by Elsa Scott
photography courtesy of Ark Books
“The Vegetarian” is a 3-part novella written by South Korean author Han Kang, first published in South Korea in 2007 by Changbi Publishers. In an interview with The White Reviewer’s Sarah Shin, Han said that the novella was received as “extremely bizarre and extreme” in Korea, and it has since become a cult bestseller, with translation rights sold in over twenty countries. Its central novella, “Mongolian Mark”, was awarded the prestigious Yi Sang Literary Prize in 2015.
The premise of the story, told over three parts—“The Vegetarian”, “Mongolian Mark” and “Flaming Trees”—is deceptively simple. A woman who is “completely unremarkable in every way,” as her husband curtly describes her in his opening words, stops eating meat and animal products after she has a nightmarish dream about human cruelty, gluttony and animal instincts. It sounds mundane from the start; how can the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize simply be a story about a transition to veganism?
The decision of the main character, Yeong-Hye, is normal, but the reaction to and the fallout from the change is anything but that. The novel’s three parts are told from the perspectives of three different people in her life, never from her point of view. This decision causes the reader to inhabit the unique position of watching her descent (or ascent, depending on one’s interpretation) into insanity (or enlightenment).
The first novella, “The Vegetarian”, is told from her husband’s perspective. He is a dull man with an inferiority complex, and he is threatened by his wife’s sudden derailment of their meaningless life together. After watching her waste away for a few months, he stages an intervention at a dinner with the rest of her family. This tension-fraught occasion comes to an explosive end when her father attempts to force-feed her pork, and in response, she grabs a fruit knife from the kitchen table and slits her wrist open. She is rushed to the hospital, and the novella ends with her husband finding her naked in the hospital’s courtyard, clutching a dead bird with what is described as “a predator’s bite” taken out of it. With blood on her lips, she asks, “Have I done something wrong?” This story casts the certainty of salvation into doubt, raising the question of how you can save someone who does not want to be saved.
The middle novella, “Mongolian Mark”, raises questions regarding gluttony, sexuality and the impossibility of human innocence. This novella is told from the perspective of Yeong-Hye’s sister’s husband, who goes unnamed. It takes place after Yeong-Hye gets released from the hospital and is divorced from her husband.
The narrator is a struggling artist who becomes obsessed with the idea of a video portraying two people, their bodies covered in flowers, engaging in sexual intercourse. This idea consumes him after he finds out that Yeong-Hye has a birthmark, a ‘Mongolian mark,’ shaped like a flower petal. He manages to convince her to participate in his video, however, the man he asked to participate alongside her won’t go through with the physical intimacy on camera. Yeong-Hye keeps the flowers painted on her body; she says she wants them to never come off.
Later, the narrator paints the flowers on his own body and goes to Yeong-Hye’s apartment. There, the two of them create the film. The theme of the natural world as a kind of purity—a link to some higher plane of existence that we are kept from by our physical, human bodies—is reinforced throughout this novella. Later, when Yeong-Hye’s sister finds them and the video, she calls emergency services, and Yeong-Hye is admitted to a mental hospital. The sister’s husband’s fate is inconsequential—he contemplates suicide, but in the end is simply escorted out by the authorities.
The last novella, “Flaming Trees”, is told from the perspective of the only person left: Yeong-Hye’s sister, In-Hye. In a way, the novel also paints a portrait of a family splintering apart, and how the last person left has to handle the destruction. In-Hye is left alone, struggling to take care of both her son and her deteriorating sister, all the while veering on the brink of her own mental collapse. The story follows closely as Yeong-Hye becomes more and more obsessed with abandoning her humanity and becoming a plant, subsiding on sunlight and water alone.
On one occasion she escapes the hospital and is found standing in a forest "soaked with rain as if she herself were one of the glistening trees." This total rejection of the human existence, this desire to cast off one’s human body and become a plant, reveals a deep despair and doubt about the nature of humanity.
As the novella’s end looms, we cannot help but wonder whether to hope for her recovery or her death—after all, salvation is not her goal, but rather transcendence. This uncertainty raises another timeless question, one that binds humanity to the impermanence of its existence: “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?” Yeong-Hye asks.
This is a novella that squirms its way underneath the reader’s skin and stays there, weighing down the chest much like how Yeong-Hye describes the feeling of the lives of the animals she has consumed sticking to her ribs. The translator, Deborah Smith, stays true to the original prose’s horrifying serenity in exploring these scenes of brutal violence and deterioration. The translation never reads as mechanical or odd; it conveys the “foreign” nature of the novel without warping the diction or syntax.
It would be easy to view this book through the context of a Western perspective, applying it as work of social protest. Some reviewers, such as the Independent, have attempted to link it to the overbearing expectations of Korean beauty and etiquette, a reaction to the extreme pressures placed on women in a patriarchal society. Others still simply tried to emphasize the difficulty of being vegetarian or vegan in South Korea.
However, this is attempting to take art from outside of the Western influence and interpret it against our own politics, issues, and trends, which ignores the novella’s true roots. Rather than addressing current issues of the day, “The Vegetarian” is more parabolic, addressing universal and age-old themes and questions. Is human existence inherently sinful? What is salvation? Is it possible to save someone who does not want to be saved? “The Vegetarian” raises these questions and more about what it means to be human in only 188 pages. What is the point of this one life we have if not to question every step of the journey?