Between work and research, I don’t have as much time to delve into all of the books that I would like to read when I first hear about them. The Vegetarian by Han Kang is another one of those books that I have seen floating around Instagram for the past year or so. Many of the accounts whose recommendations I trust were reading this, so I filed it away in the back of my mind as something that I would like to read at some point – which is definitely a long list now. Thankfully, my book club voted to read this for October, so I had the excuse I needed to carve out time.
I have a lot of things that I am still thinking through, so if you are expecting a straight-forward review, this will not be the post for you!
One of the main things I had heard about text was the psychologically disturbing elements in the story, but these unsettling elements were always presented as being thought-provoking or making the characters more compelling. What I found interesting was the way that the novel figured the female characters and the way that the psychological lives of the characters are depicted. The main question I am still working through is how the main character, Yeong-hye, actually functions in the story. Rather than describing her thoughts or nightmares herself, the reader mainly understands Yeong-hye through the way the other characters read her actions. The first interpretation we get is from her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her older sister. Each of these characters try to make sense of Yeong-hye’s sudden (and violent) turn to vegetarianism, but the force of the narrative is propelled by the characters’ reflections on Yeong-hye’s actions, rather than really trying to get to the bottom of why she made the decision in the first place.
Thus, it seems like both Yeong-hye herself and her vegetarianism are not really the focus of the novel; she becomes a point of departure for those around her to reveal certain elements of themselves: the husband’s blandness and self-centeredness, the brother-in-law’s obsessiveness, the older sister’s exhaustion and mirroring of Yeong-hye’s struggles. We actually learn more about the other characters in the novel and Yeong-hye remains as inscrutable to us as readers as she does to those around her. Readers are given a few glimpses into her psyche through sections that seem to be descriptions of the dreams and images that haunt her, but otherwise all information about her comes from the other characters and how they try to make sense of everything. Throughout these separate narratives Yeong-hye seems to float above it all — which is interesting, because she still suffers. She remains above the action in one sense, at least in terms of not actively participating in the plot, but as a character she physically suffers as a result of her decision to be vegetarian. So her floating above the fray is not transcendence, but seems to be something else.
Agency is therefore something that kept popping up in my mind as I was reading this, because it isn’t clear what type of agency Yeong-hye has here. I don’t believe she has no agency nor do I believe she is passive. My argument against passivity comes out of the fact that she makes the choice to be vegetarian and she repeatedly chooses to refuse the things that others want her to do. Likewise, she agrees to go along with some things, such as participating in her brother-in-law’s artwork. However, this raises the issue of agency again because it isn’t clear what state of mind Yeong-hye is in — so is she truly making these decisions for herself, whatever her internal logic may be, or is she being propelled by whatever is lurking inside of her in a way that is outside of her control? I think an argument can be made for either, or both!
I am still thinking through the stakes in the novel and what impact these stakes would have for the real world. One thing that I am thankful for is the figuring of a female subject from a non-Western context. I think that it is important to consider how female bodies move through spaces other than those that are “Western” in order to interrogate ideas of progressivism and feminism that we may have deeply lodged into our minds. The only way we can reconsider naturalized ideas is to be in conversation with ideas from other contexts, so I am glad to see the attention that Han Kang’s work is getting and I hope to see more Korean female authors translated into English!
A final sidetone that I wanted to touch on here has to do with the translation. The lovely jjoongie (Instagram // website) pointed this out and I feel that it is important to bring up: the translation apparently contains a lot of mistakes and the translator took a lot of liberties with it. The article I read from Korea Exposé did a nice job of pointing out the issues, while staying reasonable and presenting clear examples to the reader. I can’t speak to the text because, if it is not obvious by now, I do not read Korean. However, I know how tricky translation can be – which is why I will always be the first person to state that I am not a translator even though I read in both English and in Japanese. Translation is a skill that require a lot more knowledge, practice, and artistry than I have now, so I would certainly never attempt a novel. More than anything, I am surprised that the translation ended up in the hands of this particular translator, particularly since the novel was a success in South Korea. I would assume that there would be more experienced Korean language translators happy to bring this text to a broader audience. Anyway, all that is to say that it never hurts to do a little digging into the background of a translated text, but I don’t think that it is useful to read in a constantly “translation-paranoid” manner. Language, in and of itself, is imperfect and will constantly fail – plus for most of us it will be impossible to read all the novels we want in their original language, so there will always be slippages of meaning whether you are reading a book written in your native language or reading a translated text.
So if you read English texts, enjoy the novel, but make sure to be a critical reader, as always.