Some books appear in my life precisely when I’m meant to read them. Usually, these books shake me to the core. I discover them, or they discover me, in a moment when I’m avoiding a ‘serious work to-do list’ in a cafe-cum-workspace and I spend an unreasonably long time surveying their dogeared library collection. One book will jump out at me and say ‘hello’. Or, it may be when I’m travelling and a fellow voyager makes a recommendation - or drops a paperback (admittedly, I am one type of thief - a book thief) out of a handbag. My parents have always had a diverse and extensive book collection in all the homes they’ve lived in, and so other times, this serendipitous meeting I have with books comes from just being at home, and lazily reaching for a novel whilst in a mom’s-food-love-stupor.
Recently this meeting came in a quaint bookstore in Brugge, Belgium. It was a freezing, grey afternoon and I had some Christmas shopping to finish, a task I was carrying out with little enthusiasm. I was feeling self-indulgently melancholy, spending far too much time pondering how this was to be my first Christmas away from home. Whilst searching for appropriate titles for others, The Vegetarian by Han Kang jumped out at me. It is a slim volume - a novella translated into English from Korean - and this edition was covered in spidery pink lines and bold, simple text. It turned out to be the kind of read that consumes you - the word fades and you breathe again only when the last page has been turned.
The Vegetarian is a story of vivid self-destruction divided into three parts. It follows the slow, withering death of one woman, Yeong-hye, told from the point of view of her husband (Part 1), her obsessive, sexually frustrated artist brother-in-law (Part 2), and her washed-out, over-wrought sister (Part 3). It has an uncluttered and under-stated narrative style that is unnerving, and there are moments that cause the reader to feel nauseous with horror. It’s potent, unforgettable and controversial.
Whilst the three narrators are defined by what they do, and who they are in society, Yeong-hye is a force flickering outside of these demarcators of social norms. Over the course of the story she stops doing anything at all. She moves from doing to existing, then barely existing, then dying. Her progression from ‘normality’ (doing, living with some kind of social purpose), to ‘insanity and death’ (being, wanting death with no purpose or need beyond this) is one fraught with struggle over self-determination. Everyone wants to stop her from exerting her will over her own body, on the grounds that they know better, and that she does not have the right to harm herself.
Yeong-hye is described at the outset of the story by her lousy husband as ‘completely unremarkable in every way’. This, and her meek temperament, is what he likes the most about her. She is a suitable and dutiful Korean wife. One morning, Yeong-hye tells him that she ‘had a dream’ and has decided that she will never to eat meat again. She is curiously resolute about this, and his initial annoyance with encountering her will is eventually replaced with sexual arousal. What is then described is the first of numerous further instances in which Yeong-hye’s body is violated. The more she resists penetration in terms of sex and sustenance (first meat, then all food), the more she seems to enrage and inspire family-members and medical personal to force her.
This is a book with several layers of self-harm and body violation. Yeong-hye’s father who, in a particularly disturbing moment, tries to force a morsel of sweet-and-sour pork down her throat at a family dinner, is a Vietnam War veteran (it is estimated that three hundred thousand Koreans served alongside American soldiers in that conflict). He seems to have suffered from PST and his presence as an obstruction to her quiet desire for self-determination speaks to Korean historical violation at the hands of Imperial Japan. Once Yeong-hye’s husband has raped her, the muted non-reaction she delivers evokes for him images of Korea’s past as an occupied nation: it was “as though she were a comfort woman dragged against her will, and I was the Japanese soldier demanding her services’.
Han Kang has provided a probing critique of Korean culture, history and gender relations in this book, yet for me, these themes are not nearly as important as her examination of suffering on an intimate level. I was deeply and personally moved by the tender line navigated between insanity, creativity, self-harm and freedom over Yeong-hye’s withering life.
After her father attempts force-feeding her meat, she slits her wrists and is institutionalised. She wishes more than anything else to be like a plant, to soak up sunlight and be still (she even spends time imitating a tree by doing handstands in the asylum courtyard). She becomes a human-animal-plant. This desire may sound ridiculous, but this is her will. She is at peace with her decision and is starving herself to death, but it is her body and her decision - the more doctors intervene and force her, the more violence is wrought on her tiny form. She becomes a weightless, flickering life-force that is wounded over and over again. One is left to ask whether, without the medical intervention, would she have been able to die with dignity, without so many scars? She dies anyway - we all die anyway.
Yeong-hye’s story made me think of Kafka’s struggle over self in The Metamorphosis and A Hunger Artist. Kafka is perhaps the most famous vegetarian in literary history. In a way familiar to Kang, Kafka does not construct a happy vegetarian story. At tension with some of the famous notions of spirituality and vegetarianism, this life choice doesn’t lead to enlightenment and incurs a lot of suffering. Alongside the desire to no longer harm creatures other then oneself, Kafka and Kang have eloquently posed a very important question, “Why is it such a bad thing to die?”
It is almost certain that my fascination with Kang’s narrative is linked to my own history of anorexia, bulimia nervosa and vegetarianism. Unlike Yeong-hye, I was fortunate enough to survive an encounter with eating disorders and embrace a mostly healthy relationship with plants. I never want to sugar-coat or idealise what I went through, or go back to that painful time in my life. When I least expected it and many years after I triumphed over eating disorders (at Christmas-time in a chocolate-box pretty town), reading The Vegetarian was a core-shaking exploration into my own past agency, submission and subversion.
I was left wondering to what degree do all people have the right to live out their own choices? Surely we can do what we wish to ourselves if this choice does not harm anyone other than ourselves? As is the case with many issues, I find myself tending towards radically libertarian views and am always a champion of self-determination. Nevertheless, I am eternally grateful that someone chose to intervene on my behalf when I was in the grip of a dark, festering pattern of self-harm. I prefer to be robust, and I love food, I would never argue that eating disorders are in any way wise or good for you. I would argue, however, that the definition of insanity is slippery and tenuous, and that western conventions on the therapeutic treatment of some mental disorders is less than desirable. I triumphed over mental illness because I made the decision to heal myself, and to reject medication and professional consultation. I realised that I was the only person inside my own mind, and so I was the only one who could curate a pattern of stability, and wellbeing.
As I grow older, I feel with ever greater conviction that Buddhist wisdom on the ‘art of dying’ is both profound and relevant in the pursuit of sustainable contentment. The more tricks, fads and formulas I encounter around prolonging life and living beautifully (radically over-used marketing tools in the commercialisation of yoga), the more I seek for something self-experiential. What could be more liberating than the whole-hearted embrace of your own inevitability? Yeong-hye did this, in her own quiet way, all she desired was to die on her own terms. I don’t think this is a depressing thought, or even a will towards termination - rather, its an embrace of the fullness of the majestic, cyclical beauty of life.