By Heidi Simmons
Some books read like dreams while others are about dreams. The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Hogarth, 188 pages) is a nightmare and a reawakening.
The story begins with the narration of the protagonist, Yeong-hye’s husband, who does not understand his wife. Yet, he doesn’t mind because she cooks, cleans and is available for sex when he wants it. But one day his wife announces she has become a vegetarian and throws out all the animal products in the house. [Yeong-hye is not just a vegetarian, she is a vegan eating only vegetable products, no eggs, meat or fish.] She’ll only say her decision was because of a dream she had.
Yeong-hye tells her husband that he can eat meat whenever he wants but only outside of their home. When he takes his wife to a work-related formal dinner, she briefly becomes the center of attention when the boss notices Yeong-hye is not eating much of the 20 course meal.
Her husband, embarrassed and at his wits-end with his wife, calls Yeong-hye’s parents and sister to do something about her eating habits. Yeong-hye has lost weight and she is not taking care of the house or doing her husband’s laundry anymore. Her family apologizes for their daughter and plan an intervention at her sister, In-hye’s house.
The intervention does not go well. Yeong-hye’s father loses his temper, hits her and forces her mouth open to shove pork down her gullet. Yeong-hye spits it out and takes a paring knife and slices her wrist. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law grabs her and takes her to the hospital where her husband commits her to a sanitarium. Yeong-hye’s husband quickly divorces her.
After being released, Yeong-hye lives with In-hye and her brother-in-law. An artist, he is attracted to her skinny, androgynous form. She agrees to be part of his visual-art video project and he paints flowers and vines over her naked body. Yeong-hye likes the body art and doesn’t wash it off. When he can’t find a male to paint as an artistic match for Yeong-hye, her bother-in-law fills in. Unfortunately, In-hye discovers the two after they have painted body sex.
Yeong-hye is committed again to the sanatarium; only this time it’s worse. She believes she is a tree and will not take any nourishment but will only absorb the sun, air and water. In-hye, now divorced, tries to save her sister, but it may be too late.
Author Kang is South Korean and the story was translated by Deborah Smith. As far as I can tell, Smith does a beautiful job. The story is fluid and often poetic. Of all the different narrators, the protagonist, Yeong-hye, never tells her own story. Her husband, sister and brother-in-law tell it.
However, Yeong-hye’s dreams are scattered throughout the text and they are dark and violent images. Through the dreams, the reader is given insight to the possible reasons she won’t eat meat. But at one point in the story, Yeong-hye says that all the animals she ever ate are a growing tumor in her abdomen and that she thought if she stopped eating meat, the tumor would die.
The most redeeming character is Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye who comes to an understanding about Yeong-hye’s condition: She’s not just anorexic, she’s crazy. With all the cultural shame and family humiliation, In-hye believes her sister’s struggle for independence and freedom has made her insane.
There is a dream-like quality to The Vegetarian. There is also a Kafkaesque feel in tone and attitude, but I did not find a lurking metaphor or obvious allegory within the pages. Perhaps it was lost in cultural translation.
At its heart, this is a sad tale about an abused woman who becomes a vegetarian, loses touch with reality and then suffers from anorexia nervosa. There is a valuable lesson In-hye learns from her sister’s tragic life. In-hye begins to experience her own independence and freedom. In-hye realizes she has only existed and now she must live. This discovery may be what saves her sister as well. The ending is left up to the reader.
Author Kang lives in South Korea and is a participant in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her talents show in this work. The Vegetarian is skillfully executed and that makes this odd little story strangely engaging and meaningful.