not accompanied by any explanation: ‘I won’t eat it’.
This rebellion excites her brother-in-law, a film-maker normally concerned with ‘the vicissitudes of late capitalist society’, who lives almost entirely off the money bought in by his wife’s successful retail business. The brother-in-law sees something eroticised in her actions, the primal energy which seems to lurk beneath her unremarkable exterior. This ‘otherness’ is exemplified by her ‘Mongolian mark’, a common birthmark which normally fades during infancy, but has stayed with Yeong-hye. A dual seduction is underway, in which the brother-in-law consciously tries to persuade Yeong-hye to model for him, while she unconsciously fills his mind with erotic images and ideas. This leads to the novel’s erotically-charged middle section, in which Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law paints images of flowers over their bodies before filming them making love.
As the novel progresses, we see the consequences of Yeong-hye’s attempt at self-assertion. She is ostracised by her family, raped, divorced, sectioned. Gradually, she turns her back on humanity entirely, coming to the realisation that she is more likely to be able to turn herself into a tree than to be accepted as a free, independent being.
The Vegetarian does not cast gender relations in South Korea in a positive light; the women here are accessories to their husbands, their most important roles being to provide meals and to reflect well on their men at public functions. Sex is always perfunctory, and rape is reported in a matter-of-fact way, with husbands being surprised that their wives would resist at all: ‘she put up a surprisingly strong resistance… spitting out vulgar curses all the while’. Any deviation from accepted norms of behaviour is immediately pathologised. Violence simmers beneath the surface of everyday relationships, ready to be unleashed by any minor transgression.
Han Kang’s writing, ably assisted by Deborah Smith’s translation, is vivid and bewitching, gradually leading the reader into stranger territories as the novel moves towards its climax, where Yeong-hye’s original act of defiance becomes something more like a metamorphosis. The Vegetarian is compelling, beautiful and disturbing, and unlike anything else you’re likely to read this year.