The Vegetarian by Han Kang is the first of my three reads for Women in Translation Month. This novel was by far the most popular recommendation at our Women in Translation Twitter Chat so I felt compelled to find out what all the fuss was about. This novel more than delivered what was promised and I devoured it over the course of three days. The Vegetarian is going to stay with me for a long time.
The Vegetarian is a book about people who are haunted. Disturbing dreams, memories and desires permeate this text and ruin the lives of the characters who experience them. I wonder if Kang set out to make this an experiment in letting the characters’ darkest urges run away with them and seeing what results developed. In each case, a relentless pursuit of distressing psychological needs results in terrible consequences. The novel is divided into three parts, each focusing on a particular character’s pursuit of this type.
The first part of the novel focuses on Yeong-hye, the main character, though, interestingly, this section is narrated by her insensitive husband, Mr Cheong. Yeong-hye dives deepest into the exploration of the most disturbing corners of her subconscious but we only hear about this first hand through a few stream of consciousness interruptions to Mr Cheong’s self-righteous narrative of his mistreatment by his unreasonable wife. Yeong-hye becomes a vegetarian after experiencing terrible dreams about flesh, meat and blood, where she cannot tell whether she is a murderer or being murdered. This ends her marriage and alienates her from the rest of her family before she eventually succumbs to a delusion that she is a tree, which allows her to relinquish all remaining connection she has with reality.
Unlink anyone else in Yeong-hye’s family, her brother in law is grotesquely fascinated by this transformation. Seeing that she has been abandoned by the rest of her family, In-hye (Yeong-hye’s sister), encourages her husband to look after Yeong-hye. In-hye has no idea about his darker motivations, which the reader learns all about through his first person narrative. Yeong-hye’s brother in law continually fantasizes about the changes her body has undergone as a result of her vegetarianism, eventually realizing that she is the perfect model to play the part of a woman in an erotic film he has been planning. He shamelessly and relentlessly pursues this goal, which leads to a catastrophic end to his marriage to In-hye and lands Yeong-hye in an institution.
In-hye then follows suit, narrating her own exploration of the possibility that she too might let go of reality rather than deal with the aftermath of her sister’s illness and her family’s reaction to it. In-hye nearly does do just this at one point, wandering out into the forest while her son is left alone. She returns before her son realizes she is gone, but In-hye is left marveling at her own ability to abandon her son and her sister with little or no regret. She is also haunted by her willingness as a child to play a role that allowed her sister to receive the full force of her father’s abuse rather than her. The Vegetarian asks what drives people to pursue their own inner needs at such a huge expense to others and the answers are not redeeming: convenience (Mr Cheong), sexual desire (In-hye’s husband), self-preservation (In-hye).
This novel is not the easiest of reads but it provokes such meaningful questions that it is easy to see why it has been so popular in the UK. Granta recently published a translation of ‘The Fruit of my Woman,’ Kang’s short fiction precursor to The Vegetarian. The translator compares this short story, where the main female character literally transforms into a tree, with the work of Kafka, describing it as a myth ‘for which no original exists’. I would argue that ‘The Fruit of my Woman’ has a lot in common with the magical realism of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. In contrast, The Vegetarian never once affirms that Yeong-hye is actually turning into a tree but rather leads the reader to conclude that this delusion is a masked rebellion against years of repression, first from her immediate family and then from her husband.
Yeong-hye’s escape via madness places The Vegetarian in a long tradition of women’s narratives of domestic captivity. The example that immediately springs to mind here is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In this turn of the century short story, the narrator’s patronizing husband places takes her away from her home, friends and family to help her overcome a nervous disorder. Bored and trapped in a single room in what turns out to be a former asylum, she begins to have hallucinations of a wild woman trapped in the wallpaper and eventually becomes that wild woman herself, tearing the wallpaper down from the walls with her teeth. Yeong-hye’s further descent into mental illness during her institutionalization echoes Gilman’s representation of the further damage caused by treatment. Personally I find it fascinating that these domestic captivity narratives seem to translate so easily into different cultures.
Han Kang’s novel Human Acts, which sounds equally emotionally challenging to The Vegetarian, also became available in English last year. Human Acts is about the brutal military response to the Gwangju uprising in 1980. I’ll end with a link to a discussion between Han Kang and her editor Max Porter about ideas for the cover of Human Acts, where Kang’s soft spoken, unassuming attitude belies a writer who isn’t afraid to tackle extremely difficult subjects.