“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang

The Vegetarian

(Author: Han Kang) + (Year: 2016) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: South Korea)


Review:

East Asian literature has a very, very specific atmosphere. If one who knows me personally was aware that my own favourite writer is from that part of the world (Murakami, Japan), they would probably wonder why it is that having comparatively little knowledge about those Far Eastern countries, I love the literature from there so much. And this is probably one of the reasons, the atmosphere. Realistic, yet eerie, at moments eerily realistic or realistically eerie.

Either way, The Vegetarian presents a world close to that of Murakami, where everything is normal at first glance, and then you realize that it is completely wrong and something otherworldly is lurking just around the corner, though not close enough to be tangible.

This book is told from three different perspectives: the husband of Yeong-hye(the vegetarian), her brother-in-law and her sister. Yeong-hye does not have her say in the story directly, but the narratives of the other characters are infused with her personality and her influence on the people around her.

The story begins with how ordinary she is. Her husband marries her exactly because she is ordinary. He does not care for her changing or becoming striking or different in any way. But she does. She has a nightmare that changes her deeply and makes her decide to become a vegetarian. As a sickness, the nightmare sinks its claws deeper and deeper in her personality until it becomes a disease. At least to everyone, but Yeong-hye herself.

Mental illness

Obviously one of the leitmotifs of the book, however the one point only shown through the eyes of others completely. Therefore we are unable to fully grasp what is happening with Yeong-hye. This is probably also my biggest issue with the book. While I did not expect that the point of the book will be spelled out, I did hope that there will be a somewhat coherent sign as to what is actually happening to her. That she is sick, is obvious. But we never get the exact meaning of her condition. And while some might interpret it directly, as the stigma of being a vegetarian in some societies, I think that the entire idea of vegetarianism in this book is a metaphor for something else entirely, which stayed just beyond my grasp and I, therefore, see flaws in the execution.

Sex in Eastern literature

While this is not a major topic in the majority of the books and only in one part of it, I could not help but notice yet again a pattern that exist in the literature of that corner of the world. Sex is not a taboo as much as it is in the Middle East, but it is a dirty, filthy reality of life. It is always described as a sick, gross secret, almost always wrong, violent and messed up. This is one of the things which I do not know or understand about that culture and if anyone has any insight, I would love hearing it. But facts are that from everything I have read, sex is never light, easy and/or pleasant and nice. The people either dislike it violently or want it and are therefore wrong and wretched.

Character-wise I was not happy with the depth of the people. There was a visible controversy between how they see/describe themselves and how other people describe them. Each of the characters that was a narrator was later shown as the polar opposite of what they were. But as interesting as this was to follow, it also cracked my perspective of them as people and made it really hard to believe either source and they were also discrediting one another as reliable narrators. More so, little was explained about the reasons they where how they were, which obstructed me from forming a full picture of this strange family.

But it would be unfair to say that The Vegetarian did not add nicely to my literature world trip. I think it was a good perspective on South Korea and I definitely appreciated it.

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