To outside observers, 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. Things quickly change when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea (or the South Korea depicted in this novel, anyway), vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, making Yeong-hye’s decision a shocking act of non-conformity and 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 hospitalization. Later, Yeong-hye unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist, and becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, all the while spiraling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.

Han Kang‘s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, has met with resounding critical praise both here and abroad. The novel’s profile will undoubtedly continue to rise as it has just recently won the Man Booker International Prize—the first time the award has been given on the basis of a single book. As might be guessed, The Vegetarian is no more “about” actual vegetarianism than Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros or Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America are about their titular subjects. Instead, The Vegetarian is about the angle and limitation of human perception when a symbol refuses to reveal its meaning. Yeong-hye’s plausible but completely surreal status as a non-assertive person gives every aspect of the narrative an allegorical dimension. Psychologically, the narrators (or “meat-eaters”, to use the novel’s own existential categories) cannot prevent their tentative searches for meaning and identity from turning them into absurdly cruel predators where Yeong-hye is concerned. By insisting on her existence, they cannot help but erase her. This is the nature of meaning: we must impose our own readings on the indeterminate meanings of symbols or simply admit that the whole thing is an inconsequential dream. Kang’s prose is dead-pan and evenly-paced, with very little metaphor or figural language on display except where there is opportunity to over-describe nature. The story carries you along, inviting you to take in the parade of characters and grotesque situations while refusing to explain itself.

There is no question that this is a powerful and disturbing work. The book is narrated by three different characters, and this structure of shifting perspectives keeps things interesting and effective. The major issue that I have with the novel is a lack of clear cultural context. Elements of Korean social expectation and custom play a significant role in the way that Yeoung-Hye’s family respond to her increasingly bizarre behavior, but this context is not fleshed out for the non-Korean reader, making it difficult to discern what is the author’s invention and what is actual cultural custom.

Chris Fox is a Reference Assistant at May Memorial Library. Contact him at: cfox@alamancelibraries.org