In this where Haruki Murakami-meets-Iain Banks-meets-Cormack McCarthy, Han Kang pulls off a spellbinding feat of story telling. ‘The Vegetarian’ arguably has to be one of the bleakest and most impactful novels to have adorned bookshelves in the near past. Han Kang’s mastery is complete in its desolation, sensationally shocking in its disturbance and unsettling in its after effects.
Yeong-hye and her husband Mr.Cheong lead a prosaic existence in the bustling city of Seoul; as prosaic an existence as may be attributed to an ordinary looking man married to a woman plain in her appearance, inhabiting a city that places almost a sadistic degree of value on physical features and attributes. The couple’s mundane existence is rocked when as a result of a vague blood filled dream, Yeong-hye declares herself to be a vegetarian abhorring all forms of meat. A bemused Mr.Cheong, while driven against the wall because of his wife’s transformation tries to secure the help of her family in turning her around. Things come to a boiling head when at a family gathering, Yeong-hye’s father forcibly tries to thrust a chunk of pork belly into his daughter’s mouth. Racked by humiliation and filled with revulsion, Yeong-hye takes a fruit knife and slits her wrist. She is saved in the nick of time with the help of her brother in law.
What follows is a masterpiece in three acts. The extraordinary frustrations of a puzzled and exasperated husband, the torn loyalties of an artist brother in law who with a view to providing vent to his lurid fantasies of eroticism and repressed sexuality, exploits Yeong-hye, in both body and soul, and finally the desperate and last ditch measures initiated by a sister to reach out to her sibling who is fast plummeting into a very abyss of hell.
The book simmers with visceral eroticism, which attracts as well as repels in equal measure. Dystopia rises like a looming spectre out of every page. The character of Yeong-hye resembles a mirage that shimmers in various shapes and hues before evaporating into a space unknown. The genius of the book is to a great extent attributable to its flawless translation. Deborah Smith’s capabilities in this regard are unrivalled as she proves here in impeccable and conclusive fashion. Words are infused with life and imbibed with such potent meaning so as to be even dreadful at times.
It thus comes as no surprise that the jury officiating the Man Booker Shortlist of 2016, decided to bestow the prestigious award to Han Kang’s disturbia. The world of contemporary literature has a new superstar!
“The Vegetarian” – Read it; Relish it; Reel from it!