Upon reading the very first sentence of The Vegetarian, where Mr Cheong describes his wife to be “completely unremarkable in every way”, it was obvious to me that I was in for a treat. He is certainly not a man in love, at least not with his wife, so what made him marry her? In his words…
The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground. There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose fashion catalogues, and she didn’t get worked up if I happened to be late for one of our meetings. The paunch that started appearing in my mid-twenties, my skinny legs and forearms that steadfastly refused to bulk up in spite of my best efforts, the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis – I could rest assured that I wouldn’t have to fret about such things on her account.
We get a glimpse of the marriage between Cheong and Yeong-hye in the next few pages. It is stable, and understandably boring. Cheong is quite the ordinary guy at work. Yeong-hye is a woman of few words and a good cook. With no rows or disagreements so to speak of life goes on, flowing like a calm stream with no bends in sight. But this ordered life blows up into pieces when Yeong-hye tuns into a vegetarian after having a grotesque dream.
In Sri Lanka, where I come from, vegetarians are quite common, so it would be unusual for family members to get worked up about one’s dietary habits. But for Yeong-hye in South Korea, it is not the same.
‘Do you remember those mummified human remains they discovered recently? Five hundred years old, apparently, and even back then humans were hunting for meat – they could tell that from the skeletons. Meat-eating is a fundamental human instinct, which means vegetarianism goes against human nature, right? It just isn’t natural.’
Cheong is angry that she is ‘going against his wishes’. Her mother thinks she is being ‘defiant’. Her sister, In-hye lectures her on nutrients. Her father tries to force-feed her pork at a family gathering, which backfires as Yeong-hye slits her wrist soon after in protest. Without giving away the story, what follows is how Yeong-hye’s simple single decision leads to much change in lives of those who surround her.
In The Vegetarian, Han Kang’s original writing in Korean translated by Deborah Smith is poetic. The second and third parts of the novel – Mongolian Mark and Flaming Trees – paint a dreamlike picture in our mind, despite having a dark plot line. Also, for a novel with less than 200 pages, it affords incisive insights and uncanny observations about modern South Korea.