Kaleidoscope - Of Human Bondageby Deepa Gahlot June 25 2016, 11:29 am Estimated Reading Time: 3 mins, 24 secs
In India, where a large section of the population is vegetarian, the hullabaloo over a women refusing to eat meat would seem excessive, but in, South Korean writer Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, winner of 2016 Man Booker International Prize, the protagonist Yeong-hye wilfully destroys her life by her stubbornness. In her slow descent to mental regression and physical annihilation, she seems to protest an existence not of her own choosing.
The slim novella (translated by Deborah Smith) uses the simple story of a woman’s change in food preferences to portray gender realities in the author’s native Korea. Like in India and many Asian countries, the women is treated as a second class citizen, who cannot make her own choices even in a matter as basic as what she would like to eat.
At the beginning of the book, her husband Cheong remarks on his own ordinariness, his wife being “completely unremarkable in every way,” their life together routine and uneventful. He goes to office, she keeps house and does some work on her own, the only strange things about her being her detached attitude, and her inability to wear a bra—the latter embarrasses Cheong no end.
Then one night, he wakes up to find his wife throwing away all the meat in the refrigerator and says that henceforth she will neither eat it or cook it for her husband. The only explanation she is willing to give is, “I had a dream.”
The result of Yeong-hye’s resolve causes an inordinate amount of tumult in her own family—to whom her husband complains of his wife’s weirdness and disobedience. Her father tries to force feed her a piece of pork, which results in Yeong-hye slashing herself. This violent episode takes place at the home of her sister In-hye and her husband. After his Cheong leaves her, and she moves into a tiny place of her own.
She is able to cope with her condition, but those around her cannot seem to accept her fragile independence. In the second of the three parts of the book, her brother-in-law, an aspiring artist, develops a passion for Yeong-hye, that ends his marriage and destroys his life. Now In-hye is left to rebuild her life and to look after her sister who looks like she is slowly dissolving into herself.
Even if very little of it is portrayed, there is physical and emotional violence in the most mundane of situations, and a woman like Yeong-hye who does not want to live by set rules has no place in society. Even though the reader feels empathy for Yeong-hye, after a point the repetitiveness of the suffering she inflicts on herself and those who care for her is tedious.
The reasons for Yeong-hye’s self-flagellating behaviour can only be guessed at from her brief internal monologues, like “Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts; nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe,” or “Why am I changing like this? Why are all my edges sharpening — what am I going to gouge?”
Originally published in South Korea in 2007, and also turned into a feature film (the scenes of painting on naked body has the kind of sensuousness that the camera can capture); it took the efforts of her translator Deborah Smith to being this book to the English readership. The power of the woman’s character, in a culture where women are usually unable to make their own choices does fascinate and horrify the reader in equal measure, even though her choice is to torment her own mind and body. It is also a study of mental illness-- the stigma attached to it drives people to either fear or ignore it, more so when a person’s mind is so difficult to understand.