Originally published as three separate novellas, the second of which secured the prestigious Yi Sang prize, The Vegetarian has by now been translated as far afield as Poland and Vietnam, Argentina and Portugal. Set in contemporary South Korea, the story follows a young wife’s refusal to eat meat and the varied, often violent, reactions this provokes in those around her. Han Kang’s poetic sensibility comes through in the jagged fragments of her protagonist Yeong-hye’s thoughts, which irrupt throughout the main narrative, and transgression slides towards transformation as the young woman dreams of becoming a plant. The Vegetarian is published in January 2015 by Portobello Books.
The sunny south-facing apartment was on the seventeenth floor. True, the view out east was obscured by other buildings, but to the rear the mountains were visible in the distance.
‘Now you’ve forgotten all your worries,’ my father-in-law pronounced, taking up his spoon and chopsticks. ‘Completely seized the moment!’
Even before she got married, my sister-in-law In-hye had managed to secure an apartment with the income she received from managing a cosmetics store. Leading up to her pregnancy, the store had expanded to three times its original size, and after the birth she insisted on stopping by – only at night, and just for a short while – to make sure that everything was running smoothly in her absence. As soon as my nephew Ji-woo turned 3 and went to a nursery, she’d apparently started spending all day in the shop again.
I envied her husband. He was an art college graduate who liked to pose as an artist, yet didn’t contribute a single penny to their household finances. True, he had some property that he’d inherited, but he didn’t bring in a salary – in fact, his activities were limited to sitting around and not doing an awful lot of anything. Now that In-hye had rolled up her sleeves and gone back to work, her husband was free to spend his whole life messing about with ‘art’, without a single worry to trouble his comfortable existence. Not only that, but In-hye was also a skilled cook, just as my wife used to be. Seeing the lunch table she had swiftly set made me feel a sudden pang of hunger. Taking in her nicely filled-out figure, big, double-lidded eyes, and demure manner of speaking, I sorely regretted the many things it seemed I’d ended up losing somehow or other, to have left me in my current plight.
Neither complimenting the house nor thanking her sister for taking the trouble to prepare the food, my wife sat quietly eating rice and kimchi. Those were the only things she touched. Mayonnaise contained egg, so that was another thing off the menu for her – she didn’t so much as stick her chopsticks into the mouth-watering salad.
Her face was blanched, a result of protracted insomnia. A stranger coming across her in the street would have assumed she was a hospital patient. A little earlier, pretty much as soon as we’d both come in through the front door, she’d been summoned to the master bedroom; after a while, my sister-in-law was the first to emerge, and judging from her baffled expression I guessed that my wife had come out without a bra. Sure enough, when I looked closely I could see her lightbrown nipples showing through like smudges on the cotton.
‘How much was the deposit here?’
‘… Really? We went to look at the real estate site yesterday; this apartment had already gone up to around fifty million won. Because next year they will have completed the underground line extension, you see.’
‘My brother-in-law certainly has a good head for this kind of thing.’
‘What did I do? It was all down to my wife.’
While our polite, amiable conversation carried on in intermittent bursts, the children seemed unable to sit still, hitting each other and making an almighty racket, pausing only to stuff their mouths with food.
‘Sister-in-law,’ I asked, ‘did you prepare all this food yourself?’
She gave me a half-smile.
‘Well, I’ve been doing it bit by bit since the day before yesterday. And those, the seasoned oysters, I went to the market expressly to get them because I know Yeong-hye likes them… and she hasn’t even touched them.’
I held my breath. Here it comes, I thought.
‘Enough!’ my father-in-law yelled. ‘You, Yeong-hye! After all I told you, your own father!’
This outburst was followed by In-hye roundly rebuking my wife. ‘Do you truly intend to go on like this? Human beings need certain nutrients… If you intend to follow a vegetarian diet you should sit down and draw up a proper, well-balanced meal plan. Just look at your face!’
So far my wife’s brother Yeong-ho was keeping his own counsel, so his wife decided to have her say instead. ‘When I saw her I thought she was a different person. I’d heard about it from my husband, but I never would have guessed that going vegetarian could damage your body like that.’
My mother-in-law brought in dishes of stir-fried beef, sweet and sour pork, steamed chicken, and octopus noodles, arranging them on the table in front of my wife.
‘This whole vegetarian business stops right now,’ she said. ‘This one, and this, and this – hurry up and eat them. How could you have got into this wretched state when there’s not a thing in the world you can’t eat?’
‘Well, what are you waiting for? Come on, eat up,’ my father-in-law boomed.
‘You must eat, Yeong-hye,’ In-hye admonished. ‘You’ll have more energy if you do. Everyone needs a certain amount of energy while they’re alive. Even priests who enter the temple don’t take their austerities too far – they might be celibate, but they’re still able to live active lives.’
The children were staring wide-eyed at my wife. She turned her blank gaze on her family, as if she couldn’t fathom the reason for all this sudden fuss.
A strained silence ensued. I surveyed in turn my father-in-law’s swarthy cheeks; my mother-in-law’s face, so full of wrinkles I couldn’t believe it had once been that of a young woman, her eyes filled with worry; In-hye’s anxiously raised eyebrows; her husband’s affected attitude of being no more than a casual bystander; the passive but seemingly displeased expressions of Yeong-ho and his wife. I expected my wife to say something in her own defence, but the sole, silent answer she made to all those glaring faces was to set the pair of chopsticks she had picked up back down on the table.
A small flurry of unease ran through the assembled family. This time, my mother-in-law picked up some sweet and sour pork with her chopsticks and thrust it right up in front of my wife’s mouth, saying, ‘Here. Come on, hurry up and eat.’ Mouth closed, my wife stared at her mother as though entirely ignorant of the rules of etiquette. ‘Open your mouth right now. You don’t like it? Well, try this instead then.’ She tried the same thing with stir-fried beef, and when my wife kept her mouth shut just as before, set the beef down and picked up some dressed oysters. ‘Haven’t you liked these since you were little? You used to want to eat them all the time…’
‘Yes, I remember that too,’ In-hye chimed in, backing up her mother by making it seem as though my wife not eating oysters was the ultimate big deal. ‘I always think of you when I see oysters, Yeong-hye.’
As the chopsticks holding the dressed oysters gradually neared my wife’s averted mouth, she twisted away violently.
‘Eat it quickly! My arm hurts…’
My mother-in-law’s arm was actually trembling. Eventually, my wife stood up.
‘I won’t eat it.’
For the first time in a long while, her speech was clear and distinct.
‘What?’ my wife’s father and brother, who were both similarly hot-tempered, yelled in concert. Yeong-ho’s wife quickly grabbed her husband’s arm.
‘My heart will pack in if this goes on any longer!’ my father-in-law shouted at Yeong-hye. ‘Don’t you understand what your father’s telling you? If he tells you to eat, you eat!’
I expected an answer from my wife along the lines of ‘I’m sorry, Father, but I just can’t eat it’, but all she said was ‘I do not eat meat’ – clearly enunciated, and seemingly not the least bit apologetic.
My mother-in-law gathered up the chopsticks with an attitude of despair. Her old woman’s face seemed on the brink of crumpling into tears, tears that would explode from her eyes and then course down her wrinkled cheeks in silence. My father-in-law took up a pair of chopsticks. He used them to pick up a piece of sweet-and-sour pork and stood tall in front of my wife, who turned away.
My father-in-law stooped slightly as he thrust the pork at my wife’s face, a lifetime’s rigid discipline unable to disguise his advanced age.
‘Eat it! Listen to what your father’s telling you and eat. Everything I say is for your own good. So why act like this if it makes you ill?’
The fatherly affection that was almost choking the old man made a powerful impression on me, and I was moved to tears in spite of myself. Probably everyone gathered there felt the same. With one hand my wife pushed away his chopsticks, which were shaking silently in empty space.
‘Father, I don’t eat meat.’
In an instant, his flat palm cleaved the empty space. My wife cupped her cheek in her hand.
‘Father!’ In-hye cried out, grabbing his arm. His lips twitched as though his agitation had not yet passed off. I’d known of his incredibly violent temperament for some time, but it was the first time I’d directly witnessed him striking someone.
‘Mr Cheong, Yeong-ho, the two of you come here.’
I approached my wife hesitantly. He’d hit her so hard that the blood showed through the skin of her cheek. Her breathing was ragged, and it seemed that her composure had finally been shattered. ‘Take hold of Yeong-hye’s arms, both of you.’
‘If she eats it once, she’ll eat it again. It’s preposterous, everyone eats meat!’
Yeong-ho stood up, looking as though he was finding this whole episode distasteful.
‘Sister, would you please just eat? Or after all, it would be simple enough just to pretend. Do you have to make such a thing about it in front of Father?’
‘What kind of talk is that?’ my father-in-law yelled. ‘Grab her arms, quickly. You too, Mr Cheong.’
‘Father, why are you doing this?’ In-hye took hold of her father’s right arm.
Having thrown down the chopsticks, he now picked up a piece of pork with his fingers and approached my wife. She was hesitantly backing away when her brother seized her and sat her down.
‘Sister, just behave, okay? Just eat what he gives you.’
‘Father, I beg you, stop this,’ In-hye entreated him, but he shook her off and thrust the pork at my wife’s lips. A moaning sound came from her tightly closed mouth. She was unable to say even a single word in case, when she opened her mouth to speak, the meat found its way in.
‘Father!’ Yeong-ho shouted, apparently wanting to dissuade him, though he himself didn’t release his grip on my wife.
My father-in-law mashed the pork to a pulp on my wife’s lips as she struggled in agony. Though he parted her lips with his strong fingers, he could do nothing about her clenched teeth.
Eventually he flew into a passion again, and struck her in the face once more.
Though In-hye sprang at him and held him by the waist, in the instant that the force of the slap had knocked my wife’s mouth open he’d managed to jam the pork in. As soon as the strength in Yeong-ho’s arms was visibly exhausted, my wife growled and spat out the meat. An animal cry of distress burst from her lips.
‘… get away!’
At first, she drew up her shoulders and seemed about to flee in the direction of the front door, but then she turned back and picked up the fruit knife that had been lying on the dining table.
‘Yeong-hye?’ My mother-in-law’s voice, which seemed about to break, drew a trembling line through the brutal silence. The children burst into noisy sobbing, unable to suppress it any longer.
Jaw clenched, her intent stare facing each one of us down in turn, my wife brandished the knife.
Blood ribboned out of her wrist. The shock of red splashed over white china. As her knees buckled and she crumpled to the floor, the knife was wrested from her by In-hye’s husband, who until then had sat through the whole thing as an idle spectator.
‘What are you doing? Somebody fetch a towel, at least!’ Every inch the special forces graduate, he stopped the bleeding with practised skill, and picked my wife up in his arms. ‘Quickly, go down and start the engine!’
I groped for my shoes. The ones I’d picked up weren’t a pair, so I had to swap them before I was able to open the front door and go out.
… the dog that sank its teeth into my leg is chained up to Father’s motorcycle. With its singed tail bandaged to my calf wound, a traditional remedy Mother insisted on, I go out and stand at the main gate. I am 9 years old, and the summer heat is stifling. The sun has gone down, and still the sweat is running off me. The dog, too, is panting, its red tongue lolling. A white, handsome-looking dog, bigger even than me. Up until it bit the big man’s daughter, everyone in the village always thought it could do no wrong.
While Father ties the dog to the tree and scorches it with a lamp, he says it isn’t to be flogged. He says he heard somewhere that driving a dog to keep running until the point of death is considered a milder punishment. The motorcycle engine starts, and Father begins to drive in a circle. The dog runs along behind. Two laps, three laps, they circle round. Without moving a muscle I stand just inside the gate watching Whitey, eyes rolling and gasping for breath, gradually exhaust himself. Every time his gleaming eyes meet my own I glare even more fiercely.
Bad dog, you’d bite me?
Once it has gone five laps, the dog is frothing at the mouth. Blood drips from its throat, which is being choked with the rope. Constantly groaning through its damaged throat, the dog is dragged along the ground. At six laps, the dog vomits blackish-red blood, trickling from its mouth and open throat. As blood and froth mix together, I stand stiffly upright and stare at those two glittering eyes. Seven laps, and while waiting for the dog to come into view, Father looks behind and sees that it is in fact dangling limply from the motorcycle. I look at the dog’s four juddering legs, its raised eyelids, the blood and water in its dead eyes.
That evening there was a feast at our house. All the middle-aged men from the market alleyways came, everyone my father considered worth knowing. The saying goes that for a wound caused by a dog-bite to heal you have to eat that same dog, and I did scoop up a mouthful for myself. No, in fact I ate an entire bowlful with rice. The smell of burnt flesh, which the perilla seeds couldn’t wholly mask, pricked my nose. I remember the two eyes that had watched me, while the dog was made to run on, while he vomited blood mixed with froth, and how later they had seemed to appear, flickering, on the surface of the soup. But I don’t care. I really didn’t care.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2015 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Han Kangwas born in Gwangju, South Korea, and moved to Seoul at the age of ten. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University. Her writing has won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. She currently teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.
Deborah Smith's translations from the Korean include The Vegetarian, Human Acts and The White Book by Han Kang, and A Greater Music and Recitation by Bae Suah. In 2015 she founded Tilted Axis Press, publishing cult contemporary Asian writing. In 2016 her translation of The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize and an LTI Korea Award. She also won an Arts Foundation Award for her work as a translator both on and off the page, which includes teaching, mentoring, consultancy and reviewing. She studied English at the University of Cambridge and Korean Literature at SOAS. She tweets as @londonkoreanist.