The Vegetarian- A Review

“I’m not an animal anymore” Yeong-hye is, in her husband’s opening words, "completely unremarkable in every way." She is a ...

“I’m not an animal anymore”

Yeong-hye is, in her husband’s opening words, "completely unremarkable in every way." She is a reasonably diligent homemaker, a reasonably attentive consort, not deeply unhappy and driven by no great passions. Her husband, Mr Cheong is an imperious dullard fully at peace with his own mediocrity. He chose her due to her unassertiveness and sheer blandness. Things begin to fracture and their staid lives are disrupted the day Yeong-hye throws away all the meat from the freezer and announces that henceforth she is going to be a vegetarian. The sole explanation she provided?  “ I had a dream.” The dream, divulged to us in fleeting, cursory glances, is dark, bloody and aggressive, replete with invasive images of brutality. Violence breaks out in her waking world, too, when her father tries to force a piece of sweet-and-sour pork into her mouth. And in revolt, she stabs herself.

And it goes downhill from here. Other people are dragged in , other relationships fray and the otherwise well-knit family tethers precariously to the brink of disintegration.

There is no end to the horrors that rattle in and out of this ferocious , death-affirming magnificent novel. Han’s mystifying, ecstatic novella-in-three parts zigzags in a certain rough-hewn way between domestic thriller, transformation parable and arborphiliac meditation told from three perspectives – first, her lousy, unenthused husband; second, her brother in law who works at an art studio and who views himself as an outsider and projects his dark lustful fantasies onto her pursuit of his vision; third her sister, In-hye , the manager of a cosmetic store, trying to find her own way of dealing with the fallout from the family’s collapse . This taut novel shows the friction between huge passion and chilling detachment, between desires fed and those denied.

Apart from its imaginative plot and its well-etched unhinged heroine, what excels in this book is the consistent vitality and sensuality of Kang’s writing which shines through; Deborah Smith’s artfully served subtle  English that literally sings has heartbreaking lyricism. Kang’s language pulsates with colour, texture, taste and emotion . Even the sensation of silence pierces through . The tension in this multilayered novel is the way in which art , nature and desire crash through this polite society. Violence erupts without warning. Smith’s translation is in bone spare English, the sentences are cool, calm, still and workmanlike even as the characters undergo convulsions of rage and mental turmoil.

What follows underline the haunting journey of a woman transformed, repealing everything conventional to assign meaning to her inner voice . Experiencing erotic exploitation, discarding worldly echoes and embracing a floristic world, Yeong-hye moves from a home to a studio to a psych hospital with incredible equanimity and singular passion. Kang questions human dichotomies and their constant collision against the intrinsic manacles of society.

This wasn’t an easy read for me, frequently veering on the bizarre and curiously mystical, puncturing a perfect reading demeanour but the litheness of the prose came in to rescue me which kept me oddly hydrated. The failure to comprehend even our closest ones is an underlying theme of this novel. It is the women who are killed for daring to eke out their identity. The narrative makes it clear it is the crushing pressure of Korean etiquettes that splinters and murders them.

Fraught, cerebral, disturbing and enthralling, The Vegetarian is a darkly allegorical Kafka esque tale of power, obsession, cultural limits, art as the private refuge, the value of the human body and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within.

This is a guest post by Debanjan Roy. It is his debut post on Copyright reserved by Master Roy. All publication rights are retained by Dipankan Bandopadhyay. 

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