Crazy in Korea

The Vegetarian

by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
Hogarth, 188 pp., $21.00
Han Kang, Gwacheon, South Korea, January 2016
Jean Chung/The New York Times/Redux
Han Kang, Gwacheon, South Korea, January 2016

This year the prestigious English Man Booker International Prize was given to the Korean writer Han Kang for The Vegetarian, a short, absorbing novel that readers and reviewers have declared to be about—besides meat-eating—marriage, obedience, care- giving, adultery, art, human violence, post-human fantasy, taboos, the resolution of the desperate, “the crushing pressure of Korean etiquette,” and much more. One of the glories of novels is that their complexity allows for different interpretations, and perhaps this partly explains The Vegetarian’s appeal for judges specialized in literature and translation from various language traditions and with, no doubt, different preoccupations.

There are metaphorical constructs so flexible and capacious as to allow for all of these meanings; generally, the more terse and minimalist a narrative, the more adaptable its metaphorical repertory to a wide range. The story of The Vegetarian, stripped of its allegorical resonance, is simple enough: three related sections, originally published separately, connect members of the Kim family. The narrator of section 1, Mr. Cheong, an ordinary salary man, is the husband of Yeong-hye Kim, who announces to him that she has become a vegetarian, a decision that is met by an unusual amount of rage from him and other family members, and sets off a series of strange events involving the wife’s sister In-hye, her husband, and their parents.

At first, Mr. Cheong accommodates his wife’s new diet, but their marriage is affected. She thinks he stinks of meat; he comes to desire In-hye, because Yeong-hye has gotten rather skinny with her vegetarian regime and, much worse, is mutely defiant about it. She provokes a big family row that ends with her father slapping her when she refuses to eat meat, which in turn prompts her to slash her wrist.

Alternating with the husband’s narrative are italicized interior monologues by Yeong-hye herself, generated, it seems, by her horror of blood, meat, the murder of animals, a certain dream she had. “Dreams of my hands around someone’s throat, throttling them, grabbing the swinging ends of their long hair and hacking it all off, sticking my finger into their slippery eyeball.” In one of these sections, Yeong-hye remembers a harrowing episode from childhood when they tied their dog behind their car, ran him to death, and then ate him. One repellent memory, bizarre response, and unexplained emotion after another leads us to the mystified conclusion that this novel is not about vegetarianism or, really, about these mute, shadowy puppet characters. But what is it about?

Section 2 is told from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, husband of her sister In-hye. He is an artist and filmmaker, with whom Yeong-hye will have an erotic idyll: like Mr. Cheong to In-hye, he too is attracted to his sister-in-law—Yeong-hye—and asks her to model…

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