“I had a dream”: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

“Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside. A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked into my skin.”

The Vegetarian, a novel by Korean author Han Kang, confidently translated by Deborah Smith, met with resounding critical praise when it was released in the UK early last year. Despite being available in Canada in the UK edition, the book has received relatively little attention on this side of the Atlantic. However, its American release from Hogarth in a slightly different translation, should encourage a new round of well deserved attention.

vegetarianThis haunting allegorical tale of a woman’s gradual descent into madness that cracks and shatters the carefully composed order around her, starts out with a certain clean, almost antiseptic atmosphere of emotional detachment. It passes through the lens of an eerie erotic account of artistic obsession and ends with the force of an unbridled mountain creek, crashing and rolling down a steep rocky channel to a wildly uncertain end.

The opening chapter, “The Vegetarian”, is narrated by the moderately ambitious Mr. Cheong, a Seoul businessman who sets the bar fairly low and is intent on a smooth life, devoid of excessive stress or excitement. He marries accordingly, choosing the perfectly average Yeong-hye. Not exceptionally attractive, her quiet resourcefulness, and competent housekeeping and cooking skills please him. Yet he is, once his measured existence takes a turn for the decidedly strange; a man who proves himself remarkably self-centred. In his world it is all about him, even as it becomes apparent that his wife is struggling with something dark and troubling.

One morning, without warning, Yeong-hye is discovered, by her husband, standing in the glow of the open refrigerator at 4:00 AM. She is oddly lost, curiously absorbed by whatever it is she sees there. Her only explanation, when pressed, is “I had a dream”. Later that day, Mr. Cheong arrives home to find his wife removing and discarding all of the meat in the fridge. From that point on she becomes a committed vegetarian, much to her husband’s horror, dismay and shame. But this is not an effort to embrace a health trend, she becomes thinner and more withdrawn over time. Still he rationalizes away her behaviour, preferring to maintain a facade of normalcy. As readers we are afforded brief glimpses into her horrific dreams and visions. However it is not clear whether she actually makes an effort to try to talk to her husband – or if he would listen.

Finally, more out of frustration for what she is doing to him than concern for Yeong-hye’s well-being, Mr. Cheong seeks the support of his in-laws. They respond with an attitude of extended shame. When an ill-conceived attempt to stage an intervention at a family gathering fails, Yeong-hye’s father resorts to force and violence. In response his defiant daughter turns the drama of violence on herself.

The second part, “Mongolian Mark” adopts a third person perspective. The video-artist husband of Yeong-hye’s older sister In-hye takes centre stage. Time has passed and Mr. Cheong has filed for divorce. The vegetarian is now on her own, but her brother-in-law has developed an erotic obsession inspired by the knowledge, gleaned from his own wife, that Yeong-hye has never lost her Mongolian Mark, a birthmark common to darker skinned babies that generally fades a few years after birth. He is haunted by images of naked men and women, their bodies painted with luscious flowers, engaging in sex and ultimately he reasons that the only way to purge his fixation is to realize his artistic vision. But who to paint and film? The true source of his obsession, of course. As this chapter unfolds it becomes apparent that Yeong-hye has moved beyond the realm of normal grounded emotion. To satisfy his growing need to permeate her implacable surface, her brother-in-law will ultimately risk his relationship with his wife and child.

“Slowly she turned to face him, and he saw her expression was as serene as that of a Buddhist monk. Such uncanny serenity actually frightened him, making him think that perhaps this was a surface impression left behind after any amount of unspeakable viciousness had been digested, or else settled down inside her as a kind of sediment.”

The final section of The Vegetarian, “Flaming Trees” follows In-hye several years on again, her own marriage now dissolved, on her way to visit Yeong-hye at a psychiatric hospital in a remote mountainous area. The demands of running a business, caring for her young son, and attending to the needs of her sister have taken a toll on her. She is haunted by doubts, regrets and voices. Meanwhile Yeong-hye, convinced that she wishes to become a tree and is therefore no longer in need of any nourishment beyond water, has been slowly wasting away. By this point the narrative, at once so controlled and self assured, spirals into a dark, increasingly surreal tunnel from which it is not clear if anyone will emerge intact. The threads that have led the two sisters to this point are spooled back to earlier moments in their lives; casting light on the insistent destructive power of obsession, pride, and shame arising from the rigid social strictures that confine and restrict the individuals caught within them.

There is no question that this is a powerful work. The structure of the shifting perspectives is interesting and effective. However, if there is a difficulty for me in this book, it is a lack of clear cultural context. Elements of Korean social expectation and custom play a significant role in the way that Yeoung-Hye’s family respond to her increasingly bizarre behaviour but I would have liked to have had that aspect fleshed out a little bit further. Too much seemed to rely on what is assumed. The environment, that is a sense of place – save for that of the final section – seems largely unremarkable, generic. This is my first experience of Korean literature, but I tend to find the same challenges for me, as a reader, with much Japanese writing, so this may be more a question of personal inclination on my part than a specific shortcoming in the work.

Finally, as a mental health advocate, I did find the depiction of mental illness a little too out of step within what is clearly an allegorical tale, as if it was trying to be both surreal and authentic at once. By the end I could not help but imagine it as a Korean version of Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows; in both books one sister is faced with coming to understand or at least respect her mentally ill sister’s desire to let go of life, albeit one with restrained horror and the other with humour. Both novels, at heart, confront a brutal reality that is difficult to forget.

24 thoughts on ““I had a dream”: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

  1. Excellent review Joe; I’ve reads several but yours really gets across a strong sense of what the book is doing. I’ve considered reading it but I think I might find it hard – I was best friends for many years with someone with a severe eating disorder and that took an emotional toll…

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was not certain I would like this book, but although I had my reservations, I did find it worthwhile. The main character’s condition seems more surreal and symbolic than realistic which why I found the attempt to present it as, at least in part, a depiction of serious mental illness a little unfortunate.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ah well, just trying to keep your wishlist under control. I really debated this one but when an opportunity to read a review copy came up I decided to give it a go. I joined a international reading group on Facebook hosted by 3Percent from University of Rochester and this is the March book and I think the discussion should be interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s a favour! You were relentlessly adding on to my list so far. This one is safe from my ministrations. 🙂 Reading is a luxury these days – stolen moments, a couple of pages at a time, at the most. Writing has become even more tough, as I keep adding to my day jobs.

        How are your parents? How are you?

        Liked by 1 person

      • My parents are okay. Dad sometimes gets frustrated and childish but all things considered he’s doing well. Truth is they are both frail and at risk there. But they are stubborn. I want to try to go up once a week and spend the night. Last time my son got quite drunk and I was anxious to get home. I still have to give him some firm deadlines and stick to them.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic review! While sounding like it doesn’t quite work successfully, I’m intrigued by what I’ve read of this novel. I might be heading for a tough read, but it sounds like it’ll be challenging and thought-provoking enough to be worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is definitely an intense read. I am glad I finally read it and I suspect that over time, the aspects I really liked will outweigh those I had trouble with. I was fascinated by my own reactions to the book as I read it and can’t wait to discuss it in a reading group context.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a great review that really gave me a sense of the book. I’m definitely planning to read it. I am currently reading another book set in Asia, and I’m having a similar problem in that I wish it gave me more of a sense of place. But maybe that is because I haven’t really read a lot of Asian literature over the last 10 years or so.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There is a lot of Korean lit available now but most of it seems to hold little appeal for me when I read the descriptions. I don’t know why but it’s probably just as well as I see enough books I desperately want to read as it is. 🙂 All the same this is likely a good book to try for a taste of what may be coming out of South Korea. I am glad I read it.

      Like

    • I hadn’t realized that the book (in the UK edition) was available here in Canada for most of last year because I have never come across it in Calgary even though it has actually been stocked in some of the stores. Wonder if that will change with this American release?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyed this review. I read it recently in the UK edition and am interested to hear more about the changes for the US one. Can you say more? I’m planning to teach it next semester and am curious about whether the US version is different in any significant ways. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this book (one reason I want to teach it). I found the first section a bit like under-warmed Edible Woman (a book I like very much) but on reflection I think the narrative perspective is what’s responsible for that feeling. I was riveted by the second section and puzzled by the third. Like you, I worried about my lack of context for the book but I certainly left wanting to think more about it and curious to try the next book that’s been released in the UK.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read an e-galley, and there is a note on the copyright page that indicates that the translation is slightly different. I commented to the publisher that I hoped they had altered some of the English usage for an American audience (something I would not normally advocate). I noticed some inconsistencies so I am not sure what was still subject to final edits and given that this is a hardcover I suspect that we won’t see too many copies up here where two paperback editions haven been released. The lack of strong sense of place was further offset for me by the fact that everyone was wearing jumpers. I thought, if you are going to alter the American edition, put them in sweaters! Otherwise, without reading both I can’t speak to changes.

      I agree with you about the first section. The second section could have almost stood on its own as a short story. I did like the more surreal elements of the final section and loved the final scene, at that point it seemed to become more of an allegorical tale. I simply resented the attempts to toss in clinical diagnoses. I’m all for madness in literature if it stays on the allegorical side where in fact it can often speak more effectively to truth, but don’t try to romanticize the real experience or to imply that Yeong-hye’s descent into madness speaks to serious mental illnesses (and I have heard some reviewers read it that way).

      Like

  5. I recently read a very powerful and compelling report of a talk given by Han Kang at the Foyles bookstore in London. I immediately got myself a copy of her latest book to be translated in English Human Acts.

    It wasn’t the subject matter so much, it was the thinking behind it, the motivation for why she wanted to such a book, that really drew me towards her work. When asked about the personal nature of the book, she spoke about a violent massacre that had occurred that she and her family had not witnessed, having fled earlier, they suffered “survival’s guilt”, there were photobooks circulated secretly to survivors to let them know what happened to the dead, but she was never allowed to see them, however she found one and looked inside.

    She said it raised two riddles for her: the first was ‘How can human beings be so violent?’ and the second, ‘How could people do something against extreme violence?’ She said these riddles were ‘…imprinted on my mind. A defining experience for me.’

    It is a riveting discussion and made me want to know how she attempts to resolve these questions for herself, for all of us.

    Here is a link to that discussion, entitled:

    ‘Should I live in this world which is mingled with such violence and such beauty?’ Han Kang at Foyles, Charing Cross Road

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link.

      I suspect, given that there is an event directly grounding and inspiring Human Acts, that I might enjoy it more than I did The Vegetarian which is in its own right a book with brutal scenes and imagery. The problem for me with the latter is that it seems at times staged and gratuitous. I have chosen to see the book as allegorical for the rigid social and cultural expectations of Korean society – and I believe that is what it is meant to be – but the context is lacking and the characters are somewhat flat. It is also a much earlier work (2007). This is not to imply that there are not some things I really liked about the Vegetarian but I still don’t know if I’m always *getting* Asian literature.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The problem is that it’s not written for westerners but for Koreans, so there will always be things that are left unspoken (which is actually one of the things I like about reading Korean and Japanese literature). In interviews, the writer has always moved away from suggestions that it’s all about society, insisting it’s about individuals, and the same is true of ‘Human Acts’ too. Your comments about the changes are intriguing too, but I have no sympathy for your issues with ‘jumpers’ as absolutely no attempt is ever made to change the vast majority of Japanese/Korean translations into my version of English 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will be the first to admit that a lot of this literature leaves me flat. But I did not have a sense that it was set in Korea, it could have been any city. I live in a neighbourhood with a large Korean population – restaurants, grocers, churches – it could have been here. I read international literature for a sense of place. As to the issue of “jumpers” I was reading a galley that was apparently a modified translation though I suspect that it was not complete because by the end they were wearing sweaters. Here in Canada we have the UK editions (and have had for a year) but the book has received no attention. I would not argue for changing the language but the Americans often do make such changes, so in that case jumpers can go because a jumper is a little girl’s dress here.

      Typically I love translations that leave some expressions intact in the original language if possible. Translations (and English editions) from South Africa that are re-edited for an American or a UK market can be terrible for removing the expressions everyone uses, or phrases in isi-Xhosa or isi-Zulu that could be left intact. There is a way to translate and incorporate a translation into the text (or add a glossary). I would argue against homogenizing translations for fear of alienating readers. Here in Canada I think that the few publishers who do international translations like Biblioasis, Book Thug, are more sensitive to these things because we have always had a more multicultural ethos than the US or the UK.

      Like

      • P.S. Just posted on the follow-up, another one you may or may not like 😉 Not sure if I agree about leaving words from the original language as that can smack of elitism, putting people off if they don’t have a basic glossary of the culture (and I don’t really think adding that glossary later helps…).

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s