Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Recently published by Portobello Books The Vegetarian is translated by Deborah Smith, glancing at the book's jacket you'd be slightly forgiven for failing to notice that hidden amongst the petals of flowers you can make out a tongue, fingers, a slab of meat, and on the back a single eyeball stares out from amongst the flowers, it's a slightly disconcerting blend of flesh and vegetation, something which figures largely within the novel. Han Kang comes from a literary family and has been awarded many literary awards, including the Yi Sang Literary Prize, for the story Mongolian Mark, a line from a poem by Yi Sang provided the inspiration to the story The Vegetarian, that states; I believe humans should be plants, this is another aspect seen in one of the leading characters of the novel. The Vegetarian is made up of three chapters that, almost in relay fashion, follow the story line of it's main protagonist, Yeong-hye. That said the book ostensibly follows two sisters, Yeong-Hye and also In-hye, although the perspectives that we see them from shifts in being from related characters, in the central story Mongolian Mark the narrative focuses on Yeong-hye's brother in law, a video artist who finds himself estranged from his own works, who fixates on his sister in law's, Mongolian mark, which has surprisingly not faded away as she has got older. Mongolian Mark picks up on the events of the preceding story The Vegetarian that sees the disintegration of Yeong-hye's marriage, which sees Yeong-hye turn vegetarian after having a dream, which throughout the story is initially described in italicised fragments. Throughout the opening story Yeong-hye stays steadfast to her vegetarianism, at a meal with her husband's work colleagues she refuses to eat meat which causes an incident her husband tries to contain by describing that she is a vegetarian due to medical reasons. As the story progresses it slowly becomes apparent that Yeong-hye's vegetarianism is leading more toward a fully blown eating disorder associated to her having a nervous breakdown, which culminates in a family gathering for a meal ending with Yeong-hye having meat forced upon her and a suicide attempt. Toward the end of the story elements of Yeong-hye's family background emerge, her violent father and characters that feature later in the book begin to appear, her brother in law, and her sister, In-hye.

Han Kang's prose deftly explores the fissures in her character's lives, predominantly the men that appear in the book are on the whole unforgivably base, the violence of her father, the neglect of her husband, who is later referred to as the more formal Mr Cheong in the latter part of the novel. At the same time within the book Han Kang explores the strengths of her characters as in the final story Flaming Trees, which sees In-hye reflect and summarises on her past and events of the book that have led to this point, In-hye visit's Yeong-hye in hospital now being force fed and on the brink of wasting away. Flaming Trees subtly continues the metaphor at play in the centre of the book, of humans as plants, Yeong-hye is at times overwhelmed by the feeling that she has an inner plant that is trying to find expression through various episodes in the book, at times she exposes her self to the sun which seems to appear as an attempt at temporary photosynthesis. The central theme in Mongolian Mark is that Yeong-hye's brother in law fixates on her Mongolian mark which inspires him to create a film of her painted with flower motifs on her body. An aspect that lies at the edges of the reader's suspicion is that of Yeong-hye's mental state, is her brother in law taking advantage of her, although she gives her consent and her enthusiasm for the project is a surprise to her brother in law, as much as it is to the reader.

During Mongolian Mark the marriage between Yeong-hye's brother in law with her sister, In-hye begins to come into focus in the narrative, and the brother in laws pursuit of his art knows no bounds, after persuading an artist friend, J, to also take part in the filming, but things don't go to plan and In-hye makes the discover of the subject of her husband's film with Yeong-hye. Han Kan's prose traces the lines and cracks with the things that bind her characters, pursuing desires contained and those seeking expression, at times uncontrollably and examines their consequences. The Vegetarian looks into the darker side of it's character's psychologies which glances equally between causes and consequences which grips across the triptych of stories presented here, I hope further translations appear in the near future.  

The Vegetarian at Portobello Books                


Tony Malone said...

Just finished this one (another step in my Korean odyssey) and really enjoyed it. I second the request for more translations soon :)

Tony Malone said...

P.S. I hope you've seen all my 'January in Japan' posts -

me. said...

I think there is another translation available, which I'd very much like to read.

Will pop over to January in Japan for a peek very soon.