I first read this haunting and powerful book last year in January. It was the second book I was reading in 2018 and I was stunned. ‘The Vegetarian’ by accomplished and award-winning writer Han Kang gave me a new understanding of how to present literature. I read the book again this January around the same time and was as mesmerized by it as I was back in 2018.
Han Kang’s unique book has surpassed most of the material I have ever read in my time as a compulsive reader. The novel approach to integrate the objectification of women in art, the sexism that exists practically all across the globe, and the dawn of a new way of thinking, through the eyes of a woman this time, is all brought out beautifully by Kang.
Along with a unique style of telling a story through haunting sentences and descriptions, ‘The Vegetarian’ has proved itself to be a seminal work in 21st century literature and a real work of art.
The following book review with a few personal reflections that I am going to type out here are subjective to a larger degree but do no disservice to Han Kang’s magnum opus.
I picked this book up from the Trilogy Bookstore-cum-Library after I read on the cover that it had won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. I bought it in 2017 but only managed to pick it up in 2018 after having finished my own collection of short stories pertaining to issues faced by the LGBTQIA community.
The protagonist of Kang’s book to me represents women not only in South Korea but to a very much larger extent, to women in my country, India as well. Yeong- hye is termed, by her selfish and soulless husband, as an ordinary woman. He even treats her like an ‘ordinary woman’ to feed him when he comes back from work, to be as a showpiece to the outer world and to satisfy him sexually in the capacity of a mate from time to time.
Yeong-hye’s husband married her through the arranged marriage system practiced in most, if not all, Asian countries to a great extent. He marries her because she is ordinary. He has no place for a woman in his life who is anything besides what he wishes her to be.
Then something happens. This something is the dream of Yeong-hye which invariably overnight makes her give up meat and she becomes a vegetarian.
We must understand here that the husband doesn’t sit down to comfort his wife or have a quiet talk with her concerning her feelings over the matter. No, none of that for the husband. To him she has become deviant and so all steps should be taken to turn this deviant of the usual social norms of relationship between man and wife back to meat eating – even if violence ensues.
I will try and avoid as many spoilers as I can so that if the reader of this review has not yet read this wonderful piece of literature, I might not spoil the pleasure of the reading of this compelling book.
Yeong-hye is every woman who deviates from the natural scheme of things laid down for her by man or more correctly, the laws made by men and enacted out by all who are blind.
But the dream opens Yeong-hye’s eyes and she realizes that she needs to deviate.
She has already been doing so, by going braless most of the time. That bra, a true universal symbol of woman’s subservience to man – our yellow star of David.
She has been deviant. She has been rebelling. But when things go too far, then chaos ensues.
The book is divided into three parts. For me, these three parts are:
- Subjugation of woman in society
- Objectification of woman in art
- Excommunication of woman from society and art – then what?
The character of the protagonist makes you naked to your own compliance with the laws of men made by men, just as she was almost naked when she sat topless in the hospital after having slit open her wrist. Society has cornered women. So people like Yeong-hye have nowhere to run for succor. So she slits her wrist, and then society rejects the deviant who has gone too far. The husband divorces Yeong-hye.
Then comes the artist who sees our protagonist as beautiful, probably the only person who does. But yet here too in the world of art, there is the objectification of women as sexual creatures in art. The artist who is the husband of In-hye, our protagonist’s sister, turns the protagonist into an object in his kind of art.
When In-hye finds out, it is heart breaking and so pathetic but oh so real! And the already psychological ailing protagonist decides for herself pragmatically that what better way to live than to be, a tree.
Breasts are highlighted here. Breasts are seen by men and people who adhere to the laws of men as sexual symbols, symbols of titillation and as things to serve the pleasures of men. The bigger the breasts, the bigger the pride of men for their wives. Unfortunately, Yeong-hye has small breasts. Unfortunately, instead of covering them with a bra for the sake of her husband’s standing in society, she prefers to not choke them.
What Han Kang is trying to convey once and for all where breasts are concerned is what feminists have been saying for over two centuries – they are mammary glands, get over with it!
Thus, to our protagonist, her breasts are the only part of her body which has not harmed anyone. So, they will be her source of sustenance as she soaks up the sunlight in the hospital and in the forest for now, she believes that as long as she does not wake up to the world that has debased her, she will live and maybe become a tree!
In-hye, our protagonist’s elder sister sticks to her deviant sister to the end. But there is no ‘ending’ as such in ‘The Vegetarian’ because as long as there continues to be social issues against women and as long as women continue to be judged by the norms that they themselves had no hand in creating in the first place, there will be more Yeong-hye’s yearning even to the point of madness to turn into a tree.
Let’s not forget the character of In-hye in this entire spellbinding tale. In-hye is the urban working woman; the woman who are breadwinners and in some cases doing better these days in a workspace by following the rules of men as well as caring for their families and children.
In-hye but is not without pain. The doctor found a large bloody polyp in her uterus—a large bloody polyp which is her reward for following the rules of man and not the cycle of her female body. Her other reward is the pain that the polyps causes and when her husband, the artist, wants to copulate with her, she allows him in spite of the pain. She cries in agony but tells him nothing as:
- He is doing this after so long.
- How can she deny him?
- A wife has to comply even though he is not providing for the child’s upkeep.
- He is worse than a beast, but his wants must be satisfied.
- Because she is the mother of his child.
- Because she is his wife.
In-hye had a choice once and so did the protagonist. They had a chance to escape and run away when they were little children. But fidelity to family came first and so they returned to society to go by the rules and not against them.
Imagery created by the surreal pen of Han Kang is extraordinary. Symbolism is rampant and dialogues all uttered with precision, like the precision of a surgeon.
Nothing is without meaning: objects of illegal desire like a pear, or objects of defiance like the blood entering the I.V. line, or objects of childhood innocence like ripe and juicy peaches in a basket, or objects of nonviolent non-cooperation like the black garbage bags full of meat.
The power of Kang’s writing is such that you can actually feel the pain of the knife, the pricking of the I.V. line, and the agonizing pain of In-hye when she had sex with her husband after so many months.
If ‘The Vegetarian’ is not a wake up call to the reader about the realities of everyday life and the life of women in it, then nothing will I’m afraid.
I read ‘The Vegetarian’ in less than a days’ time and I think I will keep on returning to it again and again whenever I too feel sometimes like either ‘closing’ my solar plexus to the materialistic world or even when I have to ‘wake up’ and start afresh my struggle in this thing we all call ‘life and living’.
Yeong-hye in the book at one point asks us this powerful question, “Why is it such a bad thing to die?”
In a culture and a world where being a female is as good as being dead then really – what’s so bad about dying?
But no, we’ve got to stay alive as In-hye says.
We know we are in pain and we want to go to our rest. But if not for us then at least for the sake of others, sometimes we need to get up.
That is the message of ‘The Vegetarian’ – to get up.
I loved this book and I’m sure you will too.
If you like a racy literary fiction marvel then this is the book for you. If you like a female protagonist in a powerful image then yet again this is the book you should be reading. It’s a small novel, my copy is only 183 pages and it a haunting tale so read it when you are sure you are not feeling as they say ‘faint of heart’.
Read the book on a free weekend with a nice cup of coffee at hand and on a comfortable cushioned place where you will not feel faint. Because the book is so powerful that you may feel a bit faint so lie down and read it preferably.
Don’t read it while commuting. This book deserves your full attention because it can change your life, so please read it when you are able to dedicate some time to ponder over the matter at hand.
It is a book for the deviant in all of us so though the feminist theme is a strong point here in ‘The Vegetarian’ I would recommend this book to anyone, especially those who are wanting to change the system. This is fuel for the anger already burning in you, but presented in the form of surrealist literature that only Han Kang can deliver.
I’m looking forward to reading more books by Kang.
I admire the work done by the translator who is Deborah Smith and hope to read other books translated or penned by her in the near future.
Copyright©2019 Fiza Pathan
First appeared on insaneowl.com