Title: The Vegetarian.
Author: Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith).
Genre: Fiction, literature, feminism, philosophical fiction, sexuality, mental health, art.
Publication Date: 2007.
Summary: Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more "plant-like" existence, commits a shocking act of subversion. As her rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, Yeong-hye spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming - impossibly, ecstatically - a tree. Told from three different perspectives, the novel is a strange exploration of the brutality of desire indulged, and the fatality of desire ignored.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ However, if there wasn't any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground. There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose in fashion catalogues, and she didn't get worked up if I happened to be late for one of our meetings. The paunch that started appearing in my mid-twenties, my skinny legs and forearms that steadfastly refused to bulk up in spite of my best efforts, the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis - I could rest assured that I wouldn't have to fret about such things on her account
♥ Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I'm lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flatting limp across the door. Roll it up and I'm inside, it's inside. 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.
Somehow a way out. Running, running through the valley, then suddenly the woods open out. Trees thick with leaves, springtime's green light. Families picnicking, little children running about, and that smell, that delicious smell. Almost painfully vivid. The babbling stream, people spreading out rush mats to sit on, snacking on kimbap. Barbecuing meat, the sounds of singing and happy laughter.
But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees. Crouch down, don't let anybody see. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.
Chewing on something that felt so real, but couldn't have been, it couldn't. My face, the look in my eyes... my face, undoubtedly, but never seen before. Or no, not mine, but so familiar... nothing makes sense. Familiar and yet not... that vivid, strange, horribly uncanny feeling.
♥ 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. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband's wishes as mine had done.
♥ What shadowy recesses lurked in her mind, what secrets I'd never suspected? In that moment, she was utterly unknowable.
♥ Dreams of murder.
Murderer or murdered... hazy distinctions, boundaries wearing thin. Familiarity bleeds into strangeness, certainty becomes impossible. Only the violence is vivid enough to stick. A sound, the elasticity of the instant when the metal struck the victim's head... the shadow that crumpled and fell gleams cold in the darkness.
They come to me now more times than I can count. Dreams overlaid with dreams, a palimpsest of horror. Violent acts perpetrated by night. A hazy feeling I can't pin down... but remembered as blood-chillingly definite.
Intolerable loathing, so long suppressed. Loathing I've always tried to mask with affection. But now the mask is coming off.
That shuddering, sordid, gruesome, brutal feeling. Nothing else remains. Murderer or murdered, experience too vivid to not be real. Determined, disillusioned. Lukewarm, like slightly cooled blood.
Everything starts to feel unfamiliar. Like I've come up to the back of something. Shut up behind a door without a handle. Perhaps I'm only now coming face-to-face with the thing that has always been here. It's dark. Everything is being snuffed out in the pitch-black darkness.
♥ Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I'm okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round any more. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening - what am I going to gouge?
♥ The thing that hurts is my chest. Something is stuck in my solar plexus. I don't know what it might be. It's lodged there permanently these days. Even though I've stopped wearing a bra, I can feel this lump all the time. No matter how deeply I inhale, it doesn't go away.
Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.
One time, just one more time, I want to shout. I want to throw myself through the pitch-black window. Maybe that would finally get this lump out of my body. Yes, perhaps that might work.
Nobody can help me. Nobody can save me. Nobody can make me breathe.
♥ I looked at my wife's exhausted face, her lips stained with blood like clumsily applied lipstick. Her eyes, which had been staring fixedly at the gathered audience, met mine. They glittered, as though filled with water.
I thought to myself: I do not know that woman. And it was true. It was not a lie. Nevertheless, and compelled by responsibilities which refused to be shirked, my legs carried me towards her, a movement which I could not for the life of me control.
"Darling, what are you doing?" I murmured in a low voice, picking up the hospital gown and using it to cover her bare chest.
"It's hot, so..." She smiled faintly - her familiar smile, a smile which could not have been more ordinary, and which I had believed I knew so well. "It's hot, so I just got undressed." She raised her left hand to shield her forehead from the streaming sunlight, revealing the cuts on her wrist.
"Have I done something wrong?"
I prised open her clenched right hand. A bird, which had been crushed in her grip, tumbled to the bench. It was a small white-eye bird, with feathers missing here and there. Below tooth-marks which looked to have been caused by a predator's bite, vivid red bloodstains were spreading.
♥ He was becoming divided against himself. Was he a normal human being? More than that, a moral human being? A strong human being, able to control his own impulses? In the end, he found himself unable to claim with any certainty that he knew the answers to these questions, though he'd been so sure before.
♥ He shook his head. While J went to get a coffee from the vending machine, he looked around the studio, now no longer his own private space. He put his baseball cap back on, uncomfortable at the thought of his balding crown being on show. Like a cough that tickles the throat, he could feel a long-suppressed yell threatening to burst out from deep inside him. He swept his things into his bag and fled the studio, hurrying towards the lift. In his reflection in the lift's door, which gleamed like a mirror, it looked as though tears were streaming from his bloodshot eyes. However much he combed his memory, he couldn't recall anything like this having happened to him before. Right at that moment, he wanted nothing more than to spit at those red, lined eyes. He wanted to pummel his cheeks until the blood showed through beneath his black beard, and smash his ugly lips, swollen with desire, with the sole of his shoe.
♥ He studied his wife, a picture of responsible compassion as she carefully approached their son with the medicine. She's a good woman, he thought. The kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive.
♥ Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absent-minded, as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn't bright or lighthearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who didn't belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.
♥ She'd gradually put on weight after being admitted to hospital, and she'd eaten well when she'd been staying with him and his wife, thanks to which her breasts had now rounded out into softness. Her waist narrowed sharply, her body hair was fairly sparse, and the overall effect, aside from the line of her thigh, which he felt could have done with being a little rounder, was one of an enticing lack of superfluity. Rather than provoking lust, it was a body that made one want to rest one's gaze quietly upon it.
♥ Slowly she turned to face him, and he saw that her expression was as serene as that of a Buddhist monk. Such uncanny serenity actually frightened him, making him think that perhaps this was a surface impression left behind after any amount of unspeakable viciousness had been digested, or else settled down inside her as a kind of sediment. He reproached himself for having used her as a kind of mental pornography, when she simply had an innocent wish to be naked. All the same, he was unable to deny that the image of her naked was now stamped indelibly on his brain, burned into him like a brand.
&heart; When it was all over, she was crying. He couldn't tell what these tears meant - pain, pleasure, disgust, or some inscrutable loneliness that she would have been no more able to explain than he would have been to understand. He didn't know.
I'm scared, she'd muttered, turned away from him. No, it wasn't that. You're scaring me. At that point he was already slipping into a death-like sleep, so he couldn't be sure if those words had really passed his wife's lips. She might have lain there sobbing for hours in the darkness. He didn't know.
♥ Wearing a fairly chunky brown sweater over shabby jeans, she seemed to have stepped straight out of another season. He stared at her face, which was shiny with sweat, and ran his eyes over the contours of her body. He stood there for a while without calling out to her, wanting to keep her there in freeze-frame. Passers-by flicked uneasy glances towards this man who looked possessed.
♥ The birthmark was thumb-sized, imprinted on the upper left buttock. How could such a thing still be there after all these years? It didn't make any sense. Its pale blue-green resembled that of a faint bruise, but it was clearly a Mongolian mark. It called to mind something ancient, something pre-evolutionary, or else perhaps a mark of photosynthesis, and he realized to his surprise that there was nothing at all sexual about it; it was more vegetal than sexual.
♥ Every time the brush swept over her skin he felt her flesh quiver delicately as if being tickled, and he shuddered. But it wasn't arousal; rather, it was a feeling that stimulated something deep in his very core, passing through him like a continuous electric shock.
♥ Her laughter was faint but lively, seeming to reject nothing and be surprised by nothing.
Only then did he realize what it was that had shocked him when he'd first seen her lying prone on the sheet. This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her - rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented. The sunlight that came splintering through the wide window, dissolving into grains of sand, and the beauty of that body which, though this was not visible to the eyes, was also ceaselessly splintering... the overwhelming inexpressibility of the scene beat against him like a wave breaking on the rocks, alleviating even those terrifyingly unknowable compulsions that had caused him such pain over the past year.
♥ The whole situation was undeniably bizarre, yet she displayed an almost total lack of curiosity, and indeed it seemed that this was what enabled her to maintain her composure no matter what she was faced with. She made no move to investigate the unfamiliar space, and showed none of the emotions that one might expect. It seemed enough for her to just deal with whatever it was that came her way, calmly and without fuss. Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on on the surface. What suggested to him that this might be the case was that, on occasion, her eyes would seem to reflect a kind of violence that could not simply be dismissed as passivity or idiocy or indifference, and which she would appear to be struggling to suppress. Just then she was staring down at her feet, her hands wrapped around the mug, shoulders hunched like a baby chick trying to get warm. And yet she didn't look at all pitiful sitting there; instead, it made her appear uncommonly hard and self-contained, so much so that anyone watching would feel uneasy, and want to look away.
♥ The screen filled with her pale lips, the shadowed hollow above her protruding collarbones, her forehead with her dishevelled hair, and her two empty eyes.
♥ In his mind he sketched her darkened room, and her sliding her naked body, still covered with the brilliant flowers. Between the mattress and the quilt. That body which he had spent so many hours close beside, yet which he had touched only with the tip of his brush.
♥ The walk down the corridor to the child's bedroom felt unusually long. Ji-woo couldn't have been sleeping very deeply, because as soon as he laid him down in the bed he could hear the wet sound of the boy sucking his thumb, a lonely sound in the darkened room.
♥ But in any case, he simply couldn't face the thought of sitting these in that brightly lit apartment, waiting for his wife to come home, only to be confronted with the darkness in her face.
♥ The image of a man and woman, their bodies made brilliant with painted flowers, having sex against a background of unutterable silence. Their shifting limbs natter-of-fact in that vacuum. A progression of scenes lurching from violence to tenderness, with no extreme left unexplored. One stripped-down, drawn-out moment of quiet purification, extremity sublimated into some kind of peace.
♥ It wasn't as though he'd previously been blind to the beauty of colour, but still. It felt as though his body was brimming with their intense hues, all this latent energy inside him - it was almost unbearable. He was living with a new intensity.
♥ She laughed. Faintly, as if there was nothing she wouldn't do, as if limits and boundaries no longer held any meaning for her. Or else, as if in quiet mockery.
♥ I wish I were dead.
I wish I were dead.
Unable to understand why the tears were streaming down his face, he clutched the steering wheel and set the wipers to frequent, only to realize that it wasn't the windscreen that was blurred but his own vision. He couldn't understand why the words "I wish I were dead" were ceaselessly being hammered out inside his head like an incantation. Nor could he understand why the words "so die" would inevitably follow, as though the response was coming from someone inside him, and yet not him. And he couldn't understand how that simple mantra, like a conversation between two strangers, could be sufficient to calm his shuddering body.
♥ She's always been hot-tempered. He was suddenly glad of her vitality, of her strong character which he had at one time found somewhat wearying. A sudden impulse to embrace her gripped him, then faded away as abruptly as it had come. Just the vague memory of an old emotion.
♥ Forever, he gasped, all of this forever, as an unendurable sense of satiation shuddered through his body and she burst into tears. She who hadn't let slip a single moan in close on thirty minutes, whose lips had merely trembled at times, who had kept her eyes closed and communicated her keen ecstasy to him purely through the movements of her body. And now it had to end. He raised himself into a sitting position. Still clasping her to him, he moved over to the camcorder, groped for the button and switched it off.
The image he'd wanted to capture on film had to be one that could be repeated over and over, forbidden either to end or to come to a climax. And so, this was where the filming had to stop. He waited until her sobs had subsided before laying her back down on the sheet. In their final minutes of sex she gnashed her teeth, screamed rough and shrill, spat out a panting "stop" and then, at the end, she cried again.
And then everything grew quiet.
♥ Suddenly it felt to him that he had grown old, had experienced everything there was to experience, and that not even death held any fear for him any more.
She thrust her glittering golden breasts over the veranda railing. Her legs were covered with scattered orange petals, and she spread them wide as though she wanted to make love to the sunlight, to the wind. He heard the sounds of the approaching ambulance siren, of screams, sighs, the yells of children, all the commotion of the alleyway down below. The sound of feet hurrying up the stairs, coming closer.
He had to rush out onto the veranda, now, and throw himself over the railing against which she was leaning. He would fall down three floors and smash his head to pieces. It was the only way. The only way to make a clean end of all this. And yet he kept on standing there as if rooted to the spot, as if this was the final moment of his life, staring fixedly at the blazing flower that was her body, that body which now glittered with images so much more intense than those he had filmed during the night.
♥ She watches the streaks of rain lashing the window, with the untouched steadiness unique to those accustomed to solitude.
♥ Only after she had hung up did it occur to her that the rain she had seen all day must have been pouring down on the mountain where Yeong-hye had been found too. An indiscriminate connection, their existences briefly aligned.
♥ What seemed to be happening was that Yeong-hye was retreating from herself, becoming as distant to herself as she was to her sister. A forlorn face, behind a mask of composure. This was clearly nothing like the melancholy that sometimes afflicted her husband, and yet in certain respects they were both baffling to her in exactly the same way. They were both descending further into silence.
♥ Time was a wave, almost cruel in its relentlessness as it whisked her life downstream, a life which she had to constantly strain to keep from breaking apart.
..Even as a child, In-hye had possessed the innate strength of character necessary to make one's own way in life. As a daughter, as an older sister, as a wife and as a mother, as the owner of a shop, even as an underground passenger on the briefest of journeys, she had always done her best. Through the sheer inertia of a life lived in this way, she would have been able to conquer everything, even time.
♥ She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. 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.
♥ If only one's eyes weren't visible to others, she thinks. If only one could hide one;s eyes from the world.
♥ In-hye couldn't hold herself back any longer: "You!" she yelled. "I'm acting like this because I'm afraid you're going to die!"
Yeong-hye turned her head and stared blankly at In-hye, as though the latter were not her sister but a complete stranger. After a while, the question came.
"Why, is it such a bad thing to die?"
♥ There'd been a time when she could spend hours like this, weighing up all the variables that might have contributed to determining Yeong-hye's fate. Of course it was entirely in vain, this act of mentally picking up and counting the paduk stones that had been laid out on the board of her sister's life.
♥ Opposite the platform was a row of temporary buildings, their steel structures now decaying, and wild grasses straggling up between the sleepers on the edges over which no rains passed. The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her success had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely. She didn't understand why, but faced with those decaying buildings and straggling grasses, she was nothing but a child who had never lived.
♥ Everything would be fine as long as she just kept going, just carried on with her life as she always had done. In any case, there was no other way.
♥ It was the kind of thing she liked to wear when she was ill or just not feeling her best; even though she'd washed it countless times, that milk-and-newborn-baby smell still gave her a sense of security. But this time it didn't work. The pain in her chest got worse, Her breathing grew shallow, and she had to make an effort to try and breathe more deeply.
She sat down on the sofa. Her eyes followed the second hand on the clock as it ticked round, and she made another effort to regulate her breathing. To her surprise, there was still no improvement. A feeling of déjà vu crept up on her then, a feeling of having already experienced this same moment countless times. The proof of her internal pain had been set in front of her as though this was something she'd spent a long time preparing for, as though she'd been waiting tor just this moment.
All of this is meaningless.
I can't take it any more.
I can't go on any longer.
I don't want to.
She took one more look around at the various objects inside the house They did not belong to her. Just like her life had never belonged to her.
Her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance, no more real than a television drama. Death, who now stood by her side, was as familiar to her as a family member, mussing for a long time but now returned.
♥ The pain feels like a hole swallowing her up, a source of intense fear and yet, at the same time, a strange, quiet peace.
♥ The only times when the pain simply, miraculously ceases, are those moments just after she laughs. Something Ji-woo says or does makes her laugh, and then immediately afterwards she is left blank, empty even of pain. At such times, the sheer fact of her having laughed seems unbelievable, and makes her laugh again. Admittedly, this laughter always seems more manic than happy, but Ji-woo loves to see it all the same.
"Was this it, Mum? Was this what made you laugh?"
Then Ji-woo will repeat whatever it is he'd just been doing, such as pursing his lips and using his hands to mimic a horn growing out of his forehead, or else making a clattering sound, sticking his head between his legs and calling out "Mum, Mum!" in a silly voice. The more she laughs, the more he ups the ante with his clowning. By the time he finishes he will have run through all the secret mysterious of laughter that human beings have ever understood, mobilizing everything at his disposal. There is no way for him to know how guilty it makes his mother feel, seeing such a young child go to such lengths just to wring a bit of apparent happiness from her, or that her laughter will all eventually run out.
Life is such a strange thing, she thinks, once she has stopped laughing. Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on eating and drinking, going to the toilet and washing themselves - living, in other words. And sometimes they even laugh out loud. And they probably have these same thoughts, too, and when they do it must make them cheerlessly recall all the sadness they'd briefly managed to forget.
But lying next to the small, tanned body of her son, after sleep draws itself down over his guiltless young face, the night begins again for her. A time when there isn't either sight nor sound of any other living thing. As long as eternity, as bottomless as a swamp. If she curls up in the empty bathtub and closes her eyes, the dark woods close in around her. The dark lines of rain drill into Yeong-hye's body like spears, her skinny bare feet are coveted in mud. When In-hye shakes her head to dispel the image, summer trees in broad daylight flicker in front of her eyes like huge green fireworks. Is this because of the hallucination Yeong-hye told her about? The innumerable trees she's seen over the course of all her life. The undulating forests which blanket the continents like a heartless sea, envelop her exhausted body and lift her up. Only fragments of cities, small towns and roads are visible, floating on the roof of the forest like islands or bridges, slowly being swept away somewhere, borne on those warm waves.