The only memories I have of Korea are indistinct. I went only once, and was mostly in hotels. I spent three days almost entirely on a diet of beef, not because I hate cows, but because that was all they seemed to eat there. Or maybe my companions were extremely fond of beef. Either way, it seems fitting that the first Korean book I’ve ever read would be titled The Vegetarian. There is nothing particularly Korean about this book, one could say. No pungent ethnicities or cute ways of speaking are on display. It’s just a brilliant book, and the deserving winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Han Kang is an author with extreme skills. She tells her story well. She keeps her focus laser-sharp on the hearts of her humans. She evokes atmosphere, time and place quite effortlessly. Like all the best books, this one is hard to classify. But I read it as a horror story. The kind of horror that nestles up to you on the sofa, all warm and cuddly and fuzzy, and then sneaks its fangs in when you least expect it.
Han is an author of some repute in Korea. She is 45 and she also sings. A CD of her singing her own compositions has been released in Korea. Very few of her works have been translated into English so far, but this should change now. The Vegetarian and Human Acts are the two works most commonly available. Compliments are due to translator Deborah Smith for capturing her spirit, which is elusive and tricksy. Han can pull off little atmospheric shifts that remind you of Ruth Rendell, or Philip K. Dick, and she is skilful in evoking beauty.
The Vegetarian is written in three sections, originally published apart. The third part, Mongolian Mark, won the 2005 Yi-Sang Literary Award in Korea. Each of these sections works as a separate piece. Each describes the arc of a descent into hell. They are stories of inter-connected obsessions, which feed and drive each other. Put together, they work well as a novel.
It starts out quiet, with a lonely housewife and her salaryman husband. One morning, out of the blue, Yeong-hye decides to turn vegetarian. The reasons appear to be psychological. Her behaviour grows increasingly erratic. Soon, she is frantically cleaning out fridges, and shying away from the smell of meat. We see all this through the eyes of the husband, Mr Cheong, who is an unsympathetic jackass. Before long, the family gets involved, and her father’s attempt to solve the problem through the use of simple, direct methods does not go as planned. As a portrait of spiralling insanity, this first section, The Vegetarian, is a finely crafted piece in its own right.
Things do not improve in Mongolian Mark, the second part, which focuses on another terrible husband, in this case, Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law. He is a middle-aged video artist, whose cutting edge has long been blunted. He is seeking new inspiration, and he finds it in his sister-in-law, resulting in a vividly drawn climax that is the stuff of nightmares. The next time you see a floral arrangement, you will look at it very differently. The third part, Flaming Trees, is told from the point of view of In-hye, Yeong’s older sister, and set mostly in hospitals. It is lyrical, sad and relentless.
This book is very frightening and very beautiful. I’m not sure what its purpose is. It may not even need one. It’s possible to read metaphors and symbolism in it, involving the dangers of urban life, or our increasing isolation from the things that feed our souls, but my sense is that all Han wanted to do was share the lives of these four people, in the hope that we would remember them in their madness and humanity. In this, she has succeeded. I won’t forget them in a hurry. I never truly understood what Yeong-hye was looking for, but I hope that she can find it, and I wish her well.
(Shovon Chowdhury’s new novel, Murder With Bengali Characteristics, is set in a Bengal occupied by China)
The Vegetarian was published in South Korea in 2007, based on Han’s short story The Fruit of My Woman. It was also made into a film.