Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian is a novel by South Korean author Han Kang, translated to English by Deborah Smith. The book is broken into three parts, all of which were apparently published as separate novellas, before being bound together as a novel.

The first part, The Vegetarian, is narrated by the husband of a woman named Yeong-Hye. He begins his story thus:

Before my wife became a vegetarian, I'd always thought of
her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank,
the first time I met her I wasn't even attracted to her.
In fact, Yeong-Hye's husband picked her out specifically for her mediocrity. He wanted a simple, unchallenging wife who would make his meals and see to his other physical needs. Thus he is seriously unprepared for the day when he comes home to find her cooking seaweed soup, refusing to eat or prepare a meat dish ever again. What's more, his body's organic meat odour has become disgusting to her. What he regards as his conjugal rights he begins to take by force.

Yeong-Hye begins to lose weight. To questions as to why she has radically changed her diet she answers simply that she had a dream. Her family—and particularly her parents, who find her behaviour puzzling and shameful—begin to pressure her to yield to her husband's culinary requirements, but Yeong-Hye is steadfast in her
refusal. By the end of this section of the book, the tension has mounted to an outbreak of actual violence.

So far this book probably sounds like either a farce or a satirical attack on Korea's oppressive cultural conformity and patriarchal structures. Perhaps it all seems a little absurd (although any vegetarian will be able to tell you about the vast number of conversational strategies we develop in order to avoid having to endlessly justify the tiny difference between ourselves and those we are dining with). Certainly this kind of satirical element is present in Kang's novel, but if there is farce here, it is not terribly funny. And something far more complex and subtle is at work too, as suggested by the occasional insights into Yeong-Hye's thoughts:

Sleeping in five-minute snatches. Slipping  out of fuzzy
consciousness, it's back - the dream. Can't even call it that
now. Animal eyes gleaming wild, presense of blood,
unearthed skull, again those eyes. Rising up from the
pit of my stomach. Shuddering awake, my hands, need
to see my hands. Breathe. My fingernails still soft, my
teeth still gentle.

 The novel's second part, Mongolian Mark, centers around Yeong-Hye's brother-in-law, a video artist with a growing obsession with his wife's sister. He becomes both sexually and artistically preoccupied with the idea that she will feature in his next work. He wants to use her to recreate a vision he has had of two bodies, covered in the images of flowers, entwined sexually. Yeong-Hye is pliable and amenable. She likes the flowers he paints on her body because they stop her oppressive dreams. Although it should be clear to the reader by now that Yeong-Hye's behaviour and thinking is disturbed, Han Kang relates this part of the story from the artist's perspective, such that what happens between the two of them seems understandable and almost innocent.

It's not until the third part of the book, which is told from the viewpoint of the artist's wife, Yeong-Hye 's sister, that it becomes obvious how monstrous the artist's behaviour really is. By this time Yeong-Hye is in an institution. She has stopped eating completely, and sometimes she stands on her hands, believing her fingers sprout roots into the ground.

To a degree, The Vegetarian is a story about schizophrenia—about the creeping onset of the condition, the confused and damaging ways in which people can react to it, and the terrible effect it can have on both the sufferer and those around them. Yeong-Hye withdraws from the world little by little, and is almost wholly gone before anyone really realises how little they knew her. In this sense it is a sensitive and moving study of the reality of mental illness.

But this is really not a book simply about a disease. There is also an element of complete comprehensibility in Yeong-Hye's break with reality, in her desire to turn her back on the animal world and embrace the quiet simplicity of plant life. Her sister, In-Hye, when she looks back across their life together, sees that there were signs even in childhood that life's demands, their family life, her position in it, were too much for Yeong-Hye. In-Hye reflects that with slightly different choices, under changed circumstances, or if her own chosen coping mechanisms had not involved a sense of huge responsibility, maybe something in her would have let go too.

This is one of the best books I've read for a while. For everything I've said about it, I think it is ultimately a book about the sometimes horrific limitations of being a human, and about that sense we sometimes have that life as we are living it is a pale imitation of what it could be. But it is also a book about love, specifically about the bond between siblings; a bond which though it might sometimes feel hopeless, though it might be a source of guilt and sadness, and in this case is a largely tragic one, remains nonetheless unique and often meaningful.

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