Han Kang’s slim novel, which won this year’s Man Booker International Prize, is an engrossing, gothic tale of radical refusal, told in a cool, detached and precise prose. Structured like a classical drama in three acts, each told from the perspective of a different character, the novel charts the withdrawal of its heroine from the cold, emotionally stunted and predominantly male world in which she finds herself.
The Vegetarian describes a process towards complete negation of what a woman’s role in society ought to be. Firstly through the reduction of the physical self, then, more drastically, through the erasure of the human body itself.
The story starts innocently enough with the main character, Yeong-hye, deciding to become a vegetarian. She doesn’t do this for ethical or dietary reasons, but because she is haunted by violent dreams. Trapped in a loveless marriage to an average salary man and burdened with an aggressive father and a submissive mother, her small yet symbolic gesture of transgression snowballs into a complete withdrawal from her environment. Her dreams reveal her true motivation. She is overcome by “loathing, so long suppressed. Loathing I’ve always tried to mask with affection. But now the mask is coming off.”
In the second and third part, the plot becomes less about an act of transgression and more about one of regression. The novel goes on to describe the sexual attraction Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a minor video artist, develops for her. As a political artist suffering from a prolonged creative drought, he is drawn to her by sheer physicality and her lack of overt self-awareness of her opposition to the status-quo.
In the final act, the theme of withdrawal is taken further, moving from carnality towards a vegetative state already hinted at with the body paint of flowers which is part of the erotic obsession described in the middle section. Secreted away by her sister in a hospital on the outskirts of town, Yeong-hye desires, as her final act of refusal, to become one with the dark and wet woods surrounding the sanatorium.
While her condition is met with incomprehension at best and most often with hostility, it does, in the end, trigger an epiphany in her sister who throughout the story has been presented as the model daughter and wife. Seeing her sister wasting away, she is overcome by the “feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure.”
The Vegetarian has repeatedly been described as Kafkaesque – a label which is mostly overused, but in the case of Han Kang’s novel the synergies are remarkable. There are echoes to Kafka’s short-story The Hunger Artist and unmistakable parallels to his classic story Metamorphosis, in which the hapless sales rep Georg Samsa famously finds himself transformed into a giant bug.
Both Metamorphosis and The Vegetarian are dealing with their protagonists’ regression towards a non-human state of being and in doing so unmask inhuman social conventions in which they live. Kafka and Kang focus on the response of family, friends and colleagues to the physical transformation which they initially perceive as an illness and later as a threat – a response that encompasses alarm, disgust but also morbid fascination with bodily transformations.
There are, though, important differences. While the change simply happens to Georg Samsa, Han Kang’s heroine Yeong-hye is the architect of her own transformation as an auto-aggressive act of protest. In addition, Kafka, although attracted to the body as a literary theme, was also strangely coy about questions of sexuality in his writing. Not so Han Kang who devotes the central part of her novel to an erotically charged exploration of sexual desire and obsession delving deeply into the mad love for Yeon-hye’s by her brother-in-law.
What really links The Vegetarian to Kafka, though, is the tone and atmosphere Han Kang creates to tell her tale. Darkly allegorical, the novel veers into the realm of the grotesque, like one of those nightmares that shift perception of reality ever so slightly to break open the real horrors that lurk just below the surface of normality.
Han Kang. The Vegetarian (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith). Hogarth