The outer layer of your skin, the epidermis, replaces itself every 35 days. Become a vegetarian, better yet a vegan, and soon enough your body will be formed almost completely from plant matter. This beguiling conceit lies at the heart of Han Kang’s extraordinary novel The Vegetarian, where a seemingly trivial change in the life of a young woman results in a terrifying transformation.
Split into three parts, Kang’s narrative dances tantalisingly around her central character, the too-often silent Yeong-hye. We see her through every perspective but her own, first through the eyes of her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. As a character she appears the twisted product of the multitude of watchful eyes, the switching preoccupations, and the opinions of those around her. She herself remains mysteriously elusive, her own thoughts only ever revealed in sparing flashes interspersed throughout the narrative.
The first of these begins with a dream, a subconscious cry, the trigger that will initiate the many changes in her life to come. It is a grotesque scene, one that reemerges again and again in the book, bestowing Yeong-hye with Lady-Macbeth-like ‘bloody hands’ and ‘bloody mouth’. The vivid nightmare sees ‘those eyes, rising up from the pit of my stomach’, leaving her assaulted body in the midst of a deep and terrifying transformation as the fear of change inevitably turns itself inward: ‘Why are my edges all sharpening? What am I going to gouge?’
Food has always held a central place in how we connect and communicate with those around us, to sit around a table and ‘break bread’ is one of the oldest and most traditional acts we have. What Kang artfully shows is how the rejection of such conventions and traditions can create unpredictable and often fatal ramifications. The act of rejecting meat soon becomes one of rejecting flesh in any form, the sex life of the couple disintegrates as their bodies become different entities. When Yeong-hye rejects her husband’s advances he asks why: ‘The meat smell,’ she replies, ‘Your body smells of meat.’ Fed on different food, the two lose understanding of each other – if there was even any to begin with. This develops with a strange ferocity in the following chapter in which we see Yeong-hye openly welcome the advances of other suitors based purely on the floral paintings that adorn their bodies. She becomes not merely opposed to meat, she becomes enamoured by its opposite, ensnared by the botanical potential plants offer her, the relative seclusion and safety from a world of flesh beyond her control. The flora and fauna she clings to begin to grow in significance, becoming not just fuel for her body, but fuel for her mind, and just as her new obsession changes her body, it changes her mind as well.
Our vegetarian becomes ‘deflated from within’; her husband’s narrative is overwhelmed by his own inability to accept his wife as she challenges the conventional cage he has built for her. One of the most overused words in his segment of narrative is ‘normal’. He celebrates what he views as his wife’s ordinariness, the mundane and unthreatening shell that he had perceived her to be – any consideration for her in any manner that does not relate to his immediate needs is cast aside. She is a cook first, an object for sex second, a companion? Hardly. Yet when this definition of her ‘normalness’ is threatened, so too is the life that her husband leads. It is only when he begins to finally acknowledge that he has no power over his wife that he admits to himself: ‘I really didn’t have a clue when it came to this woman’. The simple act of choosing what to eat, casts all Yeong-hye’s relationships into disarray – no one can fathom why or how she would make such a decision without a logical explanation, because of a dream. Rather than enquiring into the cause they dismiss it.
In her isolation Yeong-hye becomes ‘utterly unknowable’ – it is not so much that she is vegetarian but that she is unlike those that surround her. She remains immobile, a fixed point careering towards a seemingly inevitable end as her family collides around her in their attempts to connect. What is most disturbing in Kang’s narrative is the manner in which the changing female body is shown as a central concern for the family at large. When her relatives hear of her vegetarianism they respond with astonishment and apologies to her husband. It’s made clear from the start that what Yeong-hye choses to do with her own body preoccupies all members of her family, and that whatever choices she may make her body remains governed by those around her – something that comes to a climax at the end of the first section when her father attempts to force-feed her meat in suffragette fashion, and she retaliates with an equally violent act.
In the following narrative the perspective is immediately and refreshingly reversed, in stark contrast to the selfish and abrasive tone of her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law sees the events of the past section with fresh eyes, and his response is deeply empathetic. When he witnesses her hurt herself he hears ‘a sound like something snapping inside his own body’, and he preserves his shirt stained by her blood as an eerie souvenir. This bloody offering begins an obsession with Yeong-hye’s changing body.
Yet, just like her husband, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law becomes captivated by the idea of her rather than the woman herself. In this instance rather than her ‘normalness’ he is drawn to her transformation. Unlike her husband who recoils from change, this man is inspired by it, made curious by what he sees as a creature so like and yet unlike his own wife. This obsession soon gravitates around a blue mongolian mark, ‘petal-like’ on the small of Yeong-hye’s back. The point becomes fetisized, yet once uncovered it is revealed as ‘more vegetal than sexual … perhaps a mark of photosynthesis’. The mark, like many other points, signals a deeper and more surreal evaluation of a changing state. When finally faced with her naked body, rather than being aroused, the brother-in-law instead discovers ‘a feeling that simulated something deep in his very core, passing through him like a continuous electric shock’. Like the mark itself, Yeong-hye’s transformation begins to lose its seductive appeal. Her body becomes alien rather than alluring, weakened, its human core threatened.
As the tale progresses it becomes clear that Yeong-hye’s rejection of meat is less about gaining control than it is about releasing it. Rather than appearing to take a hold of her life with the new rules she has drawn up for herself, Yeong-hye becomes a woman plagued by demons, but demons that she never truly articulates and ones that no one ever enquires about. Soon food is entirely dismissed, as is sleep. Instead of becoming more seductive when freed from the constrictions of her oppressive husband, as she loses weight and her marriage, she vegetates, day by day her own body growing more like the plants she consumes. Ironically throughout her book her actions only enhance the human characteristics of those around her. She inspires every emotion, from grief and anger to lust and joy. Her own rejection of humanity inspires constant expressions of it in those around her.
Yet the motive behind the transformation is never fully explained, the elusive ‘dream’ that plagues Yeong-hye, the one that sits in her chest, and forces her into hospital again and again, continues unexplored. Anorexia nervosa combined with schizophrenia is the doctor’s tentative diagnosis but the delusion runs much deeper than this, and what is most arresting about Kang’s prose is that she never gives the game away; we’re never sure whose side to take. Teetering between explanations both ‘ordinary’ and ‘extra-ordinary’, she leaves no room for certainty, constantly teasing the reader, and the ambiguity that remains both torments and delights.
This masterpiece of Korean fiction is finally made available to English readers in Deborah Smith’s achingly elegant prose, the first of Han Kang’s novels to be translated. Thankfully I am certain it will not be the last.
Deborah Smith has gone on to translate Kang’s novel Human Acts for Portobello Books (2016). The Vegetarian is shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize 2016.
By Thea Hawlin