This enigmatic novel, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016, deals with familiar themes- abuse, coercion, gender relations, sickness- in the, to me at least, relatively unfamiliar setting of South Korea. The ideas are explored partly through dreams and surreal elements of the plot which contribute to the feeling of strangeness pervading the book, but are nevertheless firmly rooted in the present day Seoul with its high rise flats, long hours culture and its traditional rural past still looming just over its shoulder.
The eponymous vegetarian is a young married woman called Yeong-hye, who gives up eating meat after a visceral dream in which she is trapped in a barn where meat and blood are dripping down from a bamboo stick and soaking into her clothes. The first part of the story is told by her husband, whose feelings for his wife range from indifference to contempt, and we see the incredulity and disapproval produced by Yeong-hye’s stance, from his colleagues but also from her family. Things reach a climax at a family meal, where Yeong-hye’s father attempts to force meat through her lips. She rebels and in a frenzy, grabs a knife and slashes her wrist.
The story is taken up two years later by Yeong- hye’s brother in law who works as a video artist. He becomes fascinated by the Mongolian Mark, a kind of birthmark on the bodies of both his wife and sister-in-law, Yeong-hye. We learn that Yeong-hye has in the meantime got divorced, is living alone, and gradually regaining confidence after being hospitalized following the wrist slashing. Her brother- in- law becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye and dreams of painting her body with flowers. This section is erotically charged, and raising questions of objectification and consent, as it does, verges on the pornographic. However this narrator is not the cold, callous egotist of the first section-he is sensitive to Yeong-hye’s needs , sorry for her dreadful marriage, self aware and at times ashamed of his desire. Yet we know he has neglected his own wife and child, cannot be relied on for such mundane tasks as childcare and seems wrapped up in his own artistic cocoon.
The third section is narrated by Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. Yeong-hye is now in a psychiatric hospital in the countryside outside Seoul and In-hye is visiting her. Yeong-hye is now refusing to eat at all and the physical symptoms of her anorexia are carefully described, as is the lush green forest surrounding the hospital, its leaves dripping constantly in the incessant rain of the monsoon. And this landscape assumes more importance in this section as Yeong-hye identifies more and more with the plants and trees from outside: the hospital staff tell In-hye of the time Yeong-hye refused to come down from a handstand, feeling that her arms were her roots, keeping her legs splayed open for flowers to grow at her crotch and refusing all food, insisting that plants and trees just needed water. This section is as much about In-hye, now struggling as a single parent, desperately worried for her sister for whom she is the sole advocate with the hospital authorities and wracked with guilt about her lack of support for Yeong-hye in the past when she was beaten by their father.
So Yeong-hye’s stand can be seen as a rebellion against the traditional and prescribed ideal of femininity in South Korea. She refuses to eat or prepare meat, but just as heinous, refuses to obey her husband and father when they object. This is a society where coercion is the next step-it is seen as the father’s right to force meat through her lips, or at least no one dares to stop him. Just as shocking for me was the scene of force feeding at the hospital- a practice I associate with the suffragettes of a hundred years ago and did not imagine still happened. And coupled with this is sexual coercion, normalised in the indifferent narrative voice of her husband and explored more deeply in the relationship with the video artist.
However these instances of violence occur in a society which Han Kang depicts as one of rapid change: while the younger generation live western lives in high rise blocks and stressful workplaces, Yeong-hye’s mother brings a remedy of black goat to the hospital for her daughter and in her world, a dog bite is cured by eating the dog who bit you. The modern world with its pressures and long hours has surely contributed to the misery, isolation and alienation of the characters, to the lack of communication and loving relationships. And Yeong-hye’s passage from vegetarianism to aspirant plant in the steamy forest setting seems a rejection of the values of modern capitalism as well as those of compliant femininity.
Han Kang’s explores these ideas in a language which is at once economic and powerful. The image of blood is everywhere, staining white shirts, spreading over the body of a tiny crushed bird, gushing from Yeong-hye’s mouth during force feeding. The detailed description of flowers, tendrils and leaves painted onto her body disturbs and disorientates us. And the power of the language is also of course down to the superb rendering into English by translator Deborah Smith. She smoothly renders the very different voices of the three narrators as well as conveying the surreal aspects of the story with a beautiful lyricism- just listen to this: ‘Yeong-hye’s voice, the forest with the black rain falling, and her own face with the blood trickling from her eye, shiver the long night into fragments like potsherds.’
I’ve no doubt that the originality of the story and the challenges of the translation made The Vegetarian a deserved winner of this year’s prize. I’m still a little perplexed about how to respond to the fantasies of the video artist and his enactment of those fantasies-which is why I’m going to suggest this book for discussion by our women’s book group. And don’ t dismiss the fantasy of breaking down the borders of our physical selves, of merging with nature to become a tree or plant. Only yesterday on Inside Science they were discussing whether plants can think, so humans and plant life may have more in common than we imagined! And this while the dark green trees surrounding my house were ceaselessly dripping rain in this Derbyshire summer.