Han Kang: The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (한강) is a rough, dark, and intriguing story about two families onto which a series of strange events inflicts irreparable damage. Set in modern day Korea it draws a grueling image how the decision to become vegetarian kicked all members of the family into an unstoppable race into a precipe of horror.

That evening there was a feast at our house. All the middle-aged men from the market alleyways came, everyone my father considered worth knowing. The saying goes that for a wound caused by a dog bite to heal you have to eat that same dog, and I did scoop up a mouthful for myself. No, in fact I ate an entire bowlful with rice. The smell of burnt flesh, which the perilla seeds couldn’t wholly mask, pricked my nose. I remember the two eyes that had watched me, while the dog was made to run on, while he vomited blood mixed with froth, and how later they had seemed to appear, flickering, on the surface of the soup. But I don’t care. I really didn’t care.
– The Vegetarian

The novel consists of three connected short-stories about the two sisters Yeong-hye and In-hye. Both are seemingly married happily, Yeong-hye with a business man, her sister In-hye with a video artist. In the first – name giving – story “The Vegetarian” Yeong-hye, after a recurring night mare started to plague her, started to become vegetarian. Despite her husbands trial to keep a normal life, things start to go more and more wrong until a family intervention at her sister’s place is called, with their sister parents present. Her father, who served in Vietnam, requests Yeong-hye to eat meat, and after her refusal and with the help of her husband and younger brother he forces some meat into Yeong-hye. This triggers a rabiat response with her breaking free, grabbing a knife and cutting her wrist. She is brought to an hospital and is later hospitalized as mentally unstable. The first story closes with her escaping from the hospital. She is finally found sitting bare breasted in the park asking “Have I done something wrong?”, and a dead bird covered with bite marks is retrieved from her palm.

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. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her—rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented.
– Mongolian Mark

The second story, “Mongolian Mark”, switches focus onto the husband of In-Hye. He, too, is haunted by dreams, but one of two love-making people with their bodies painted with flowers. When he learns from In-Hye that her sister Hyeog-hye still has her Mongolian mark despite the usual disappearance of these birth marks, he grows more and more obsessed with enacting his dream with Yeong-hye as the female part. The reader learns that Yeong-hye has been divorced, and on a visit to bring her fruits the husband-in-law finds her naked but unashamed of it in her apartment. After initial hesitation he asks her to model onto which she agrees. After a first session of painting with her alone, the husband-in-law arranges for a second part where a friend plays the male part. After an initial harmonic start the artist asks to engage in intercourse, which became too much for the friend and he leaves. Yeong-hye says that during all this she felt the fear and pressure of the consistent nightmare disappearing. The husband-in-law asks a friend to paint his body with flowers according to his designs, visits Yeong-hye and the two continue where the initial video was left. After a deep and exhausted sleep they wake up to In-hye having entered the apartment and played back the recorded video. She calls emergency services on grounds of mental illness of both, and after a short trial to throw himself of the balcony, both are taken into custody.

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. And they probably have these same thoughts, too, and when they do it must make them cheerlessly recall all the sadness they’d briefly managed to forget.
– Flaming Trees

The third and last story, “Flaming Trees”, finally focuses onto In-hye. She split with her husband and remain with their son the only ones of the family to support Yeong-hye, who has been transferred into a hospital for mentally ill. In-hye regularly reflects on her difficulties with the family and grows considerable depressed. Yeong-hye’s condition grows again more severe: She imagines becoming a tree, rejects all food, escapes from the hospital to be found in the forest in the rain. On her way to the hospital, In-hye recalls their childhood and the harsh treatment the older Yeong-hye received from the father, inflicting severe mental damage onto both of them. One of the core memories is the event of both of them getting lost, and when they find their way Yeong-hye suggested to run away from home. Returning home, In-hye feels happiness but sees the subdued and depressed Yeong-hye. With this memory, In-hye is present during a trial to force feed and sedate Yeong-hye. In-hye, observing the pain afflicted to her sister, bites the nurse restricting her. Finally In-hye brings her sister to a different hospital for her final stages. “The trees by the side of the road are blazing, green fire undulating like the rippling flanks of a massive animal, wild and savage.”

Despite that throughout the book one feels that all the horrors started with Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian, the memory recalled by In-hye in the last part closes a circle. One cannot blame one only, innocence does not exist. The author stated herself:

I wanted to deal with my long-lasting questions about the possibility/impossibility of innocence in this world, which is mingled with such violence and beauty.

3 Responses

  1. Tushar C says:

    This one left me sad and bewildered. The author uses beautiful metaphors, and she managed to give us not only a glimpse into a certain part of the South Korean society, but also the fragility of the human psyche. It reminded me that no matter how you try, you cannot connect with another human being – because your mind and your brain are yours alone. And so, you are bound to live alone inside that little skull. Ok. I’ll stop.

    Also, I recommend “The Republic of Wine” by Mo Yan! I’m about to finish it, and have absolutely love it.

    • Thanks for your comment, and for the recommendation of Mo Yan. I just got the book and look forward to read it.

      • Tushar C says:

        Brilliant! Hope you enjoy it. I’m reading Don Quixote right now 😀 Long, but very funny. And scarily accurate. No matter how idiotic and tragic you think he is, you will invariable see yourself reflected in at least a couple of pages of the book.

        I wish I had the organisational skills like you to write short review/summary/opinion pieces about the books I read. Someday…

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