The Vegetarian – Han Kang

the vegetarian - han kang
First published in 2007, in English in 2015, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith. Winner of Man Booker International Prize 2016.

I found this book at my library and couldn’t believe that it was free to borrow and nobody had reserved it. At the time Man Booker International Prize 2016 was still ongoing, and The Vegetarian was one of the shortlist. I knew that unlike what I do usually with other books (renew them again and again), I had to read it within the allotted time period. Sure enough it won the prize, and I couldn’t renew it as it was reserved by someone, so I decided to read it quickly. By my standard, quickly means a few days, but it was 181 pages of big font, so even for me it was a short read.

The book started the way I liked it. Our main character Yeong-hye is an average Korean wife, when out of the blue she had a dream that turned her into vegetarian overnight. Her family, most of all her father, reacted violently.

I really liked the beginning. It is a subject that I wonder why someone hadn’t written about earlier. Vegetarianism by choice is something that only got really popular in the recent decade or two. In Western world, surely many years after the war. I can’t speak about Korea, but in many parts of Asia, not eating meat is often associated with religious reasons. Refusing to eat meat just because, is still an odd thing.

As I grew up in a country where meat is a luxury and fish a daily staple, I always equate vegetarianism with fussiness. Honestly you can only be so selective when there is food in such abundance. Tons of people in many parts of the world would be happy to just be able to eat. I can understand not liking meat, or not wanting to eat too much meat for ethical and environmental reasons, but I don’t understand the need to declare “I’m a vegetarian” and openly refuse and reject meat, no matter what the circumstances, for example when people have cooked for you. This is probably one point that readers from certain culture would be hard pressed to understand, as in most Asian culture, it is quite rude to refuse food offered to you. It’s like saying “Your food isn’t good enough so I won’t have it”.

Another point is wastage. I’ve seen vegan friend putting egg aside on his plate in a restaurant, not because he doesn’t like egg or allergic to it, but because he was a vegan. It’s outrageous. The egg was already broken and cooked, and you threw it away just to make a point? To who? To the waiter? To me?

Yeong-hye’s family reactions, her father’s in particular were slightly exaggerated, but I don’t think it’s too far fetched. I could only imagine if I go back to my big family reunion, and openly tell everyone I don’t eat meat anymore, by choice. All hell would break loose, and I’d have to explain myself to no end. Even if I were a vegetarian, I’d just quietly eat a little, and save all the drama. I just don’t get the need to make a declaration, to insist on your point in expense of people’s feelings, and the waste of food. I don’t think I ever will.

So The Vegetarian started nicely. However it becomes very strange as it goes. The book is divided into 3 sections, all revolving Yeong-hye. The first section is the perspective of her husband, the second is her sister’s husband, and the third is the sister. There are plenty dream scenes, flower images, and trees. Seems Yeong-hye wants to become a plant. It is strange, but somehow the strangeness felt familiar in a way. This is the first time I read a book by Korean author, but it reminded me of Chinese and Japanese literature – somewhere halfway in between.

At the end I’m not too sure what to make of the book. My rating is for its readability and being different. The “world literature” aspect of it is also a plus. But I can’t say I totally understand the book.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Han Kang
Han Kang


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