Even as you write this sentence, you can hardly believe that you are writing it – it feels as though your whole being – everything that you have ever experienced, every word you’ve ever uttered, every morsel you’ve ever swallowed – has been encapsulated in a quivering slab of jelly. It has been two days since you’ve chugged along Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. What the book has done to you, with its words whittled to shape with a willful precision, you will not fully register for many days, perhaps even weeks.
The first thing that the book has done to you is that it has peeled back and presented to you layers upon layers of violence. There is so much of it, and it takes such multifarious forms. The most obvious form, one that has been written and spoken and sculpted and screamed about for centuries, is the one that proves to be the foundation of all that ensues in this short novel – the violence inflicted by men upon women - violence inflicted as if it were only the most natural thing to do. Other forms soon emerge: the violence of one’s choices not being respected, even in the simplest and smallest of matters (Yeong-hye’s decision to become a vegetarian, or her choice not to wear a bra, for instance); the violence of conventions that one must conform to, and of the fear that accompanies defiance; the violence of being looked at.
All your life you have shirked away from horror and visuals of blood and gore, and symbols of the grotesque, and what has stunned you immensely by Yeong-hye’s defiance is that it takes a form you have never before associated with hysteria – the form of silence. When Yeong-hye’s endurance breaks, what follows is a pursuit of releasing all humanness out of her body and desexualising it. Of welcoming sunlight and striving to dig into the earth and spread herself into a tree. Of shunning the clothes of propriety, of shunning the fork and eating instead with her fingers, of spurning all elements that have been violated and misunderstood in her lifetime. Of becoming quiet.
As she slowly shrinks into this terrifying (and concomitantly relieving) serenity, and as her trauma unfurls, you realise that every single time that you have felt violated by even the smallest of events, and every time you have sensed that something should not have been dealt to you – you have been right in feeling the way you have felt.The protagonist’s sister (and in many ways her counterpart) also undergoes a tremendous revelation in the course of the novel:
You have been thinking about goodness a great deal, especially after watching the show Malory Towers, which is based on Enid Blyton’s novels. You had immersed yourself in them throughout middle school and they’d cemented your personality as it would remain for the longest time (fragments of it will sustain perhaps forever). How much of your sense of morality – of what makes you a good person (a “treat” of a person), and what would make you a “dreadful cow” – was milked from those books! It was only after your eyes were pried open to the endless prejudices and extremity that the books projected that you have begun to re-evaluate these ideas of goodness. The violence of it, and In-hye’s eventual decision, remain speared in your heart.
It is needless to mention that nature plays a large role in the text. Leaves gleam and flowers flame across the book. Glimpses of compassion and brief spaces in which there is absolutely no desire – only a lake-like calm - provide respite. You want to protect the people in the book, which is to say that you want to protect yourself.
In an interview, Kang states that Yeong-hye’s choice to become a vegetarian lies in her wish to not harm anyone. “Can a person be completely innocent? What happens when we vow not to hurt anything?,” she says. The following passage strikes you so deeply each time you reread it:
Lastly, you think of the fact that what you have read is a translation from the Korean. It will be a long time (if at all) before you can taste this story in its language of origin. Critics have done what critics do and attempted to dismiss Deborah Smith’s translation as inaccurate and unworthy, and you would desperately like to present to them this article by Kang herself, about her experiences at a translation workshop conducted by Smith.
Now that this story, with all its startling dreams and flowers, has plummeted you into a previously unventured darkness, you are left thinking of one question:
“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”
The art is in this newsletter is from Alice Brasser’s Summerflowers series.