‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang (2007) – 188 pages Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
If you thought a novel by a South Korean woman writer might be too polite or decorous for you, forget about it. ‘The Vegetarian’ is lurid and violent, and it has sex scenes that would make that old purveyor of masturbatory fantasy Philip Roth blush.
“I do not eat meat,” Yeong-Hye announces one day. Her husband is indifferent to what she does as long as she keeps up a respectable front with his work associates and bosses. However Yeong-Hye makes a big scene at a company dinner with her refusal to eat meat, and this embarrasses her husband no end.
Yeong-Hye’s father and mother come to visit. She refuses to eat meat. This so infuriates her father that he beats her severely and force feeds her a piece of meat. She spits it out and then brandishes a fruit knife and cuts her wrist. She is taken to the hospital in critical condition.
At this point, we realize that Yeong-Hye is mentally ill. I doubt that someone deciding to become a vegetarian would ever be considered a sign of mental illness in the United States, but Yeong-Hye has other symptoms. She not only refuses meat; she starves herself. She takes her clothes off and goes naked regardless of whoever happens to be around. In the second section of “The Vegetarian”, her artist brother-in-law is consumed with sexual desire for her. He is obsessed with sexual fantasies featuring Yeong-Hye. Because she is in her own little world, she is a helpless victim.
In the third section, Yeong-Hye’s sister confronts her sister’s sickness:
“Life is such a strange thing, she thinks, once she has stopped laughing. Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on eating and drinking, going to the toilet, and washing themselves – living in other words. And sometimes they even laugh out loud.”
One thing I noticed while reading the author’s notes was that Han Kang was a participant in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Apparently afterwards she returned to South Korea, because the novel was written in Korean. So what we have here is a hybrid, a South Korean novel infused with a western sensibility.
All of the scenes in the novel are portrayed with a vivid dramatic intensity I wasn’t expecting. That is why I will remember ‘The Vegetarian’ long after other novels have faded from my memory.