The Vegetarian by Han Kang

 

This novel was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. I think it’s the first Korean novel I’ve ever read. It tells the story of Yeong-Hye and her troubled life through three separate narratives, told in chronological sequence. The first narrative is by Yeong-Hye’s husband, Mr Cheong. He relates how his wife seemed ‘ordinary’ and that was one of the things that drew him to her. However, one night he discovers her disposing of meat from the fridge, only saying. ‘I had a dream’. From then on she resolutely insists on a vegetarian diet (which is unusual in South Korea). Relations and friends are baffled and it culminates in a harrowing scene with her father trying to force a lump of pork down her throat and with Yeong-Hye cutting her wrists. Her only repeated refrain is ‘I don’t eat meat’ and it reminded me of one of my favourite short stories, Bartleby the Scrivener where Bartleby’s only response to demands is ‘I prefer not to’. Similarly, as with Bartleby it is hard to decipher what the matter is: Is it a principled stand for some unknown reason or is there some pathology at work? The second narrative is concerned with the video-artist brother in law of Yeong-Hye who becomes erotically obsessed with her. A betrayal and strange occurrences involving painted flowers result and it becomes clearer that Yeong-Hye may be unwell. Without wanting to divulge spoilers – the power of the story resides in more than the basic plot elements – Yeong-Hye is diagnosed with schizophrenia and subsequently anorexia. The full extent of her troubles and the effects on those around her are detailed in the last narrative of her sister’s. Her medical diagnoses however aren’t emphasized, at least not till the final stages. It’s a unique story, ultimately resulting in Yeong-Hye’s wish to assume tree-like form. It’s definitely not a straight-forward account of an illness or a ‘case history’. Instead, it’s an often surreal story told in very precise language of experiences that seem to elude understanding. It reminded me a little of Kafka and maybe Yoko Ogawa. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as an ‘uplifting’ read but it is a very beautiful rendering of the essential unknowability of much of our inner lives. But in this, it’s not so much pessimistic as appreciative of the mystery in each of our souls and questioning of what might compel us to break with social boundaries. I think this story will stay with me for a long time to come.

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