The Vegetarian by Han Kang: Flesh and Blood of The Past

Mr. Cheong lives an unremarkable life: applied a college which he knew he would be approved in, got a conventional job, then married an indefferent woman named Yeong-hye. He believes that marrying her is a perfect decision. The only unusual thing about her is only that she doesn’t like wearing bra no matter where and what occasion. Apart from it, years of their marriage seemed just like what he thought: predictable—if not mediocre—as he always expects.

Until one day, his wife decided to stop eating meat right after having a bad dream. It’s really odd, because she and her family are really good at serving meaty South Korean dishes and it is one of the things that comes out of his mind while thinking about his family-in-law. How eloquent his wife’s and sister-in-law hands while cutting meats. That one bad dream leads to series of bloody nightmares which in turn distance her both to the world and her sense of self.

What I like about The Vegetarian is it has three different point of views: one from Yeong-hye husband; next from her brother-in-law; and from third-person but focuses on her sister In-hye.

Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is a video artist. He has no jobs other than that and his artistic endeavors don’t contribute any penny to his wife and his son. Unlike everybody, he Yeong-hye’s defiance really interesting. He sees her puzzling behaviour more alluring than her older sister who are busy living a conventional life working at a cosmetic store.

In-hye is a career woman who seemed know everything what she wants. By her perspective we will know what happened to Yeong-hye which made her doing series of irrational behaviours. She loves her younger sister as much as she loves her own son even though it is more complicated to the former than the latter. Taking care of her younger sister also widen her wounds regarding to her past.

This book doesn’t make me want to become a vegetarian (again), nor it makes me see meat-eating as undesirable activity. It has nothing to do with environmental issues nor one’s physical health. It is a story of repressed emotions. How the seed from our past may grow into the forest of things we can’t escape from. The story becomes more surreal and depressing through the end.

This winner of 2016 Man Booker International Prize makes me really interested to read other South Korean novels especially by Han Kang herself. I wish this book would a little bit longer and the male’s characters were more alive and had more depths. Two main male characters which are Yeong-hye’s husband and brother-in-law just like the opposites. Therefore they only tell the same story of the same person with reversed perspectives. It could be more engaging if Yeong-hye’s brother whose present is absent also contribute more in the story, or even better: told his own point of view.

I was a halfway through this novel while visiting Jogja Library Center. The library’s collections match together with its atmosphere: mainly old archives. The quiet and vintage-ish helped me to feel like in South Korea at least for a bit, to be at In-Hye’s side and finished this book. I let the sun kissed my skin, who knows I will become a tree with its own history.

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