Being vegan or vegetarian in a culture where meat eating is normative comes with many challenges. Even if they vary depending on how uncommon these ethical choices are in each particular culture, it is safe to affirm that most vegetarians or vegans will face the same trials at one point or another in their lives, ranging from the material difficulty in finding any decent option when eating out, to the hostility displayed by omnivores, even among close friends or family members. This is just the tip of the iceberg that Han Kang uncovers in her haunting novel The Vegetarian, originally published in Korean in 2007 and translated into English almost a decade later. Deborah Smith’s translation merited the award of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize; no small feat if we take into account that Smith had only started learning Korean seven years before, at the age of 21, and that The Vegetarian saw off competition from, among others, A Strangeness in my Mind, Ekin Oklap’s translation of Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s Kafamda Bir Tuhaflık.
Designed as a triptych, The Vegetarian explores the reaction that its protagonist Yeong-hye’s sudden decision to turn vegetarian – actually, vegan – triggers in her family, as well as the long-term effects it has on her body. The book covers a period of three years and the events are told from three different narrators’ points of view, none of which belongs to Yeong-hye. The reader, therefore, gets to see the vegetarian of the title only through the eyes of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, none of whom can fathom the reasons behind her choice, since Yeong-hye’s only response when asked is “I had a dream”. Kang’s choice of multiple narrators to tell the story of this voiceless woman exposes their unreliability, revealing each of them as prey to their own limitations, which they simply project on the vegetarian’s body. The reader’s is the only eye that has a certain vantage point over the narrators’ since it gets glimpses of the gruesome dream in the few parts in which Yeong-hye’s thoughts interrupt her husband’s narrative.
Judges of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize described The Vegetarian as “concise, unsettling and beautifully composed” and an “uncanny blend of beauty and horror”. The instances of overt and subtle violence exerted on the human body, and the peculiar eroticism of the second part of the novel will leave you asking whether vegetarianism is, after all, the main issue of this novel. Enjoy!
Read an except here