Needless to say, I anticipated the Man Booker International Prize 2016 winner to be extraordinary and would not even dare to make any predictions about its content as the title promised a post-modern and, therefore, not a run-of-the-mill narrative. It must be said The Vegetarian by a Korean authoress Han Kang certainly surprised; just not in the way I hoped for.
The three-part novel consists of a sequence of events presented from different narrative viewpoints by characters close to the vegetarian of the eponymous title; the vegetarian herself remains almost silent (or rather decidedly metaphorically silenced except for the occasional fragmented internal monologue and even ‘rigid and unmoving’ to serve the authorial purpose). Structuring the text like this, Kang utilised the technique not only to present alternative viewpoints but also numerous themes and motifs: fragmented society, alienation, repressed desire, the oppressive nature of ossified traditions and principles, isolation within a pre-ordained system as well as mutuality of human experience in response to these constrictions, dreams, return to nature, animalistic nature of Man, psychological turmoil, eating disorders … . Quite a breadth for such a relatively slim volume. All the characters are ultimately ‘completely unremarkable in every way’; their lives not at all noteworthy in comparison to everyone else: nothing ‘any special’; they have predictable, neatly organised lives. Under the well-arranged exterior, all are also conscious to varied degrees that ‘all of this is meaningless’. Thinking about it, all features of a typical post-modern text.
Almost sectioning (oh yes, derangement: the good old staple) the text results in three isolated (like the characters, you see) parts that could be independent short stories. The first one, The Vegetarian, is admittedly brilliant: visceral, distressing, crafted with clinical precision. I wish Kang simply ended her narrative there. The stifling atmosphere of life with a husband ‘always inclined towards the middle course of life’ establishes the claustrophobic and sterile environment as the perfect setting for growing dissatisfaction that prohibits, as well as actively discourages and ‘reproach[es]’, any deviation from the expected norm. Yeong-ho’s rapid deterioration once she ‘had a dream’ is disturbing; the husband’s neglectful concern for only himself as he eventually realises that he does not ‘know that woman’ despite ‘the familiar smile’ alarming but not uncommon (alarming even more so due to this very fact); the increasingly forceful coercion within family ominous in its consequences. The bestiality that outwardly demonstrates through Yeong-ho’s ‘predator’s bite’ is both present within and the ‘vivid red bloodstains’ are symbolically ‘spreading’.
While ‘Mongolian Mark’, the second part narrated from Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law’s perspective, initially maintains the momentum, it soon runs out of the established fresh breath. The artistic visual effect of the suppressed sexual desire, obsession and impotent creativity represented through the ‘painted huge clusters of flowers’ is unquestionably breath-taking. It is hardly surprising that the novel has already been made into a film. However, the graphic imagery reaches the point of gratuitous. The masterly strokes are replaced by a cheap instant gratification video. The underlining intended ‘pain, pleasure, disgust, … inscrutable loneliness’ of the characters imprisoned by the reality of their world is irrevocably diminished.
Finally, ‘Flaming Trees’ arguably restores the balance to a degree. However, by this point the novel started reflecting the characters in itself becoming fragmented: the narrative is increasingly tenuously held together by what feels like overly planned and artificial links. There appears to be a sense of intentionally over-crafted prose that is very aware of itself. By this point ‘the rain had gradually grown heavier’; the setting moves to a psychiatric hospital; Yeong-hye has been (wrongly?) diagnosed with anorexia, and the lines between ‘The Vegetarian’ Yeong-hye and her sister who narrates this section are purposefully blurred, their internal worlds merging to express the universal nature of our experiences, insecurities, doubts. Yeong-hye has become increasingly ascetic to the point of mania but unlike the Buddhist experience this does not bring her peace: ‘terror, … anger, … agony, … hell’ are still haunting her. In the rare moments when she speaks she claims happiness and accomplishing her aim as she is ‘not an animal anymore’. Yet, ironically, Yeong-ho’s attempt to counter brutality by avoiding meat and becoming increasingly withdrawn strips her of humanity: she ‘resists violently’, ‘her trashing is so wild’, is ‘biting her arms savagely’, by means of communication either remains silent or lets out ‘an incomprehensible roar’ as her doctors struggle to do their duty and ‘preserve life’.
Full of potential, and with elements of excellent prose, I cannot help but feel that The Vegetarian somewhat overreached and consciously tried so hard that it did not live up to its own expectation; concluding somewhat flatly that ‘perhaps this is all a kind of dream’. I am not a great fan of obsessively incorporating elements of psychoanalysis in literature as a structural and narrative technique and by way of conclusion find it somewhat lacking.
(Interestingly, there have been some reports that multiple Mongolian marks could be linked to eating disorders (GOSH.nhs.uk) and I must say that this finding somewhat removed the mythical, artistic and sensual nature of the motive.)