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Han Kang : 채식주의자 (The Vegetarian)

Yeong-hye is a seemingly ordinary Korean woman. She is married to Mr Cheong (we never know his first name). The couple do not have any children. Yeong-hye seems to be a good wife, providing for Mr Cheong’s needs, both as regards maintaining the house and feeding him as well as providing for his sexual needs. He seems to be fairly controlling but this may well be typical of the Korean husband. One day, he hears a noise in the early hours of the morning and finds his wife standing by the fridge. She tells him that she had a dream. He is concerned but not too concerned and goes back to bed. When he gets up in the morning, he finds her emptying the contents of the fridge into bin bags. He tries to intervene but a phone call interrupts him and he has to dash to work. We learn of her dream (and subsequent dreams she has), involving bloody meat hanging from the ceiling, which she keeps banging into. This dream turns her off not only meat but also fish and dairy products.

During the week, Mr Cheong tended to eat out for both lunch and dinner so he is not as perturbed as he might be. Yeong-hye, however, has announced that she is a vegetarian and will not any more animals products again. Gradually this an effect on her, as she lives on noodles. She loses weight and her complexion looks sallow. Worse, as far as Mr Cheong is concerned, she no longer wants to have sex with him, as he smells of meat. When they go out for a dinner with his boss, Mr Cheong is very embarrassed as Yeong-hye eats virtually nothing, declining all the sumptuous dishes containing animal products. Finally, when they go to her family for a meal, she refuses to eat any animal products. Her father is furious and eventually strikes her when she refuses to eat. At this point, she grabs a knife and slashes her wrists.

In hospital, it is her sister, In-hye, who looks after her. In-hye is also married. She has her own cosmetics shop and she is able to support her husband, Yeong-ho, an artist who has yet to sell any of his work. However, things continue to go downhill for all concerned.

The second story takes place two years later. Yeong-hye has been in an institution. Mr. Cheong is divorcing her. The focus of this story is on Yeong-ho. He notices a blue mark on their son, Ji-Woo. It is a Mongolian spot, a discolouration of the skin, common on children from certain ethnic groups, including Koreans. It normally disappears by the age of five. In-hye tells him that she thinks that Yeong-hye still has hers. Yeong-ho has always had some sexual attraction for his sister-in-law and he and his wife have not had much sex recently. Learning of Yeong-hye’s Mongolian spot arouses him sexually and he is not only eager to see it but it gives him an idea for an artwork. This involves painting on Yeong-hye’s naked body. He realises that he could not tell his wife but wonders if he could persuade Yeong-hye. He goes to visit her on a pretext. When he arrives the door seems to be opening so he enters without knocking. She is there and she is naked, not for sexual reasons but because she prefers no wear no clothes around the house. He does persuade her to have the painting done but, inevitably goes too far.

In the third story, the focus is on In-hye. Her husband is long gone and her sister is back in an institution, feeling that she is a tree and therefore needs no food. Only In-hye offers her any support, the rest of the family having abandoned her.

This is a disturbing novel but superbly written. Some people have suggested that it is an anti-vegetarianism novel. That is, in my view, a very simplistic view of the book. It could be seen as a demand for conformity, as vegetarianism is not common in Korea (though not unknown either) and both Yeong-ho and Yeong-hye go against conventional Korean norms. Again, that is overly simplistic. Like other good writers, Han Kang has taken an image or, rather, a succession of images – Yeong-hye’s dream, Yeong-hye as a tree, Yeong-ho’s body painting and the Mongolian spot – and merged them into a vivid story, which cannot fail to have an effect on the reader and which deservedly won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Ch’angbi
First English translation by Portobello in 2015
Translated by Deborah Smith