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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian is a weird, wonderful novel from South Korean writer Han Kang. Since I don't know much (meaning nothing) about gastronomical cultural biases in Korea, I'm not sure if this is an extended metaphor, or just a case of one woman descending into madness. I have a feeling, though, that vegetarians or vegans in the West, who are already sensitive, will be a little put off by it.

The book is in three chapters, each narrated by a different person in the life of Yeong-hye. First up is her husband, who thinks of himself as completely normal, as his is wife: "And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world."

But that run-of-the-mill existence ends when Yeong-Hye stops eating meat. This is where the cultural part kicks in. In America, vegetarianism is not thought of as being lunacy, and one can certainly have a healthy diet without it (probably a lot healthier). But apparently in Korea this is craziness. Her husband tolerates it, but her parents are mortified. The woman also starts to rapidly lose weight, which I don't think would be true. Many people who go meatless end up packing on weight with too much bread, sweets, and cheese.

This is why I think the vegetarianism isn't just a choice for her. Indeed, she proclaims that it came to her in a dream: "Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides."

The first chapter ends when her father literally shoves meat into her mouth, and she cuts her wrist with a fruit knife. Her husband divorces her.

The second chapter gets even weirder, and is narrated by Yeong-Hye's brother-in-law. He's a videographer, and begins to have sexual fantasies about her, mostly stemming from hearing that she has a Mongolian mark (which we would call a birthmark). "Its pale blue-green resembled that of a faint bruise, but it was clearly a Mongolian mark. It called to mind something ancient, something pre-evolutionary, or else perhaps a mark of photosynthesis, and he realized to his surprise that there was nothing at all sexual about it; it was more vegetal than sexual." He asks her to model for him--he paints her nude body with flowers. Then he paints himself and has sex with her.

The final chapter is told from her sister's point of view (the husband of the videographer). By now Young-Hye has anorexia and will not eat anything, and thinks of herself as a tree. Her sister notes, "Her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance, no more real than a television drama. Death, who now stood by her side, was as familiar to her as a family member, missing for a long time but now returned."

So what exactly is The Vegetarian about? I honestly have no idea, but I enjoyed the ride. A person steeped in Korean culture may have a better idea. If this book had been written by an American it might be a comment on consumerism, which is akin to eating. But I have the feeling there's a deeper meaning in Korea, where history and culture go back a lot further.

The Vegetarian was translated into English by Deborah Smith, and it makes a suspenseful read. That Yeong-hye is not allowed to speak for herself leads us to consider that the narrators may not be reliable. Certainly the second section, with the sexual fantasies of a man losing his bearings, objectify her. He sees her as a canvas. The first section is more about culture, where a grown woman can be infantilized by her parents, who literally shove food into her mouth. The third section may well be about madness--that the vegetarianism the young woman goes through is indicative of mental illness. Certainly this view is not held in the West.

The Vegetarian is not like any book I've read before, and is a short and terrific read.

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