TW: rape, eating disorders
Surprise, it’s an exquisite, haunting metaphor.
The Vegetarian, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016, is Han Kang’s first novel translated from Korean into English, by Deborah Smith. Originally released as three separate ‘novelettes’, Kang published them together for the first time in one volume in 2007 with Changbi Publishers, and then in the UK with Portobello books in 2015. The three sections are stylistically distinct, changing from third to first person and between tenses, but all arrange themselves around the life of the eponymous vegetarian, Yeong-hye. Each explores a different stage of Yeong-hye’s descent into madness, asking questions about the possibility of innocence and the cruelty of humanity, the nature of desire and the narrow paths available in a heteronormative world.
Yeong-hye is a part time graphic artist and a ‘home-maker’. The first section is told from the perspective of her husband, the functional Mr Cheong, who believes that his wife to be the most ordinary woman in the world. This ordinariness is what seems to make Yeong-hye desirable to Mr Cheong, who works from morning until midnight each day. When Yeong-hye begins having brutally violent dreams, she decides to go vegetarian. This is a choice that brings a great deal of conflict into the lives of herself and her husband, who simply cannot understand his wife’s sudden unhinged behaviour: her refusal to eat or cook meat, wear a bra, sleep with him, or even to feel shame about any of it.
The second section, The Mongolian Mark, won a well-deserved prize of its own when it was originally published. Told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s videographer brother-in-law, it is the most sensual and poetic section of the collection. The unnamed brother-in-law, in an artistic rut, becomes infatuated with his wife’s sister after hearing about her petal-shaped Mongolian mark, a birthmark that has improbably remained on Yeong-hye’s left buttock since infanthood, and then accidentally seeing her unabashed nudity in her new apartment. He finds new inspiration in the conception of an image: two people, adorned with painted flowers, having intercourse on film. It must, he knows, feature Yeong-hye and her Mongolian mark, the centripetal force of her impossible innocence and eroticism.
The third section, Flaming Trees, is told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, and explores Yeong-hye’s committal to a mental institution by In-hye herself. This section is the necessary, horrifying, conclusion. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism has transformed into refusal to eat anything at all, because Yeong-hye needs to become a plant.
The collection is unnerving and heart breaking in its portrayal of Yeong-hye’s loneliness and impulse towards self-destruction and erasure. As readers we never get to have any clear vision of Yeong-hye, even though her journey into madness makes up the entire content of the book. To find her we must see through the beliefs and desires of Kang’s speakers to find fragments of Yeong-hye’s troublesome identity, and her paradoxical struggle to free herself through repression of it. This quiet battering of the protagonist is seen in warped glimpses through the waters of her husband’s blind self-interest, the videographer’s desire and her sister’s regret, and is inextricably knotted up in Yeong-hye’s gender. Her female body is dangerous to her, and threatening to those around her. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism seems to begin as an attempt to purge her own vicious impulses, her deeply submerged rage, but this path can only lead to one destination. Smith’s translation of Kang’s prose is lucid and stark, and seems to ring in the dark, unseen caverns of this story.
Annoushka is currently a screenwriting student and an aspiring TV writer based in London. She misses cocktails and spends too much time watching cat videos.