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Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Vegetarian (2016) by Han Sung

Book Review
The Vegetarian (2016)
 by Han Sung

  The Vegetarian was published in the original Korean in 2007.  In 2016, a translation by Deborah Smith appeared in English, and later that year it won the newly refocused Booker International Prize, for books translated into English.   There have been a couple older Korean titles in the 1001 Books project that I've skipped because they weren't readily available from the library, and I believe this is the first novel by a Korean author that I've read.  The obvious reference point for The Vegetarian, is Japanese literature, likely to be the only East Asian literary fiction an English speaker that evokes familiarity. Small apartments, intense family situations, women and men afraid to say what they mean, emotional constriction.   Perhaps I'm just contributing to a stereotype, and considering the fraught 20th century history between Japan and Korea a Korean author might consider the comparison an insult, but there are many cultural similarities between the two places.

  The focus of The Vegetarian is Seoulian house wife Yeong-Hye and her abrupt, dream-inspired decision to forego eating meat.  The novel switches between the perspectives of several people, Yeong-Hye's husband, her brother in law, her sister, none of them Yeong-Hye herself.  It is the consequences- horrific consequences- that provide the material for The Vegetarian.  Now, this same exact thing actually happened to me- my ex woke up one day and decided to become vegetarian more, or less, based on anxiety, so I could relate to the male characters and their uncomprehending reactions.  Korea, as you may or may not know, is a very meat focused cuisine, with bar-b-que being the the major event. The reaction to Yeong-Hye's decision range from abandonment, to extreme anger, to exasperation, but no one understands or empathizes with her decision.

  The Vegetarian is heavy with ideas but light in terms of the weight of the prose, it's an afternoon of reading or maybe a few broken up sessions.  For me, the appropriate reference point is A Hunger Artist, the short story by Franz Kafka

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