The Vegetarian (Han Kang)

The Vegetarian is a novel by Han Kang. It’s based on her own short story The Fruit of my Woman. I read the translation to English by Deborah Smith.
Finished on: 8.6.2017

Mr. Cheong has been married for Yeong-hye for several years, leading a quiet, unremarkable life, which is just the way he wants it. But that changes rather drastically when, after a series of bloody dreams, Yeong-hye suddenly decides to stop eating meat. This decision singles Yeong-hye out and with it comes a distance from her family and deep discomfort for Cheong, who just wants things to be normal.

The Vegetarian is a very interesting book that works on many levels, except – at least for me – on the emotional one. Even as I appreciated the novel on an intellectual level, I remained at a curious distance, never really feeling the impact of events.

The Vegetarian has a lot to say and can be interpreted in many ways. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is at once a clamor for freedom, for her own personhood and at the same time a disappearing act: it’s her own personal revolution against a society that only wants her to be a dutiful appendage to her husband and not a person in her own right; but it’s also her own dissolution.

In an Austrian context, vegeterianism probably wouldn’t be the right vehicle for that story (anymore), but the struggle to just be able to live life the way you want it to live is certainly not something that’s unknown here, either. Having it tied to vegetarianism, but especially with Yeong-hye’s increasingly intense relationship with plants, means that there are all kinds of intereting thoughts in the book about what is “natural”, a very loaded category especially when it comes to gender power dynamics.

While I see all those strengths and the critical look Kang takes at society and how badly it treats women and while that should be something that I find both interesting and relevant, with my own feminist outlook, I failed to connect with The Vegetarian on an emotional level. There was nothing I underlined in the book (usually the best sign for a passage that strikes an emotional chord with me, be it because of form or content, as far as those two can be separated at all), and no scene stood out to me so much that I remember it very clearly, even though it’s been only a few months since I read it.

Maybe the book just caught me at the wrong time, but without that emotional connection, it didn’t inspire me enough to give it another try at another time to see if that changes things. But I’m sure that if I had connected with it, I probably would have loved it.

Summarizing: Maybe you’lle connect more to it than I did.

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