I have not read a lot of fiction in translation, which is not something I am proud of. I am sure I have missed out on a swathe of incredible books because my eye has inadvertently been drawn to contemporary British fiction written in English. My recent reading list has tried to encompass more of a variety of writing, both books in translation and novels written by authors from different countries and cultures, and I feel that, in a totally non-clichéd way, my reading style and understanding of other cultures and contexts has markedly altered and improved.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang has long been on my radar because of the stirrings (or rather, waves) it caused in the world of literary fiction when it was first published in translation in 2015 (it was originally published in Korean in 2007). I was inspired to read it because of my desire to branch out – and what a book to begin my journey with. Set in modern-day Seoul, The Vegetarian is a three-part novella that centres on Yeong-hye, an ‘unremarkable’ woman who makes the sudden decision to become drastically vegetarian after experiencing a traumatic dream about human cruelty. Her husband, who is quite content with her ordinariness and the routine of their married life until that point, readily shuns her, forcing her to withdraw further into herself. Her shocking alteration, physically and psychologically, is hastened by his disassociation of her and is played out in front of the eyes of her family, and the reader, who are powerless to halt its course. The novel is split into three parts – none are told from Yeong-hye’s point of view – each examining the consequences of this extreme lifestyle change on the people closest to Yeong-hye. Her own personal decision and values have an unforeseen impact on those around her, and the novel considers in minute detail the multiple and complex elements that make up the concept of humanity as we perceive it – what makes one person’s decision right and another’s unforgivable?
The Vegetarian is a succinct but stunning novel, less than 200 pages long; harrowing in its brutality and visceral descriptions of Yeong-hye’s dreams and her actions towards herself, as well as the actions of others upon her. The fragility of the human body is recognised, its necessity and perceived strength questioned, as Han Kang depicts a life of physicality overturned by the power of the mind. For Yeong-hye the body is a prison, and through her psychological escapism she is breaking free from the confines of mortality and the strict social constructs placed on her physical form – her feminine submission, her social position, the traditional gender roles she must play a part in. The three narrative strands force Yeong-hye into silence, but this only serves to give her power. The transgressions she commits throughout the novel cause her to be reviled by her male authority figures, yet she is desired sexually because of her disobedience. Conversely, Yoeng-hye is secretly admired by her female relatives for her strength and ability to crumble the patriarchal chains that bind her.
In The Vegetarian Han Kang explores the traditional values of Korean culture and family hierarchy, the figure of the submissive woman at the centre of her critique. Yeong-hye, although silent, unsettles the norm and questions the accepted familiarity of her peers; though she is perceived mad by those closest to her, she forces them to address their flawed beliefs and ideals. The male gaze is twisted and turned back on itself, as the men in the novel are exposed under Yeong-hye’s subtle but piercing scrutiny. Formerly nothing more than an object, judged purely on her appearance (her husband is disgusted by her weight loss and clothing choices as she begins her transformation) Yeong-hye transcends her own sexuality, becoming a fluid, otherworldly presence, at one with the natural world where no boundaries of the flesh restrain her. She is able to indulge her own desires while casting off the concepts of prudishness and taboo she has long lived by. The simple act of vegetarianism becomes the catalyst for an overhaul of the expectations that have created the model woman, and the ideal marriage, over generations. Han Kang doesn’t shy away in her account of gender imbalance and cruelty, however she does encourage the reader to reflect – at what cost has Yeong-hye discovered freedom? Is psychological breakdown the only escape possible for women like Yeong-hye?
The Vegetarian is an incredibly powerful book, forcing the reader to bear witness to the visceral, provocative actions of its characters. The language used by Han Kang, in translation by Deborah Smith, is sparse yet elegant; every word has a function, nothing is wasted. Thus, The Vegetarian has become one of my favourite reads of 2017 – it is unlike anything I have read before and my mind is still occupied by its scandal and beauty weeks after reading.