Everything I’ve read about Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, has been complimentary. It’s thought-provoking; it’s about the relationship of self-denial to self-destruction; it’s about how life is savage; it’s about the insufficiency of art to save us. Stefanie says it’s “disturbing” and “unsettling.” Bellezza finds it “compelling.”
The short novel is well-constructed, consisting of three novellas: the first is from a husband’s point of view, on a wife who suddenly throws out all the meat in the house and refuses to eat it, losing weight and refusing to explain, simply saying “I had a dream.” The second is from an artist brother-in-law’s point of view; like everyone else in the woman’s family, he sees her as a blank canvas on which to project his own desires. The third is from a sister’s point of view, a woman who has shut out the savagery of her own upbringing in order to live a normal life.
The vegetarian’s point of view is rarely heard; her name is Yeong-hye, but we know very little about what she wants or thinks or feels, only that she had a dream, that it is full of blood and terror, and that she no longer wants to live.
This is the point at which I can’t find much to like about this novel. Maybe it’s allegorical and “Kafkaesque” as the book jacket claims; that seems oddly outdated to me. I’m looking for a point of view on the “heart of darkness” at the center of this novel, but none of the characters are really involved, apart from the moment when Yeong-hye’s father tries to force meat down her throat and the moment when her brother-in-law penetrates her sexually, neither of which invites sympathy or identification with the character.
At first it seems that Yeong-hye is more sensitive than other people. She says “if you know how hard I’ve always worked to keep my nerves in check. Other people just get a bit flustered, but for me everything gets confused, speeds up.” Later you find out that she has been exposed to horrors that most readers haven’t, like, at the age of nine, having to watch a dog that bit her run to its death at the back of her father’s motorcycle, and then having to eat some of the dog’s flesh, “an entire bowlful with rice,” because “the saying goes that for a wound caused by a dog bite to heal you have to eat that same dog.” At the end of the first section, what she fears about her appendages has come true; they enable her to be a killer. After giving up meat and stabbing herself when her father tries to force-feed her, she has caught a bird outside at the hospital–caught it in her hand and taken a bite out of it.
At the beginning of part two, I thought maybe I could identify with the artist brother-in-law. But no, he is as much a predator as anyone else in this novel; just because Yeong-hye seems to like what he does to her doesn’t make him any less predatory than her father or her husband, as she demonstrates when “she burst into tears” at his climax.
The sister, In-hye, in the third part of the novel, goes to visit Yeong-hye in the mental institution where she is confined and force-fed. She and the hospital employees are focused on keeping her sister alive, while Yeong-hye asks “why, is it such a bad thing to die?” The question reminds In-hye of a time when Yeong-hye was nine years old and they were lost, and Yeong-hye said “let’s just not go back.” In-hye remembers that “Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings….she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.” In-hye finally understands that playing the older sister role has been “a survival tactic” for her, and her younger sister had no such “normal” role to fall back on.
In-hye wonders, briefly (as does the reader), if there is a metaphorical way to understand what has happened to her sister. Maybe Yeong-hye’s body has really become a tree: “had her body metamorphosed into a sturdy trunk, with white roots sprouting from her hands and clutching the black soil? Had her legs stretched high up into the air while her arms extended all the way down to the earth’s very core, her back stretched taut to support this two-pronged spurt of growth? As the sun’s rays soaked down through Yeong-hye’s body, had the water that was saturating the soil been drawn up through her cells, eventually to bloom from her crotch as flowrs? When Yeong-hye had balanced upside down and stretched out every fiber in her body, had these things been awakened in her soul?”
But then In-hye reminds herself of what is real: “you’re lying there in that bed, and dying. Nothing else.” She says “I have dreams too, you know. Dreams…and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over…but surely the dream isn’t all there is?” Although the tragedy, with the two sisters, could be like a Belle Reve moment, from A Streetcar Named Desire, it doesn’t work that way for me in the novel. Blanche wants to escape into her dreams of the past, whereas Yeong-hye wants to escape from her dreams and her past. The only way to escape from the past, this novel says, is to end your life.
Less of a tragedy than a relief, I’d say. I was glad when the novel was over. Maybe this is one problem with undirected, solo reading–I’d have been just as glad when a masterpiece like Things Fall Apart was over, if I’d been reading it on my own, for no particular reason. Maybe this is a book you have to want to learn something from.
What’s the last book you read on your own that might have been better if you’d read it as part of a discussion group, or for a class?