The only respect in which my wife was at all unusual was that she didn’t like wearing a bra.”
Says Mr Cheong, husband of Yeong-hye who has all of a sudden decided on giving up on meat. She has turned vegetarian.
Well, by using the recurring dream technique, where Yeong-hye’s inner thoughts and desires are narrated, author Han Kang tells us that Hye is terrified of a particular incident where she sees a close family member slaughtering animals. This coupled with her predicament of eating too much meat makes her abstain from eating anything fleshy.
“Something is stuck in my solar plexus.” She explains. “I don’t know what it might be. It’s lodged permanently there these days. Even though I’ve stopped wearing a bra, I can feel this lump all the time. No matter how deeply I inhale it doesn’t go away…Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Nobody can help me. Nobody can save me. Nobody can make me breathe.“
From this point of no return our protagonist moves ahead, only to flower into a tree after her physical form perishes. In between what happens to her husband — who finds his dull, usual, boring, unattractive wife losing her mind. Her family who don’t understand her transition and at one point push her into eating meat, making her in desperation and humiliation cut her wrist.
Only her brother in law who is an artist seems to treat her affectionately. But, when he learns from his wife, In-hye, Yeong-hye’s elder sister that she has a Mongolian birthmark, he becomes obsessed with her.
“The Mongolian mark on her buttocks became inexplicably bound up with the image of men and women having sex, their naked bodies completely covered with painted flowers.” He confesses in the second chapter titled the Mongolian Mark, which unfolds through his narration.
His obsession with her and its devastating outcome forms the most interesting part of the story.
In the third and final chapter titled Flaming Trees, In-hye goes looking for her sister, who has run away from the hospital she was admitted to — in an attempt to save her from dying. Despite her repeated attempts to feed her and make her see reason, she fails. In a heart-rending moment, Yeong-hye asks a grieving In-hye:
“Why is it such a bad thing to die?”
In the time In-hye spends with her younger sister, she introspects about their shared past. She questions her family’s violent and aggressive ways manifested not only through their non-vegetarianism but also in the merciless beating of a young, docile and naive Yeong-hye by her ill-tempered father. Their violent ways, she realises has caused irreversible damage to her sensitive sister.
The Vegetarian is a multi-layered story:
- It’s a story of a married woman who believes that she is turning into a tree and the repercussions of her transformation — when she begins flowering into a flaming tree leaving her identity as a human behind.
- It’s a story of two sisters and their husbands.
- An ode to the unbreakable sisterly bond. Of sisterhood.
- A tale of rebellion. In-hye’s stern belief and abstention stems from the reality she finds herself in and serves as an escape and an act of protest from a soul-crunching truth, she can’t accept.
- A reflection on perpetrated violence and its ill-effects.
- To me, above all it is a true-blue feminist tale.
- Unique plot, compelling narration, surreal and disturbing impact.
- It’s a translated work, a short book (novella) and the narration is ethereal, visceral, poetic and mesmerizing. Yes, I have to mention narration, twice. It’s that good.
- The length is just right. Anything more in words would have diluted the impact of the story.
- I gravely miss the dearth of such short and incandescent works.
I can’t wait to lay my hands on your next book.