If you like your fiction in translation to get under your skin in an unsettling way, provoke nightmares and maybe even have you smelling your meat (or your other half, if you have one), then Han Kang’s The Vegetarian might well be just the book for you. Readers familiar with the works of Taichi Yamada will want to make a beeline for Kang.
Divided into three interlinked sections, each of which is fronted by a different narrator, The Vegetarian begins in the company of a man called Cheong whose wife, Yeong-Hye inexplicably decides to become a vegetarian, throwing all of the meat they have stored in the freezer away and feeding her husband only vegetarian fare, which she says should be ok as, with work, he only really has one meal at most at home. Unfortunately, however, Yeong-Hye’s distaste for meat extends to her husband (who smells of meat, she says) and so their sex life takes a nose dive. All of which leads into quite the spiral of domestic abuse and family disharmony – with Yeong-Hye’s father losing his rag, Yeong-Hye’s husband visiting what he feels are certain inalienable rights upon her and, eventually, quite savage tragedy at the dinner table. All of which runs pell-mell in the direction of Grand Guignol until we reach part two.
Part two concerns the husband of Yeong-Hye’s sister, In-Hye, a video artist who has become obsessed by an image of painted flowers upon a naked female body – specifically the body of Yeong-Hye. Now, as you can no doubt presume, asking your wife if it would be ok to paint flowers on to the body of her naked sister isn’t the easiest conversation to have and so our video artist finds a way of working around his wife without her knowledge. Yeong-Hye herself is quite easily persuaded to take part, the smell of the paint disguising the smell of human meat, and it isn’t long before various things are going on that would be hard to defend. There is an oblique musicality to proceedings, which could come from Kang’s words or from Deborah Smith’s translation, which sweeps you along. The second segment of The Vegetarian is better than the first but as you’re reading you start to feel that here is a novel that gets better, sentence by sentence, page by page. Again, part two ends with a crisis of sorts (the full extent of which isn’t entirely revealed until the beginning of part three).
The third and final part of the book is, ever so slightly, weaker than the two parts that preceded it, in part because the journey is, in some senses, already complete. Our narrator this time around is In-Hye who is visiting her sister at a mountainside sanitarium. Yeong-Hye’s health, both physical and mental, fluctuates. The process, of eschewing meat as the result of a dream, or series of dreams, the being painted upon so she resembles flowers, has led her to a point where she aspires, Swamp Thing-like, to be a plant, or a tree, and she shares with her sister the idea that the branches of a tree are in fact its feet, its roots its arms, the whole edifice a creature standing on its head. Of course, she too takes to standing on her head. She’s sick of food. She wants to live on sunlight, and to do this she is intent on disrobing, pressing herself flat against the windows of the building in which she finds herself to try and absorb the light she needs. There are uncomfortable scenes, recalling Steve McQueen’s film Hunger, that make portions of the third section difficult to read.
From a narrative perspective, the third section of The Vegetarian isn’t as gripping as the first two sections; the writing however remains top notch. Here is a description by In-Hye, as she curls up in bed alongside her son, semi-dreaming of her sister:
‘The innumerable trees she’s seen over the course of all her life, the undulating forests which blanket the continents like a heartless sea, envelop her exhausted body and lift her up. Only fragments of cities, small towns and roads are visible, floating on the roof of the forests like islands or bridges, slowly being swept away somewhere, borne on those warm waves.’
This, for me, reads like a Modest Mouse song, with all of the concomitant complexity and beauty. There are also interesting cultural differences – as you’d expect no doubt from a work in translation – that jar as you read, in a pleasurable if unsettling way (so, for instance, two different narrators describe the way in which a woman is beautiful according to whether she is single lidded or double lidded – I presume this refers to whether only a single lid appears to move when a person blinks or whether in fact you see both lids move).
All told, the way in which the pace changes in the latter third of the book diminishes the enjoyment of the whole ever so slightly but taken together The Vegetarian still remains a book well worth checking out, and Han Kang is very much an author we would be keen to see more of in the future.
Any Cop?: If you like your fiction in translation to nip at you like tiny fish, then this one is very definitely for you.