The Vegetarian by Han Kang is an odd book. I bought it for myself on my mad, wild, Foyles birthday trip*, because the title and its blurb appealed.
On a personal level, the book interested me because I haven’t eaten meat since 2006. Obviously, within that time, I have eaten meat. During the pre-breakdown period of my first major breakdown, one Sunday morning after a despicable Saturday night I woke up, hating myself and everything about me, and decided to destroy the one remaining part of myself I could feel any pride in, which was was my (then) 4/5 years of meat-free living. In an act of London-based self-hatred, I went out to a farmer’s market and bought the finest sausages [my] money could buy and cooked them, ate half of one then cried for three hours (which I’d’ve been doing anyway) and realised that existence without any meagre self-respect is even worse than a life without any self-respect. Since then, I have eaten half a fish in a shithole restaurant in Tangier, some deep-fried sheep brain in Istanbul, some octopus in West London, some duck in Paris and whatever stock, rennet, skin flakes and residue have floated into my system as I live and breathe in a non-meat-free environment. To be honest, I don’t care that much. All but the fish in Tangier and the sausage happened within the last ten months, because as I’ve aged I’ve realised that ones own life is always far from how one envisions it, and every effort to move closer to “the dream” reminds the self of ones wider failings.
So (I un-digress), as a barely-functioning vegetarian** who likes to read short novels and novels in translation, this volume piqued my interest. Han Kang is an award-winning Korean novelist and this is, I believe, her first piece to be translated into English. As I am informed by the copyright page, The Vegetarian was originally published as three “novelettes”*** before being combined into a single volume. (According to the internet, the word “novelette” means the same as “novella”, and according to most definitions I can swiftly find, this word signifies as much a comment on content/value as it does on length.****) None of the novel’s three parts would really have worked as standalone pieces – they all tell a slight narrative whilst hinting at a wider one behind it, and combined they evoke an involving – but confused – story about a single person’s life, a person who has a serious mental breakdown, which initially masquerades as vegetarianism.
The protagonist of The Vegetarian is Yeong-hye, a Korean woman in her late 20s who, after a violent dream, decides to give up meat. This is seen as a terrible annoyance by her husband and as a real embarrassment by his colleagues, but by Yeong-hye’s parents, her vegetarianism is seen as a heinously subversive act. The first third of the novel ends with her father failing to force-feed her pork, which she responds to by slitting her wrist and spraying blood all over her brother-in-law. The second third is all about this same brother-in-law’s growing erotic obsession with her and the destructive effect it has on his career as a video artist and (obviously) his marriage, and the final third is a rather confusing ending that suddenly slides Yeong-hye from self-driven adult woman fighting against the constraints of a socially conservative society into a completely insane individual who needs to be sectioned as she wants to be a plant.
Each third of the novel focuses on the perspective of someone other than the story’s centre – part 1 is a first person narrative from the voice of Yeong-hye’s conventional husband, part 2 is a close third person from behind her brother-in-law’s consciousness, whilst the final bit moves towards her sister, who also seems to break down and fall apart as she contemplates her sister’s condition.*****
What the novel seems to be, ultimately, is as othering about vegetarianism as the characters within it. Although Han Kang doesn’t seem narratorially judgementmental towards the choices that Yeong-hye makes, she doesn’t include any other non-meat-eaters, for example example, who are able to function within society, who aren’t suicidal and who don’t want to become plants. Yeong-hye makes a decision about her diet – one that is perfectly respectable over here in aggressive, red-blooded London – but it later transpires to be nothing more than the first step in a psychologically-screwed attempt to become a tree. Vegetarianism is treated here as an eating disorder, and in no way does the novel imply that this is Korean society’s prejudices that should be addressed, rather than the commonly-held opinions of all humankind.
In the first third of the novel, we get occasional first person snippets from Yeong-hye. These are her dreams about blood and violence and her responses to them; in the second part her personality is further from the focus as she becomes the artistic heart of someone else’s work, though we do get one insight into her life, a flashback to the time where as a child her parents (non-physically) made her eat the flesh of the family dog that her father tortured to death after it bit her. This goes some way to justifying her aversion to meat as an adult,****** and contributes to the reader’s knowledge of the history of emotional and physical abuse that is described, in the third act, by her elder sister, and is used to explain away her mental health issues.
Yeong-hye wants to photosynthesise, she wants to live off light and water and nothing else; she wants to look like a plant, feel like a plant and flower like a plant. In many ways, this narrative mirrors that of many people: the impossible dream, the complete mental collapse as a result of the inability to realise something impossible. Maybe, like Yeong-hye, my vegetarianism was an early symptom of something serious, but I doubt it.
The Vegetarian should a) be titled The Vegan and b) should have a different title. Its cover design and title make it look like a self-help cookbook, like something lifestyley, but in reality it is an interesting novel about insanity and society’s wish to ignore signs of psychological illness. What’s hilarious about it, though, is that the choice to embrace vegetarianism is absolutely seen as something ones loved ones should pay attention to. If anyone you care about becomes vegetarian, watch them, if anyone you know already is, send them to a doctor. There is no reprieve for this common dietary choice for Han Kang, which in itself is interesting.
The linguistic translation – other than an irritating decision to refer to the Seoul metro/subway as “the underground” – seems sharp enough, but what is lacking is a cultural translation. Meat-free living has been widespread in the West since the ’60s – I’m no hippy and I do it, you know? – and it is a little disconcerting to read a novel that evokes the decision as something damaged.
An interesting read, glad I surprised myself with it, but hasn’t necessarily fired me up for a delve into other Korean literature any time soon…
* It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago, and because I’m a grown up without a social life who’s ostracised half of his family (no regrets!), I expected few presents (and got less!) so took myself to Foyles the day before mon anniversaire, mis cumpleaños, mein geburtstag, and book-bought my way into happiness. (FYI – Persepolis and Purity were both birthday buys, too, and I have about four more.) It felt like an odd thing to do, semi-arbitrarily buying books I didn’t know I wanted or not, doing so because I knew there was no one to do that for me. What I really like is books, and though whenever I usually buy books it’s because I’ve gone out of my way to find said book after reading about it in an essay, someone else’s novel or in the bibliography of something lame, going into a giant bookstore with an open mind and the will to pleasantly surprise myself felt great. I gave myself no budget and spent more than I can afford, but I used the mantra in my head: “If you still had contacts, would they buy you this because they thought you’d like it?” and every time I answered “Yes, probably” I put the book into my buying pile. Ironically, the couple of hours I spent in the bookshop was probably time I could have spent trying to repair one of the many broken relationships in my life, but it was also one of the few moments I’ve had in weeks where I wasn’t overwhelmed by an irresistible urge to consume alcohol until the hand-shaking and minor hallucinations stop and the world becomes steady and blurred, and it was nice to remember that, back when I had a life, there were innocent things that made me not regret being alive, as well as all of the corrupt things that made me enjoy myself. FYI, this is a gentle cry for help. I want to be performing hip-hop in drag and writing philosophical novels, not drinking mid-range wine alone and writing self-indulgent blog posts. Can anyone help me to achieve this?
** Although – technically – a highly-functioning alcoholic.
*** Not my word.
**** This surprises me, the ubiquity on internet dictionaries of “novella” as a slur. I’d never use it as that, and I’m an individual who’s read, literally and literarily, hundreds of prose works that describe themselves as “novellas”. I also frequently use it as a descriptive word myself. For me, all it means is length, all it denotes is if the text I’m reading is something I can expect to finish within a few hours or not. Old Man and the Sea is a novella, Of Mice and Men, you know. Nobel stuff.
***** I might be wrong about this, I was a bit drunk by the last ten pages of the novel and may’ve got confused.
****** For me, it was seeing a goat having its neck slit, being hung up to drain from a washing line, children playing with its head once removed, its skin being peeled off, its flesh being hacked apart and toddlers splashing about in its blood.