My idea of becoming vegetarian is cooking greens from Ottolenghi’s Plenty or Annabel Crabb’s Special Delivery, forsaking Parmigiano Reggiano and eating lentils, to bask in the glow of a healthy new lifestyle (I couldn’t do it: I subscribe to Michael Pollan‘s dictum ‘meat as flavour’). Not for me, then but it’s a respectable choice in the cities I call home – London and Adelaide – increasingly common, and the waiter won’t turn up their nose if you order the leek tart instead of a steak.
Not so in Korea, or at least not for Yeong-hye in The Vegetarian (by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith). Her story is a noir film to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Disney macrobiotics.
The book is challenging not because Yeong-hye gives up meat but because she is taciturn and unsympathetic. Her husband is unlikeable from the first line and there is something creepy about almost sympathising with him in the face of Yeong-hye’s stubborness. Here is her husband starting the story (note he does not refer to her by name):
“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. …
However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground.”
Yeong-hye turns vegetarian and in so doing, turns away from society. Her husband and family do not understand her choice, nor does she explain it, except to say “I had a dream.” She closes her mouth figuratively and literally, against their attempts to force-feed her:
“This time, my mother-in-law picked up some sweet and sour pork with her chopsticks and thrust it right up in front of my wife’s mouth, saying ‘Here. Come on, hurry up and eat.’ Mouth closed, my wife stared at her mother as though entirely ignorant of the rules of etiquette.”
She behaves without regard to social niceties and we are left to wonder what her motives are and why she seems to be at war with her body. At a business dinner her husband notes:
“But the demure, apologetic smile which was the only reasonable response never came, and without even having the grace to look embarrassed, my wife stared baldly at my boss’s wife. That stare appalled everyone present. … What shadowy recesses lurked in her mind, what secrets I’d never suspected? In that moment, she was utterly unknowable.”
Whilst the husband and his colleagues come across and selfish and shallow, his words contain a truth: Han Kang has made Yeong-hye quite unknowable and leaves the reader to understand her, and people who challenge accepted norms, as best we can. (Her husband fails this test).
By the end of Part 1 I could relate to the husband’s view – this shows the strength of the writing because he is an unimpressive character who does not emerge well from the story.
It’s interesting how affronted we are (me, her family) by Yeong-hye’s rejection of social mores – shown by her withdrawal from food and conversation and from her husband (“The meat smell. Your body smells of meat,” she tells him).
A better husband might offer her support or treat it like an illness – his wife as a convalescent – or simply let her be. But her conversion reveals that they never understood each other. She seems to hate her body – feeling it murderous – but cannot escape it – causing huge torment and tragedy.
Part 2 focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who is presented as a selfish man neglecting his family in pursuit of his art.
“He spent hours seemingly lost in a daydream, mulling over how to make the image become a reality.”
He is willing to sacrifice all for his art and exists outside the ‘norm’ in the artistic realm. There is a fine line between unhinged and creative.
Finally we explore her sister’s life. In-hye is a dutiful, diligent wife and mother, always thinking of others and supporting the family with her career. The irony, or tragedy, of the tale is that Yeong-hye and her brother-in-law have been true to themselves and pursue their destiny even when it is destructive, while In-hye lives for others, conforms to all of society’s demands and expectations, but does not know herself.
“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.”
There is much else in the third section but I won’t give it away for fear of plot spoilers.
Perhaps one lesson to be drawn is that a society made up of indivuals is going to be messy. How much should people conform to general rules of behaviour (and what to do with people who cannot or will not do so)?
Or is Kang saying: our instinct is to look after people when they are hurting or starving themselves, we want to fix it, but just let them be. Would that be fair though to friends and family – is it OK for Yeong-hye to opt out?
Viggo Mortensen plays a father who has opted out, raising 6 children in the wild with home schooling and survival skills – a boot camp that makes a mockery of both my feeble attempts at exercise (I don’t want to know how long they held that plank for) and the M&Ms I ate throughout the film. Viggo Mortensen is superb: his pathos, blunt tactlessness and love for his children hit the mark.
The family is dragged into the city when their mother dies – there is a telling scene with his sister’s family with two typical teenage boys and the full range of modern parenting: the parents are alarmed at the frank discussion of Leslie’s death; they try to cover the truth with “She was sick and … she died” lest their boys are disturbed; these same boys are seen shortly afterwards playing violent video games.
Leslie’s father is horrified at the children being raised outside the education system (despite their precocious knowledge of the Bill of Rights) and wielding knives. Matt Ross’s clever writing means we sympathise with both sides, although the parents are presented as narrow-minded.
It raises the question again, is it OK to ‘opt out’ of modern society? Can you give your children the best education with honesty and without the dangers of modern life, and is that valid? Should more people do it?
And what is a father’s obligation: to be true to himself (= live in the wild) and/or is that best for the children?
The kids seem happy in the movie and the love of their parents the supremely important thing – tick, tick so far. So long as they have choices at the age of 18 (nearly denied to the eldest) they will be fine.
This debate goes back to Plato and answers vary today from country to country. My view is that home education beyond age 8 or 9 cannot prepare children for living and working every day with a group of people who are different: the interpersonal skills, dealing with adversity and the opportunity to learn from their peers (other points of view!) best prepare young people for the real world. On the other hand I can understand parents wanting to shield their children from the often brutal school environment.
And not every school fulfills its promise. The topic arose too in The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks (Twitter sensation), where a school in the farming community both set low expectations of its students and told them to ‘aim higher’ than farming and apply for university, thus alienating a whole group of capable young people and turning them off education completely. I’ve taught at a small area school in a farming district in South Australia where farm life was incorporated into the curriculum and the school encouraged academic success in its students: a flexible approach can help. I hope this has changed in Northern England and it is vital that rural schools are well funded and attract good teachers.
Intelligence comes in many forms.