If you want a vegetarian meal in Seoul, you might consider trying the Ritz-Carlton, where the waiters have probably been trained not to deride foreigners’ bizarre dining demands. For authentic Korean food, though, you might well be stuck with kimchi, and incredulity. South Koreans are passionate carnivores, as Han Kang is here to confirm in her provocative new novel, “The Vegetarian.”
Taciturn housewife Yeong-hye is “completely unremarkable in every way,” according to her husband — until, that is, she decides to trash all the meat in their freezer. “I had a dream” is her only explanation. The novel is structured as a triptych, each highlighting a different family member’s reaction to Yeong-hye’s dumbfounding choice. Only in the first section are we offered any direct access to Yeong-hye’s motivations, through her blood-soaked dreams of animal butchery.
Those ghoulish dreams stand in direct contrast to Yeong-hye’s unimaginative and by-the-book husband, who expects her complete fealty. “The very idea that there could be this other side to her, one where she selfishly did as she pleased, was astonishing,” he broods. “Who would have thought she could be so unreasonable?” Her father, too, petulantly demands, “How can you call yourself my daughter?”
Kang posits vegetarianism as a feminist choice, a revolt against conformity and patriarchy — especially when Yeong-hye, who always enjoyed going braless, starts stripping bare in public places.
The novel’s second section, after her divorce, is narrated by her brother-in-law. They may not have many bearded hipster vegans in Korea, but they evidently have their share of avant-garde artists producing mixed-media performance art, and this artist, obsessed with Yeong-hye (including the birthmark on her buttocks), wants her to star in his newest creation. He paints flowers on her body and films her, aiming for “a sense of everything having taken on some alien form.” But it isn’t enough. He persuades an artist friend, also elaborately painted, to have sex with her on camera. That isn’t enough either. A reader can guess where his boundary-pushing art will go next. Kang has plenty to say about the complicated nature of the male gaze, but the real surprise is how Yeong-hye feels about her objectification. To the artist’s surprise, a body painted with flowers seriously turns her on.
That’s because she believes she’s becoming a plant. In a psychiatric ward three years later, she’s no longer a vegetarian; she’s anorexic. She claims to need no food at all. She takes to wandering outside in the rain naked so that she can properly photosynthesize. Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, narrates this section. A devoted mother and owner of a successful cosmetics company, In-hye is the only member of her family who has not abandoned her hospitalized sister. Doing her duty as Yeong-hye drifts further into madness makes her realize that she herself has spent her whole life as “a child who had never lived,” constricted by societal expectations.
Only Yeong-hye, In-hye and In-hye’s toddler have names. The rest of the characters are identified by their initials, Kafka-style. Indeed, Kang’s subject and tone owe much to Kafka, in particular “The Hunger Artist,” which similarly features a protagonist slowly wasting away and an elaborate extended metaphor about making art in a conventional society.
The Kafkaesque quality depends on delivering the surreal in a calm, almost deadpan way — recall that Gregor Samsa, upon discovering that he has turned into a gigantic insect in “The Metamorphosis,” worries about missing his train. Kang presents her heroine’s metamorphosis crisply and dispassionately, although there are lapses into mood-shattering melodrama, as when, reflecting on her response to a spousal rape, In-hye “would all of a sudden find herself wanting to stab herself in the eyes with her chopsticks, or pour the boiling water from the kettle over her head.” But for the most part, what makes “The Vegetarian” appealing is the controlled voice. Whether Yeong-hye is doing something as relatively normal as refusing sweet and sour pork or as outlandish as catching and eating a live bird while naked in a public garden, the voice stays coolly reportorial.
A resident of South Korea, Kang studied creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, at the University of Iowa. This is the first novel of hers to be released in the United States, although she is already a best-selling literary star at home. Deborah Smith’s translation, originally for publication in England, sports a few occasionally jarring Briticisms. (The characters in this novel strip off their knickers, a word an American audience can barely read without snickers.) It’s easy to imagine that in a society as restrictive as Kang’s South Korea, this novel could seem especially daring. For Western readers, what’s more shocking is the unapologetic sexism against which the heroine rebels.
Lisa Zeidner’s latest novel is “Love Bomb.” She teaches in the MFA program at Rutgers University at Camden.
By Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Hogarth. 188 pp. $21