Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.
When The Vegetarian by Han Kang came out in 2016, I was just starting to listen to book related podcasts, and this was one of the books they talked about with great love. They talked about how it is creepy and strange, and I bought a copy of it almost immediately. It has sat on my shelf since then, mostly because that is how long many books normally sit before I get around to them but partly because of the controversy of the translation. After it won the Man Booker Prize in 2016, there was talk that the book is mistranslated, that Deborah Smith had taken Han Kang’s sparse and quiet writing and turned it into something completely different, something filled with more complex and artistic language. This caused a question of how loyal a translation should be to the original, and in the end, I was not too motivated to read it. Here is a New Yorker article that goes more in depth with the controversy. Then at the end of February I got into a reading slump, so I picked a few short books to read in hopes that it would help me get out of this slump. The Vegetarian did not help.
The novel is split into three equal sections, each with a different narrator, and each with a different perspective of the main focus of the novel. Yeong-hye has a dream and this causes her to change to a vegan diet. This causes her life and the way the people around her started to treat her. This small decision changed her life completely. The first section is from the perspective of her husband, who sees Yeong-hye as someone who is kind of dull, not very interesting or attractive. When she quits cooking and meat for him, the bigger questions that come from him is what it all means to him and his reputation as the head of the house. The second section is narrated by her brother-in-law, who is a video artist and sees her as a beautiful muse. His obsession with her becomes one that starts to get out of hand very quickly. The last second is narrated by her sister, who is starting to see Yeong-hye not as an object but as an extension of herself, and what might happen to her. Throughout the book, Yeong-hye’s life is only explored through the eyes of those around her, and those around her are more interested in the way she affects them than the person herself. We do not lose Yeong-hye through this novel because she is almost barely there. This is kind of a metaphor for Yeong-hye is what she becomes as a person as well.
In the end, I am glad that I read it, but I also did not really engage with the story, the writing and the translation. I had a hard time getting through it because I could not stop wondering what we were missing from the original interpretation. I would like to get a new translation of it that is closer to Han Kang’s writing. The story would become more haunting and hollow, because I feel like this is the entire goal of The Vegetation from the start.