From the presence of a character who obsesses over a body part/birthmark to ‘mundane’ characters being involved in the strange transformation of another character, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a book that reminds me most of Haruki Murakami’s works. Although perhaps not as enthralling as most Murakami stories (something I’ve yet to comprehend properly, especially now that I’ve read a book that gives off a similar vibe), there is no denying that The Vegetarian has its own allure as well.
The story begins with the point of view of Yeong-Hye’s husband before continuing with her brother-in-law’s perspective, and ends with her sister’s. The man who witnesses the beginning of Yeong-Hye’s change, followed by the man who indulged in Yeong-Hye’s metamorphosis, and lastly, the women who sees the end of it. As complicated as it may sound, this book is actually a surprisingly easy read. The pacing is quick and that works out really well for most of the story, though I found it rather messy in the third part due to what seems like a sudden increase in more time skips. Furthermore, the imagery here is very vivid, and both the metaphors and similes used are wonderfully unusual. I’ve never heard or read anyone describing the colour of something with “deep ox-blood” or the colour of dried blood as “the dark, matt burgundy of red bean soup” (p.55 and p.72). Using such imagery, especially the latter of which I’ve mentioned, certainly put me off of my liking towards red bean soup.
Other than that, I’ve learnt that the taboos regarding mental illnesses in the Korean and the Chinese cultures aren’t really that different. Despite how mental illnesses are becoming more common (or rather, we hear, read and see more of it today), I still witness my people dismissing it as a figment of imagination. They talk about it as though it’s prohibited by law—that depression is something conjured up by the depressed because they have too much free time in their hands, or that schizophrenia is merely caused by someone making a mountain out of every molehill. That manic depression is a bullshit excuse for someone who simply is either ‘temperamental’ or ‘volatile’. Should there be a family member with a mental illness, the possibility of the ‘normal’ cutting off the ‘alien’ is very likely—just like how most of Yeong-Hye’s family refuse to contact her after her condition worsened. There is more truth to “those probing gazes, that mix of suspicion, caution, repugnance, and curiosity” than I’d ever like (p.123).
Truthfully, it’s difficult for me to understand and draw up my own meaning for The Vegetarian, which is perhaps due to the fact that the normal methods I use to decipher Murakami’s works don’t work well here. With that said, I’m rather at lost at what the ending of The Vegetarian can possibly mean. I understand that In-Hye has maybe realised why her sister became what she became—that Yeong-Hye’s mental illness could’ve been triggered by a single dream after bottling up years and years of emotions and such. I understand the other surface meanings to the story, but what about the deeper ones? The ones that requires some long and complicated thoughts which a reader can possibly attach to a story?
All in all, The Vegetarian is certainly an interestingly strange book. I can’t call it beautiful since I could neither find or conclude and attach more profound meanings to the story, nor could strong emotions and abstruse thoughts be evoked from me while I read it. However, it’s still a refreshing enough read. I definitely liked the first part best out of the three of them, even though I still don’t understand what the last part of “As she entered the room she stretched out her foot and calmly pushed the door to” means because I’m pretty sure that there’s a word missing (p.8).