REVIEW: A Korean Woman Fades Away, in a Booker-Prize-Winning Novel

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
Hogarth, 192 pp.

By Simone Grace Seol

The Vegetarian is a Korean novel that chronicles a woman's decision to stop eating meat. Though going vegetarian is hardly a radical stance nowadays, the protagonist's decision is motivated not by the usual health-related or moral reasons but rather but a series of violent dreams that causes ripples of destruction on her family. First published in 2007, the book was met with critical acclaim by the Korean literary establishment. It went onto achieve international notoriety, culminating in this year's Man Booker Prize, awarded to both the author and the English translator, Deborah Smith — and it became an international bestseller.

Composed of three novellas, The Vegetarian takes a magnifying glass to the madness simmering under the surface of contemporary Korean life. The protagonist, Yeong-hye, is a young woman married to a man who sees her has thoroughly average and unremarkable. Yeong-hye one day declares that she will stop eating meat and when asked why, she only responds, enigmatically, "I had a dream." Her “dream” turns out to be “dreams,” and they are described in a series of bloody and violent sketches: she sees a "long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat," remembers her father's cruel killing of a dog from childhood, and feels "intolerable loathing, so long suppressed." She becomes haunted by these images, wasting away with little appetite or sleep.

As Yeong-hye retires further into emotional isolation, the men around her respond with violence. Her sexually frustrated husband forces himself on her.  Incensed by her continued defiance of meat-eating at a family gathering, her father strikes her across the face and violently shoves a piece of meat into her mouth.

Han Kang is not incapable of pathos; there are times when Han tenderly portrays the anguish of Yeong-hye's mother and sister as they watch a loved one waste away, feeling powerless to help. However, the author returns quickly to what feels like a broader indictment of society and the way it exerts dominion over the individual — the tyranny of patrimony against a fragile inner self. Yeong-hye's family is less distressed by her obvious illness than by the way she ignores cultural expectations: she must eat meat in order to be a serviceable accessory to her social-climbing husband, and a daughter with a duty to be docile to her parents.

The archetype of Yeong-hye's authoritarian father, a Vietnam veteran, will be familiar to many readers -- perhaps especially Korean readers. No doubt Han has reflected on the theme of violence and trauma; she has previously written a novel about the Gwangju Uprising, a mass protest against the South Korean military government in 1980 that left hundreds dead. In The Vegetarian, I wonder whether Han meant to show how the brutal, predatory psychological current in the collective consciousness can be re-enacted at the domestic level -- parent to child, husband to wife, man to animal. Despite the preponderance of such domestic violence, everyone is expected to dutifully plug away at their assigned roles. Then, who among us is mad -- the one confined to a mental hospital or a society that sees nothing particularly disturbing about reality as it is?

The story is not, however, a constant march of darkness. I was fascinated by the bloodless interlude of the Part II, which has drawn little commentary from critics. The second novella, Mongolian Mark, is a feast of splendid visual imagery against which the first and third novellas serve as photonegative. It focuses on Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, an installation artist who becomes consumed with an artistic vision of two copulating bodies that are painted with flowers. He convinces Yeong-hye to be his model and muse, and she slowly comes alive as he paints "half-opened buds, red and orange, bloomed splendidly on her shoulders and back, and slender stems twined down her side."

This salve of sex-meeting-aesthetic-vision seems to, amazingly, cure Yeong-hye's alienation and madness. This is the only instance in the entire novel where we see her reconcile with her body's mammalian impulse and find temporary relief from the persistent nightmares. She finds a kind of salvation while performing only to the audience of her own primordial yearning.

Han Kang gleefully subverts our notions of sex and nature, reason and desire, inviting us to reconsider the way we look at creation. For Yeong-hye, it is not the ruddiness or warmth of human flesh but the bitter green sap of botanic life that inspires lust. I could not help but think of Baudelaire's verse from the Flowers of Evil ("And the sky was watching that superb cadaver/ Blossom like a flower."). As in the poem, plant life unexpectedly becomes sinister and decadent. Flowers open like sex organs and trees breathe like hulking beasts, mounting a roaring rejection of benevolent Wordsworthian nature. In this universe, the healing, restorative power of the green earth is a lie; predation and death rule, and are constantly threatening to break open the surface. Who is the aggressor and who the victim, in nature and in human society?

Deborah Smith is a dazzlingly nimble translator, capturing the eerily muted mood of the Korean original. The poetry of Smith's translation is a worthy match to Han's psychological acuity and fierce elegance. She leaves in words like soju (a clear alcoholic spirit) and manhwa (illustrated comic books) without explaining them or substituting more familiar but imprecise foreign words (i.e. vodka and manga), a common yet lamentable practice in translation. This decision lends the narrative a self-contained authority, trusting the reader to rise to the task of decoding the novel's universe.

Han Kang's psychological daring is exhilarating. Yeong-hye's resistance becomes more extreme over time -- as she descends into madness and begins resisting food of all kinds.  Despite this dire decline, I do not find the book to be death-obsessed, as others have. I see it instead as a dark meditation on the agency of the individual soul and the persistence of its pull toward freedom. Yeong-hye's deathward march is not unlike Christ's walk to Calvary; both are in reaction to the disordered brutality of an indifferent world, heading toward a redemption with its own moral logic.

Simone Grace, who has degrees from Wellesley College and Columbia University, is a South Korea-based writer.