Random House. 2016.
Pages 160 | Rs 550
A labyrinthine novel of nonconformity
There are not many instances when certain ideas refuse to leave hold of the imagination. For a compulsive writer that Han Kang is, who says, she “cannot not write,” (interview to World Literature Today, May-August 2016) it doesn’t come as a surprise that her own short story, “The Fruits of My Woman” (1997) bloomed into a three-part disturbing novel – The Vegetarian (2007 in Korea; 2015 in UK), which went on to become the Man Booker Prize winner in 2016. The story of a woman who becomes a tree in the short story gets a different take in The Vegetarian where Yeong-hye, an ordinary woman imagines herself as becoming a tree.
The Vegetarian is a story about human choices, power structure and everyday naturalised violence. It narrates the story of the lives of two sisters. The seemingly simple decision of the younger, Yeong-hye, to not eat meat because of some dream that she has, unveils the fractured and disjointed existences of these sisters. Yeong-hye’s decision to not eat meat appears abnormal in the South Korean society where meat forms the staple diet.
The novel is divided into three sections and flows through the minds of three different characters, but not Yeong-hye. Her scanty monologues are the only sources into her psyche that feels stifled by the violence of her childhood.
Yeong-hye’s husband narrates the first part, “The Vegetarian,” which begins by the disturbances caused to him by Yeong-hye’s sudden breaking of “ordinariness” and hierarchy when she throws away all the meat at home and calmly declares that she won’t eat meat anymore because of a dream. Moreover she tells that the lives of all the creatures she had eaten are stuck in her throat. Yeong-hye’s behaviour further irritates him, especially not wearing a bra, even in public, and basking in the sun with bare chest in their apartment.
Yeong-hye’s husband finds such personal freedoms taken by her to be improper to the limit that he seeks help of his autocratic father-in-law who later forcefully stuffs meat into her mouth, prompting her to slit her wrist. She is rushed to hospital by her brother-in-law. Yeong-hye reaches the zenith of “abnormality” when she sits in the hospital garden with her bare chest facing the sun. The section ends with her disgusted husband taking the decision to call off the marriage.
The most sensual part of the novel is the second one, “The Mongolian Mark,” narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an artist, in obsession with a blue birth mark on her buttocks. This inspires in him, a concept for a video art, wherein human bodies painted with flowers lay intertwined. His art brims to the verge of madness and finally leads to consummation. For the first time, readers are exposed to Yeong-hye’s uncontrollable passion for flowers and leaves. This section forms a closure to the marriage of Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, who takes charge of her and admits her to a mental asylum.
The third part, “Flaming Trees” is narrated by In-hye, Yeong-hye’s elder sister who runs a successful business and makes failed attempts at rescuing herself and holding Yeong-hye back to life. This section exposes the readers to Yeong-hye’s illusion of herself becoming a tree. This final section exposes the identity (crisis) of the sisters who believe to be trapped in their bodies. In-hye believes that her own insecurities and escapism has been a cause of Yeong-hye’s condition. In-hye attempts to hold her sister back to life by trying to rekindle childhood tastes in her and withdraw her from the decision to not eat food. Finally, In-hye appears charmed by the bizarre dream of her sister who doesn’t find death to be bad.
Yeong-hye’s disturbing dream makes naturalised violence froth to the surface. Be it the incident of the dog tied to death by her father or the natural act of eating meat or the autocratic father thrusting meat forcefully into her mouth or the brother-in-law’s incestuous and destructive sensuality or slitting the wrist or starving to death, the reader is utterly disturbed by the latent violence. The sharpest images of violence appear in flashes when the readers get insight into Yeong-hye’s head through a few small passages, scattered across the first section. The image of the lives of all creatures she has eaten, and stuck in her throat, is a terrible imagery of violence. The Vegetarian, then, emerges essentially as a novel about everyday naturalised violence.
The Vegetarian is about body, shame, desire, identities, disruption and abnormality and the gauges used by the society to understand these. Questions of identity, power and conformity run as major themes in the novel, which confront the soothing calmness maintained by Yeong-hye, in the midst of all the upheaval. This easy read novel camouflages intense philosophies of violence and elemental nature of existence and Nature, into a labyrinthine small novel. The Vegetarian deserves all the accolades it is receiving worldwide.