Some stories are unsettling to the point of spirituality. That’s my impression of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. My wife wanted my opinion of it and when she used the adjective “Kafkaesque” I knew I had to comply. The comparison is eerie in that Franz Kafka essentially starved to death because no way could be found to feed him with his underlying medical condition. The Vegetarian shifts focus in its three parts, but the protagonist, Yeong-hye, is a young woman who finds her life run by other people in her family after she decides to become a vegetarian (in actual fact, a vegan). Basing her decision on disturbing dreams she has, those in her Korean culture cannot accept vegetarianism and attempt, by various forms of coercion, to change her decision. Throughout the account, Yeong-hye becomes silent—we’re never given her point of view—but those around her can’t accept her decision.
This is a challenging book to read, given my own personal history, but after scratching my head a bit when I finished it I came to reflect on this spiritual side of it. My own vegetarianism was an ethical decision. I realize that I can’t and shouldn’t impose my ethics on others, but I’ve not had much resistance from others (apart from colleagues who occasionally make reservations at eateries with no hint of the concept). Likewise, I became a vegan a few years back based on further reflection of an ethical kind. This is actually a spiritual practice. I don’t often express it in those terms, but clearly it is. In the novel when Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law tries to direct her life, he takes her to a Buddhist restaurant because he knows nowhere else to find vegetarian offerings.
Yeong-hye believes herself to be becoming a plant, and that leads to the next logical step in this progression of thinking. Eating is, or at least can be, a spiritual exercise. Many religions advocate fasts of various durations to derive the benefits to the soul. Daily life is a matter of routine for many, often based around our culturally driven mandate of three meals a day. I’m not alone at working through lunch while trying to get more done at my job. By the final meal of the day I find myself exhausted. It’s about more than food. This strange little book has put me into a reverie about the ethics of eating. I don’t know if Han Kang is a vegetarian or not, but she does understand the soul of one.