In the Flesh
By Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
Portobello Books, 2015
In a recent review of Dalkey Archives’ five latest titles in its Library of Korean Literature series, the translator of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Deborah Smith, writes that South Korea has one of the highest rates of literacy in the world and a vibrant literary scene to match. She goes on to mention her “niggling doubt [about this project]: will the books stand on their own merits or will they require some pre-existing knowledge of Korea to be properly appreciated?”
The debate surrounding this issue is fascinating, but the end point is disturbing: is a particular individual qualified to read a particular book or not? Even if you can’t appreciate a novel — its nuances, its jokes, its layers and contexts — without background knowledge, literature is one way of gaining that knowledge, slowly but organically. The more you read, the more perspectives you gain on the country and its culture — and this growing body of knowledge gradually becomes more representative as stereotypes and stock characters are overwritten by variety and multiplicity.
With The Vegetarian the question of understanding otherness becomes even more apposite, as the novel itself is about social mores and restrictive conformity, and about what happens to rebels as well as enforcers. The cover of this original novel gives an initial impression of being marketed as chick lit. It’s brighter and darker — bolder and more daring — than those pastel-coloured novels with curly fonts, but is nonetheless decorated with striking photographs of lilies. But look a little closer and one petal turns out to be a long human tongue. Then you notice some fingers, two lurking eyeballs, and a slab of marbled meat. Suddenly it’s not so pretty.
The first page of the novel is just as arresting, just as discomfiting:
Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her.
However, “if there wasn’t any attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.” Originally published in Korea as three novellas, the book is published here as a coherent whole in three sections with three different narrators. Mr Cheong, the narrator of the first section, and his wife Yeong-hye are almost five years into this depressing-sounding marriage when the novel opens. Life is regimented according to Mr Cheong’s preferences; he has made his life choices to ensure that his existence is smooth and orderly. When things go wrong, then, it is never his fault.
In some ways, he appreciates his wife more now:
since we were never madly in love to begin with we were able to avoid falling into that stage of weariness and boredom that can otherwise turn married life into a trial.
Into this domestic mediocrity, Yeong-hye inserts a major disruption. Cheong discovers her one morning, still in her night clothes, frantically piling frozen meat into rubbish bags. She can no longer stomach meat, she explains, so it must all go out of the house. The reason? A dream. Snatches of the dream are presented throughout the novel, always violent, bloody and terrifying, their meaning eluding both Yeong-hye and the reader.
On the morning of the meat incident, Yeong-hye has not made Cheong breakfast, nor has she ironed his shirt. She has also failed to wake him up on time, and as a result the narrator is late for work. This is just the beginning of a life that is suddenly out of control — or, shall we say, out of the reliable hands of a caring woman. It’s significant that we see the situation from only Cheong’s point of view. His irritation and annoyance seem vastly exaggerated, as if Yeong-hye is a mid-century housewife failing to do her job, but from Yeong-hye herself we hear almost nothing. Her resistance — to meat, to Cheong, to her previous life — is mostly silent; she drifts around the apartment for hours into the night, crawling into bed shortly before dawn and staring unspeaking at the ceiling as Cheong gets ready for work.
The months pass and Yeong-hye refuses to eat or cook meat. She grows thin and pale, and she barely sleeps; when she does, the dreams crowd in, shapeless but upsetting. But Cheong can mostly ignore it until they have to go out for dinner with his boss. Not only does she wear a see-through shirt, she is also bra-less, which attracts quiet disapprobation among the assembled company. When the food arrives Yeong-hye announces that she does not eat meat. This causes quite a stir; the other employees and their wives feel no need to hold back: “‘I’d hate to share a meal with someone who considered eating meat repulsive, just because that’s how they themselves personally feel,” and worse: “‘Imagine you were snatching up a wriggling baby octopus with your chopsticks and chomping it to death — and the woman across from you glared like you were some kind of animal.” Yeong-hye takes all this silently, but instead of showing graceful deference to the wives of the senior employees, she is uncowed and openly unapologetic, not worried about the effect on her husband’s career.
Or we could look at it another way: Cheong is angry with Yeong-hye for something beyond her control, and seemingly unconcerned for anything other than his job. That same night, Yeong-hye’s mother phones. The narrator breaks the news of the vegetarianism to her, which sets in motion a plan of action for the family dinner they are due to attend in a few weeks. In the meantime Cheong, frustrated by Yeong-hye’s refusal to have sex, comes home one night and rapes her. After the first time, he reports, it’s easier for him to force himself on her. Her reaction — silence — perturbs him, and he can’t “stand the way her expression, which made it seem as though she were a woman of bitter experience, who had suffered many hardships, niggled at my conscience.” The word “niggled” feels like the perfect choice, as if Cheong can’t quite remember if he paid the parking metre or polished his shoes.
At the family dinner, Yeong-hye’s father loses his temper. Social convention is very important to the family, and Yeong-hye is flouting it. They read her apathy and silence as insolence. The most passive resistance can provoke the most enormous rage. The father commands Yeong-hye to eat before trying to force meat through her clenched teeth. In perhaps the most troubling disjuncture between perception and reality, Cheong is deeply moved by “the fatherly affection that was choking the old man” shortly before this concerned figure hits his daughter across the face. Here the patriarchy is literal: if the invisible expectations of conformity don’t exert the required pressure, her father must step in — for her own sake, naturally — and physically overpower her. As soon as she can get free, Yeong-hye grabs a knife and slashes her arm with it.
Cheong’s interpretation of them is conspicuously at odds with contemporary Western values. Is he representative, at least in part, of Korean social mores? The father is a more extreme version of restrictive propriety, while the rest of the family seems less absolutist. Both men care less for Cheong’s well-being than they do for how her decisions reflect on them. When Yeong-hye ends up in hospital, the whole family is embarrassed and ashamed around each other. They feel responsible for other people’s actions in a way that feels very distant from the attitudes of contemporary Western society.
It’s soon clear that Yeong-hye’s issues are not confined to her diet. At the hospital she disappears from the bed, to be found sitting naked in the courtyard. The final pages of this first section are the first time Cheong’s response to events seems reasonable. He realises he does not know his wife at all, but “compelled by responsibilities which refused to be shirked, my legs carried me towards her, a movement which I could not for the life of me control.” When he reaches her, he asks why she is undressed. Her simple response is because it was hot. “Have I done something wrong?” she asks. Then Cheong prises open her right hand. A dead bird falls out, crushed and with bloody tooth marks on it. The first section ends on this heavily symbolic note — with Yeong-hye carrying out a violent act like the ones that so terrify her in her nightmares, even though refusing flesh was supposed to prevent this.
The three different points of view in The Vegetarian afford us three different ways in to the Korean psyche, or to three different Korean psyches, as well as the implied point of view of Yeong-hye. In the second section we see Yeong-hye from the perspective of her unnamed brother-in-law, in a third-person narrative that takes place two years after Yeong-hye slashes her wrists. He’s an artist and filmmaker with a young son — middle-aged and feeling it — and his life lacks discipline and routine. His wife In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, has a successful business, which means he doesn’t need to earn money. After a year without artistic inspiration, he has an idea of people decorated as flowers having sex. He blames his wife for this idea, so different from his previous documentary work: she mentions in passing one day that Yeong-hye might still have her “Mongolian mark,” a small blue birthmark known medically as congenital dermal melanocytosis that usually disappears in early childhood, which he instantly imagines as a blue flower on her buttocks.
He becomes obsessed with how to make his fantasy a reality, ignoring his family and letting himself be carried away with thoughts of his sister-in-law. Yeong-hye is on the point of divorce, and In-hye worries about her. When her husband offers to visit, In-hye is pleased that her husband is assuming some of the burden of family responsibility. When he arrives at Yeong-hye’s flat, she’s naked but unconcerned by it, taking her time getting dressed — oblivious rather than seductive. Ever since the family dinner two years earlier Yeong-hye has seemed increasingly vacant, amenable and passive. She is perhaps too ill or too medicated to lift herself out of a serene fog, and her emotions are inscrutable. Soon the man is plotting and scheming to get Yeong-hye to agree to be painted and filmed.
Yeong-hye inspires many different feelings: her husband is baffled and angry while her brother-in-law is so obsessed with her physically that he can think of nothing else. The two men have very little sympathy for each other, but they are linked in feeling a violent desire for Yeong-hye, and in taking advantage of her passivity. Neither of them truly sees Yeong-hye as a person; instead she is by turns an object, a decoration or a prop.
An increasing obsession with his sister-in-law leads the filmmaker to neglect his family, but he doesn’t care about that, or about In-hye’s increasing exasperation. Soon he realises he wants to film Yeong-hye having sex. He would like it to be with him, but is too self-conscious about his ageing body. He talks his studio mate, J., into modelling for him, but when at the crucial moment he asks J. if he could “maybe, you know, do it for real?” J. leaps up, horrified. J. lets himself be persuaded to simulate for the sake of art, while careening between apology for being too uptight and outrage at having been asked, but quickly decides against it. When J. leaves, Yeong-hye says that she wanted to do it — the flowers affected her strongly. This gives the filmmaker courage: he hesitantly asks if she would do it with him if he painted himself, and if she would let him film it. He races off to an artist friend to get his body painted and then returns to film the two of them having sex.
Afterwards, Yeong-hye asks him if the dreams will go now. It’s her only response, her only concern. Is that why she went along with the idea? She’s still having the dreams—faces appear, sometimes rotting. She had thought if she stopped eating meat the dreams would stop, but it didn’t work. What else is left to try?
They fall asleep. In the morning the filmmaker wakes up. His wife is in Yeong-hye’s flat; when he comes out of the bedroom he sees her sitting dejectedly at the table. She has watched the video in the camera. Betrayed and uncomprehending, she exacts revenge by calling psychiatric doctors to take him away.
The last of the three sections is again third person, this time very close to In-hye’s perspective. It’s around a year later, and In-hye is travelling to the psychiatric hospital where Yeong-hye now resides. At the hospital, In-hye learns that her sister is dangerously ill. By this point she is refusing food altogether; the doctors will try force feeding but if it doesn’t work she’ll need to be transferred to a critical ward. This section moves back and forth between the hospital, the recent past (In-hye’s husband’s betrayal and departure, its effect on her young son), and more distant family memories, as if the answer to Yeong-hye’s struggles might be explained by an incident from their past.
In-hye is consumed with sisterly concern but at the same time bewildered and impatient. She is the first (and placed last in the book) to even consider Yeong-hye as a person, a human being with feelings and thoughts and agency. Nonetheless, even her concern is occasionally tinged with frustration at the social conventions Yeong-hye has broken and with how that might reflect on the family. Unlike her sister, In-hye has done the responsible thing, building a business, having a child, and now caring for her sister. There are flashes of jealousy in the portrayal of In-hye — exactly where has following the rules got her? Yeong-hye has freedom from responsibility, yet she seems careless of this freedom: it means nothing to her. In-hye herself can never quite decide if Yeong-hye’s condition is wilful or involuntary. Nonetheless, it is her sister who sticks by her even when she cannot fathom the reasons for Yeong-hye’s actions, even when she despairs of Yeong-hye’s apparent refusal to help herself.
Despite the tube feeding, Yeong-hye continues to deteriorate, and the book ends with In-hye and her sister in an ambulance, rushing to a hospital more suited to care for a seriously ill woman. Yeong-hye can barely speak. Thoughts and emotions race through In-hye’s mind. What can she say to bring her sister back? What can she say to make her understand? “I have dreams too, you know. Dreams … and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over … but surely the dream isn’t all there is? We have to wake up at some point, don’t we? Because … because then …”
Whether Yeong-hye survives or not, the implication is clear: women either submit to what is expected, or they rebel and are punished. The connection between women and consumption — their own consumption, or other people’s consumption of them, and the refusal of the one as a protest against the other — is not a new theme in fiction, but The Vegetarian is in no way a derivative novel. Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, a groundbreaking work of feminist fiction, is an obvious comparison. Yeong-hye finds herself, like Atwood’s Marian McAlpin, unable to live within the restrictions of society, and like Marian she does not choose to protest — her body does it for her. But unlike in The Edible Woman, Yeong-hye’s problems cannot be reversed: Cheong divorces her, and she lives on her own for a while, but repeatedly ends up in hospital, first for psychiatric care, and finally for intensive care when she refuses all nourishment and even an IV drip fails to revive her. Will she survive? The novel doesn’t tell us, but it certainly points a lot of fingers.
Deborah Smith’s excellent translation — somehow spare and rich at the same time — gives a strong voice to each of the three characters. It’s a violent, beautiful book, one that forces its readers to ask questions that the characters themselves ought to be asking, but never do. They are too close to, too complicit with, the system that provokes Yeong-hye’s issues. For them, Yeong-hye is an anomaly rather than a portent. Whatever Smith’s lingering questions about the feasibility of translation across cultures, The Vegetarian, with elements both familiar and alien, will resonate with English-speaking readers, surprising, delighting and horrifying them by turns with its understated power.