Sometimes, reading translated Korean literature can be a bit of a private affair. You read it, you maybe enjoy it and appreciate it, but you think twice about recommending it to a non Koreaphile; or if you do, you make a slight apology about it, as if you have to make allowances. But at other times you come across a book which can speak to an international audience, one which you think should be on everyone’s reading list.
The Vegetarian is one such book: one which, if you changed the names of the places and characters, could be set anywhere. The narrators are believable, the language is completely natural (none of the indefinable turns of phrase which make you think: this is a translated piece of Korean literature), and the scenario at the same time initially credible but in its causation and development very puzzling. And it is this puzzling element that is intriguing. The puzzle is: why does the central character decide to give up eating meat? And why, once she has given up meat, does she go through the transformation which involves progressively renouncing other forms of sustenance too?
The tantalising feature of the novel is that we hardly ever experience the central character’s point of view: the story is told through the eyes of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister – though occasionally we are given glimpses of what is driving her behaviour as we are presented with fragments of a dream which she suffers. Each dream shares common elements – a face (whose, we do not know), and blood – but as with many dreams the meaning is unclear.
Clearly, she has had a traumatic past including a very violent father (who continues to be violent), and some of the details of this past emerge from the account of her sister In-hye. Young-hye’s turning away from meat is a rejection of this male violence. The first point of view we get is that of her husband who, like the rest of her family, cannot understand why she is behaving as she is, and whose reaction is that of confusion and impatience. Her husband is a man who (in his view) only wants a trouble-free life and asks very little from his wife, but scratch the surface and you realise he is a man with a quick temper, a man who could possibly be adding to the forces which led his wife to renounce meat. His irritable private thought at his wife’s awkwardness in getting into the car: “My wife spent a minute fussing with her coat, and finally managed to fasten her seat belt after a couple of failed attempts” – how many other husbands have had that moment of irritation? – is perhaps one small instance of a broader irascible nature which causes his wife to withdraw.
Her brother-in-law, an artist, seems initially protective of her but soon you realise he has other motives, which have their own damaging consequences. And finally there is her sister, who initially cannot understand the change in Young-hye, but towards the end you begin to wonder whether in fact she is so different whether her own life could be headed in a similar direction.
The novel leaves the central question unanswered, but is full of rich insight about human emotions and motivations, and is a thoroughly rewarding and at times shocking read.