The Vegetarian by Han Kang

I generally like books that leave me with a concrete feeling. I either like it or don’t like it. This book however leaves me with no particular feeling to express. It is oddly brilliant, weirdly poetic, fascinating and terrorising all at the same time! The story itself is violent, tragic and colourful; the characters somber, resorted to the_vegetarian_-_han_kangfate and chaos, replete with feeding or fending off their passions. It’s a bold indictment on social institutions (family, friends) and human needs (food, art and a sense of belonging).

A novella in three parts, the first thing that catches one’s eyes are the chapter titles which arouse stark imagery. First chapter is aptly titled “The Vegetarian” which introduces the reader to the crux of the story. The second chapter title deviates the reader’s attention to a more corporeal element of its characters; “Mongolian Mark”. The last chapter “Flaming Trees”, invokes an ethereal domain for the reader to submerge into.

As stated in the title, the first chapter deals with appetite as a handicap, a restraint from which the protagonist Yeong-hye wishes to relieve herself. Meat is an assault to her existence and she decides to withdraw from it. Already stuck in a lacklustre marriage, the first chapter is narrated from the point of view of Yeong-Hye’s husband Mr. Cheong who deems her vegetarianism from a distant lens as something unruly and uninteresting. This change is not conducive to their marriage which is revealed in the next chapter.

The second chapter highlights carnal appetite and desire for higher truth of art and self-identity. The unnamed husband of Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye drives the story forward with his inexplicable desire for his sister-in-law. As an artist he snubs all social and moral convention to sleep with her, allured by a certain Mongolian mark – a birthmark shaped like a flower petal on Yeong-hye’s back. Fixated on Yeong-hye as an object of his love, his actions lead to a broken marriage and abandonment of his only son.

The third chapter deals with loss and chaos theory in a subtle manner. Yeong-hye has been committed to a mental hospital where she is obsessed by metamorphosing into a tree. But her character takes the backseat as her sister In-hye drives the story to its conclusion. As a mother, a sister, a divorcee, she is strained under a myriad of responsibilities. Her world is shown as real, tangible and honest – a stark contrast to the worlds of her sister and ex-husband. She resorts to fate, her sister’s madness and her ultimate role in lieu of the bigger picture.

Despite the variations in tone, mood, narrative style and essence of each chapter, they’re inextricably linked to one another which is at times very overpowering. This erratic nature of the story binds it to the undercurrent of its themes: patriarchy, family, art, society and the interplay of fate and free-will that brings about radical, unseemly changes in characters.

Violence is native and inextricably tied to the themes of the story. There is a certain amount of inherent sadism and intensity in the dealings of individual and family, the physical and mental state, and in the pursuit of art and loss of desire. Yeong-hye pursues her vegetarianism with a mighty vigour which even her husband is unable to answer for. Her father resorts to aggression to “undo” what his daughter has become. The nameless husband employs art to secure his abstract desire into something more substantial. The doctors at the mental hospital make use of extreme force to restrain Yeong-hye and later In-hye. The mental illness which plagues the protagonist amplifies itself by razing all that comes in its way. Society mocks, family breaks away, sanity abandons.

Overall a harrowing read, recommended only to those who care to venture on a terrible, fascinating, fearless journey.

  • Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.
  • As for women who were pretty, intelligent, strikingly sensual, the daughters of rich families—they would only have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence
  • But for some reason I found myself unable to touch her. I didn’t even want to reach out to her with words.
  • How on earth could she be so self-centered? I stared at her lowered eyes, her expression of cool self-possession. The very idea that there should be this other side to her, one where she selfishly did as she pleased, was astonishing. Who would have thought she could be so unreasonable?
  • That stare appalled everyone present. Did she not even recognize the situation for what it was? Was it possible that she hadn’t grasped the status of the elegant middle-aged woman facing her? What shadowy recesses lurked in her mind, what secrets I’d never suspected? In that moment, she was utterly unknowable.
  • I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe
  • I thought to myself: I do not know that woman. And it was true. It was not a lie. Nevertheless, and compelled by responsibilities that refused to be shirked, my legs carried me toward her, a movement that I could not for the life of me control.
  • I wish I were dead. I wish I were dead. So die. Unable to understand why the tears were streaming down his face, he clutched the steering wheel and set the wipers to frequent, only to realize that it wasn’t the windshield that was blurred but his own vision. He couldn’t understand why the words “I wish I were dead” were ceaselessly being hammered out inside his head like an incantation. Nor could he understand why the words “so die” would inevitably follow, as though the response were coming from someone inside him, and yet not him
  • Like a cough that tickles the throat, he could feel a long-suppressed yell threatening to burst out from deep inside him
  • She’s a good woman, he thought. The kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive
  • Her husband had decided that her vegetarianism was proof that she would never be “normal” again.
  • It was the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.
  • When he recalled how she’d looked and acted during the time she’d spent living with them, the sexual desire that flooded through him was a product of his mental re-enactment of these past experiences, not something he’d actually felt at the time
  • She did this quite calmly, not in the least flustered or embarrassed, as though getting dressed were merely something demanded by the situation, rather than something she herself felt to be necessary.
  • Rather than provoking lust, it was a body that made one want to rest one’s gaze quietly upon it
  • He turned over onto his front, where different things caught his eye: M’s pictures, the patch of sunlight carved into the shade of the wooden floor, the soot caked onto the unused brick stove.
  • It was a body from which all superfluity had gradually been whittled away
  • It seemed the happiness that had enabled him to feel that quiet peace was now lost to him forever.
  • There was something desolate in the contrast between her still, silent face and her radiant body.
  • Marked with nothing but the breathing of the three people, an amount of time passed that would be impossible to measure
  • Her body was sufficiently animated, flushed with desire, to make up for J’s passivity
  • Her lower lip, red and swollen from worrying it with her teeth, trembled imperceptibly
  • He felt as though he were about to cry, but he couldn’t tell whether it was because of happy memories, or friendship, or fear of the boundary he was intending soon to cross.
  • He shuddered at the appalling nature of their union, a union of images that were somehow repellent and yet compellingly beautiful
  • He held her at the waist and stroked the mark, wishing that he could share it with her, that it could be seared onto his skin like a brand. I want to swallow you, have you melt into me and flow through my veins
  • With her words sounding in his ears like a lullaby, one he could make neither head nor tail of, he plunged over the edge of consciousness and into a seemingly bottomless sleep
  • Suddenly it felt to him that he had grown old, had experienced everything there was to experience, and that not even death held any fear for him anymore.
  • Apparently this nurse had stumbled upon Yeong-hye in an isolated spot deep in the woods covering the mountain slope, standing there stock-still and soaked with rain as if she herself were one of the glistening trees
  • Only after she had hung up did it occur to her that the rain she had seen all day must have been pouring down on the mountain where Yeong-hye had been found too. An indiscriminate connection, their existences briefly aligned.
  • In certain respects they were both baffling to her in exactly the same way. They were both descending further into silence
  • His silence had the heavy mass of rock and the tenacious resistance of rubber, particularly when his art wasn’t going well.
  • While she waits for the doctor to come down from the consultation room, she turns to look at the zelkova tree that stands in the hospital’s front garden. The tree is clearly very old, easily four hundred years. On bright days it would spread its countless branches and let the sunlight scintillate its leaves, seemingly communicating something to her. Today, a day sodden and stupefied with rain, it is reticent, and keeps its thoughts unspoken. The old bark on its lower part is dark as a drenched evening, and the leaves tremble silently on the twigs as the raindrops batter down on them. And she sees her sister’s face, flickering like a ghostly afterimage overlaid on the silent scene
  • Time was a wave, almost cruel in its relentlessness as it whisked her life downstream, a life she had to constantly strain to keep from breaking apart.
  • In fact, after all these visits to the hospital, sometimes it’s the tranquil streets filled with so-called “normal” people that end up seeming strange.
  • She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner
  • The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure
  • it was as though she were seeing these things for the first time, walking around the house as though she’d never been there before. A strange pain gripped her chest. It was an oppressive, constricting feeling, as if the walls of the house were slowly closing in
  • She took one more look around at the various objects inside the house. They did not belong to her. Just like her life had never belonged to her.
  • The more she laughs, the more he ups the ante with his clowning. By the time he finishes he will have run through all the secret mysteries of laughter that human beings have ever understood, mobilizing everything at his disposal. There is no way for him to know how guilty it makes his mother feel, seeing such a young child go to such lengths just to wring a bit of apparent happiness from her, or that her laughter will all eventually run out.
  • The woman stamps her foot loudly, impatient at having to wait, the feelings contorting her face seeming more like misery and anxiety than violent inclinations.
  • What was it that had made him want to film such a thing? Had he staked everything of himself on those strange, desolate images—staked everything, and lost everything?
  • The trees by the side of the road are blazing, green fire undulating like the rippling flanks of a massive animal, wild and savage.

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