#AW80BOOKS: A Masterpiece on Suffering – Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian’.
Having read several reviews of Han Kang’s writing, I suspected that I was in for a disturbing time with The Vegetarian. I was right. The novel, translated from Korean into English by Deborah Smith, contains three connecting stories beginning with a husband complaining of his wife’s increasingly ‘unreasonable’ behaviour. From the very start he is completely open about his lack of any particular fondness for her, and when he speaks about the convenience of their relationship, there is a distinct absence of warmth in his words.
Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. … However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground.
When his wife, Yeong-hye stops eating meat after a harrowing dream, her vegetarianism extends to a refusal to cook meat for him too. He is embarrassed when they are invited out for a meal with his boss, and she not only refuses to eat the sumptuous food offered by their hosts, but is oblivious to the offence caused by her behaviour. Infuriated by this, her husband informs her family, who all put pressure on her to conform, and the chapter culminates in a family meal which turns ugly when they try and physically force her to eat meat against her will.
Part two – ‘Mongolian Mark’, switches to the perspective of Yeong-hye’s brother in law, who is a blocked artist. Inspired by a combination of a performance poster he had seen of naked bodies covered in painted flowers, and the casual mention by his wife that her sister still bore a Mongolian birthmark on her buttock, he becomes obsessed by the idea of creating a work of art with Yeong-hye, involving him painting flowers all over her body and filming her. Despite the extreme fragility of her mental state, he asks her to be involved and she agrees. as the work progresses, his initial ideas do not quell his obsession, and his need to possess her goes beyond the camera’s lens.
This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated…what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented….the beauty of that body which, though this was not visible to the eye, was also ceaselessly splintering… the overwhelming inexpressibility of the scene beat against him like a wave breaking on the rocks, alleviating even those terrifyingly unknowable compulsions that had caused him such pain over the past year.
Her calm acceptance of all these things made her seem to him something sacred. Whether human, animal or plant, she could not be called a ‘person’, but then she wasn’t exactly some feral creature either – more like a mysterious being with qualities of both.
The chapter ends with his wife discovering the video footage he’s made, which reveals the physical relationship between him and Yeong-hye.
The final part ‘Flaming Trees’ is written from the point of view of In-hye, Yeoug-hye’s sister. The traumatic experience with her husband has led to the breakdown of their marriage and the hospitalisation of her sister in a psychiatric ward. Yeong-hye has now stopped eating altogether and seems determined to leave her human body behind, desiring instead to become a tree. While Yeong-hye’s story is a study on how unbearable suffering has led to her attempts to absent herself from her body, in this chapter we learn that she is not the only one suffering. Growing up with a violent father, In-hye carries the weight of guilt in regularly witnessing but not preventing his violence against her sister throughout their childhood. As a result, In-hye has always felt compelled to protect, provide and care for others to try to assuage her deep-seated shame at her perceived complicity.
For such a short book, I found much to think about. The sparse prose was powerful in its simplicity and frequently beautiful despite its brutality. I saw the stories as an study of the various forms of oppression faced by women and their attempts at resistance. In chapter one – ‘The Vegetarian’, control over one’s body, consumption and behaviour are explored, while I felt ‘Mongolian Mark’ was more an allegory for the objectification of women, how they are decorated and consumed as objects, and also a suggestion that they are in some way bound to the earth in a way men are not. As well as exploring guilt as a form of suffering,’Flaming Trees’ grapples with the difficult question of whether it is right to override someone’s personal choice, if their behaviour will cause them harm.
Whilst not a comfortable read, I thought The Vegetarian was an astonishingly powerful book and beautifully written. Once I’ve recovered sufficiently emotionally, Han Kang’s Human Acts will be next at the top of my wish list.