The Vegetarian by Han Kang has not only won the International Man Booker Prize of 2016 but received much praise from all over the world. I only read this book because of its first sentence not usually going for contemporary literature but it was too clever:
I say broadly contemporary literature because even a New York Times Book review by Porochista Khakpour says that ‘Han’s novella-in-three-parts zigzags between domestic thriller, transformation parable and arborphiliac meditation…’ So it’s hard to pinpoint.
The story is so simple you might think it’s not worth writing about. An ordinary middle-class Korean woman stops eating meat after having had disturbing, violent, and bloody dreams. And her Korean surrounding and family have a rather hard time adjusting to her choice. Soon, equal to the resistance she encounters, her change in diet transforms into an obsession to go against all food, wishing and needing her body and soul morph into something non-human. Maybe a tree. And while the woman dissolves into her isolated and horrifying but serene inner world, hardly speaking and not eating anymore, the family condemns her. Brutally. They force-feed, rape, hit or sexually idolize, patronize, abandon and dominate her, while she suffers them all in silence. Or does she?
Since we never get close to the main character in this short book (under 200 pages), we actually do not know what she perceives and thinks except for the strange snippets of her dreams/diary excerpts. The woman’s estrangement is emphasized by being observed and met through first the eyes of her husband, second her brother in law and then last, her sister. All of them in one or another way participating and being affected by the woman’s decision to not eat meat at first and later not eating at all anymore.
The Vegetarian are the disturbing, surreal and private horror chronicles of someone mundane we don’t really know but slowly disintegrates into a ‘thing’ that no one can understand. However, the real terror for me was how all of them do not accept her for her and try to make her wrong, attempting, cost what it may, to change her back instead of asking themselves Why not let her? Han Kang seems to intend showing the terrible pressure of society, etiquette and personal imprisonment through a simple change in diet. It could have been something else to show the same issues, I guess.
I found it hard to like the book or any character really, all of them being too narrow-minded, not investigating heir own idiocy but trying to change the external. Not very advanced beings and too little change. There is no hero. And the main character is too estranged in her attempt to free herself of the human condition, the human prison of the mind and body, to identify with her properly. But still, I read it to the end wanting to know how it all dissolves. Of course.
It turns out it has an open ending (with assuming that The Vegetarian will die very soon due to starvation), however, nothing much of the dissonance dissolves except that the sister’s resistance at the end slowly caves. She stops the clinic, she had admitted her vegetarian sister into, from force-feeding herThe Vegetarian, and admits she too has glimpses of a different reality sometimes. Well, thats as much change as we get from that stubborn and rather unconscious family.
I could compare it to Kafka’s disturbing ‘The Metamorphosis’ with The Vegetarian moving through a more modern and obscure, dominating society where the narrative is maybe observed and witnessed by a more advanced psychology than in 1915.
Anyway, my fantasy genre loving nature and the idea that someone could turn into a tree was not satisfied. Hehe. Wrong genre. There is no real story and no happy ending.
Except, and Han Kang writes clever this way, we do not know that for sure either as we never really slip underneath the skin of the main character to see what solution or conclusion she comes to at the end. The Vegetarian is always eluding us, just the same as her family.