I gave this book to my dad, saying it was about a woman who decided to become a vegetarian and the repercussions of this decision. I got it back from him with the note: “Not really.” So of course I had to read it.
I also had to read it because it was the winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, an award for the best book translated into the English language. The award goes to both the author and the translator, and is an important recognition of the art of translation and its key role in making literature from foreign cultures available.
This was also the third reason I had to read it: I love reading books that are written for and within a culture of which I have very little or no knowledge. Such novels reveal to me norms and social practices of other places that abide by a logic that I may not understand, but which the novel takes for granted. In this meeting of internalization and ignorance, I feel I move closer to the impossible state of knowing the world.
The Vegetarian is a beautiful book to do so with. It was first published in 2007 in South Korea, and my father was right; it isn’t really about vegetarianism… Of course. The novel’s plot centers around the main character Yeong-hye, but in a wonderful twist of style the story it is never told from her point of view. Instead the book is divided into three parts, each of which is told from the perspective of a character close to Yeong-hye: Her boring and cold husband Mr. Cheong, the husband of Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye, and finally In-hye herself. These different strands weave together to form a strange and tragic story of family relations, societal pressures, and individual desire.
I did get one thing right: Yeong-hye does decide to become a vegetarian. Or rather, is forced into it by a violent, bloody dream that convinces her never to touch animal products again. This is not a lifestyle choice but a personal and physical transformation driven by a psyche that no one around her understands. As depicted in the novel, in a country like South Korea where meat is a staple of most dishes and where social norms dictate the strict limits of behaviour, her transformation wreaks havoc on her marriage and her family.
The strength of the novel lies not only in the way that it exposes the expectations of the individual in society. In this way, it appears as if South Korea is not very different from the West, in which the words “I had a dream” don’t count as a convincing argument for tearing apart your existence. It also lies in the different voices which expose these expectations: First the harsh and mediocre husband, who describes Yeong-hye as “completely unremarkable in every way” and is repulsed by her vegetarian transformation; then the brother-in-law who becomes more and more obsessed with an artistic vision of sexual intercourse with his changing sister-in-law; then the sister, whose attitude of keeping up appearances crumbles slowly in the face of this family tragedy.
The writing is succinct and sensual, and each character is fleshed out more and more deeply with each paragraph. The only character whose logics are left to roam in the dark is Yeong-hye’s. I’ll leave it to you to enjoy how.