I first read this powerful, haunting book in January last year. It was the second book I was reading in 2018, and it overpowered me. The Vegetarian by accomplished and award-winning writer Han Kang gave me a new understanding of presenting literature. I reread the book this January around the same time and was again mesmerized by it.
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 across the globe, and the dawn of a new way of thinking, through the eyes of a woman this time, are all brought out beautifully by Kang.
Along with a unique story style through haunting sentences and descriptions, The Vegetarian has proved to be a seminal work in twenty-first-century literature and a real piece of art.
The following book review with my reflections are subjective and hopefully will 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 finishing my collection of short stories about issues faced by the LGBTQIA community.
To me, the protagonist of Kang’s book represents women not only in South Korea but, to a much larger extent, women in my country, India. Yeong-hye is termed an ordinary woman by her selfish and soulless husband. He even treats her like an ‘ordinary woman’ to feed him when he comes back from work, be a showpiece to the outer world, and satisfy him sexually in the capacity of a mate from time to time.
Yeong-hye’s husband married her through the arranged marriage system prevalent in most, if not all, Asian countries. 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 does not 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, so he should take steps to turn this deviant from 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 excellent piece of literature, I might not spoil the pleasure of reading 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, the bra being a 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:
- The subjugation of women in society
- Objectification of women in art
- Excommunication of women from society and art – then what?
The protagonist’s character makes you naked to your own compliance with the laws of men created 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. Such people like Yeong-hye have nowhere to run for assistance. 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 here, too, in the world of art, there is the objectification of women as sexual creatures in art. The artist, the husband of In-hye, our protagonist’s sister, turns the protagonist into an object in his art.
When In-hye finds out, it is heartbreakingly pathetic but real! And the already psychologically ailing protagonist decides pragmatically that what better way to live than being 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 more immense 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 not to choke them.
Han Kang is trying to convey once for all where breasts are concerned what feminists have been saying for over two centuries – they are mammary glands, get over it!
Thus, to our protagonist, her breasts are the only part of her body that has not harmed anyone. So, they will be her source of sustenance as she soaks up the sunlight in the hospital and 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 so long as there continue to be social issues against women and as long as women continue to be judged by the norms that they 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 us 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 and caring for their families and children.
In-hye but is not without pain. The doctor found a sizeable bloody polyp in her uterus—a large bloody polyp which is her reward for following the male rules and not the cycle of her female body. Her other reward is the pain that the polyps cause, and when her husband, the artist, wants to copulate with her, she allows him despite 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 must 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 the family came first, so they returned to society and went by society’s rules, not against them.
Imagery created by the surreal pen of Han Kang is extraordinary. Symbolism is rampant, and dialogues are all uttered with precision, like the precision of a surgeon.
Nothing is without meaning: objects of illegal desire like a pear, things of defiance like the blood entering the I.V. line, 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 feel the pain of the knife, the pricking of the I.V. line, and the unbearable 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 day, and I think I will keep on returning to it again and again whenever I feel like either ‘closing’ my solar plexus to the materialistic world or even when I have to ‘wake up’ and start my struggle in what we call ‘life and living afresh’.
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 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 marvellously racy literary fiction book, then this book is for you. If you want a powerful female protagonist, this is the book you should be reading. It’s a short novel, my copy is only 183 pages, and it is a haunting tale so read it when you are sure you are not ‘faint of heart’.
Read the book on a free weekend with a nice cup of coffee at hand and in a comfortable, cushioned place where you will not feel faint. Because the book is so powerful that you may feel a bit fuzzy, so lie down and read it.
Please don’t read it while commuting. This book deserves your full attention because it can change your life, so please read it when you can 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 want 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 am looking forward to reading more of Kang’s books.
I admire the translation work of Deborah Smith and hope to read other books translated or penned by her.
Copyright©2019 Fiza Pathan