By Han Kang
Translated by Deborah Smith
Last August, Anne Rice posted a call to arms — on Facebook, of course — warning that political correctness was going to bring on literary end times: banned books, destroyed authors, “a new era of censorship.” “We must stand up for fiction as a place where transgressive behavior and ideas can be explored,” she proclaimed. “I think we have to be willing to stand up for the despised.” I, a fan of transgressive literature, could not pinpoint why I found her post to be so much more vexing than the usual battle cries of P.C.-paranoiacs. I finally had my answer after reading Han Kang’s novel “The Vegetarian”: What if “the despised” can stand up on their own?
All the trigger warnings on earth cannot prepare a reader for the traumas of this Korean author’s translated debut in the Anglophone world. At first, you might eye the title and scan the first innocuous sentence — “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way” — and think that the biggest risk here might be converting to vegetarianism. (I myself converted, again; we’ll see if it lasts.) But there is no end to the horrors that rattle in and out of this ferocious, magnificently death-affirming novel.
When Yeong-hye awoke one morning from troubled dreams, she found herself changed into a monstrous . . . vegetarian. And that’s where the misleadingly simple echoes of a certain classic premise end. Han’s novella-in-three-parts zigzags between domestic thriller, transformation parable and arborphiliac meditation, told from the points of view of her lousy husband, who works at an office (Part I); her obsessive brother-in-law, who is an artist (Part II); and her overburdened older sister, who manages a cosmetics store (Part III). These three characters are largely defined by what they do for a living, whereas Yeong-hye stops doing much of anything altogether. “I had a dream,” she says in one of her rare moments of direct dialogue, her only explanation of her newfound herbivorism. At first she is met with casual disdain by family and friends; a dinner acquaintance passive-aggressively declares, “I’d hate to share a meal with someone who considers eating meat repulsive, just because that’s how they themselves personally feel . . . don’t you agree?” But soon her physical form creates the very negative space those close to her fear: weight loss, insomnia, diminished libido and the eventual abandonment of everyday “civilized” life.
An ascetic tome this is not: The novel is full of sex of dubious consent, all sorts of force-feeding and purging — essentially sexual assault and eating disorders, but never by name in Han’s universe. A family gathering where Yeong-hye is attacked by her own father over meat-eating spirals several layers darker into self-harm, though it won’t be the last time a man (or she herself, for that matter) violates her body. Violation of the mind, however, is a different issue. “The Vegetarian” needs all this bloodletting because in its universe, violence is connected with physical sustenance — in meat-eating, sex-having, even care-taking. Outside intervention, from family and friends and doctors, works to moderate the reality of this story, but their efforts are in the end as anemic as Anne Rice’s rescue of “the despised.” After all, who is the victim here? You can’t save a soul if it becomes something beyond salvation.
We get brief italicized sequences that describe Yeong-hye’s thoughts, which range from diarylike internal monologues to something approaching a post-language state. A passage begins: “Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts; nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe,” and then melts into the sudden realization that her old self is disappearing: “Why am I changing like this? Why are all my edges sharpening — what am I going to gouge?” At other times the language of devastation needs only the sensory details: a dying bird hidden in a clenched fist, an IV bag half full of blood, painted flowers on a naked body, the unremitting stench of sizzling meat.
Originally published in South Korea in 2007 and inspired by the author’s short story “The Fruit of My Woman,” “The Vegetarian” was the first of Han’s works to be made into a feature film. (A second film, based on another novella, was released in 2011.) She has been rightfully celebrated as a visionary in South Korea and has been published around the world, but it took the enthusiasm of her translator, Deborah Smith, to bring “The Vegetarian” to publishing homes in Britain and the United States. Smith learned Korean only about six years ago, mastering it through the process of translating this book. She inhabits the prose’s terrible serenity and glacial horror — the translator’s hand never overwhelms or underperforms. Both lithe and sharp, syntax and diction never become mechanical and obtuse the way bad translations often render something “foreign.”
For a danger here would be to focus only on the ethnographic and sociological. In Britain, where “The Vegetarian” landed on The Evening Standard’s best-seller list, reviews tried to make sense of its strangeness by attributing it to the culture. “The narrative makes it clear it is the crushing pressure of Korean etiquette which murders them,” The Independent daftly concluded. Other British reviewers tried to emphasize that vegetarianism is impossible in South Korea. Likewise, a contemporary Western feminist lens could also yield a condemnation of the novel as an exercise in female debasement or “torture porn.” But this would again assume a problematic normalcy and measure the book against it. There is an entire world of literature outside the West that is not adapted to our markets, in debt to our trends or in pursuit of our politics.
Rather, Han’s glorious treatments of agency, personal choice, submission and subversion find form in the parable. There is something about short literary forms — this novel is under 200 pages — in which the allegorical and the violent gain special potency from their small packages. “The Vegetarian” feels related to slender works as diverse as Ceridwen Dovey’s 2007 novella “Blood Kin” and Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” I was also reminded of the Iranian author Sadegh Hedayat’s 1937 cult horror masterpiece, “The Blind Owl.” (Hedayat himself was a vegetarian, and there are cyclical scenes in his nightmarish landscapes in which the killing of animals is positioned as the root of madness.) Ultimately, though, how could we not go back to Kafka? More than “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka’s journals and “A Hunger Artist” haunt this text. And Kafka is perhaps the most famous vegetarian in literary history; he apparently once declared to a fish in an aquarium, “Now at last I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you anymore.”
Still, Han Kang’s is not some cautionary tale for the omnivorous, as Yeong-hye’s vegetarian journey is far from a happy one. Abstaining from eating living things doesn’t lead to enlightenment. As Yeong-hye fades further and further from the living, our author, like a true god, lets us struggle with the question of whether we should root for our hero to survive or to die. With that question comes another, the ultimate question we never quite want to contemplate. “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?” Yeong-hye asks at the end of one section. The next section simply echoes back: “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”