Max Porter on publishing The Vegetarian: 'Everyone agreed that this was an important book'
Max Porter explains the process behind the publication of The Vegetarian by Han Kang, and why it was essential that it reached new readers
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The winner of the International Booker Prize in 2016, Han Kang’s novel is about modern-day South Korea, but also a universal novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others’ actions
Whether you’re new to The Vegetarian or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.
Fraught, disturbing, and beautiful, Han Kang’s novel is about shame, desire, and our faltering attempts to understand the lives of others.
Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people living in modern-day South Korea. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. But then Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, commits a shocking act of subversion: overnight, she vows to give up eating meat. Despite her husband and family’s attempts to intervene and force her to come to her senses, her rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms. Gradually, Yeong-hye spirals further and further into her fantasies in the hope of abandoning her fleshly constraints altogether.
Yeong-hye is the protagonist of The Vegetarian. She is a young woman who lives an unremarkable life in Seoul, Korea. She suffers from violent and disturbing dreams about the death of animals, which prompts her to stop eating meat - something that is almost unheard of in Korean culture. Yeong-hye’s act is seen as defiance and prompts those closest to her to intervene, which only exacerbates Yeong-hye’s withdrawal from the world around her.
Mr Cheong is Yeong-hye’s husband and narrator of the first section of the book. He is a businessman with low ambitions and old-fashioned principles, who expects his wife to conform. When Yeong-hye rebels by refusing to eat meat, he begins to punish her – physically, mentally and sexually. Eventually, Mr Cheong divorces Yeong-hye.
Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law narrates the second section of the book, titled ‘Mongolian Mark’. A video artist with a peculiar obsession for bodies painted with flowers, he is married to Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. He develops a dangerous infatuation with Yeong-hye, concocting a plan to see her naked by asking her to model for him and a fellow artist.
In-hye is Yeong-hye’s older sister and narrator of the third section of the book. In-hye is more sympathetic than those around her to Yeong-hye’s situation and takes pity on her plight, as she experiences her own bouts of depression and mental health issues. She is the only one to intervene when her father tries to force-feed meat to Yeong-hye, and continues to visit her in hospital following a suicide attempt.
‘This is Han Kang’s first novel to appear in English, and it’s a bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to the Anglophone reader’s diet. It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions. As Yeong-hye changes, the book’s language shifts, too, with Deborah Smith’s translation moving between the baffled irritation of Mr Cheong’s first-person narration in part one, the measured prose of In-hye’s world, the dense and bloody narrative of Yeong-hye’s dreams, and seductive descriptions of living bodies painted with flowers, in states of transformation or wasting away. Sentence by sentence, The Vegetarian is an extraordinary experience.’
‘The book insists on a reader’s attention, with an almost hypnotically serene atmosphere interrupted by surreal images and frighteningly recognizable moments of ordinary despair. Han writes convincingly of the disruptive power of longing and the choice to either embrace or deny it, using details that are nearly fantastical in their strangeness to cut to the heart of the very human experience of discovering that one is no longer content with life as it is.
An unusual and mesmerizing novel, gracefully written and deeply disturbing.’
The Irish Times:
‘The Vegetarian is more than a cautionary tale about the brutal treatment of women: it is a meditation on suffering and grief. It is about escape and how a dreamer takes flight. Most of all, it is about the emptiness and rage of discovering there is nothing to be done when all hope and comfort fails.
For all the graphic, often choreographed description, Han Kang has mastered eloquent restraint in a work of savage beauty and unnerving physicality.’
New York Times:
‘All the trigger warnings on earth cannot prepare a reader for the traumas of this Korean author’s translated debut in the Anglophone world. At first, you might eye the title and scan the first innocuous sentence – “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way” – and think that the biggest risk here might be converting to vegetarianism. (I myself converted, again; we’ll see if it lasts.) But there is no end to the horrors that rattle in and out of this ferocious, magnificently death-affirming novel.’
‘Some reviews of The Vegetarian have insisted on viewing the novel as a piece of social protest, but this seems beside the point, unless the protest is against existence itself. Yeong-hye progresses through three stages of detachment, shedding herself first of the imperative to live up to empty convention, then of desire, and finally of the most primal attachments of blood and compassion. By the time her sister sits down in a hospital chair beside her haggard frame, and Yeong-hye triumphantly announces, “I’m not an animal anymore,” she has gone far past fretting about the pressures on women in Korean society, or any society for that matter. The Vegetarian has an eerie universality that gets under your skin and stays put irrespective of nation or gender. But exactly what its business is there, I would not presume to say.’
The narrative structure in The Vegetarian is unusual. It is told from three differing perspectives, yet not one of those is the protagonist, Yheong-hye. Aside from a few instances of brief dream-like monologues, readers don’t hear directly from her. Why do you think the author has chosen to tell Yeong-hye’s story in this way? How did this narrative technique enhance your understanding of her journey?
The novel opens with a line from Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr Cheong (page 3): ‘Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way’. What does Mr Cheong mean when he states his wife is ‘unremarkable’ and why is this act of ‘turning vegetarian’ so shocking to him?
The Vegetarian has been described as a parable, one that comments on the need to conform, as well as social expectations within South Korea (although the author herself says the book’s themes are universal). Did you read Hang Kang’s novel as a critique of Korean society? Why is Yeong-hye’s personal act seen as so rebellious?
Much of the novel is concerned with the male gaze which serves as commentary on the abuse and violence women often suffer at the hands of men. In what ways does the novel challenge gender roles? To what extent is The Vegetarian a feminist novel, or a feminist critique of the patriarchy?
By the end of the novel, Yeong-hye has been admitted to an asylum. Do you think Yeong-hye has descended into ‘madness’? Or could it be argued that she is fully lucid, in control of her faculties and protesting against the circumstances which have been forced upon her? Discuss how the author delineates between madness and sanity, if at all.
‘The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure.’ Discuss this quote and Yeong-hye’s feelings. What does she mean when she says she had ‘never lived’ and simply endured, and to what extent is this a novel about a human being pushed beyond the limit of endurance?
The themes of bodily autonomy and agency feature heavily within The Vegetarian, from sexual violence and consent to force-feeding and institutionalisation. What role do they play within the novel, and why did the author write so persistently on the dark side of human actions?
‘Her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance, no more real than a television drama. Death, who now stood by her side, was as familiar to her as a family member, missing for a long time but now returned.’ Death is often foreshadowed within the novel. Does this seem particular to Yeong-hye’s character, or did you see it in other places, too?
In reviews, The Vegetarian has been described as a horror story. Do you agree with this categorisation? What elements of the novel feel akin to a traditional novel or film within the horror genre?
Told within In-hye’s story, the ending of The Vegetarian is deliberately ambiguous. In-hye stares out of an ambulance window, while trees pass her by. What meaning did you take from the novel’s final scenes? What do you think the author left unwritten?
After winning the International Booker Prize, Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian has been criticised with some commentators saying the novel contained embellishments and mistranslations. Smith wrote about this controversy in The LA Review of Books, stating ‘Since there is no such thing as a truly literal translation — no two languages’ grammars match, their vocabularies diverge, even punctuation has a different weight — there can be no such thing as a translation that is not “creative.”’ Han Kang, who reads English, stands by the translation. To what extent do you think translations should be entirely faithful to the original text and how much creative license should translators be allowed in their interpretation?
Bookanista: Han Kang: To be human
The New Yorker: Han Kang and the Complexity of Translation
LA Review of Books: What We Talk About When We Talk About Translation