Commentary on The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (New York: Hogarth Press, 2015)
“Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion.” (From James Baldwin’s talk “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” (1963)
“When we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” (From Hermann Hesse’s Wanderings: Notes and Sketches)[i]
Trees surround me in the East Mountain foothills of Cascade, Idaho, where I am writing this essay on Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. To the trees I have been listening as closely as a naturalist meditator might and yet it’s been difficult for me to determine from them, in their mystical silence, what approach to take in either appreciating or explicating Han Kang’s Man-Booker International Prize winning novel. Great is the desire of Yeong-hye, the vegetarian of the title, to become a tree, to bond with the earth as a vegetal creature rather than a carnal human being. As surely as changing into a huge insect, changing into a vegetable or an arboreal creature will set one apart from those one wishes to escape from.
How bizarre can a story be in which metamorphosis into plant-hood becomes a developmental aspect of a main character! Before the story concludes, not only does Yeong-hye disappear in the plant world, but also the despairing sister, In-hye, formerly inimical to Yeong-hye’s maniacal changing nature, likewise adopts a proclivity to tree life and wishes to be fully enveloped:
“There is no way for In-hye to know … what those trees she’d seen at the end of the narrow mountain path, clustered together like green flames in the early-morning half-light, had been saying.
Whatever it was, there had been no warmth in it. Whatever the words were, they hadn’t been words of comfort, words that would help her pick herself up. Instead they were merciless, and the trees that had spoken them were a frighteningly chill form of life. Even when she turned about on the spot and searched in all directions, In-hye hadn’t been able to find a tree that would take her life from her. Some of the trees had refused to accept her. They’d just stood there, stubborn and solemn yet alive as animals, bearing up the weight of their own massive bodies.” (p. 174-75. All page references to the edition above.)
What is going on here?
Not used to reading a work three times—twice, yes—I felt I had overlooked with first readings minute but important phrases and hints of subtle meaning in The Vegetarian. This novel deserved a serious study. No cognitive difficulty appears anywhere in terms or diction difficult to comprehend, although the trivia word philtrum (the crease between the nose and upper lip) is used by the otherwise doltish husband Mr. Cheong. The style of composition is rather simple and ordinary, brief but not pithy enough to be Hemingwayesque. Some scenes are drawn dramatically as serious melodrama: attempted suicide by wrist slashing at a family dinner, intensions to throw oneself over a veranda, discovery by a pathetic wife of her husband’s erotic/artistic engagement with her sister. And there are lots of bizarre dreams, horrific with blood-spilling. For example: “A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past, but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin.” (Italics in original text, p. 20)
Uncanny is a word that came to mind as I reconsidered many features of the novel, aside from the cathectic bonding of human beings with trees. The genre in which to classify the novel is not easy, this strange hybrid, fluctuating between modern realistic domestic drama and psychotic horror of hallucinations, surreal dreamscapes and relations to folk-tale metamorphosis. Folk-tale and consequently surreal modern fiction, Kafka and Ionesco, seem to be motivating forces. In researching some elements of Korean folktale, I suspected that imaginative and literal metamorphosis did play a significant role, for I had read many Chinese and Japanese folk tales.[ii] Im Bang (b. 1640) notes the following:
“The Fox.—Orientals say that among the long-lived creatures are the tortoise, the deer, the crane and the fox, and that these long-lived ones attain to special states of spiritual refinement. If trees exist through long ages they become coal; if pine resin endures it becomes amber; so the fox, if it lives long, while it never becomes an angel, or spiritual being, as a man does, takes on various metamorphoses, and appears on earth in various forms.” (The Story of the Fox)[iii]
An example from a contemporary Japanese novel also confirms the fascination with metamorphosis. A 115-year-old grandfather, Yoshiro, is left to take care of his new-born grandson, Mumei, after his daughter-in-law Amana dies following childbirth. The son, a drug addict, also abandons the boy. When the “specialists in preservation” at the morgue notice an unusual ‘unwelcome’ change in the woman’s corpse, they asked Yoshiro for permission to dissect the body and preserve it for research. They escorted the old man to the body:
“Unable to believe what he was seeing, Yoshiro gasped and hung his head, covering the nose and mouth with one hand. When he cautiously looked up again, he discovered that this time, the sight of his daughter-in-law didn’t shock him nearly so much. The body, in fact, was rather beautiful. Later, however, he found it impossible to reproduce exactly what he had seen. For in his memory the body continued to mature, to change. The center of the face grew sharper, changing into a bird’s beak. The shoulders became more muscular, sprouting feathers like a white swan’s. In time, the toes sharpened into chicken’s feet.” (p.72)[iv]
There is obvious ambiguity in the Japanese passage, as to whether the old man actually saw a metamorphosed body of a woman or whether his mind played tricks from his fear to take a careful look at the transformed corpse. Nevertheless, the description without doubt implies a metamorphosis of a woman into a winged swan-like bird.
Shucking off human carnality and freeing oneself of the mortal flesh, a very Buddhist concept, is lurking as some spiritual motivation of Yeong-hye that might appear—does appear to most—as madness, when taken to heart and understood as a possibility. Yeong-hye wishes, as she states, to escape from her dreams, do away with her delusions, manifestations of a late on-set of mental illness. Mr. Cheong, who admits he really didn’t have a clue about his wife’s behavior, considers her motives with a nod to Buddhism:
“Of course, Buddhist priests who have taken certain vows are morally obliged not to participate in the destruction of life, but surely not even impressionable young girls take it quite that far. As far as I was concerned the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were a desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.” (p. 22)
Not only does Yeong-hye’s body shrink and grow slender from the new diet, but because she eventually refuses to eat at all, she surely intends to fade away, die, or wither like the Cumaean Sibyl. By fasting, she is attempting to disappear altogether, which puts her in the class of that strange figure of Franz Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist.” Yeong-hye tells her sister, who constantly brings gifts of food to tempt her, that it is not a special food she desires—not even vegetables, tofu, or fruits—but that she does not like eating: “…her voice sounds like the roar of some savage beast. ‘I . . . don’t . . . like it! I . . . don’t . . . like . . . eating!’” (I will consider the comparison with Kafka’s surrealism in a future essay.)
Without doubt, many readers East and West will be horrified by the ugly aesthetics of Han’s narrative, even though surreal and violent effects have been common in children’s reading of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and myths of many cultures, ancient and modern. Put in what seems at first to be a realistic psychological novel of a family drama, however, the brutal and violent scenes that accumulate, whether of blood-dripping dream narratives, abusive psychological crises, pornographic, artistic exploitation, and abusive hospital treatment, may very well disgust and repel tender-hearted readers. I have heard of two people who discontinued reading The Vegetarian once they came upon the ugly passages, claiming them to be “too dark.” For all our indulgence in sex, violence and ugliness in our TV and movies, there are many who cannot tolerate brutal esthetics in slow, intimate reading. For example, if one were reading after dinner, before bedtime, what would the following descriptive scene do for one’s digestion?:
“She [Yeong-hye, his wife] was crouching, still wearing her nightclothes, her disheveled hair a shapeless mass around her face. Around her, the kitchen floor was covered with plastic bags and airtight containers, scattered all over so that there was nowhere I could put my feet without treading on them. Beef for shabu-shabu, belly pork, two sides of black beef shin, some squid in a vacuum-packed bag, sliced eel my mother-in-law had sent us from the countryside ages ago, dried croaker tied with yellow string, unopened packs of frozen dumplings, and endless bundles of unidentified stuff dragged from the depths of the fridge.” (p. 17)
We are spared the words offal, tripes, and, last, bowels of the fridge, but we get the point that the awful food display is not supposed to be a reader’s delight. Such aesthetics of disgust are frequently exploited by the author, not to prove that a woman can indulge in such writing as the Great White Men of literature, and certainly not to turn the reader away from her work, but because Han obviously feels the gritty aesthetics are essential for making a profound impression upon the reader’s mind. It is an element of raw art. Han takes her art to a deeper level of questionable aesthetics, namely, the cruelty of sado-masochism, for which the surrealists had acquired a peculiar taste in matters of desire and shocking insensitivity. (Consider the strange, repulsive scenes of Salvador Dali’s and Luis Bunuel’s 1929 film Un Chien Andalou.) In a minor dissertation on brutal aesthetics in a recent book review, Merve Emre has referenced Jean Genet’s ugly aesthetics as “a cruel pleasure”: “Aestheticism’s seductiveness was not just its appeal to beauty but its exaltation of cruelty as the essence of art.”[v] Han’s work is not a simple imitation of anyone else’s art in this regard, and neither can it be said to be an imitation of a reality we have become accustomed to. I mean, in the matter of escaping from the inhumane social world by transforming oneself into a vegetal species, radically different from the mammalian class.
[As an aside, I will offer plausibility for dreams affecting the diet of a person changing from carnivore to vegetarian in the experience of my own son. In law school, during a course on animal rights, after watching videos of mistreated poultry and cattle, slipshod methods of butchering and sloppy hygiene in meat-packing, my son announced to us he was no longer going to eat meats, poultry, and dairy. Fish, perhaps, but no other blooded animals, farmed for food markets. His sleep had been disturbed through that period by sickening dreams of animal cruelty and butchery. In Yeong-hye’s dreams, the story of the tortured dog and the eating of cooked canine would have been enough to do the trick for me, also.]
Translation as interpretation
One general, uncanny aspect of our June 2018 selection (Bill Hagens’ choice) is that the English reader becomes aware of the Korean tri-part story through a translation, an interpretation or a transformation, a creation in its own right, which must be accepted as is. There has been a number of reviews that cast doubt on the reliability of the version translator Deborah Smith has offered as a fair representation of Han’s Korean style and perhaps content.[vi] Readers of English just have to make do with the work as we have it, with all the compliments of admirers and the supreme endorsement of the Man-Booker judges. Even when Mr. Cheong has a nightmare, he describes it in strange, childish English by my reading:
“In my dream, I was killing someone. I thrust a knife into their [sic] stomach with all my strength and wrenched out the long, coiled-up intestines. Like eating fish, I peeled off the squishy flesh and muscle and left only the bones [I assume left from the whole corpse]. But in the very instant I woke up, I ceased to remember who it was I killed.
“It was early in the morning, still dark. Driven by a strange compulsion, I pulled back the blanket covering my wife. I fumbled in the pitch-black darkness, but there was no watery blood, no ripped intestines. … my wife was unnaturally silent. I felt an odd trembling inside myself, and reached out with my index finger to touch her philtrum. She was alive.” (p.57)
Such strange, childish language, except for the erudite “philtrum,” and rather redundant phrasing—for example, “pitch-black darkness. “watery blood.” Why would Yeong-hye put up with such an uninteresting, uncaring husband, who had no feeling of love for her and did not have deep curiosity about her changing nature? She was a mystery to him and had become a mystery to the whole family by her daring acts of willful disobedience and rejection of their demands upon her. Her radical desire for refuge from the cruel people in her life made her take extreme measures to fade into otherness of Nature.
So she seems to thwart society by turning into a vegetarian. Uncanny? It did not seem so to me in the words of first-person narrator, Mr. Cheong. This can happen without a great disruption to the marriage of sensible people. However, he was intolerant of his wife in many ways. But why, I asked myself, this appalling degree of rejection? The inimical and violent rejection the young wife, Yeong-hye, receives for her change of heart regarding diet and nutrition is almost beyond plausibility. Why would her family, her husband Mr. Cheong, her father, mother, sister and brother, in these modern times, vehemently deny her the change to vegetarianism or, essentially what her change is, to vegan-hood? Changing into a vegetarian is certainly not as radical, nor surreal, as Gregor Samsa’s changing into a giant beetle, as in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. However, Yeong-hye does take a radical turn of mind in retreating from human carnality toward actually wanting to become vegetal–a flower, a plant, or a tree.
This emerges more so in Part 2, “Mongolian Mark.” It is there her brother-in-law artist describes her as tree-like:
“… her drab clothes, her androgynously protruding cheekbones. She might be called ugly in comparison with his wife, but to him she radiated energy, like a tree that grows in the wilderness, denuded and solitary” (p.71)
In admiring the Mongolian mark, the brother-in-law describes it as “… something ancient, something pre-evolutionary, or else a mark of photosynthesis, and he realized to his surprise there was nothing at all sexual about it, it was more vegetal than sexual.” (p. 90)
Another example takes the metaphor somewhat deeper:
“Her calm acceptance of all these things made her seem to him [brother-in-law artist] something sacred. Whether human, animal or plant, she could not be called a ‘person’ but then she wasn’t exactly some feral creature either—more like a mysterious being with qualities of both.” (p. 95)
Tree Maidens and Saplings
It was significant to me that the gradual transformation through metaphor became more emphatically botanical. My mind flitted to plant-maidens from mythology. The brother-in-law has an Odyssean eye in his analogy of Yeong-hye with that of a tree or plant. In earliest Western literature, Odysseus, after he lands on Phaiacia, awakens naked in a river bank. He hears cries and spies the beautiful Nausicaa, princess of Alcinoüs’ kingdom. In his compromised state, Odysseus wonders what to say to greet Nausicaa, gracefully dancing and playing games with her maidens. The man of many wiles and transformations, Odysseus speaks in admiration of her beauty. First, he does hyperbolize by comparing her to the beauty of the maiden goddess Artemis. However, it comes as a surprise to most readers that, best of all, he can think of nothing she compares to better in all his memory than a palm shoot he once saw in the precinct of Delos, Apollo’s shrine:
“Just once, at Delos,
beside Apollo’s altar, have I seen
a tender palm-shoot rise so gracefully….
And just as, when I saw that palm, my wonder
was piercing, lasting, for no trunk
has ever grown from earth to match that tree, so lady,
I marvel at you, am amazed; my fear
is deep—I plead but dare not clasp your knees.” (Odyssey, Bk. VI, vv.162-174)[vii]
The other myth from Greek mythology that came to mind was the literal metamorphosis of mountain-nymph, Daphne, who evaded Apollo’s courtship. When the rapacious god—Apollo was not always the god of Reason—chased the unwilling nymph toward a river’s edge, she called upon her father, Peneius, the river god, to transform her so that lustful Apollo would not violate her. Her father clothed her in soft laurel bark, her arms became branches, hair became foliage of the canopy, and her toes and feet became entwined roots.[viii] Therefore, in ancient literature one has no trouble to find fascination with the human to plant metaphor or even complete metamorphosis.
Yeong-hye’s Daphne Complex
If Mr. Cheong can in any way be likened to the bossy, lustful Apollo, Yeong-hye’s transformation was chosen in part to escape the bullying predation of men. Among other things, she says she couldn’t stand her husband’s sweaty smell of meat. (p. 24) Her punitive father, who Mr. Cheong tells us whipped Yeong-hye on her calves until she was eighteen, may have forced her into the arms of the first—even uncaring—man she found, and now for her life’s sake she needs to escape the doldrums of stifling, crude, and unwanted domesticity. The ancient commentators did not interpret Daphne’s metamorphic escape in this manner, certainly not as a fear or dread of men and sexuality; though, she wanted to preserve her virginity from rape. For them it was as much a story to explain Apollo’s favoring the golden leaves of the laurel tree for his victory wreath.
In the sanatorium, Part 3 “Flaming Trees,” Yeong-hye begins to explicitly explain her affiliation with trees. Descending to upright position from a head-stand, she excitedly informs her sister In-hye, who had, as usual, brought some food to help nourish Yeong-hye, what she has discovered:
“I thought trees stood up straight . . . I only found out just now. They actually stand with both arms in the earth, all of them. Look, look over there, aren’t you surprised? … All of them, they’re standing on their heads. … Do you know how I found out? Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head . . . leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my body . . . so I dug down into the earth. On and on . . . I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch, so I spread my legs; I spread them wide . . . “
Bewildered, In-hye looked across at Yeong-hye’s feverish eyes.
“I need to water my body. I don’t need this kind of food, sister. I need water.” (p. 153-54)
The metaphor of a human being becoming, or wishing to become, a plant or a tree is not such a stretch, but literalizing such a transformation as a full metamorphosis can be considered quite far-fetched. That is enough imagining to give meaning to the term surreal that has been frequently applied to the novel. For instance, consider the following example: [NB. This example, radically shocking, may be a test for some readers because of its sensationalistic effects.]
[Re: the sexual act between the artist and Yeong-hye] “A dazzling light came from her naked body, making him squint, and he couldn’t see the area above her breasts—as though the source of the light was somewhere around her face. He spread her legs; her thighs parted with an ease that could only mean she was awake. A green sap, like that which oozes from bruised leaves, began to flow out from her vagina when he entered her. The acrid sweetness of the grass was so pungent he found it difficult to breathe. When he pulled out on the point of climax, he saw the whole of his penis was stained green. A blackish paste was smeared over his skin from the lower stomach to his thighs, a fresh sap which could have come from him or her.” (p. 103-4)
The last of these examples, certainly not attractively erotic in style, but rather very startling, is a marked instance of the ugly or brutal aesthetics that appear frequently throughout the stories of each part of the novel. Ron Powers interpreted this as realistic: Yeong-hye, already her body painted with colorful flower forms, had used a filled green-paint brush head like a dildo to masturbate with, and thus the issue was really dark mucus that coated and colored her brother-in-law’s penis during sexual congress.[ix] Other possible ways of construing the passage might be as follows: Is it a wholly imagined transformation or mutation of humans into partial plant form in the brother-in-law artist’s fascinated dream-state? For him it is a surreal hallucination. Or, in an ambiguous stylistic effect, are mature readers intended to “see” it as magic realism to impress them with the possibility, as a child might feel in reading a fantastic metamorphosis in a fairy story or myth?
Taken as a hallucination, the imagery of the sex scene is horrifically similar to the series of Yeong-hye’s bloody dreams that are interspersed throughout Mr. Cheong’s first-person narrative of Part 1 (“The Vegetarian”). Other readers, like me, will think the dreams more sensationalist and violent, but they are surely intended as artistically aesthetic–art brut. Surely they are horrific in intent, but I found the first three dreams messy to the point of overkill. Fragmentary horror scenes with much spurting blood. Repetitions about things bloody—pierced bodies, bloody hands, bloody face, slimy mucus, etc.—become weak in effect through frquency; the dream descriptions went on too long and were, as horror writing, somewhat clichéd. Horror and blood-letting scenes, as with sexual pornographic scenes, may these days often seem merely vulgar and clichéd for many readers. Too much of our “arts” are soaked in blood. Not so many, however, are soaked in green vegetable goo.
The change from omnivore to vegan is a change that many people experience in our time, and a realistic fiction might be made of such a story. What else is intended in telling the story of Yeong-hye’s transformation is what made me read the novel and then study it, combing it for meaning and motivation. It has much to say about a family’s ignorance and denial, about male exploitation of women, and about the on-set of mental illness. In this last regard, it exposes further social ignorance and even professional medical inadequacy to treat a mentally ill patient.
[In Part 2, “Metamorphoses and ‘The Vegetarian,’” I will continue to examine the human to plant metamorphosis in other literatures.]
David Gilmour, August 17, 2018
[i] Translated by James Wright, 1972. I came upon this quote in Brainpickings,com by Maria Popova, July 22, 2018.
[ii] Korean Folk Tales: Imps, Ghosts and Fairies, translated from the Korean of Im Bang and Yi Ryuk by James S Gale (New York: E. F. Dutton, 1913). This one is from the University of Idaho Library online archives. Another Ebook version, same working title, not photocopied, is available on Gutenberg Project site.
[iii] Same translation as above: Imps, Ghosts, and Fairies. Project Gutenberg EBOOK of Korean Folk Tale, by Im Bang and Yi Ryuk: Release Date: January 22, 2016 [EBOOK #51002] p.26.
[iv] From The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, Translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani (New York: New Directions Publishing, c2018).
[v] “Of Note: Rachel Cusk’s Unforgiving Eye.” Harper’s Magazine (June 2018), p. 89-94. Merve Emre adds a statement of her own to that of Theodore Adorno: “’In aesthetic forms, cruelty becomes imagination,’ proclaimed Adorno. ‘Something is excised from the living, the body of language, from tone, from visual experience.’ Good art was imitation; great art was highway robbery.’” p. 89.
[vi] One clearly explicated critique come from a Korean, Charse Yun, “How the bestseller ‘The Vegetarian,’ translated from Han Kang’s original, caused an uproar in South Korea” LA Times, September 22, 2017. . Reviews from The New Yorker were very critical of the inadequacy of the translation. Tim Parks’ “Raw and Cooked” (New York Review of Books, June 20, 2016) likewise composed an excellent review of the translation question and the uneven style and content. The New Yorker also had a complaining article about Kang’s novel “Han Kang and the Complexity of Translation (January 15, 2018). Alexandra Alter, “’The Vegetarian,’ a Surreal South Korean Novel,” writes of the baffling effect the work had on critics and on herself (New York Times, February 2, 2016).
[vii]The Odyssey of Homer: A New Verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
[viii] Ovid’s The Metamorphoses (Bk. 1, vv. 548-552) is where one finds the fullest version the Daphne tale (the complete fable, Bk I, vv. 452-567).
[ix] In an email, received August 19, 2018, with helpful comments about the ideas in this enclosed essay.