The first thing that struck me about this book was the beautiful cover image, of oriental lilies, so perfect they almost looked computer-generated. Then I noticed something, and each time I looked back at it, it surprised me again by offering something new. The image is by Tom Darracott, who also designed the first cover for Hawthorn & Child. So you might expect something unusual and sinister, and you’d be right. The British Council literature site describes The Vegetarian, accurately, as a “frightening beauty” and, less clearly, as a book which “combines human violence and the possibility of innocence as the thematic material with a vegetablesque imagination.”
The Vegetarian (2007, tr. 2015 by Deborah Smith) declares itself on the cover to be ‘A Novel’, which is a practice more often seen in US editions. It’s worth noting because, like Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, The Vegetarian was originally published as three separate stories, and then compiled into a novel. A novel it surely is, but the forewarned reader can spot the origins: each part of the book includes some recapping (“previously on The Vegetarian…”) and could stand handsomely alone. Together they are extra-intense: triply singular, strangeness cubed.
Each part is also reported from a different viewpoint, but never – or almost never – that of the central character, Yeong-hye. She is a young woman whose husband Cheong, narrating the first section, thinks her “completely unremarkable in every way.” He married her because “[no] particular drawbacks present[ed] themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to.” He takes little notice of her, and their work means they don’t spend much time together. He really only pays attention to her when he gets up one morning to find her throwing out all the meat in the fridge and announcing that she will never allow it in the house again. Cheong is appalled, as are her family (“What do you think you’re playing at, hey? Acting like this at your age”). What is clear is that no one sees Yeong-hye as her own person, and her Bartleby-esque withdrawal from their society seems more and more reasonable, as she refuses, disengages, and passively resists. She takes charge of her own body as the only thing, in such a restrictive environment, which is within her control.
Yeong-hye does explain her refusal, as justified by a recurring dream which prevents her from sleeping (“I never enquired as to the nature of this dream,” says Cheong), and we get italicised sections from within her head. “Dreams of murder. … Intolerable loathing, so long suppressed.” Without eating meat, and without replacing it, she grows thinner: “Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening – what am I going to gouge?” In a sense, these insights disappointed me: I would rather not know what Yeong-hye is thinking, leave the options open (though her thoughts are allusive rather than instructive). Similarly, making Cheong (“It was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done”) and Yeong-hye’s family (“Don’t you understand what your father’s telling you? If he tells you to eat, eat!”) such unreconstructed horrors sets up an obvious one-sided empathy in the reader. But this first part is strong meat nonetheless, particularly as it moves to a dark conclusion, with disturbing violence and sexuality on the way.
In fact, what’s most surprising is that the book can carry on so successfully after this potent ending. In part two, Yeong-hye’s sister’s husband, an artist, takes charge. He has always been sexually attracted to Yeong-hye, and following the events of part one, he takes his opportunity to get closer to her. In particular he is fascinated by a birthmark – the ‘Mongolian mark’ – above her buttocks, which normally fades after childhood. He visits her and they talk: her voice is “the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between two states of being”. In addition, her body has grown less thin as she has begun to eat more (“her breasts had now rounded out into softness”). Given that in part three, Yeong-hye will become even more dangerously thin, this temporary reversal – or semi-recovery – is odd, and looks more like the author’s convenience than the story’s necessity. However, realism is hardly the point of a book like this, and we get more strangeness as her brother-in-law paints plants on Yeong-hye’s body and films himself doing so. This is just the beginning of an exchange which is “more vegetal than sexual,” as her body is “an object of desire from which all desire had been eliminated.” This – disengagement, passivity, refusal – is what binds the parts together, and unifies the novel.
In part 3, time has moved on again, and Yeong-hye is in hospital, her only visitor being our new narrator, her sister In-hye. Yeong-hye’s condition has deteriorated, and she is coughing blood as her body consumes itself. She is “retreating from herself, becoming as distant to herself as she was to her sister.” Again I was reminded of the literature of disappearance and refusal: of John Burnside’s A Summer of Drowning (“To refuse oneself is exemplary. To become nothing, to remove yourself from the frame – that is the highest form of art”); of Larkin’s ‘Poetry of Departures’ (“this audacious, purifying, elemental move”); of Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’ (“I always wanted you to admire my fasting”); of Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co and Montano’s Malady; of Bartleby the scrivener himself. In saying that I hope not to reduce The Vegetarian to a list of derivations but to emphasise its force: it hangs in the mind like these others, it puts down roots. In any event, a reader’s interpretation is not the author’s: Han herself describes Yeong-hye’s aim as “to vomit out the darkness and violence of flesh/humanity and become a perfectly pure being.” In this final part of the book, In-hye is forced to choose between keeping Yeong-hye in the hospital, where she is miserably unhappy, and allowing her to leave, where she will doubtless allow herself to starve to death. The idea of dreams returns, from In-hye this time, who, failing to understand, urges Yeong-hye to forget her troubling dreams. “Surely the dream isn’t all there is? We have to wake up at some point, don’t we? Because … because then …” But there is nothing more to come.