by Smita Ganguli
Winner of the Man Booker prize, South Korean writer Han Kang has her readers asking all the right questions regarding contemporary society, its members and their habits.
“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”
The primal theme of this novel establishes vegetarianism as the foundation, gradually treading towards other issues of importance. The constant conflict between you and your essence and what precedes what are some of the things Kang writes about. A housewife, Yeong-hye, her decision to embrace vegetarianism and the consequential outcomes of this decision.
Alongside also exploring the temperament of the rest of the family members that includes – Yeong-hye’s passive and muddled husband, her sister, In-hye, and her enthralled (by Yeong-hye) husband. Placed in a South Korean domestic household, The Vegetarian gives its readers the story of Yeong-hye in three long parts, each of these published separately as novellas in Korea – the first of which whose narrator is Mr.Cheong, her husband.
From the very first chapter of the parts narrated by him, one can easily understand how objectified Yeong-hye already is and is going to be in the coming parts of the book. In the initial chapters of the book, he exhibits the kind of partner he had wanted all along – someone who is self-effacing and insipid as an individual. Basically someone who wouldn’t overpower or shadow his disposition. Honestly, he wasn’t an interesting man himself but then – there go the patriarchal desires of an individual of the society. I believe, Kang chooses to create a Mr. Cheong of this kind only to write about reality as is, not adulterated like in other forms of art.
"While I idled the afternoon away, TV remote in hand, she would shut herself up in her room. . . . . Only at mealtimes would she open the door and silently emerge to prepare the food. To be sure, that kind of wife, and that kind of lifestyle, did mean that I was unlikely to find my days particularly stimulating."
Yeong-hye’s decision to go vegetarian had its roots in a dream that she had seen. No amount of persuasion or concern from her family members could make her give up on it. It was as though there was something in that dream that left her scared stiff. A family get together called on by her father solely to succeed in feeding her some meat, is rendered futile like all the other efforts made to do the same. Abstaining from eating meat might seem very normal to some readers, especially American readers, at a time when vegetarianism is on the rise. But Kang’s aim is not to focus on eating or not eating meat, it's to bring in other issues of importance through vegetarianism, such as – childhood abuse, claims to one’s own body (in context of both men and women), and romantic ties that are familial in nature.
And since it’s placed in South Korea, one must also not forget the emphasis the individuals place on physical appearance – considering the highest rate of plastic surgeries in the world. But remember, her decision is neither diet nor weight.
Yeong-hye never gave out the reason behind her embracing vegetarianism, all she ever said was – “I had a dream.”
As I am writing this, I am sent back to the details of her dream. How bloody and violent, to simply put in words. Kang devices this dream into words of her own and leaves the reader under a spell. Her dream is an account on the lives of animals sacrificed by her father. The blood of that dog is reminiscent of everything she had gone through in her childhood.
This dream was her coup d’état.
Moving to the second part, which is written from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s brother in-law, a video artist by profession. Kang has not given out the name of this character and I feel that might be one of the reasons behind my obsession with this part of the book. There’s so much to know about him, yet we’ll never know his basics, his name. Each part is about a character partially coming to terms with their own self, yet somewhere down the line not completely successful at it the way Yeong-hye is.
The brother in-law’s obsession with Yeong-hye’s birthmark on her butt and to be able to incorporate it in his art drove him to topple his own family life. His persuasion to use her in his art and Yeong-hye agreeing to it was one of the few attempts made by her at surrendering to whatever comes her way, regardless of what repercussions it might have.
“He left the left buttock, the one with the Mongolian [birthmark}, undecorated. Instead he just used a large brush to cover the area around the bluish mark with a wash of light green, fainter than the mark itself, so that the latter stood out like the pale shadow of a flower.”
“Every time the brush swept over her skin he felt her flesh quiver delicately as if being tickled, and he shuddered. But it wasn’t arousal; rather it was a feeling that stimulated something deep in his very core, passing through him like a continuous electric shock.”
This second part majorly talks about our erroneous faith in others, and through that faith to not be able to look and know of all the aspects of an individual. In-hye placing her absolute faith in her husband and ultimately having it questioned every time is what lies at the centre of this part of the story.
The final section of the book opens with Yeong-hye in an asylum and it is only In-hye who hasn’t left her behind. In-hye visits her comatose sister regularly, keeping the pace of the final section of this book tedious. Unlike the previous two parts, the final section of the book offers a very monotonous progression of events involving only In-hye and her sister. Kang here primarily focuses on In-hye’s incessant efforts to revive her sister’s health, however, she already sees what the future holds in store for Yeong-hye. The only kind of sacrifice that Yeong-hye was driven to make was of her own body. On the other side of this, there was In-hye who was now reflecting upon the entirety of her decision making power and questioning her own strength. I believe, Kang purposely kept the energy of this final section low just to help us understand what we as readers were nearing.
In The Vegetarian, husband and wife, brothers and sisters, in-laws, acquaintances, parents – all delineate a kind of palpable authenticity with regard to their essence over existence. Patriarchy not only hampers Yeong-hye but everyone else around her, Mr. Cheong – the victim of his own requirements, The brother in-law – the victim of his own passion, In-hye – the victim of blind faith, Yeong-hye’s parents – victims of losing out on a stable family life in their final days. To just exist must bring one towards a bore, to be fully aware of one’s essence must be the opposite?
About the end of the book, I’ll leave it to y’all, for you to read, for you to find yourself on the other end of a temperament that only Han Kang can give you. Only she can leave you at a loss of words when you want to ask so many questions and have them answered.