The Vegetarian by Han Kang: A Book Review

the_vegetarian_-_han_kang

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

If my fellow Filipinos are addicted to K-Pop and K-drama, well, I am now to K-Lit as in Korean literature. If it were not to my list of the 1001 Best Novels of All Time, I would not have known some immortal Korean novels such as Land by Park Kyung-ni and The Taebek Mountains by Jo Jung-rae. Unfortunately, I have not read them yet; I have still been looking for their English translations at book stores here in the Philippines and  their free PDFs on the internet as well. Nonetheless, thanks to my student’s birthday gift Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin, my first ever Korean novel. After that I got the  good chance of reading  some  other Korean fictions :Deep Blue Night by In-ho ChoiThe Dwarf  by  Cho Se-HuiHuman Decency  by  Ji-young Gong, and The Wounded by Yi Chong-Jun,.These books have piqued my interest in reading another Korean fictions .I wish I could complete all the other books published by the same publisher.

Upon catching the glimpse of The Vegetarian  by Han Kang in an Indian book club in which I am a member , I googled it to find its free PDF or giveaways since I still prefer real books. However, the book , after reading it , is not what I had played in my imagination. This is not what a Korean novel with which I am familiar. It is a different genre that does not reflect Korean life and culture as what the other books I have read above. Rather,it is something new:utterly bizarre, preposterous, fanciful, and insipid but awful and impressive.

Its conceptualized story drives me crazy. A woman whose name is Yeong-hye loses her sanity after turning vegetarian. She quits eating meat because she has delusion that she is growing like a plant. Also, she is somewhat an exhibitionist because she takes pleasure in exposing herself naked to the sunlight. Furthermore, Mr. Chong, Yoeng-her’s brother-in-law, has repressed sexual fantasy  for Yeong-he by filming her having sex with the other man ( including himself) , both bodily painted with  flowers.Besides,the details of how Mr. Chong desires to paint Yeong-he’s body a flower with petals are so erotic that I even got a hard-on. (blushing)

I was impressed by the way how Han Kang combined all the events that happened in different time in one story. I am accustomed to reading a novel that has the same events in one chapter. For this reason, it is a challenge for me to patch all the events together in order to understand the roles of the characters as well as the wholeness of the story.

One of the common comments by the book reviewers is that it is well-written. I guess the best words to put it is that it is well-translated. But to put it mildly, there are some unknown novellas or fictions I have read better than this. May I cite Her Resurrection: A Survivor’s Journey of Emancipation, Reclamation and Redemption by Soumyadeep Koley ? How about the other finalists? I wonder if its Korean version must be more impressive.

On the contrary, the other good points above tend to evaporate as there are some snippets that I find deadening and undermining. There are some lines in the conversations that I find just-nothing as in they lose my interest while I am in the state of dawdling curiosity, puzzlement, enthrallment, and excitement. I may be guessing, but it seems like Han Kang may have found those parts essential to the story. How I wish she had deleted or revised them.  If you happen to encounter those parts, feel free to comment here including the snippets I am blabbering about .I am now too lazy to scan them since I read its PDF.  We may turn out to be in the same position after all. Nevertheless, in the context of literary analysis, the feeling, the tone, the emotion, after all, are the embodiment of Yoeng-hye, an insane woman. But still, my subjective reaction stands stationary.

Since the book is a bit ambiguous, there are two questions that I have been trying to answer myself , which, in effect, are  unnecessary; there are still unread books I have to keep up with : (1) If Yeong-he wants to be vegetarian, why can’t her family support her with some alternative veggie food.They can help her find ones  such as what vegetarians do. If they need protein, they can eat vegetarian recipe replete with protein and other nutrients which are usually found in meat. I wonder if this part reflects in Korean family where family members condemn someone who turns vegetarian. In fact, as far as I know, Buddhism, the first religion in Korea, advocates the importance of eating vegetable. (2) What is the relevance of the Mongolian mark to the story? Does Han Kang want to emphasize its implication of the Korean culture?

Off the topic,while reading it, I remembered the time back in university when I attended a one-week youth camp held by a non-government organization from France. The camp was intended for us scholars to be instilled in different development personality training. One of the programs tried to inculcate in us was to how to be vegetarian. Vegetarianism is one of the organization’s causes. So, almost all the meals prepared for us were vegetables without any small mixture of any kinds of meat. They were not even mixed with any seasonings, so they tasted bland. No surprise why my camp mates would frown during meal time. I may not have been used to it, but I tried to force the lump of veggie into my mouth. Besides, I was inspired by our main facilitator, of Chinese extraction, a certified vegetarian, who testified to the benefits of being vegetarian. After that one-week absence of meat in my body, I continued to apply the cause to my life. Believe it or not, I avoided eating any kinds of meat. Whenever my mother served a bowl of viand, I would just ladle out the vegetables added to it. I would only have the good chance of practicing vegetarianism during lunch at school. However, I decided to quit when I came to realize that I was not rich enough to do so. I would have gotten sick of or chaffed by lack of enough protein. Gee, I would have looked patent anorexic, for my weight at that time was 48 kg.

Although I was not much satisfied with the plots and settings of the novella, Han Kang has proved that Korean writers can write something new, a la Haruki Murakami. Besides, I still felt the K-wave, the marvelous , indescribable , invisible  effect  the Korean Ministry of Culture wants to impart to the world as how K-Pop and K-dramas have invaded Asia and some parts of the world. Thus,  I admit that I have fallen in love with Korean literature, and I want to read some more!  Saranggae! 🙂

Rating: 2/ 5 stars ( It’s ok.)

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