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Fascinating Korean Novel of a Woman’s Silent Rebellion by Turning Vegetarian in a Meat Loving Society

Book title: The Vegetarian

Author: Han Kang

Translated by: Deborah Smith

Published by: Granta

Genre: Literary Fiction, Translation

Book summary:

Yeong Hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners, she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flat line of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares.

In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong Hye’ s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation.

She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – A tree. Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.


About the Author:

Han Kang is a South Korean writer. She won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction in 2016 for The Vegetarian, one of the first of her books to be translated into English.


About the Translator:

Deborah Smith is a British translator of Korean fiction. In 2015, Smith founded Tilted Axis Press, a non-profit publishing house devoted to books that “might not otherwise make it into English.”


My Review:

The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a relentless and intense scrutiny of the tenuous relationship between the mind and the body. Made of three sections, the narrative is tersely worded, almost shorn of emotions though the turn of events is dramatic in the first part; turning evocative and sensuous in the second part ‘Mongolian Mark’ while in the final section, ‘Flaming Trees’ there is a sense of weariness.

What struck me most about this book was the way the human body, in this case that of a protagonist Yeong-hye, a home-maker is seen and subjected to in different circumstances and by different protagonists. In the first section, it is her body as seen from her husband’s view: unremarkable, a body that does not register to him as a person till the day she decides to shun all meat in her diet and then in her house. This sets of a turn of events and brings in other layers to the narrative: individual choices versus collective acceptability, the socially and culturally deviant versus norms that are upheld, how mental health can affect people in different ways.

The second part has Yeong-hye’s brother in law sees her body as his fetish, one that he must discover as his exploration in pursuit of art and in the last part, the same body becomes a study of veins, bones, fading muscles and openings that are poked and parted to keep her alive. The last section also examines how family members caring after a sick one and in this case, a mentally affected one go through a gamut of guilt, martyr complex and loneliness that weighs one down.

The first section of the book, also titled ‘The Vegetarian’ starts with this line: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way” and one can be mistaken for thinking that the narrative ahead would be treading around marital and domestic spaces but turn the pages and what you have is just the beginning of a many layered narrative. And no, this book is not about food habits or food fads but a very astute use of the universal divide over going vegetarian or eating meat while talking about belief systems that can lead to obsessive behavior.

Reading up on this book and the author, I was very struck by the fact that the Korean original of The Vegetarian published in 2007 is based on a short story written by the author in 1997. Makes one wonder over the creative process and the challenges it would bring to revisit a finished story and then work on it to flesh it out and make it into something new. A profound read!

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