The copyright page of Kan Hang’s stunning Man Booker International prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian, is about the only thing within the covers that reads like a recipe. The book’s genealogy lists its constituent parts like ingredients:
The coherent and, presumably, stable novel text, Ch’aesikjuuia, published in 2007 grew out of “three separate novelettes” published earlier. The English translation, in turn, appeared in two separate versions—the original, published “in Great Britain, by Portobello Books”, and the “somewhat different” version published in the American paperback edition, to which I will refer throughout the rest of this post.
I pause on such arcana to highlight the degree to which the novel does not address either conventional foodways or alternative dietary choices as the organizing principle in its narrative arc. Instead, this novel provides a multi-perspective depiction of the physical toll of mental illness on its sufferers and those closest to them.
Because cooking and eating are the most mundane of tasks shared by people who cohabit and share a space, a sudden alteration in a person’s habits or preferences in either or both areas, such as the choice to become vegetarian, interrupts the rhythms that govern intimate life. The husband, brother-in-law, and sister of our titular character, Yeong-hye, all question their own assumptions about what constitutes normal consumption and how we use food to gauge our health upon being told of her refusal to eat meat. Mr. Cheong, the unsympathetic husband, observes:
As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. (22)
Though others are more concerned with Yeong-hye’s well-being, nobody questions this assumption that variations from a meat-centric diet are only acceptable as medicinal adjustments to one’s everyday routines.
Rice is by far the most discussed food item within the novel; it is mentioned ten different times across the three sections. Beef and fruit come a close second, each with nine references. The third most-mentioned food item is also a tie between pork and soup, each of which appears eight different times. All told, 48 different food items are mentioned throughout the text. What is the proper reaction to reading about delectable dishes when the eponymous character finds the same disgusting?
The references to food items throughout the novel become problematic especially as Yeong-hye’s crisis worsens. Since food items mentioned span across all alimentary preferences, appealing to vegans and meat-eaters alike, the role of food as sustenance in this novel is to highlight what separates the reader and Yeong-hye’s nightmarish delusions. The reader’s appetite can be aroused, which according to the logic of the narrative means the reader has a healthy hold on everyday life. Yeong-hye’s abstinence separates her reality from ours, and though we have access to the images that haunt her, that situational irony only renders the reader more powerless to stop her inevitable decline.
The significance of the title, then, is that Yeong-hye’s abstinence from consuming animal flesh is the primary way through which others detect there is something wrong. . Several scenes could trigger readers who have struggled with eating disorders and/or suicidal tendencies, so this novel is not for everyone. However, despite its disturbing narrative arc, The Vegetarian’s superb achievement is Kang’s deeply humane portrayal of Yeong-hye’s efforts to heal herself, even if her attempt to find salvation through behavior modification is ultimately misguided. This novel stayed with me long after I turned the last page.
Kang, Han. The Vegetarian. Trans. Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015.