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The VegetarianReview - The Vegetarian
by Han Kang
Random House Audio, 2016
Review by Christian Perring
Jul 18th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 29)

Han Kang's The Vegetarian was originally published in South Korea in 2007. It was published in English in 2015 and won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. It was published in the USA in 2016. The central character is a woman Yeong-hye who refuses to eat any animal products. Her husband is horrified and her family tries to force her to eat, but she is determined. She becomes increasingly bizarre and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. She has strange ideas about being connected with the earth, and not needing any food at all.

At one level, this is a story of a woman's mental illness. Her initial refusal of meat is caused by a dream she had which had a powerful effect on her. She can't really explain why she takes it so seriously. Her determination seems to come from somewhere else, but she never explains it. She seems not to care about the effects of her action on her marriage and her relationship with her family, and as her life changes, she becomes increasingly preoccupied by her own ideas and indifferent to everything else. So hospitalizing her seems like a reasonable response.

At another level, we can see Yeong-hye's behavior as a reaction to her loveless marriage without opportunity, the rigid family rules she grew up with, and the tyrannical behavior of her father. Her former life gave her nothing and so her change of course then seems at least comprehensible even if it is self-destructive. The Vegetarian is part of the tradition of books including One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Yellow Wallpaper that portrays mental illness as a sane reaction to an oppressive and unfeeling society. The people who get to diagnose people with mental illness are enforcing their own conceptions of how to behave and are failing to inspect the more fundamental problems in their society.

The most dramatic scenes in the book involve violence and sex. Yeong-hye's husband rapes her, her father gets others to hold her arms while he tries to force meat in her mouth, leading her to slit her own wrists, and late on in the story she is force-fed in the hospital. In the middle of the book, a painter uses body paint on her to make her a human flower, and he becomes very aroused. The scene at the end when she is in a state of decline and she does handstands is haunting. She is never easy to understand, and although there are passages where she speaks for herself, her ideas are confusing.

The main narrators are from the point of view of Yeong-hye's husband and the painter. At other times the narrator is more impersonal. There is no separate author's point of view represented, so readers have form their own opinions. It's all bewildering at first, and this is a book that invites reading more than once. The unabridged audiobook is performed mostly by Stephen Park with some contributions by Janet Song. Their reading is calm even during the most disturbing scenes.

So The Vegetarian isn't an easy book to interpret, and presumably those of us who are largely unfamiliar with South Korean culture will be at a disadvantage in picking up clues. Nevertheless, the main themes of the problems with society and the yearning to be more part of nature are clear.

 

© 2017 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring has often taught a course in the Culture of Madness.


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