Sunday, August 07, 2016

Han Kang – ‘The Vegetarian’

The ebook edition of The Vegetarian has two covers: one which appears at first glance to be a tranquil image of flowers, but which contains hidden-in-plain-sight elements relating to the book’s concerns (a tongue, a steak, fingers, a fly, and – I think – a feeding tube). This cover is only visible within the book; the one you see online (and on the paperback) has a cleanly severed bird’s wing overlaid on a purple-veined salad leaf, which conveys something of the pain that Yeong-hye, the protagonist, relates to meat, including the damage done to her own veins over many months of intravenous feeding in hospital, and her identification with vegetation (‘I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide’). This is a book about pain, mental illness, anorexia; about constraints, within society, within relationships, within families; and it is a book about abuse of women by men. It is not really about the abuse of animals by meat-eaters, in much the same way that ‘The Metamorphosis’ is not a story about how badly people treat insects. Split into three sections, told from three perspectives (husband, brother-in-law, sister), we rarely hear from Yeong-hye herself, which makes sense as the story follows her descent into unknowability. Nevertheless, the pacing, which is the really stunning thing about this novel, follows a trajectory that mirrors her mental state, from withdrawal, through abandon, to collapse.

The section narrated by Mr Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband, is almost a comedy of manners, in which rigid South Korean social rules are challenged by her refusal to eat meat, and the withdrawal from wifely duties which follows. They attend a dinner with Mr Cheong’s colleagues and boss, in which her social ineptitude (not wearing a bra, refusing to eat and barely speaking) is a serious embarrassment to him. He tries taking what he wants, raping her in a shockingly casual way, then eventually leaves when it becomes clear that she is not going to return to the role society expects and that he demands. This section is a very spare, pure narrative, following through the single idea that she has renounced meat, seeing where it leads. It’s like Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, which takes the phrase ‘I would prefer not to’, and sees what happens.

The second section, ‘Mongolian Mark’, also unwinds from a single idea (that Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law finds that she has a blue Mongolian mark on her behind, and becomes obsessed with it), but it feels far less constricted by social rules – deliberately transgresses them, in fact. It’s interesting because you can interpret it differently depending on the third section, in which Yeong-hye sinks into mental illness. The brother-in-law, a video artist (who I don’t think is named) dreams of painting her body with flowers, centring on the Mongolian mark. The idea consumes him and he produces sketch after sketch of this, before finally approaching her to do it for real. She agrees, and he does make a beautiful video, before carrying the idea too far and trying to get her to have sex on camera with one of the other artists he shares a space with, who is similarly painted. It is the man who refuses, and the brother-in-law then (after a quick paint job) steps in… It’s all much stranger than the rape in section one, which is perfunctory and small-minded. The flower sex is deeply erotic and blurs all sorts of boundaries, but it is set up to be suspect: the brother-in-law is not only committing adultery with his wife’s sister, he is also neglecting his son, who he was supposed to be looking after on the night it happens. Yeong-hye is more herself during this section of the novel than before or afterwards, but she’s still a relatively blank presence, who is being taken advantage of by a family member. Which is what it all comes back to:
Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings. Such violence wouldn’t have bothered their brother Yeong-ho so much, a boy who went around doling out his own rough justice to the village children. As the eldest daughter, In-hye had been the one who took over from their exhausted mother and made a broth for her father to wash the liquor down, and so he’d always taken a certain care in his dealings with her. Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance.
If you want an explanation, that’s it. But the book doesn’t dwell on it, the point is more in the possibilities and restrictions of each situation: the conventional married couple’s home, the artist’s space, the psychiatric hospital. Behind the first two, male ego. Beyond all three, the mind, which, pushed sufficiently far, can let go its ballast and lift itself out of reach. Of course, losing your mind is not freedom (though losing your life certainly means an end to constraint), but In-hye, left behind in sanity, ends the book jealous of her poor sister:
She’d 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. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

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