Han Kang - The story of a young mentally disturbed woman who thinks she is becoming a tree, and thus the purest form of life on the planet. The world is a mess. She stops eating meat. The cruelty of meat-eating is a metaphor for the cruelty of the world today, thus her vegetarian habits are symbolic, spiritual ones in the literary work that was a sensation in Korea

Han Kang, The Vegetarian, Trans. by Deborah Smith,
Portobello Books, 2015.

excerpt




Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more 'plant-like' existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister's husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming - impossibly, ecstatically - a tree. Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

One late winter night, a car driven by Seo Inju, a female artist in her late thirties, plunges into the snow-covered Misiryeong Valley. Three days later, she takes her last breath. Why did Inju head for the valley that night? Was the crash a suicide or accident? The circumstances surrounding Inju's death are never brought to light. The novel begins a year later when the narrator sees a special review in an art magazine, commemorating the first anniversary of Inju's death. In the magazine, Kang Seokwon, an art critic and professor who claims to have been Inju's lover, discloses Inju's posthumous work and pronounces her death a suicide. The narrator finds Seokwon's contact information and expresses her interest in seeing Inju's last works. The narrator, a close childhood friend of Inju, thinks it strange that these works are remarkably similar to those of Inju's dead artist uncle who had never publicly exhibited during his lifetime. Although her life had been far from easy, Inju had possessed an exuberant zeal for life, of which the narrator was well aware; in the end, the narrator rejects Seokwon's claims. The narrator begins to grope through her own memory to piece together the final year of her friend's life. She meets those who had known Inju and even sneaks into Inju's studio that has now come under the possession of Seokwon. As clues are slowly revealed, Inju's last days begin to fit together like pieces of a puzzle until the narrator, at last, discovers what actually took place on the snow-covered valley that fateful night.
Although the novel uses the structure of a mystery where clues are presented as pieces of a puzzle and the truth is revealed gradually, it focuses on life and death, memory and reality, sacredness and human conflict. Inju's uncle, who had died of a brain hemorrhage twenty years before, depicted the birth and explosion of stars through ink; his inner world had created a deep and lasting impression on both Inju and the narrator. There is a twist at the end of the novel when the narrator discovers that Seokwon had driven Inju off the road that night. He sets fire to Inju's last works, attacks the narrator with an ink stone, and disappears after locking her in the studio. The narrator gains consciousness and just barely manages to escape from the fire. The novel ends with the narrator on a ventilator, drifting in and out of consciousness, as she is carried away in an ambulance.
The problem that occurs when an unconscious patient who had been breathing through ventilatory support begins to breathe spontaneously is called "fighting the ventilator." He may not breathe in rhythm with the ventilator but "fight" it, exhaling while the ventilator delivers a breath and inhaling while the ventilator withdraws a breath. In this critical situation, the medical team will first administer sedation or neuromuscular blockade and then control the ventilator breath in predetermined volumes. The patient is taken off the ventilator only after the condition of his lungs and many other factors have been carefully analyzed. Both Inju and the narrator are put on ventilators at one point; as they fight for breath, one dies while the other hovers between life and death. The emotions and relationships of these characters continually shudder and collide like breath that is out of sync. The novel explores the beauty of existence, vastness of the universe, and human desire and limitations while it careens toward its surprising yet inevitable end.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the beautiful cover image, of oriental lilies, so perfect they almost looked computer-generated. Then I noticed something, and each time I looked back at it, it surprised me again by offering something new. The image is by Tom Darracott, who also designed the first cover for Hawthorn & Child. So you might expect something unusual and sinister, and you’d be right. The British Council literature site describes The Vegetarian, accurately, as a “frightening beauty” and, less clearly, as a book which “combines human violence and the possibility of innocence as the thematic material with a vegetablesque imagination.”
The Vegetarian (2007, tr. 2015 by Deborah Smith) declares itself on the cover to be ‘A Novel’, which is a practice more often seen in US editions. It’s worth noting because, like Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, The Vegetarian was originally published as three separate stories, and then compiled into a novel. A novel it surely is, but the forewarned reader can spot the origins: each part of the book includes some recapping (“previously on The Vegetarian…”) and could stand handsomely alone. Together they are extra-intense: triply singular, strangeness cubed.
Each part is also reported from a different viewpoint, but never – or almost never – that of the central character, Yeong-hye. She is a young woman whose husband Cheong, narrating the first section, thinks her “completely unremarkable in every way.” He married her because “[no] particular drawbacks present[ed] themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to.” He takes little notice of her, and their work means they don’t spend much time together. He really only pays attention to her when he gets up one morning to find her throwing out all the meat in the fridge and announcing that she will never allow it in the house again. Cheong is appalled, as are her family (“What do you think you’re playing at, hey? Acting like this at your age”). What is clear is that no one sees Yeong-hye as her own person, and her Bartleby-esque withdrawal from their society seems more and more reasonable, as she refuses, disengages, and passively resists. She takes charge of her own body as the only thing, in such a restrictive environment, which is within her control.
Yeong-hye does explain her refusal, as justified by a recurring dream which prevents her from sleeping (“I never enquired as to the nature of this dream,” says Cheong), and we get italicised sections from within her head. “Dreams of murder. … Intolerable loathing, so long suppressed.” Without eating meat, and without replacing it, she grows thinner: “Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening – what am I going to gouge?” In a sense, these insights disappointed me: I would rather not know what Yeong-hye is thinking, leave the options open (though her thoughts are allusive rather than instructive). Similarly, making Cheong (“It was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done”) and Yeong-hye’s family (“Don’t you understand what your father’s telling you? If he tells you to eat, eat!”) such unreconstructed horrors sets up an obvious one-sided empathy in the reader. But this first part is strong meat nonetheless, particularly as it moves to a dark conclusion, with disturbing violence and sexuality on the way.
In fact, what’s most surprising is that the book can carry on so successfully after this potent ending. In part two, Yeong-hye’s sister’s husband, an artist, takes charge. He has always been sexually attracted to Yeong-hye, and following the events of part one, he takes his opportunity to get closer to her. In particular he is fascinated by a birthmark – the ‘Mongolian mark’ – above her buttocks, which normally fades after childhood. He visits her and they talk: her voice is “the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between two states of being”. In addition, her body has grown less thin as she has begun to eat more (“her breasts had now rounded out into softness”). Given that in part three, Yeong-hye will become even more dangerously thin, this temporary reversal – or semi-recovery – is odd, and looks more like the author’s convenience than the story’s necessity. However, realism is hardly the point of a book like this, and we get more strangeness as her brother-in-law paints plants on Yeong-hye’s body and films himself doing so. This is just the beginning of an exchange which is “more vegetal than sexual,” as her body is “an object of desire from which all desire had been eliminated.” This – disengagement, passivity, refusal – is what binds the parts together, and unifies the novel.
In part 3, time has moved on again, and Yeong-hye is in hospital, her only visitor being our new narrator, her sister In-hye. Yeong-hye’s condition has deteriorated, and she is coughing blood as her body consumes itself. She is “retreating from herself, becoming as distant to herself as she was to her sister.” Again I was reminded of the literature of disappearance and refusal: of John Burnside’s A Summer of Drowning (“To refuse oneself is exemplary. To become nothing, to remove yourself from the frame – that is the highest form of art”); of Larkin’s ‘Poetry of Departures’ (“this audacious, purifying, elemental move”); of Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’ (“I always wanted you to admire my fasting”); of Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co and Montano’s Malady; of Bartleby the scrivener himself. In saying that I hope not to reduce The Vegetarian to a list of derivations but to emphasise its force: it hangs in the mind like these others, it puts down roots. In any event, a reader’s interpretation is not the author’s: Han herself describes Yeong-hye’s aim as “to vomit out the darkness and violence of flesh/humanity and become a perfectly pure being.” In this final part of the book, In-hye is forced to choose between keeping Yeong-hye in the hospital, where she is miserably unhappy, and allowing her to leave, where she will doubtless allow herself to starve to death. The idea of dreams returns, from In-hye this time, who, failing to understand, urges Yeong-hye to forget her troubling dreams. “Surely the dream isn’t all there is? We have to wake up at some point, don’t we? Because … because then …” But there is nothing more to come. - John Self



This short novel is one of the most startling I have read. Set in contemporary South Korea, it explores the life of a young married woman, Yeong-hye, whose decision to give up meat ends up devastating two families. Han Kang’s achievement is to suggest that this defiant act of vegetarianism can smash several lives and threaten the order of a society.
The writing challenges a strict value system that demands devotion to the family, conformism and the denial of erotic freedom. Han Kang, a prize winning novelist, structures the book in three parts. The first narrator is Yeong-hye’s husband, a businessman who thought he had chosen a spouse with an insignificant personality. He is gradually horrified to discover her radical spirit which threatens his career and status. Yeong-hye refuses to wear a bra and embarrasses her husband at a business dinner. This idiosyncratic behaviour, from exposing her nipples to almost starving herself by eating only plants, provokes him to divorce her. Part two is the sexually-charged relationship between Yeong-hye and her brother in law. This is an exciting and imaginative journey into obsession, lust, art and dreams. Part three is told by Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, who becomes the abandoned anorexic’s sole carer. Surprisingly she subtly absorbs her sister’s attraction for self-annihilation.
One of the work’s themes is the stripping down of the human body to the bone and the language reflects this sparseness. Names are rarely used. Relatives are mainly denoted as husband, father, mother, exposing a strictly codified social system in which the individual has little importance and family identity dominates. Although the two sisters are named, In-hye’s husband, the catalyst in the story’s dynamic erotic drive, is known only as J. 
The tension in Han Kang’s multi-layered novel is the way in which the author reveals how nature, sex and art crash through this polite society. Violence erupts without warning. It is described almost casually.  J tries to jump out of the window when discovered betraying his wife with her sister. At the family meal, Yeong-hye’s father beats his daughter and, in front of everyone, brutally tries to force pork into her closed mouth. Yeong-hye slashes her own wrists at the dinner table. She is sent to a psychiatric hospital where medics brutalise her in an agonising description of tubes down noses, blood and vomit.
It is the women who are killed for daring to establish their own identity. The narrative makes it clear it is the crushing pressure of Korean etiquette which murders them. Han Kang is well served by Deborah Smith’s subtle translation in this disturbing book. - Julia Pascal 
 
Dreaming is a dangerous activity in The Vegetarian. It leads to marital breakdown, obsessive sex and psychic unravelling in this South Korean novel. For its protagonist, Yeong-hye, it leads to a state of mind that is perceived by others as madness after she turns to a strict form of vegetarianism overnight because, she tells her flummoxed husband, "I had a dream."
In throwing out the meat from their fridge, she is not only abnegating her carnivorous identity (she has eaten meat with relish until now) but her role as a low-maintenance wife, bullied daughter and downtrodden woman in Han Kang's portrait of a stiflingly conventional society, where comely wives are there to make their husbands look good at the boss's dinner party.
Her veganism is not a trendy lifestyle choice as it might be in the West, but a deeply subversive act: a passive resistance that threatens to open up an inner abyss and that leads to a life-threatening eating disorder, which resembles the faith based miniscule diet "Swede" Levov's daughter adopts in Philip Roth's American Pastoral (again, a manifestation of rebellion).
We witness Yeong-hye's changes through the fish-like gaze of her unloving husband, who is content in a marriage where, "I thought I could get by perfectly well just thinking of her as a stranger, or no, as a sister, or even a maid...". His concern over his increasingly emaciated, silent and bra-less wife is confined to the embarrassment she brings him in social circles. The private space of marital intimacy is simply not there, a state of affairs he is happy with as long as his wife helps him to appear socially "normal".
The three parts of this novel hinge on three different characters being unhinged by their subversive dreams, dreams that are all the more seductive for the inner emptiness of their outwardly successful lives and marriages.
To be led by your dreams – and your subconscious – is to demand an escape from hollow conformity, not just by Yeong-hye but by her brother-in-law, a video artist whose dreams manifest in his art as a dangerous erotic fantasy that he enacts on Yeong-hye, and suffers serious consequences. The last section is told from the point of view of Yeong-hye's sister, In-hye, who is now plagued by recurring dreams, but by witnessing her sister's suffering in a psychiatric ward, is warned not to be guided by them, or else face the same punitive fate.
The Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama is mentioned, her work on orgies fuelling the brother-in-law's erotic obsession. Kusama's life as a voluntary in-patient at a psychiatric ward, and her work, which deals with madness, joy and sex, is most relevant to Han's novel. Its message is a radical, if familiar one, though it never rears its head as polemic. Yeong-hye's eating disorder is a reminder that the body, particularly the female body, is never fully owned by the individual: the struggle between the psychiatric system's terrifying force-feeding and tranquilising of Yeong-hye and her subversive self-harming reflects this battle for its ownership.
This is an odd and enthralling novel; its story filled with nihilism but lyricism too, its writing understated even in its most fevered, violent moments. It has a surreal and spellbinding quality, especially in its passage on nature and the physical landscape, so beautiful and so magnificently impervious to the human suffering around it. - Arifa Akbar


Some books follow you around. At least, that has been my experience this month with The Vegetarian by the South Korean novelist Han Kang. No sooner had I resolved to read it after seeing a tweet about it from Gary Perry, assistant head of fiction at Foyles, than it seemed to be popping up everywhere.
When I went into the Guardian newspaper’s offices to record a podcast about my forthcoming book, it cropped up in conversation with the literary editor Claire Armitstead. Next, I saw that Chad Post, editor of Three Percent, had picked it out as one of the texts for his translation students at Rochester University to discuss this semester.
Then, before I knew it, an enthusiastic tweet of my own somehow led to an invitation to the London launch. And so last week, there I was in the London Review Bookshop, listening to Han Kang (speaking through an interpreter) and her translator Deborah Smith discuss the novel with Deborah Levy, author of the Man Booker prize-shortlisted novel Swimming Home.
It’s not surprising that The Vegetarian has captured so many people’s imaginations. The premise alone is bound to intrigue: centring on a hitherto apparently unremarkable woman, Yeong-hye, the narrative presents the fallout from her abrupt decision to reject meat – and with it the food culture she has grown up with – after she has a violent dream. As her eating becomes more and more restricted and her body shrinks and weakens, the cracks in her relationships deepen, allowing glimpses of the traumas, assumptions and impossible dreams that lie beneath.
The novel’s tone is one of its great strengths. Indeed, despite the weightiness of the subject matter, the opening pages have a levity and dry wit as Yeong-hye’s husband sets the scene of his marriage to ‘the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world’. This lightness makes the shock all the greater when the husband and his in-laws round on Yeong-hye, attempting to overcome her resistance and act upon her with violence that they find frighteningly easy to justify.
Han’s (and Smith’s) beautifully modulated sentences weave their way through a series of increasingly outlandish, alarming and yet alluring images as the narrative barrels further and further away from the apparent normality of the outset. From fleeting tropes, such as the idea of a wound consuming an entire body, to the monstrous yet exquisite flower-copulation video created by Yeong-hye’s video artist brother-in-law as a way of enacting his own particular ambitions for her body, the text astonishes and challenges the reader.
As in most ambitious works, the writing takes risks that occasionally threaten to destabilise it. At the start of each of the novel’s three sections – which are narrated by a different family member, although never the title character herself – it is as though the narrative is thrown up into the air until we deduce whose gaze we have borrowed and everything falls into place once more. Similarly, a few of the flashbacks emerge so subtly out of the texture of events that it is sometimes difficult to locate yourself – a technique that adds to the dreamlike quality of much of the writing but can distance the reader from the narrative too.
Overall, though, the effect is utterly absorbing. Poetic, shocking and thought-provoking, this is a book that forces us to confront some of the darkest realities of the human experience: the violence with which we are forced to be complicit simply through the fact of our existence, the way we manipulate and objectify others, and our ability to become inured to horror and abuse. I can’t recommend it highly enough. - Ann Morgan


Image of Human Acts
Han Kang, Human Acts, Trans. by Deborah Smith, Portobello Books. 2016.                             


Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend's corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalised country searches for a voice. In a sequence of interconnected chapters the victims and the bereaved encounter censorship, denial, forgiveness and the echoing agony of the original trauma. Human Acts is a universal book, utterly modern and profoundly timeless. Already a controversial bestseller and award-winning book in Korea, it confirms Han Kang as a writer of immense importance.


Human Acts is a stunning piece of work. The language is poetic, immediate, and brutal. Han Kang has again proved herself to be a deft artist of storytelling and imagery.’ Jess Richards

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