In Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” the story of a man who enthralls audiences with his ability to go without eating for forty days at a time, food is a foe. If it weren’t for the demands of the crowd and a domineering impresario, the hunger artist would go on fasting forever. The sight of the “invalid repast” he is forced to eat every forty days, to the blaring accompaniment of a big band, only fills him with nausea. Indeed, when his popularity abruptly peters out, and he becomes a neglected circus sideshow left to do as he pleases (soon to be replaced by a panther whose body is “furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed”), the hunger artist continues fasting and withering away until he is barely discernable from the stalks of dirty straw that line his cage. Just before he slips into death’s embrace, he confesses to the circus overseer that the reason he was so intent on starving himself is quite simple: “I couldn’t find the food I liked.”
It’s a sentiment that the similarly enigmatic Yeong-Hye might have expressed as the main character in The Vegetarian by Han Kang, whose novel has been translated from Korean into English by Deborah Smith. The Vegetarian is concerned with the seismic repercussions that follow a seemingly innocuous event: Yeong-Hye’s sudden, mysterious decision to stop eating meat. (Her only explanation: “I had a dream.”) However, if vegetarianism in the West has become as ubiquitous as the Happy Meal, it is a rarity in a country where Spam comes in gaudy gift boxes, nose-to-tail is not a culinary trend but an age-old tradition, and few people outside Buddhist monasteries are concerned with the ethical dilemmas of eating animals. Yeong-Hye, then, is a rebel, if a fairly passive one, and like all outsiders, her alienation serves as a commentary on the community from which she stands apart. But while The Vegetarian certainly relishes its attacks on contemporary Korean society, it is also much more than that, an examination of what happens to a woman who, like the hunger artist, tries to transcend her appetites—which is to say, the bounds of what it means to be human.
The Vegetarian was originally published as three novellas, giving the final novel a tripartite structure. The first part is narrated by Yeong-Hye’s husband, Mr. Cheong, a conventional salaryman who responds to his wife’s strange behavior—which, in addition to vegetarianism, includes a ghostly insomnia, severe emotional detachment, and a general abandonment of her wifely duties—with bewildered outrage. In the second part, we follow Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law, a video artist who grows obsessed with Yeong-Hye and convinces her to model nude for one of his pieces, her entire body painted with flowers. Yeong-Hye’s sister, In-Hye, takes the reins in the final act, serving as an empathetic witness to Yeong-Hye’s denouement in an insane asylum, where she comes to believe that she is not a human at all, but a plant.
Mr. Cheong is an apt introduction to this world. As one who has “always inclined toward the middle course in life,” he is the book’s most “normal” character—and thereby its most appalling. He is unabashedly mediocre. He unthinkingly abides by Korean convention, which luckily for him is designed to fit the myriad needs of husbands and fathers. He is emphatically uncurious about any inner life his wife might possess: her books seem “so dull I couldn’t even bring myself to so much as take a look inside the covers.” He marries Yeong-Hye because she seems so unremarkable and so unthreatening to his own self-esteem and status. When he first met her, he “couldn’t help but notice her shoes—the plainest black shoes imaginable.” He is far more attracted to In-Hye, with her coveted double-lidded eyes, a beauty standard borrowed from the West. This preference is very much prevalent in South Korea today; millions of Korean women have had creases surgically carved in their eyelids and one in five women have had their faces sliced and shaved to erase any traces of individual distinction.
In other words, Mr. Cheong represents the kind of shallow, complacent existence that Yeong-Hye ultimately stands against, no more so than in his wholehearted acquiescence to the Korean obsession with food, which in Han’s hands borders on fetishization. The only instances in which a note of affection creeps into Mr. Cheong’s voice is when he discusses his wife’s former aptitude for cooking:
Tongs in one hand and a large pair of scissors in the other, she’d flipped rib meat in a sizzling pan whilst snipping it into bite-size pieces, her movements deft and practised. Her fragrant, caramelised deep-fried belly pork was achieved by marinating the meat in minced ginger and glutinous starch syrup. Her signature dish had been wafer-thin slices of beef seasoned with black pepper and sesame oil, then coated with sticky rice powder as generously as you would with rice cakes or pancakes, and dipped in bubbling shabu-shabu broth. She’d made bibimbap with bean sprouts, minced beef, and pre-soaked rice stir-fried in sesame oil. There had also been a thick chicken and duck soup with large chunks of potato, and a spicy broth packed full of tender clams and mussels, of which I could happily polish off three helpings in a single sitting.
This aria to home-cooking, swelling with desire, suggests that more than salivary glands are at work here. Indeed, sex is the other great conundrum in this book, with lust and hunger sometimes becoming indistinguishable, as if Han is suggesting they both spring from some deeper, more primal urge. Yeong-Hye loses her appetite for sex as well, and Mr. Cheong forces her to sleep with him, “as though she were a ‘comfort woman’ dragged in against her will, and I was the Japanese soldier demanding her services.”
But vegetarianism remains the public face of her dissent, which bursts into the open at a particularly grueling ritual of East Asian life: dinner with the boss, in which employees are expected to express their respect for their superiors through a deference that bleeds quite heavily into debasement. Yeong-Hye rejects one meat dish after another with a placid obstinacy that would make Bartleby proud, rankling the boss’s prickly wife. Mr. Cheong makes up a medical excuse, to which the boss’s wife responds:
“Imagine you were snatching up a wriggling baby octopus with your chopsticks and chomping it to death—and the woman across from you glared like you were some kind of animal. That must be how it feels to sit down and eat with a vegetarian!”
This is Han's sly way of not only asking the reader to consider the octopus, but of underscoring the surprisingly fearsome power that the vegetarian, in any society, possesses—the power to condemn, by mere refusal, an entire way of life. Who has not felt that tacit judgment at a dinner party? Or felt themselves to be the (often unintended) source of it? This struggle comes to a head in a comically absurd episode in which Yeong-Hye's father, an archetypal Korean patriarch, tries to stuff a morsel of pork down her throat. She defies him, and he deals her a heavy blow to the face. Backed into a corner, with her entire family against her, she tries to make the ultimate escape, slashing her wrist with—what else?—a fruit knife.
It is a testament to Han’s skill that her taste for the antic and the extreme, tempered by her cool, even prose, never derails the story into the realm of the incredible. Every scene not only adheres to the book’s internal logic, but also flows from very real emotional predicaments. This dynamic is especially evident in the second part, the book’s strongest, a galvanic combination of wild, weird fun and existential anguish. As Yeong-Hye recovers from her suicide attempt, she becomes an object of fascination for In-Hye’s husband. His interest is piqued when he learns that Yeong-Hye still has a Mongolian mark, a kind of birthmark that usually fades by adulthood, on her rear end. This vestige of innocence, this “blue petal-like mark,” prompts a recurrent sexual fantasy in which the lovers’ bodies are painted with brilliant flowers. He is compelled to actualize this fantasy and film it, with Yeong-Hye in the lead role—and to his surprise, she agrees, readily so, resulting in some of the book’s most arresting imagery:
First he swept up the hair that was falling over her shoulders, and then, starting from the nape of her neck, he began to paint. Half-opened buds, red and orange, bloomed splendidly on her shoulders and back, and slender stems twined down her side. When he reached the hump of her right buttock he painted an orange flower in full bloom, with a thick, vivid yellow pistil protruding from its centre. He left the left buttock, the one with the Mongolian mark, undecorated. Instead, he just used a large brush to cover the area around the bluish mark with a wash of light green, fainter than the mark itself, so that the latter stood out like the pale shadow of a flower.
The subsequent film, replete with a male model similarly decorated, must be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated—suffice it to say that the steamiest scene I’ve read in years is the metaphorical equivalent of some pretty intense foreplay between a couple of plants. But this need to disguise the animal with the vegetal is rooted in a more melancholy impulse: the need to connect with another human, to assuage loneliness, without the body and its attendant impurities. This experiment ultimately fails, and Yeong-Hye is left groping for a greater transcendence:
She thrust her glittering golden breasts over the veranda railing. Her legs were covered with scattered orange petals, and she spread them wide as though she wanted to make love to the sunlight, to the wind.
This is the point at which Yeong-Hye’s vegetarianism reaches full flower, so to speak. In the insane asylum, she stops eating altogether, telling In-Hye that for sustenance she only needs to water her body, like a fern. She begins doing handstands, explaining, “Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head . . . leaves were growing from my body, and roots were spreading from my hands . . . so I dug down into the earth. On and on . . . I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide . . .” Her body wastes away, until she looks like a “freakishly overgrown child,” and hospital officials resort to force-feeding her gruel through her nose. The book’s former playfulness is stripped away as Yeong-Hye is finally liberated from her hateful body; the tone is as gray and unremittingly somber as the rain that falls on the forest surrounding the hospital.
Self-imposed starvation has long been a means of protest, both in literature (Melville's Bartleby, Coetzee's Michael K) and life (the hunger strikes of Gandhi or the detainees at Guantanamo Bay). Plant envy, too, has a rich history in Western literature. Just think of Proust’s hawthorns, of which Marcel wants “to mime deep inside myself the motion of their flowering.” Flowers are capable of expressing themselves, of pouring forth their inner nature, with a grace and ease denied to humans; their very scent, which flows outward in a constant stream, is like “the murmuring of an intense life.” Cursed with self-awareness, humans cannot simply be, the way a plant can; they can only seem to be.
The awareness that haunts Yeong-Hye is of a slightly different sort, of the animal inside, which she tries to extinguish as she strives to emulate the glorious purity of plant life. In this respect, The Vegetarian is not really concerned with the question of whether eating meat is wrong. Rather, Han sees vegetarianism as the manifestation of a profound unease with the self. The reader discovers, through stream-of-consciousness monologues that intersperse Mr. Cheong’s narrative and shed light on the dream that sparked her rebellion, that eating animals is a source of guilt and disgust for Yeong-Hye. In the dream, she stumbles into a barn that resembles an abattoir, where she becomes soaked in blood:
My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.
Later, she describes a mysterious lump that has become lodged in her chest:
Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.
This is not a guilt that can be swept away by eliminating meat from one's diet, as if we could cleanse our souls the way we do a clogged artery. The only way Yeong-Hye can atone for the sins of the body—which as almost every religion tells us is the source of so many of our woes—is to turn it into a non-body. She cannot go to confession; she cannot become a Buddhist monk. This is because the guilt that Han writes of is not Christian guilt but Kafka's guilt, for which there is neither explanation nor hope of redemption.
She is guilty of eating meat, yes; but this is just another way of saying she is guilty of being human. The primal urge she find so repellant, the one that flows into both lust and hunger, is the urge to go on living. And it is the very fact of her existence that Yeong-Hye so desperately wants to amend.
But though her struggles are the book’s focus, Yeong-Hye remains a distant figure, a hazy boundary post marking what lies beyond the pale. In-Hye can only observe from afar her sister’s “magnificent irresponsibility,” which enables her to “shuck off social constraints and leave [In-Hye] behind, still a prisoner.” This, of course, mirrors the reader’s own position, with the newfound knowledge of wider possibilities simultaneously giving shape to the paltry limits that constrain lives less boldly lived. This double awareness is reinforced by Han’s decision to tell Yeong-Hye’s story through a series of secondary characters who, comparatively speaking, fall well within the bounds of the ordinary.
In using this narrative device, Han is not merely trying to open the minds of her compatriots. As Deborah Smith, Han’s translator, has written, this oblique form of storytelling lends Yeong-Hye a “radical passivity which challenges Eurocentric notions of what a ‘protagonist’ ought to be,” notions that led to the historical criticism that much of Korean literature is “‘lacking agency.’” Yeong-Hye shows that total renunciation, the abnegation of the self, can be the most powerful agency we have. Han’s rebel, in other words, is also a literary one, questioning artistic convention in a peculiarly Korean way—and giving the rest of us a new sense of what it means to be hungry.
Ryu Spaeth is a deputy editor at TheWeek.com, where he has written about books, movies, politics, and more.