Some facts before the opinions begin. This novel has lately been the talk of the town as it’s finally made its debut in the English-speaking world. Han Kang teamed up with translator Deborah Smith (who, incredibly, began learning Korean only eight years ago at the age of 21) to get this book to an Anglo audience. As a result, it won the prestigious Man Booker International prize in 2016 – the first Korean novel to do so. It’s no secret that with my background I’ve been on the hunt for good Korean novels. And with the background of this one’s success I was duly impressed.
But I must confess that my modest hopes were pulverized.
This nihilistic, phantasmagorical hallucination of a novel blew over me like a rude gust of wind and left me absolutely cold. It’s not that I couldn’t grasp any point or message – to be sure, it’s rich in meaning and symbolism and all that obligatory, literary stuff. I acknowledge the author’s gift for vivid, spare writing and the translator’s gift to render it seamlessly. I get why people like this book. But just as everyone has certain gastronomic preferences, my reaction to this book was that of downing a cup of traditional Chinese medicine. It was unrepentantly bitter and just the littlest bit nasty.
Our protagonist, Yeong Hye, is an ordinary Korean housewife, “completely unremarkable in every way,” according to her husband, “Mr. Cheong” who is the narrator for Part I. Mr. Cheong is the ultimate underachiever, embracing mediocrity to the fullest as he coasts through life working at a low-profile company during the week and veg’ing out in front of the TV on his days off. Yeong Hye is a docile and “dutiful” wife who cooks and cleans and makes no demands whatsoever – the capstone to his perfectly mundane and chauvinistic existence.
All of that rudely changes after five years, when he walks in on his wife in the middle of the night, hair disheveled, throwing expensive meat and seafood out of the refrigerator. Righteously indignant he demands an explanation. Her response is an enigmatic four syllables: “I had a dream.” From that moment on she stubbornly refuses to eat meat.
Things quickly go from order to chaos as Yeong Hye’s family gets wind of the news and tries to talk sense into her. Her mother screws up her wrinkled face and makes manipulative pleas. Her abusive tyrant of a father, fed up (no pun intended) with his daughter’s carnophobia slugs her full in the face and tries to force a piece of seasoned meat into her mouth. She reacts by letting out a primal scream and trying to slash her wrist with a knife. The family has no choice but to put her in a psych hospital as the curtain falls on act one.
Part II of the story, “The Mongolian Mark,” is from the point of view of Yeong Hye’s brother-in-law, a failed installation and video artist with a taste for the erotic. He gets wind of the fact that Yeong Hye has a bluish birthmark on the hidden parts of her body and develops an obsessed desire to not only see it, but to act out a sex fantasy with her as part of an art project he’s envisioned. While not a downright clod like her husband, her brother-in-law (we never get his name) is disturbingly unconcerned by the fact that Yeong Hye is mentally and emotionally on the fringe. In fact, the only male character in the entire story who seems to have any sort of moral compass is the brother-in-law’s studio friend, J, who stops short of helping him film a graphic video without Yeong Hye’s active consent. Put out by this, the brother-in-law manages to rendezvous with Yeong Hye anyway and finally consummate his fantasy. At the same time, his horrified wife gets wise to the fact and calls in a team from the psych ward, complete with strait jackets. “Act two” ends more or less as melodramatically as the first.
Part III, “Flaming Trees,” follows Yeong Hye’s rapid deterioration at the mental hospital as her sister In Hye struggles to care for her. No longer content to refuse only meat, Yeong Hye now refuses all food and other basic human desires in order to no longer be an “animal.” She sheds her clothes to bathe in the sunlight and drinks only water, in the hope that she will photosynthesize into becoming a plant. A tree, to be exact. In Hye’s final plea to her dying, anorexic sister is, “We have to wake up at some point, don’t we?” Yeong Hye never answers her, but I can assure you that as the reader I was enthusiastically replying, “Yes, I am quite sure I’m ready for this nightmare to come to an end.”
Some people have interpreted this novel as being a commentary on South Korea’s rigid patriarchal culture and its devastating effects on women, represented by Yeong Hye and In Hye. Simply put, Yeong Hye’s rejection of meat is an outright rejection of a culture whose cuisine revolves around meat and seafood, and therefore is a rejection of that culture’s values and traditions. The main ideas in the book flow around issues within South Korea, per se.
I would argue that this is falling way short of the mark, and most readers would agree. The story is not really about being a vegetarian simply to reject patriarchal culture– it’s far too surreal and fable-like. Rather, I would argue it’s a story about a weak and vulnerable individual who finds violence in all its forms inseparable from human existence and decides therefore that she no longer wants to be human. After an abusive childhood and traumatic memories she is haunted by bloody nightmares that won’t go away, even after she stops eating meat. Her only solution is to renounce food, sex, all wants and preferences completely. Like a bizarre, Kafkaesque kind of nirvana she fancies herself literally becoming a tree and transcending humanness when, in fact, she’s actually dying of anorexia. Sounds miserable to any sane person, but ironically she’s the only happy one by the novel’s ending.
On the other hand, all the people in Yeong Hye’s life struggle with the various fleshly cares and social anxieties that Yeong Hye has managed to throw off. Her prickly prick of a husband is concerned about what others think of him. Her depressed brother-in-law is hungry for sexual fulfillment that can’t be reached. Her overworked sister, perhaps her only true friend, is bound up by family duty and sense of purpose. She even envies Yeong Hye and confesses:
She’s been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner.
So being a human basically means being a prisoner of social constraints. Especially if you’re a woman, as both In Hye and Yeong Hye suffer the most. Yeong Hye’s rejection of humanity by being a vegetarian (and later anorexic) is ultimately a desperate attempt at control in a world that seeks to take control away from you:
It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.
No it doesn’t, because those heartless hospital workers insist on stabbing you with IV needles to keep you alive when you’re dying. How cruel of them.
So yes, if this isn’t an eloquently wrought little story about nihilism, I can’t say what it’s about. Perhaps it’s what a lot of readers like. To be sure there are many who have loved this book, but as far as I understand, they are the sort of people who are already sympathetic to these issues. There is nothing subtle or subversive here. Rather, it’s a nightmarish, strangled sort of scream that may validate victims who relate, but cause the rest of us to sit there blinking and wondering what on earth to think.
Perhaps most damning of all, though, is that it’s nothing terribly original. The premise of a woman rejecting cultural norms, initially intriguing and grounded in reality, descends like the second law of Thermodynamics into an extended panoramic scene of chaos and discord. The characters are one-dimensional, only there to make a point. The narrative style shifts from a clear first person, to a more vague third person past tense, to a surreal third person present tense to create a weird dream-like quality. Perhaps that was exactly the author’s intention, but I find this style of writing overdone and wearying. The gruesome and erotic imagery did nothing to move me – it was invasive and unrelenting, something akin to a bad dream. And by extension, the entire novel is not unlike a nightmare from which you wake up, shudder, and then realize, “Oh, right, the world is thankfully not that horrible.”
While I was reading this novel it did compel my attention, but once I closed the last page the blurred-together events and scenes already began to fade from my memory. Those that didn’t I would be content to forget. Not because I think the subject matter unimportant, but because I found the pessimistic undertone defeating and senseless. So yes, it left me colder than a slab of ribeye steak at the butcher shop and no more interested in giving up eating steak – or any meat – than I was before reading this novel.