The Vegetarian is a disturbing and extraordinary novel, about the transformation of a seemingly “unremarkable in every way” woman to a sensual, provocative, ethereal being who has rejected completely the outside world. It is Han Kang’s – a South Korean writer – first novel, wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith, in English (Portobello, 2015).
Haunted by grotesque and aggressive recurring dreams, Yeong-hye decides one morning to become a vegetarian.
“Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.”
Her vegetarianism is a shocking act of mutiny in a society that vegetarianism is unusual and societal norms and traditions are strictly obeyed. It provokes an aggressive, violent reaction by her family. The consequences are dire, the main characters are forced to re-examine their own lives and their values, and when finally, the fragile façade disintegrates, the breakdown of the family is inevitable and definitive.
The visions have a very profound effect to Yeong-hye, gradually, she is being transformed to a primitive, almost ethereal being, she becomes a “person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being”, driven by her inner passions and desires.
The Vegetarian consists of three chapters. Yeong-hye is the focal point in all three parts of The Vegetarian, but in each chapter is different. Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, a mediocre, dull person, narrates the first chapter ‘The Vegetarian’. The second chapter, ‘Mongolian Mark’, focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law (his name remains unrevealed to the reader), an unsuccessful graphic artist who becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye’s thin body, which rather than provoking lust, it was a body that “made one want to rest one’s gaze quietly upon it”. In the third and final chapter, ‘Flaming Trees’, In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister and successful businesswoman, begins to question her marriage and her relationship with her sister, husband, and father. She is tired, worn down by life, she is failing “to cope with all that her sister reminded her of”.
In this extraordinary, imaginative, unsettling and dark novel, Han Kang explores the primal violent and sensual instincts hidden deep in our unconscious self. In Yeong-hye’s personal rebellion lies a deep despair and doubt about humanity. In a society that hates any form of diversity and individuality, she rejects human violence and male domination by transforming herself into a plant.