In his insightful book Meat: A Natural Symbol, Nick Fiddes points out we so often confuse “meat” with “food,” often treating them as synonymous. Summarizing recent anthropological work, Fiddes points how Ugandans trade “plantains that would feed a family for four days for one ‘scrawny’ chicken with less than a twentieth of the nutritional value;” Nazi Germany’s “wish to supply its forces with ‘excessive’ standards of protein” (meat) consequently dampened agricultural food production at a key moment in the Allied blockade.
Our ontological trouble with “meat” is at the center of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian which is available to Anglophone readers nine years after becoming a critical hit in South Korea. The novel follows Yeong-he, a young woman who writes speech bubbles for magazines. Shaken by a terrible nightmare, she stops eating meat. She becomes disgusted by her husband who smells like meat and discards her leather clothes. Eventually, she refuses to eat any food at all. She communicates less and less.
The Vegetarian is told from the “close-third” perspectives of three different characters, each one more empathetic but no more capable of “saving” her: her husband, a crude narcissist; her brother-in-law, an aesthete who attempts to incorporate her ethereal presence into his art; and her sister desperate to keep her alive.
Their individual and collective failures are inscribed with Han’s deep pessimism. To the Korean newspaper Dong-a Ilbo, Han said, “I wanted to show the extreme core of a dog-eat-dog world.” Han told The Guardian, when she explored Korea’s Gwangju Massacre for a novel, her questions were “how can humans be so violent and cruel, and what can people do to counter such extreme violence?” Specifically in how her characters are prone to verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, The Vegetarian is dark, cynical, even antinatalist.
That tone is well-earned, and balanced well with gallows humor. In the first section, Yeong-he and her husband attend a deeply unsettling dinner with his work colleagues. He has given them a tactful, misleading explanation for his wife’s vegetarianism. The coworkers respond like a spiteful Greek chorus, threatened by her (inferred and never explicit) moral judgment,
‘Well, I must say, I’m glad I’ve still never sat down with a proper vegetarian. I’d hate to share a meal with someone who considers meat repulsive, just because that’s how they themselves personally feel…don’t you agree?’
‘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!’
The colleagues begin to ostracize him due to his wife’s odd behavior. To erode her defiance, her husband’s reaction is to provoke her family to intervene. Demanding that she conform to social convention, Yeong-he’s father, whose belligerence conjures up the patriarch of Franz Kafka’s “The Judgment,” berates her. The rest of the family cajoles her, as her husband watches.
I expected my wife to say something in her defense, but the sole, silent answer she made to all those glaring faces was to set the pair of chopsticks she had picked up back down on the table.
A small flurry of unease ran through the assembled family. This time, my mother-in-law picked up some sweet and sour pork with her chopsticks and thrust it right up in front of my wife’s mouth, saying, ‘Here. Come on, hurry up and eat.’
After rushing her to the hospital in his arms, her brother-in-law, a video artist, feels compelled to feature her in his art. Troubled by his own sexual attraction to her, he ultimately exploits her fragility and vulnerability.
Was he a normal human being? More than that, a moral human being? A strong human being, able to control his own impulses? In the end, he found himself unable to claim with any certainty that he knew the answers to these questions, though he’d been so sure before.
In the final section, Yeong-he’s sister cares for her sister. Her own complicated feelings, protective and resigned, are beautifully depicted. The novel plays on ideas of martyrdom and sacrifice; her sister comes to suspect the cruelty of the desperate need to sustain Yeong-he’s life against her will.
Martyred for what exactly?, a reader might ask. Simply because she doesn’t like the taste or smell of something? In the first section, we gain some insight into Yeong-he with brief snatches of her dreams in which she blends into the animal world:
Murderer or murderer…hazy distinctions, boundaries wearing thin. Familiarity bleeds into strangeness, certainy becomes impossible. Only the violence is vivid enough to stick. A sound, the elasticity of the instant when the metal struck the victim’s head.
As the novel progresses, her motives become increasingly inscrutable — in many ways, the novel forgoes any clear thesis on the morality of eating meat. It situates her repugnance for meat in “taste,” an ephemeral but indispensable arrow. As John Ruskin argued in his essay, “Traffic,” “Taste is not only a part and an index of morality — it is the ONLY morality. The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is, ‘What do you like?’”
The language we use betrays just how ingrained taste and our sense of right and wrong are. We feel disgusted (from dégoût, have a distaste for) when banking conglomerates defraud the public. To argue that a person, or groups of people, should not have a taste for something (meat, violence, your love) speaks to that person’s fundamental moral maladjustment.
All of which is to say that Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a sharply written allegory that extends far beyond its surreal premise to unexpected depths. The translation by Deborah Smith is by turns elegant and coarse. The narrators are perfectly pitched to their individual voices; they are looking for answers, or perhaps else. Throughout the novel, the characters search to hear or speak “words of comfort.” The narrator says at one point, “Whatever the words were, they hadn’t been words of comfort.”
“They were merciless.”