The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Hogarth Books, 2015) trans. by Deborah Smith
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
On the surface, the story of Han Kang’s Man Booker prize-winning novel The Vegetarian sounds almost like a fairy tale. It is the story, after all, of a woman desperate to become a tree. But the pages themselves weave a different sort of tale – one of nightmares, of abuse, of the misunderstandings and cruelties which stem from an attempt at independence. In three parts, it winds itself around one starving woman, and the myriad ways the other characters seek to control her desires. It is horrifying, stark, unflinching book which sneaks up on you, startles you. After reading this book, I was afraid to look in the mirror.
The Vegetarian, at its root, is about one woman and her body — about a persistent attempt to take complete control of that body, to feed and decorate and touch and relinquish it for reasons that no other person can understand. It begins when the main character, Yeong-hye, who speaks in only blips of italicized text at the very beginning of the novel and is otherwise only interpreted by others, has a recurring nightmare which prompts her to stop eating meat. First her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister tell the story that follows – of an unwinding, a shriveling of the body, a stubborn refusal to conform. This is seen first when Yeong-hye refuses to eat meat at her father’s dinner table, as he holds oysters up to her lips with his chopsticks:
“’I won’t eat it.’
For the first time in a long while, her speech was clear and distinct…
‘Don’t you understand what your father is telling you? If he tells you to eat, you eat!’
I expected an answer from my wife along the lines of ‘I’m sorry, Father, but I just can’t eat it,’ but all she said was ‘I do not eat meat” – clearly enunciated, and seemingly not the least bit apologetic.” (45)
The whole story hinges on the events that follow – events which I won’t disclose here. I will say that what did occur forced me to grapple with questions of freedom and death, and of the lack of control that we have over our own bodies. Yeong-hye prefers to walk around naked, and so she does. She holds her breasts to the sun because she enjoys the warmth, and the light. She eats very little, almost nothing by the end of the novel, and speaks even less. She chooses these things even though they are not understood by anyone else, even though they counteract, by the end, even her own mortality.
In the second section, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an artist who becomes obsessed with filming her naked body painted with flowers, has a similar struggle with mortality and control, and the idea of suicide as a kind of liberation:
“I wish I were dead.
I wish I were dead.
Unable to understand why the tears were streaming down his face, he clutched the steering wheel and set the wipers to frequent, only to realize that it wasn’t the windshield that was blurred but his own vision. He couldn’t understand why the words ‘I wish I were dead’ were ceaselessly being hammered out inside his head like an incantation. Nor could he understand why the words ‘so die’ would inevitable follow … And he couldn’t understand how that simple mantra, like a conversation between two strangers, could be sufficient to calm his shuddering body.” (114)
What is so beautiful here, and also so horrifying, is the elevation of the characters’ yielding to their desires – Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law wishes he were dead, and that wish and the possibility of fulfilling it, the control that comes from the ability to fulfill it, are enough to comfort him. This is seen again when In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, sits with her in a hospital room and shouts at her:
“You’re dying! … You’re lying there in that bed, and dying. Nothing else.” (175)
But there is a sanctity here in the fulfillment of every selfish desire, of the refusal to conform to the wants and needs of others. Yeong-hye wants to become a tree, and so she does everything in her power to become a tree. In the consummation of that desire, mortality is irrelevant. It is both horrifying and awe-inspiring to watch Yeong-hye step, with intention, away from the world. It is inhuman, unsettling, and at the same time beautifully resonant – it is perhaps most horrifying, in fact, because it strikes so directly at some basic human desires, with such extremity that those desires fall into question. It asks if there is a freedom worth dying for, if there is a way to make ourselves less animal and in doing so less dependent.
Near the middle of the book, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law stares at Yeong-hye’s naked, painted body on sheet on the studio floor.
“Only then did he realize what it was that had shocked him when he’d first seen her lying prone of the sheet. This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her – rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented.” (92)
In The Vegetarian, Han Kang writes into the abyss of what makes up the human animal, and what comes of those who refuse that animal nature. At the center of that void is a woman’s body, which never speaks, is only spoken of. There is a shimmering beauty here, and a horror. This is a book which stares unblinking, into the eyes of its readers. It is a book which, like its main character, is not afraid of death.