The Vegetarian by Han Kang


I usually have all kinds free associations while I’m out walking, so when I was walking home after an afternoon spent with reading this book and doing some photosynthesis by the lake, I recalled the motto of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

Then I thought: the one who makes a plant of himself also gets rid of this pain, like Yeong-hye here, who’s the most ordinary woman in the world (her only distinguishing habit is that she doesn’t like to wear bras) – until she decides to quit eating meat, and then quit doing lots of other things that made her human.

Her decision is understandable and justifiable: why would she want to be a human, after all, if everything that makes her a functional human being was designed and forced onto her by someone else? Still – and this is my personal preference, no doubt the product of my limited human understanding – I think it’s probably much more interesting to be a human than a flagellate or an oak tree, and the way Yeong-hye consistently chooses to dehumanize, un-humanize herself, and the way she employs the most drastic methods so that she can be herself and do whatever she pleases – not even with her life, but at least with her body, something that’s supposed to be her most private possession (and of course, it’s scary and brutal, how in fact her supposedly most private possession isn’t just hers – how others are constantly desiring, wanting, using, abusing this body, often without pausing to think how, for example, those shameful, erect nipples pushing their way through the fabric of a blouse are not self-standing, shameful nipples, but parts of a person, and they aren’t even anything shameful) – so all this, her willingness to go to the very end, her willingness and desire to step out of every convention, habit, routine imaginable – this also terrifies and unsettles me.

Oh, isn’t it just possible to live a cautiously authentic life? Isn’t it possible to be ourselves – just a little, just comfortably, just so that it’s still acceptable to everyone else, just so that it doesn’t bother or cause discomfort to anyone else? Spoiler: It isn’t.

And the question of being a vegetable is an interesting one, too. I’ve been thinking how this appears in language, and – somehow it never has a positive connotation when we say that someone lives in a vegetative state. While in fact it’s possible that plants and vegetables have rich inner worlds, and live extremely intense inner lives – or perhaps it’s much better for them as they don’t have rich inner worlds, and don’t live such intense inner lives as humans in general.