The winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, is not what I had expected. With an innocuous beginning, the story quickly progresses from someone who has decided to become a vegetarian to a disturbed protagonist straddling fantasy and reality. Like my recently reviewed Man Booker Finalist, A Little Life, The Vegetarian questions whether it is better for the protagonist to survive or to die, and answers “…is it such a bad thing to die?”
Reviewers have used Kafka as the model for Han Kang’s storytelling. Kafka was always a mystery to me, yet I remember a philosophy professor expounding on Kafka’s parables. His stories represented a world of anxiety, fear, and paranoia, but mostly strangeness, and always with a haunting ending. The Vegetarian meets all the criteria.
Although the focus of the book is Yeong-hye, the vegetarian, this slim book is narrated in three parts by others: Yeong-hye’s husband, who has an unsatisfactory office job; her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful visual artist; and her older sister, who owns a cosmetic store and works full-time to support her child and artist husband.
Yeong-hye’s mind crumbles slowly; at first, her demand to throw out all meat and refuse to eat meat seems reasonable, but she faces the fierce opposition of her father and her husband. She battles tradition and becomes a victim of abuse. Gradually, she loses weight and suffers from insomnia, eventually abandoning any normalcy in her life.
After her husband leaves, her brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her and lurid yet strange erotic sex scenes follow. Finally, her sister places her in an asylum and the reader is treated with scenes of force-feeding and depression. In the end, everyone deserts Yeong-hye – family, physicians, friends; all but her loyal sister, who at times thinks about abandoning her to find relief from watching her sister’s decline.
In the end, her sister’s wondering just how close she is herself to losing her own mind makes a case for the slim thread of sanity with which every person struggles.
Although The Vegetarian is short – under two hundred pages – it has a heavy and thoughtful impact and is not for everyone. Underlying its themes of abuse, eating disorders, sexual assault, and violence, however, readers may find some relatable truth in the vegetarian’s journey. Porochista Khakpour in a review for the New York Times calls it “a parable of personal choice, submission and subversion.” Kafka would be proud.
Related Review: A Little Life