Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Korea: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

"Before my wife turned vegetarian, I'd always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way" is the opening sentence of this award winning book. It was published in Korea in 2007 but not translated into English until 2015. Early one morning the husband referred to later in the book only as "Mr Cheong" wakes to find his wife in the kitchen throwing out all the meat in the house. Her only explanation is "I had a dream".
But this is extreme vegetarianism, which appears to be a form of anorexia. The book is narrated by three different characters in three different sections (although we never hear directly from Yeong-hye herself.
Bodies, and our relationship to them, appear to be central themes of the book. Yeong-hye appears to wish to obliterate her body by not eating. Eventually she wishes only for water, and it appears that she wants to merge with the forest where the mental hospital to which she is eventually committed is situated. The second section is narrated by her brother-in-law, an artist. He creates a video piece in which he covers Yeong-hye's body and his own with gigantic colourful flowers and makes an erotic video of the two of them - but he too, seems to want to obliterate the actual bodies beneath the layers of flowers. The third section is narrated by Yeong-hye's elder sister, In-hye, a successful businesswoman who takes on the responsibility of Yeong-hye after Mr Cheong divorces her. In-hye is seemingly the normal of the two - or is she? Does she too, harbour dark secrets?

I read the first two sections in one sitting and then went to bed only to find that I couldn't sleep. Not because of nightmarish visions but because my mind was just ticking over so much with the complex layers of the story. It is both compelling and disturbing, a worthy winner of the Man Booker International Prize.

Incidentally it is In-hye's mention of her sisters "Mongolian mark" that first triggers her husband's fascination with his sister-in-law's body, and vision to paint huge fantasy flowers over her. I would like many Westerners have had no clue what this was had it not been for the fact that years ago a friend adopted a half-Greek baby. R had a "Mongolian blue spot" which is apparently common to Asian and Mediterrean races. It is a bruise-like birth mark, which has been responsible in Western societies for some cases of unjust accusations of child abuse against immigrant families. It usually fades after a few years, but Yeong-hye still has hers as an adult.

I have been a bit remiss in not acknowledging the translators of the books I have been reading. The Vegetarian is translated by Deborah Smith and published by Hogarth.

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