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Book of the Week - The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian
"Sister...all the trees of the world are like brothers and sisters."

I suppose, everyone feels it, this wild side, some more, some less. We have it in us. It connects us with life, with nature, with animals and plants, not just other human beings. In order to live and function in a human society, in our kind of human society, we have to suppress this side more or less completely, in order to not be considered weird, or even sick. Too much feeling, to much sensibility, and you can not share this capitalist, high achievement way of life, in which control is one of the most important assets.
For me, before everything else, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a book about a woman ( and it is not coincidental, that it has to be a woman, since in every society, ancient and modern, women have been and are still considered the ones most connected to life and nature), who basically wants to leave the brutality of human behaviour. She starts by not eating meat anymore. Since this woman lives in South Korea, where the diet is rather meat centered and where family traditions and traditional lifestyle are still much deeper grounded, then in western societies, this decision brings many reactions by people close to her to the surface, reactions, which ultimately say more about those people, then about the woman, Yeong-hye.
The book shows, what could happen, if somebody decides to listen to her wild side, to not suppress its voice anymore.

The Vegetarian is a very intense read. It is not possible to withdraw from its imagery and the psychological force, it develops from the beginning on. One is drawn into this unusual story and fascinated by the personalities of the four people, we get to know during the read.
The center is, of course, Yeong-hye, the young woman, who decids to stop eating meat.
There is her husband, who solely married her, because he wanted a normal, average wife, and she seemed so average, that he was not even really too attracted to her.
Than there is her sister In-Hye, who lives a normal life, who adapts so perfectly to the requests of society and family, that she sometimes wonders herself, if she ever has been alive at all. And there is her brother-in-law, who is an artist, which somehow connects him by profession to something like a wild side of human existence, which he than starts to explore intensely, inspired by Yeong-hye, her extreme decision and her even more extreme reaction to every try of stopping her.

What touched me the most from the first page on, was Yeong-hyes loneliness. She was, especially in her marriage, alone and somewhat isolated. Her husband seemed to be one of the most boring and mediocre people, I ever met, in real life or on the page.
In the first part, narrated by this husband, he describes her, and it is plain, that he is a narrow-minded and shallow person, only interested in superficialties, in functioning in society, in not arising too much attention. Compared to him, she quickly seems unique and interesting. Her wild side shows already in the supposedly "happy" times of her marriage, when to her husbands surprise, she doesn't like to wear a bra, to me the perfect symbol of capturing a woman's wild side.
Her brother-in-law, from whose perspective the second part is told, is fascinated by her, especially after she cut herself in front of the entire family, when her father tried to forcefeed her meat. He wants her to participate in a rather daring art project, and even falls for her. It seems, he might be somebody, who also, through his art, connects somewhat to a rather wild side, and therefore senses her depth, who could be important and close to her. During the read, there were moments, when I thought, they could be together, it could work. But looking back, I am not sure anymore. This is just one of the many points, one keeps pondering after reading this challenging book.
The third part is told from her sisters point of view. In-hye is possibly the person closest to her, and therefore most threatened by Yeong-hyes behaviour. She feels left behind in normality, while her sister frees herself from the restraints of functioning in society.

"She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She'd been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she'd never even known, they were there."

The South Korean author has won the Man Booker International Prize with this small masterwork, where every word aims precisely at the goal, to tell this story as concentrated and intense as possible. Not one word too much. The reader is guided closely along the storyline, captured by the elegance and beauty of Han Kangs style, transported perfectly by translator Deborah Smith into an impeccable English.
The Vegetarian is for me a universal story about somebody, who is different.
It is also a book about anorexia nervosa, a diagnosis, so often found among beautiful, unusual young women. For me, this book also states, that this illness, like many illnesses indeed, is a symptom of a inhuman society, in which the sick act out the problems, the entire society has - just like children act out the problems of dysfunctional familys. The most sensitive members of a dysfunctional society act out those, with different symptoms.
To look closely at the world and its suffering, this is, maybe, the most important message, this book portends for me. It is not without danger, to look at the suffering. One might end up wishing to become a tree. But is it really so bad to wish to be a tree? Or, as the book on page 162 asks provocatively: "Why, is it such a bad thing to die?"
As a reader, you shiver, but you are also invited to dive deep with Han Kang into existential questions about life and come up with your very own answers.

It is published in German under the title Die Vegetarierin and was published by the Aufbau Verlag.
Many bloggers read it in German, some wrote aboutit. Here are two examples:
Die Buchbloggerin
Ruth liest

(c) Susanne Becker


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