Until yesterday, I hadn’t been able to decide the name of the book I should be talking about in this week’s column. When a couple of days ago, a war broke out on where-else-but-Twitter between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. Of course, there were some valid points made highlighting how in India personal food choices and habits are often interlinked with primitive casteist practices such as untouchability. And, of course, there was plenty of mudslinging – Twitter’s favourite pastime.
My brain took that as cue to tell or remind readers of the magnificent and utterly distressing 2016 Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian.
An unexceptional Yeong-hye is introduced to us like an ordinary woman stuck in a passionless, patriarchal marriage with a downright mediocre man. The orderly life of this couple is disrupted when one day Yeong-hye starts throwing away all the meat from their freezer and declares that she’s decided to become a vegetarian because she’s had a dream.
Her family – that also includes her parents, sister, and brother-in-law – is both bemused and appalled. But what they fail to acknowledge is how Yeong-hye has always been a stranger for so many years even while living among them.
Han Kang’s novel is a powerhouse, told in three parts and each more mystifying than the one before. The Vegetarian has been translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith – and once again I urge publishers everywhere in the world to include the name of the translator on the cover of a book – because Smith’s craft is so sharp and vividly present here that one can only be grateful for her contribution.
By the time this book reaches that shocking yet oddly sensual turn in which Yeong-hye shares her delirious belief that she’s, in fact, in the process of becoming a tree, it would have already gotten under your skin.
Go in like you’re entering a restaurant in which all the lights have been turned off. Eat what you’ve been served, trust the kitchen and the food. Sometimes when you can’t look at your experience in the face, it’s simpler to allow it to transform you.