“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.
This 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.