“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”
These are the opening words of South Korean writer Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Although becoming a vegetarian might not seem the most remarkable decision to make, it gains new meaning and importance in this novel. Translated into English by Deborah Smith, and winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, The Vegetarian is a book centred around a re-definition of the word ‘vegetarian’. The protagonist, Yeong-hye, decides to become a vegetarian, following several violent, blood-dripping dreams. However, what starts off as a change in her eating habits soon turns out to be the sign of a change she wants to make to her status as a human being. Being a vegetarian means to her not just eschewing meat. It entails becoming one with the natural world, not as a human participating in nature, but as a plant-like creature: she slowly stops eating, and even speaking. This is precisely where the central idea of the book lies. Yeong-hye becomes vegetarian in the pursuit of a state of purity and innocence that she feels is almost incompatible with her being human. In this sense, the novel portrays an extreme version of vegetarianism, one that has little to do with culinary associations with the term. An otherwise ordinary eating habit that seems to conform with Yeong-hye’s ordinary appearance ultimately turns out to be her way of isolating herself and abandoning her human existence.
This three-part novel is fairly short. In a sense, it is just about the right length: it is an intense, powerful, and somewhat outlandish story, which has the potential to overwhelm the reader. However, Han’s superb control of the narrative, masterfully conveyed by Smith’s translation, keeps the novel from falling into an overdramatic and crude tone. Three different voices narrate the story: Yeong-hye’s husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, In-hye. The novel is very much centred around the private, the family environment. If it tells us something about Korean society, it does so by way of reflection: the relationship between Yeong-hye and her husband, as well as between In-hye and hers, give us an idea of a close, patriarchal society, in which social conventions and etiquette are of almost suffocating importance. However, Han herself states, “I feel this novel is more universal, is not protesting Korean society… I just wanted to deal with human violence and the attempt to be purely innocent”.
From the very beginning Yeong-hye is presented as an extremely quiet and almost unnoticeable person. This causes many communication issues between the characters in the novel. Not only Yeong-hye and her husband, but also the rest of her family, including her sister In-hye and her husband, are solitary figures, isolated by the impossibility of communication. This is also one of the reasons why the three parts of the novel felt more connected in my mind than they were on the page: transitions from one part to the other are very abrupt, such that it takes a few pages to realise who is speaking. Strikingly, Yeong-hye has no voice in the novel: silence is her distinctive feature, a condition to which she is relegated. But it’s also one which she chooses, partly creating other people’s inability to understand her.
Her silence is lacerating: it forces the reader to actively try to understand Yeong-hye, just like every other character in the novel tries to do. Silence also influences style: Han Kang’s prose is matter-of-fact, characterised by short and concise sentences. However, precisely because of this concision, it is lyrical and tragic, each sentence carrying a strong, almost epigrammatic force.
The Vegetarian is by no means an easy read. It is a fine, sophisticated novel with a story that is disturbing, troubling, and disquieting, forcing the reader to question the very nature of human life and character. In this sense, The Vegetarian is truly spellbinding and unputdownable: it is gripping and dismaying at the same time, mixing sheer aesthetic beauty and utter psychological and physical distress.
‘The Vegetarian’ is published by Portobello Books, RRP £7.99