Contemporary Literature · Translations

The Vegetarian

This is the first book of the year that I chose to read as part of The Reading Women Challenge 2020, for Prompt #2: Translated from an Asian Language. It’s been on my radar for awhile now, but I’m already picking up books I would have continued to put off, thanks to this challenge. Yay!

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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“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 tells the story of Yeong-hye, who, after years of living a very ordinary and acceptable life alongside her husband, has a nightmare that causes her to choose to become a vegetarian. This goes against all cultural norms and familial expectations and starts a downward slide of mental health as Yeong-hye struggles to follow her convictions in the face of family disapproval and various violences.

“Such uncanny serenity actually frightened him, making him think that perhaps this was a surface impression left behind after any amount of unspeakable viciousness had been digested, or else settled down inside her as a kind of sediment.”

This novel was told in three sections, the first from Yeong-hye’s husband’s POV, then her brother-in-law’s, then her sister’s. Despite the differences in the POVs though, I do feel like the voice stayed a little too similar among the three. The language changed a bit, but it was all written very formally and matter-of-fact-ly, even the parts that were from an artistic or introspective perspective. And at times, I felt like the dialogue seemed a bit stilted. However, there is every chance that that’s due to cultural reasons/differences, the fact that it’s a translation, or really just the author’s style (it seemed purposeful, at the very least). So, these all potentially being the case, I tried to move past that and not be bothered by it as much as I normally might be.

“Time was a wave, almost cruel in its relentlessness as it whisked her life downstream, a life she had to constantly strain to keep from breaking apart.”

Other than the writing, the main thing that struck me about this novel is that it is crazy weird. Like, every section had parts that were so, so strange and, often, quite uncomfortable to read. From the (quite graphic) descriptions Yeong-hye’s nightmares in the first part, to her brother-in-law’s fantasies and (super creepy) abuses of her condition in section two, to her in-patient treatment and actions/experiences in the third section. In each case, I was so glad that I was listening to this book alone in my car, because seriously ‘WTF?’ In the second part in particular, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law was so icky, made me cringe so hard, and I felt disconcertingly voyeuristic reading/listening to that entire section. I can’t necessarily say that I liked/enjoyed the reading experience, but I also have to mention how captivating it was. Super disquieting – and I really respect the author’s ability to create that feeling, if nothing else.

“Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on on the surface.”

As far as the themes/topics, this is the hardest part of the review for me to write. I have been sitting on this book for awhile, having finished about a week ago, and am still struggling with my thoughts here. So I guess it won’t ever get clearer and I should just go for it. On the surface, at a very literal level, this was a story of a complete mental health breakdown. For Yeong-hye, the combination of the onset of nightmares (and subsequent inability to sleep), the malnutrition based on becoming a strict vegetarian/vegan without proper nutrient substitutes/planning, the dismissal and abuses from her family related to this decision, the traumatizing childhood memories related to meat/animals, the (more or less culturally accepted) violence against her body perpetrated by her husband/father/brother-in-law, and what seems like a lifelong predilection towards mental instability all combine into a downward spiral that, in the end, she cannot escape. It’s difficult to read and watch, but very circumstantially understandable and incredibly compelling. At the same time, as described by most other reviewers and blurbs, there is a (Kafka-esque) metaphorical and transformational level to the story as well. Now, I will straight-up admit I am not really a Kafka fan, so I can’t say a spent a lot of my reading time trying to delve into these metaphorical levels. But I did recognize and appreciate the simultaneous commentary on violence against women’s bodies, bodily autonomy for women and the lengths they must sometimes go to in order to feel control, the struggle to find your reason to continue fighting (or to accept the decision to let go), and general agency related to one’s own life/expectations/purpose/choices.

“Life is such a strange thing, she thinks, once she has stopped laughing. Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on eating and drinking, going to the toilet and washing themselves – living, in other words. And sometimes they even laugh out loud. And they probably have these same thoughts, too, and when they do it must make them cheerlessly recall all the sadness they’d briefly managed to forget.”

This is a short and brutal novel, definitely not one to be undertaken lightly. I’m just struggling really with how to rate or communicate my feelings about it accurately. Even though I was uncomfortable while reading, and perhaps never fully aware of the secondary levels addressed, I still felt very affected by it when I finished. Yeong-hye’s struggles definitely represent a deep place in us all – one of dark and painful desires, a longing to disappear inside of ourselves and leave the world behind, the need to find a deeper purpose or another reason for living. Although it’s an extreme representation, it’s still disturbingly recognizable.  Phew – what a read!

“It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.”


 

4 thoughts on “The Vegetarian

    1. I actually do recommend it, if you’re at all interesting. It’s unlike anything I’ve really read before. And it’s very short, so it’s definitely worth the time investment. It’s dark though, so make sure you’re in the mood for something like that before starting!

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