Han Kang: The Vegetarian – 채식주의자 -Chaesikju-uija (2007) Korean Literature

Ever since The Vegetarian  (채식주의자 – Chaesikju-uija) won the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction last year, I wanted to read it. I’m so glad I did. It’s so different from most other novels I’ve read recently; it’s mysterious, fresh, and powerful. It made me think of Yoko Ogawa and Kafka.

Han Kang was born in Gwangju, South Korea. Her writing has won many prizes. She currently teaches creative writing in Seoul.

The Vegetarian is divided into three parts, each told by another narrator who is related to the main character Yeong-hye, the vegetarian of the title.

Part 1, The Vegetarian is told by Yeong-hye’s husband. He is an ordinary office worker, while she’s a housewife. Things are not great between them but the marriage seems to work anyway until the day Yeong-hye decides she wants to be a vegetarian. She’s had upsetting nightmares and feels the urge to become a plant. What follows is quite shocking. This seemingly simple decision has unbelievable repercussions. Her refusal to eat meat triggers a flood of violence, especially from the men in the family. Her husband treats her sadistically; her father beats her. The women are baffled as well but they do not react so violently. During a family reunion, things escalate and Yeong-hye almost dies. (Trigger Warning – there’s a graphic description of one of Yeong-hye’s dreams. It’s short, less than a page, but describes a horrible cruelty against a dog. If, like me, you’re sensitive, skip it. I wish, I had been warned).

Part two, Mongolian Mark, is told by Yeonh-hye’s brother-in-law, an artist. Her vegetarianism and the subsequent family drama, trigger a dark and surreal side in him. After he hears that his sister-in-law’s Mongolian Mark is still visible, he becomes more and more obsessed with her. He fantasizes about covering her body in flower paintings and filming her while she makes love with a man whose body has been painted the same way. When he tries to live his fantasy, things get out of hand.

Part 3, Flaming Trees, is told by Yeong-hye’s sister. She’s divorced from her artist husband. At the beginning of this part she’s on her way to a psychiatric hospital. Yeong-hye has been there for months. She has stopped eating because she wants to be a tree. The doctors fear for her life. Her sister tries to feed her, but she also tries to understand her.

At the beginning of this post, I wrote that the book did remind me of Yoko Ogawa and Kafka. Like Ogawa, Han Kang explores the darker sides of passion, sexuality and lust, and like Kafka, she manages to make you feel what she wants to say. I often understood Kafka’s enigmatic stories on an emotional level. I tried to feel what he described, experience the mood, the atmosphere, and that’s how I understood him. Yeong-hye is an enigmatic person and her vegetarianism is about more than not eating meat. It’s a deeper form of vegetarianism. She wants to become a being that cannot harm anymore. The way Han Kang described it we can really feel how violent it is to eat meat. But not only that, the reactions also show us a patriarchal society in which violence is used to keep others in check. That someone wants to do something nobody else does – vegetarianism seems far less common in South Korea than in Western societies – threatens the status quo. Yeong-hye breaks free and this is seen as an act of rebellion that must be punished.

The three parts form a whole but they are very different. The first analyses the society and its patriarchal structure. Part two explores eroticism and sexuality and uses art as a means to symbolise certain aspects. Yeong-hye wants to be a tree but her brother-in-law, who wants to transform her and later himself into a flower, is interested in the erotic aspects of her desire. In part three, finally, psychological aspects are explored. Yeong-hye’s sister is the only person who tries to really understand her and her motivations.

Although Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism comes from other sources than most other people’s vegetarianism, the book is still very realistic at depicting the reactions of those who eat meat. I remember more than one family dispute, especially with my father, when I didn’t want to eat meat. He too, could react aggressively, as if my refusal threatened him. I remember one meal in particular and it still upsets me to think of it. He knew that I didn’t eat meat and when he invited me for dinner, I assumed I would just leave out the meat and eat everything else. But there was nothing else. Just meat in a sauce.

The Vegetarian is beautiful and mesmerising. Its message and images will stay with me for a long time. I loved it.

If you’d like to read another review – here’s Tony’s take on the novel. Those interested in South Korean literature will find many valuable resources on his blog.

 

 

43 thoughts on “Han Kang: The Vegetarian – 채식주의자 -Chaesikju-uija (2007) Korean Literature

  1. I think I’ll pass on this, but the novel raises interesting questions. I don’t eat out much or at other people’s houses but when I pass on meat, fish, dairy (I’m vegan) I often get strange reactions. People seem to take MY choices personally. I either get arguments, derision, or a tirade as if I’m trying to convert them–when I’m not.

  2. A very thoughtful review, Caroline. I’ve been resisting this novella ever since it came out, partly on account of the hype about it and partly because of the subject matter. That said, your comparison with Yoko Ogawa is a definite plus point. As you may recall, I am a big fan of her writing. (Btw, I still need to give Banana Yoshimoto a try – if only there were more spare hours in the day!)

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I mostly avoid hyped books but it sounded too good. I’m not sure why you call it a novella. It’s a lot like some of Yoko Ogawa’s writing but Ogawa is more atmospheric. I’d be interested to see how you like it.

      • Oh, that might be my misunderstanding or misinterpretation. I was under the impression that the three individuals parts sort of come together to form the narrative as a whole – plus I tend to think of something under ~ 180 pages as a novella. 🙂

        • I thought it’s the word count/page number. I think that’s something publishers reinforce and I’m not happy with it. I’m always afraid that a novella is thought of as being less. For me a novella is a long short story not a short novel, so Camus’ L’Etranger, for example, would be a short novel and not a novella.

    • I’m glad to hear that. It’s not always good to compare but Sometmes it gives people a better idea of a writer they don’t know yet.
      I’m interested to see how you will like Human Acts.

  3. Super commentary on this book.

    This sounds so good. It also sounds disturbing.

    The themes covered sound both interesting and important. When one begins to do things differently, it is striking how some parts of society will go to great lengths to stop you. Violence and brutality is all too often brought to bear.

    • Thanks, Brian.
      It’s excellent and unsettling.
      The reaction of people can be revealing and frightening. I thought she did an outstanding job at showing this.

  4. I’ve heard nothing but good about this, so much so that like Jacqui it slightly put me off. I suppose I should succumb though given literally everyone who reads it likes it.

    What’s a Mongolian Mark?

    • I’d love to hear what you think if it.
      The Mongolian Mark is a small mark Asian kids have at the base of their spine. It seems to vanish once they grow up.

  5. Wonderful review! I found this such a powerful and disturbing book, and have since bought ‘Human Acts’, although I’ve not got round to it yet. Your comparison to Yoko Ogawa has intrigued me. I’ve not come across her work but will seek her out on the strength of your recommendation.

    • Thank you, Sarah. I’m glad to hear you liked it as well. Powerful and disturbing. Exactly. Yoko Ogawa is an amazing writer. I loved her short stories and some of her novels. I would start with the short stories.

  6. Wonderful review, Caroline. I’ve not read any Korean literature, so am intrigued. Thanks for the warning about the dog–that would do me in.
    I loved Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, so am glad to hear you liked Hotel Iris.

    • Thanks, Carole. If you give it a go, you’ll notice the passage right away. The dream sequences are in italics and as soon as you see the word dog – skip the passage. It’s too awful. Not gratuitous but horrible. If you like Yoko Ogawa you might really like this.

  7. I found this one just fascinating and although I hadn’t intended to do so, ended up reading it in an afternoon, just putting it down briefly between part two and three. Did you find it read quickly? I could also see it being the opposite, requiring time between sittings.

    The idea of nourishment and sustenance makes it so interesting, and I found the fact that the relationships between family members. who are supposed to be so supportive and what not, most often were not (whether because they were trying to be the opposite or because they simply couldn’t understand how to nourish), which seems to be true in your case here, too. (I can imagine how the scene in part one must have been for you!) This would make a great bookclub choice, don’t you think?

    • I found it read very quickly. I was quite surprised actually.
      Part one sounded very familiar. Obvioulsy, I wasn’t force fed but I experienced something even more similar at a family gathering in Paris where they tricked my cousein into eating meat she wouldn’t eat ususally. I was only ten at the time and found it very cruel. And other disputes around nourishment. It’s an explosive subjet when you’re not eating the same.
      I found each of the three parts offered a lot for a discussion/book club.

  8. Thanks Caroline for that wonderful review. I have been dragging my feet for ages about reading this book. I have read the excerpts and reviews a few times but I just can’t get myself to sit down and read; mainly because I am afraid of the deep emotions it will draw out. Your honest review has changed all that. I can’t wait for the weekend to curl up with this book. Thank you so much.

    • Thank you, Andrea. And I’m glad I helped you decide.
      It can certainly draw out emtions but it’s so interesting and fascinating too.
      I’d love to hear what you think of it.

  9. This is a wonderful review, you#ve really put into words what I was feeling and couldn’t express, but more than that you’ve helped me understand it more.

  10. Wonderful review, Caroline! I read half of this book last year and then got distracted and haven’t been able to get back to it. Hopefully I will be able to continue from where I left off sometime soon. It is sad that vegetarianism is regarded as a bad thing by some people.

    • Thank you, Vishy. That happens to me quite often too and mostly I don’t pick up the book again because I simply forgot the first part and it feels like walking around in the dark.
      In this case it might be easier as the parts are linked but still to some degree independent. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

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